07.01.11

Gay Marriage Gets Cold Feet

For some same-sex couples, freedom to marry means pressure to get hitched quick. Jessica Bennett on how the marriage ruling is complicating relationships—and disappointing moms.

Honey Davenport was in character, performing his usual set at a Manhattan drag bar. Clad in a rainbow leotard and platform heels, he took a swig of his drink and ripped off his wig—sweaty and exhausted from the hourlong performance. Suddenly cheers erupted: New York’s state legislature had legalized same-sex marriage, and on the eve of gay-pride weekend. Davenport’s boyfriend made his way to the stage and got down on one knee. “Will you marry me?” he asked.

It was the moment every girl dreams of. In tears, Davenport said yes. But then something strange happened. He started feeling dizzy. He stumbled off the stage and tried to make it to the bathroom, but couldn’t. He began vomiting uncontrollably.

Was it the joy? The pressure? A case of premature cold feet? Davenport—real name James Clark—says it may have been a bit of each. “It was a lot to think about,” the 25-year-old New Yorker laughs. “I’d just performed, I was exhausted, and my brain was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a big deal.’”

The story has a happy ending—Clark and his fiancé are now blissfully engaged. But for many New York gays and lesbians elated by last month’s marriage ruling, victory has brought with it a new (and very old) brand of pressure—the kind gay couples have never had to face. “When we found out the bill had passed, we were in a large group of people,” says Brandon Voss, a contributing editor at The Advocate, who lives in Manhattan with his long-term boyfriend. “There was, of course, a moment of celebration. But then we both looked at each other, like, ‘Oh, crap.’ Because we knew what was coming next."

For many, the night ended with a flurry of text messages. “Can I be a bridesmaid?” girls cooed to their gay friends. “When are you going to propose?” eager moms interrogated. “I just ran into a yoga instructor on the subway, and it was literally the first thing she asked me,” says Michael Remaley, the head of a local communications firm. “I’ve had at least 20 people ask me when the ‘big date’ is,” says another. As one friend puts it: “It made me feel like I did when I was a 6-foot-1 eighth grader and everyone asked me if I played basketball. When I said no they'd say, ‘You should!’ It didn't matter that I didn't want to.”

I just ran into a yoga instructor on the subway, and it was literally the first thing she asked me.

For some couples, the dilemmas were almost desultory. Do you downgrade your “partner” to “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” if she or he isn’t suddenly a “fiancé”? “I tell my guy he’s been demoted,” jokes Tom Murphy, a 28-year-old interactive designer. “The bar has been raised!” Still others faced the serious question: will there be a big day? And if so, when? Some found the practicalities suddenly more urgent, as a number of companies announced they’d revoke domestic-partner benefits for couples who did not marry. But what about same-sex couples that aren’t ready to take that step? “It used to be that when you came out, your parents would say things like, ‘Now I’m never going to see you in a wedding dress, never going to get to have grandchildren,’” says Cathy Renna, a local activist who runs an LGBT-focused communications firm. “Now it’s the opposite: ‘When do I get to see you in a wedding dress?!’ The more options you get, the more challenges arise.”

As any bride-to-be knows, men can be notoriously commitment phobic. Multiply that by two, and you get an idea of what happens when two guys consider tying the knot. But even for lesbian couples—U-Haul jokes aside—the idea of marriage can be scary (and it should be). Americans don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to "till death do we part." To make it all the more complex, many gay couples simply never thought it would be an option—even in New York. “We've not been trained that marriage is the next step,” says Chris Rovzar, a senior editor at New York magazine, who wrote about his own experience last week. “Sure, you thought that when you were little, but then when you realized you were gay and started dating, there was never any expectation you'd marry.”

So instead, you didn’t think about it. You shacked up, made your own rules, and said ‘f--k you’ to the social constraints that wouldn’t recognize your relationship. And in some sense, you reveled in it. “Growing up gay and being told that our relationships weren't normal or equal—many of us turned that sexual-outlaw label into a badge of honor,” says Carl Sullivan, a journalist and former editor of Newsweek.com, who’s in a long-term relationship. But at the same time, perhaps you didn’t realize that skipping on down to the courtroom for a domestic partnership can be a whole lot easier, and lighter, than all the bells and whistles that come along with marriage—not to mention what goes into planning a big, fabulous gay wedding. “Marriage comes with baggage,” says Dan Savage, the Seattle sex columnist and gay cultural critic. “With all its pressures and expectations, for many gays and lesbians, it was kind of a relief we weren’t expected to go through it.”

Not that the relief outweighed the right. But if commitment-phobic couples weren’t panicking already, imagine feeling like the world is watching—waiting to analyze your divorce patterns and successes as a symbol for the entire gay community. “When a straight couple has problems, people wonder what went wrong,” says Savage, who is married to his longtime partner (they got hitched in Canada) in what he describes as a "monogam-ish" union. “But when a gay couple breaks up, people say, ‘Look, they weren’t worthy of the right.’”

All of which goes to the point that just because the right is here—in New York, anyway—it doesn't mean that gay New Yorkers everywhere will be elbowing their way to the closest alter (at least not if they can help it). "I've always hung with a single-for-life crowd, and we're not going to change," says Michael Musto, the Village Voice cultural critic. "We always wanted marriage—for other people." As Aaron Hicklin, the editor of Out Magazine, puts it: “Gay marriage is the bane of all commitment-phobic gays in New York, who now will have a harder time postponing the inevitable. Deserved or otherwise, we all know there’s a perception that gay relationships are more fickle."

The ability to be fickle, however, was in many ways a hard-fought right: the right to sleep with who you wanted, when you wanted, and with the kind of abandon Larry Kramer famously (and controversially) described in his 1978 book, Faggots. AIDS certainly changed the way the gay community thought about relationships, with "monogamy" becoming the grudging watchword. But studies now show that monogamy is not a central feature to many gay and lesbian relationships. Will legal marriage change all that? "Marriage is obviously a wonderful, amazing step for New York and gays in society,” says Sullivan. “But you can't suddenly give us something that's been denied us forever and expect everyone to run to the altar. It's more complicated than that.”

And complicated in more ways than one. “I'm just worried that I could become even more of an outcast than I already am,” jokes Musto. “For the rest of my life, people will be asking, ‘Why aren't you married?!’” The equal opportunity answer might be: welcome to the club.