I never knew Barbara Baccus, never even heard of her until I read her death notice in The New York Times. She died on ecember 29, 2013, age 79, after a brief illness and what seemed to have been a full and happy life. She was an entrepreneur, connoisseur, a lover of the arts and good martinis who was known for walking barefoot along the boardwalks of Fire Island. But what caught my attention was the fact listed at the very end of the note, a fact made more prominent by its unobtrusive placement. On December 23, Barbara had married Diane Friedman, her partner of 34 years. I read the sentence again, did the math, then re-read it, more slowly and aloud, to my husband.
They got married six days before she died. After 34 years together. At what she certainly must have known was the end of her life, Barbara finally did what so many of us take for granted: she married the love of her life.
For decades—centuries really—the idea of same-sex marriage was too fantastic, too farcical to be taken seriously. Because marriage, like the reproductive sex to which it was so closely linked, was a state reserved solely for heterosexuals; for the nuclear man and woman who might shelter under its legal and social embrace, and thence produce a family. Even as notions of marriage became more fluid in the 20th century, cutting across once-sacrosanct lines of class and race and religion, the basic construct seemed inevitable: one man, one woman, ’til death (or divorce) do us part.
So when the subject of same-sex marriage first arose some 40 years ago, critics dismissed it with a particular blend of scorn and horror. It was a “violation of nature law,” decried one opponent; “a moral wrong…a sterile union…and an offense to God.” But the most persistent fear was that gay marriage would undermine or even topple its straight counterpart, wreaking havoc on an inherently heterosexual, reproductively defined union. Marriage equality, predicted one staunch opponent, would prove to be “the nail in coffin of marriage,” an affront that would quickly “take society down with it.”
In a blisteringly short period of time, however, two things have occurred, neither of which was predicted by even the most passionate advocates for same-sex marriage. First, gay marriage has become a legal reality in fully 17 of the United States and the District of Columbia and 16 countries. Between 2004 and 2009, nearly 150,000 same-sex couples lined up to say their vows, many, like Barbara and Diane, having waited decades for the privilege of a ceremony and social status that straight couples so often take giddily for granted. And in the process—though one can’t prove this statistically—marriage between people of the same sex has reinvigorated the case for marriage in general, reminding us, in a world of pre-nuptial agreements and egg-donor babies, what it’s supposed to be about.
Over the past 50 years, changes in both social mores and reproductive technology have largely severed the link between marriage and reproduction. Women—and to a lesser extent, still, men—can acquire children and start families without the institution of wedlock that was once required. And yet, for straight couples, and particularly straight women, the biology of reproduction still guides the decision to marry: the average American bride today is 27, or right within her peak years of fertility. The “biological clock” has become a ticking truism for even the most modern of women, prompting many to race for the altar, or at least feel the suffocating pressure of that altar, before the time is right. For women like Barbara, by contrast, the decision to marry seems guided now largely by love.
To be sure, same-sex marriage also carries a host of hard-won and crucial legal rights: the right to inherit property; to share health insurance; to be the point of contact at a partner’s hospital bed. But, as thousands of nuptials have recently borne witness, the driving force behind most couples’ walk down the aisle or to City Hall goes far beyond the legal enticements. When Richard Dorr and John Mace chose to marry at the respective ages of 84 and 91, for example, they made little mention of any practical benefits their union might bring: “To be able to start a new phase of life by being married after 61 years would really be a completion of something that’s been quite marvelous and wonderful for us both,” the couple stated. “We’ve always thought of ourselves as a couple, as a pair. It would be wonderful to be able to say we are married.”
I have been lucky over the past few years to attend several gay weddings; weddings that, like Richard and John’s and Barbara and Diane’s, celebrated unions long past the first blush of romance. And what struck me at each were not only the beauty of the ceremony and the joy that accompanied a celebration so long delayed, but also the sheer uniqueness of this moment in time. My children will not attend same-sex weddings that the couples never thought possible, because these couples will have married much earlier. My grandparents never attended them because they weren’t yet possible. But my generation—gay or straight—can witness this particular revolution, raise a glass, and dance. It is a blessing I never imagined receiving in my own middle age—to be reminded in such a pure and powerful way of the enduring power of love.