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Sudden pressure to get "gay married"

By Rose Arce, CNN
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Tue October 25, 2011
When same-sex marriage was legalized in New York State, it put pressure on gay and lesbian couples to marry, the author says.
When same-sex marriage was legalized in New York State, it put pressure on gay and lesbian couples to marry, the author says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arce notes pressure to marry comes along with legalizing same-sex marriage
  • Not being able to marry the last 10 years has been costly for Arce and her partner
  • For now, the two are happy to be together without getting married

Editor's note: Rose Arce is a senior producer at CNN and a contributor to Mamiverse, a website for Latinas and their families. She led the documentary "In Her Corner -- Latino in America" about a Mexican-American amateur boxer, Marlen Esparza, fighting to become the first woman to box at the Olympic Games.

(CNN) -- I am reminded each day I park my car that the pressure will never subside. A billboard from a storage company cries out to couples tying the knot: "IF YOU DON'T LIKE GAY MARRIAGE, DON'T GET GAY MARRIED."

It's not the political message that's killing me. It's the marital call to arms.

The pressure began on a subway platform the day our daughter Luna, 6, and her best friend, Jackie, 7, saw a newspaper with drawings of double brides and double grooms. The state of New York had saddled same-sex couples with the same stress long available to everyone else: the pressure to marry. And they were starting with our kids.

Jackie to Luna: Are your mommies going to get gay married?

Luna: Mama, are the mamas getting gay married?

Me: (Silence)

Luna: Don't get gay married because I don't want to be the flower girl.

Jackie: You don't have to go. You can do a sleepover at my house.

Luna (eyebrows gathered, arms crossed): Mama, can you please marry Mami so I can do a sleepover at Jackie's house?

The biggest life question facing my partner, Mafe (Maria Fernanda or Mah-Feh) and me boils down to this: Does Luna get a sleepover at Jackie's house?

Mafe called me while I was on a reporting trip for CNN to tell me the New York State Legislature had voted to allow gays to marry. I reminded her she has been saying she wouldn't marry me for the last 10 years.

"That's not the point," she said. "It's big news."

It was big news, but I'm a journalist who distances herself from debate on any issue that requires my objectivity. Vermont granted civil unions, New Jersey offered domestic partnerships, Massachusetts granted marriage, people in dozens more states defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Even if I had taken any of this personally, racing to some other state to get hitched seemed more like activism than a wedding. Why would I get married in Massachusetts if I live in New York?

The news came home when New York's politicians made this burning issue a nonissue, just by letting the marriages take place. My heterosexual neighbors invited us to the Gay Pride March so they could mark the occasion. I told them I don't participate in political marches. So they called me a bore and went alone!

One lesbian couple asked if we wanted to marry at City Hall with a big group of couples. Uh, nope. We couldn't go more than a day without someone asking: "When's the wedding?" By October, nearly 2,000 gays and lesbians had married in New York City alone and the press had stopped covering it altogether. The wedding announcements became mundane.

Marriage rates overall are sliding even as divorce is on the rise. This latest development was about a civil contract, not a personal, emotional or religious commitment that people are free to choose.

We figured the whole thing would blow over. We asked ourselves: "What's the need?" We had always told Luna we were married anyhow, even though we were domestic partners. Our union had been stamped 10 years ago by a notary public at a Chase Bank, then certified by a city employee who also issued dog licenses and other official paperwork.

We still met and fell in love, owned a home and had a child who didn't understand or care that there was opposition to gays. We enjoyed the support of our families despite the stereotype that Latinos are traditional and family-centric, and therefore homophobic. My family of Peruvian immigrants accept my being gay mostly because Mafe is my partner. The day I told my mother I was getting pregnant using a sperm donor, she cried, said she wished I'd done it in the "regular" (her word) way, then she asked if she could come for the birth! Mafe's sister jokingly calls me sister-in-law.

Mafe is from Colombia, where the Constitutional Court ordered Congress in July to legalize the right to marry for gays. Colombia's gay couples will likely be able to legally marry at the federal level before gay couples can in the United States.

Over the years, not being able to marry has mostly cost us money -- for wills and health care proxies and separate health insurance policies, because domestic partners pay steep federal taxes if they insure each other. To this day we have less money in our child's college fund than we spent on her second-parent adoption -- and she is 6. We didn't really think much of it. Money is not life.

But now that we can marry, we ask ourselves, "Isn't this what every Latina wants? Marriage and kids?" Since we're two Latinas, shouldn't we want it doubly so?

Enter the home of any older Latino couple and there it is on the wall, the massive wedding photo in the gaudy silver frame. It's in the space where some families put graduation pictures and wood plaques from the Elks Club. It is the trophy photo, the one that sets the stage for the arm-sized portrait of the grandchildren in the frilly white communion dresses. Neither Mafe nor I had been able to deliver. Our families have had to settle for enormous portraits of Luna, who owns the wall alone like some kind of smiling orphan, even though she has double the moms.

Neither of us had romantic notions of an anticlimactic public ceremony with two white dresses and thousands of dollars of finger food and gifts. We didn't think our friends would care. But boy did they. Our Facebook pages lit up. The Latinos lobbied for a fiesta.

Oddly, Latinos are not as family oriented as we might believe. Latinos are less likely to be married than other white people and about as likely to get divorced. And, between 1990 and 2005, the census showed the number of single moms rising 25% in the overall population, but 102% among Latinas. On federal tax forms, I'm the bad Latina. La Madre Soltera (the single mom) whose children, statistically speaking, face every possible social malady. But the truth is my partner and I are the model Latinas if you forget the double Mami business -- a solid two-parent household with a lifetime commitment.

In some ways, any marriage in New York wouldn't be much more than a paper marriage because it wouldn't be recognized by the federal government. We would have a tad more security, but a state marriage wouldn't get us around federal gift taxes or affect immigration and Social Security survivor benefits or give us back the money we already spent on a second-parent adoption. We would win the right to file joint state taxes, which could increase the taxes we pay! This state marriage business is more like a half-marriage. It still feels more like an unfolding story than our drama in real-life.

So this is the part where you expect me to launch into a thing about romance and ritual right? But I don't love Mafe for the benefit of anybody else. I love her because she's funny and likes a lot of the same things I do. She is honest and blunt and caring. She not only shares my Latino background, but also speaks to me in Spanish and says all the right things. We make a daily decision to commit. We walk through life as a family, not down an aisle on public display.

Maybe back in 2001, flush with new love, we would have rushed to marry. Today, we pursue simple happiness and security more than the words to explain to Luna what she already knows -- we are together. We asked her if she wanted us to marry. She gave us that look little kids give that says: "You figure this one out on your own."

The only big couples party we've ever had was a rocking baby shower thrown by the daddies-to-be, the guy who helped us make Luna and his partner. It was a celebration of what's possible, punctuated by loud salsa music, greasy barbecue, a fantastic drag queen and lots of frilly mini-clothes. There were also flowered hair bands and tiny earrings to remind us that the babies of gay Latinos are still Latino. We all wore T-shirts that said "Luna" because she is really what our marriage is about. The party reflected the reality of our lives; everyone we know loves our family as is. So maybe that alone deserves a party. Don't know.

How do we even broach that question post-child, post-mortgage, with a stack of paperwork and a 10-year anniversary hitting on November 10? Or is it now as simple as sitting down with Mafe to consider the question: "Should we let Luna do a sleepover at Jackie's house?"

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