Standing on Ceremony

A Rites Issue: Straight Couples Who Refuse to Marry Because Gays Can't

One couple met in a lower Manhattan lounge and another at a college campus in California. Others met through work, activist gatherings in Massachusetts, and even at a wedding performed at a McDonald's in Minneapolis. An artist/webbie and a technology professional, a marketer and a student, a folk-singing peace activist and a professor, a sales executive and a corporate librarian, an NFL defensive tackle and a spa owner. These pairs fell in love, share homes, and plan to be together for life. But none of them are married couples, because U.S. law doesn't allow gays to legally wed. Surprisingly, however, all but the NFL tackle and his partner are straight.

Meet the hetero holdouts, people who refuse to marry until the institution no longer excludes gays. Their stance foists a question on straight people of the marrying kind who like to think of themselves as progressives on gay rights: Can you really claim to support the rights of gays while you're buying into the institution that most painfully marginalizes gay couples?

Recently married gay-icons Margaret Cho, Megan Mullally, and Madonna apparently see no hypocrisy in this. Celebrity heterosexual spokespeople for gay rights are happy to join gay marches but happier still to do the wedding march straight into government benefits and legitimization of their relationships. The sympathetic resistance of hetero holdouts makes a stronger statement.

"We have been cohabitants for 15 years and would get married if the government did not use the institution as a means to discriminate against gays and lesbians," Mitch Kahle says of himself and his partner, Holly Huber, who met in Boston and moved to Hawaii together. "Unfortunately, we're still waiting for the government to stop its immoral religious war against homosexuals."

Reverend Andrea Ayvazian, dean of religious life at Mount Holyoke College, chose her side of that war back in 1985, when she began her relationship with her partner, Michael Klare, a professor and a writer for The Nation. "It's important to step up. We don't want to be part of an institution that's actively discriminatory," says the United Church of Christ minister, who's also a folksinger. "It's like the days before the Civil Rights movement. If you got on the bus, there were white people in the front and black people in the back. This is just as clear—heterosexuals get married and gays and lesbians don't."

These middle-class marital-rights activists are taking on weighty financial burdens, even if the social stigma of being unmarried is waning. Lambda Legal reports that at retirement typical gay couples can lose more than $10,000 a year in the Social Security benefits they've paid for because such benefits are calculated based on family units. Hetero holdouts who spurn such governmental favoritism and also are paying for separate health plans are paying a big price for their principles. Then there are the benefits that aren't directly financial. Straight people can fall in love with a foreign citizen without fearing arbitrary separation at the border—a marriage license comes with immigration rights.

"This is not a cheap witness—it's witnessing at a cost," says Ayvazian. It also points out the perks that straight couples may not realize they get simply because they're straight.

In the absence of a formal movement, these very personal acts of protest against what hetero holdouts see as a tremendous injustice have taken myriad forms. Some refrain entirely from marriage, while others permit themselves a commitment ceremony akin to those that are now part of gay culture. Others will marry in mainstream houses of worship but not sign civil papers. All, like their gay friends, dream of marrying without limitations and compromise.

Ayvazian, who has a 15-year-old son with Klare, says, "I want to have a real wedding, even if we're 80. I'm holding out for that."


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Straight support: Hetero holdouts Kyril Mossin and Mame McCutchin
photo: Amy Pierce
They may have a long wait. Gays' recent court victories have sparked a conservative backlash in legislatures, propelled by the Christian right, which declared a new "culture war." Polls also indicate such a backlash, but younger respondents voice greater support for gay marriage, a sign that hetero holdouts may be on the right side of history.

"My grandmother thought racism was bad but never did anything about it," says holdout Bruce Bradley, a marketer in Ventura County, California, whose partner, Lisa Nunez, is a student. "During the '60s my parents never went out to protest, though they watched TV and thought it was bad when black people were hit with fire hoses or had dogs sicced on them. When I'm 70, I'll be able to say I did something about discrimination."

Mame McCutchin, a downtown Manhattan technology professional in a relationship with Russian artist/webbie Kyril Mossin, draws more contemporary parallels to arrive at the same conclusion. "I wouldn't join a country club that excluded blacks or Jews," she says. But where she saw injustice most glaringly was in the painful aftermath of the defining tragedy of this generation. "I guess what really opened my eyes was the World Trade Center attacks," she says. "Lots of people who lost partners were left out to dry. They lost homes and were sometimes shunned by their loved ones' families, and they had no legal recourse. It's terrible for that to happen to somebody."

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