Love and Marriage
posted: December 15, 2009
Nancy (left) and Joan and their dog Juno....
I was dismayed earlier this month when the New York State Senate voted down the gay marriage bill, and I decided to interview and paint long-standing gay couples, both men and women, and ask them about their stories and their relationships and what marriage means to them. This is the first of the series.

On a recent rainy afternoon in Brooklyn, I sat down to talk with writer and communications specialist Nancy Goldstein and syndicated cartoonist Joan Hilty, whose marriage in Provincetown in May of 2004 has been recognized in New York State since July of 2006. With their dog Juno trying to get in on the conversation, Nancy and Joan talked about love and marriage.

: We met online in the early, early days of internet dating, in mid-1999. It was on a lesbian/gay dating website called Its icon was a little guy dressed up as your "Aunt Edwina who only wants the best for you". You could browse other people’s personals, and only get an idea of them through the quality of their writing because there were barely any pictures up yet or videos or songs or anything.

Nancy: The chick you chose me over did have a picture of herself up with a cowboy hat. But she overused the ellipsis.

Joan: Yeah, and no capitalizing, no nothing. But there was Nancy, who wrote beautifully and talked about all the great places she liked to eat in Prospect Heights, which was just a neighborhood away from me, and that one was interesting to me.

Nancy:  We wound up meeting on a Sunday and staying up until one in the morning talking; we just went from place to place as they closed  down on us. And then we went home and she didn’t call me. I subscribed to the Brooklyn Museum, because the controversial art exhibit Sensation was going to be there, so I could call her and say: I have an extra ticket to the opening of Sensation. But when I called her, she was busy, and then she showed up late for our second date. So I thought: She’s just not interested. But our second date was lovely and we stayed up way late again.

Joan: We were both wary of getting into a relationship at first. Nancy came into warily because she had been dating unsuccessfully. I had had yet another disastrous relationship breakup over the summer, but once we started dating seriously, we were only a neighborhood away from each other. So I would go over to her place and spend the night, and she would come over to mine and spend the night, and we started spending more and more time at my house until we just started to say, you know, we’re actually finally comfortable sharing space.

Nancy: We had both come out of relationships with people who wanted kids like that [she snaps her fingers] and both of us are pretty independent and I never thought Joan would want to get married again.

Joan: I had been in a long-term relationship for almost eight years, with my college girlfriend. When civil unions became legal in San Francisco in 1990 we went and signed up. We broke up in '96 and in fact, had to annul it, or whatever, in order for Nancy and I to marry. Actually I should back up and say it wasn’t even a civil union, it was a domestic partnership.

Nancy: Gradations of rights, and of course, each state or city can define them differently. The joke in New York was that domestic partnerships for gay people, back in the ‘90s, was when they were first granted the right to visit their partner in jail. And then civil unions, of course, vary from state to state.

And then there is marriage which has all the same benefits for same sex couples as cross sex couples, except the federal benefits which include things like immigration, inheritance, retirement benefits and health insurance.

We were married in Massachusetts in 2004, and right now, New York's laws recognize the marriage as legally performed elsewhere, but our legislature won’t allow marriages to be performed here.

I just want to say off the bat, that I don’t think that marriage should be the vehicle for the distribution of rights. I really, really don’t.

I believe that people should absolutely be allowed to determine things like inheritance and immigration and who is next on your health insurance, and that people should absolutely be allowed to determine what family means to them. And I think that it’s a terrible form of discrimination that you only have a shot at these things if you enter into this state-run institution, which of course, the state and federal government should have absolutely nothing to do with.

So I just want to say that having said that, it's also clearly the only vehicle for a number of rights that I want to have.

Neither of us were people who ever really wanted to get married. It wasn’t a childhood dream. It wasn’t even an adult dream.

Joan: I would romanticize about being in long-term relationships when I was young, about being in love, but it was never in the context of marriage. I didn’t fantasize about a wedding, I didn’t fantasize about the way the wedding day would look.

Nancy: Obviously marriage is completely different for us than our feminist heterosexual friends: for them, marriage is the ultimate sign of conformity, and knuckling under and doing everything their parents expect. For you it’s compliance, for us it’s defiance.

To us it’s like pushing the walls open like Samson.

We decided that we would get married and the further we got into it, we knew it was a civil rights issue and we knew we wanted to be there pushing the envelope on it and we also knew that we wanted to get married in an atmosphere where people are happy for us. So we arranged to register on the very first morning, of the first day that it was legal to get married in Massachusetts.

And then Mitt Romney evokes the 1913 anti-miscegenation law that Massachusetts passed when Jack Johnson, the black boxer, married a white woman. And that law says that Massachusetts will not marry an out-of-state couple whose marriage is not recognized in their home state.

Joan: This was the way that states like Massachusetts, which was your big freedom-from-religious-persecution state, could still honor Jim Crow laws.

And this is what Romney pulls out of his back pocket to put a stop to same-sex marriage: a law that is blatantly rooted in racism.

Nancy: And the next Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, made sure that's one of the first laws to be repealed.

Joan: But it's really the federal law that needs to change, because it can be legalized in all 50 states and if the Feds don’t legalize it, there are still 1,084 rights that are federally provided to straight couples that gay couples cannot have, because something can be legal at the state level, but not at the federal level. So we are legally married by a state, but not in the eyes of the federal government, because of the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA].

Nancy: Under DOMA, passed under Bill Clinton -- as his sop to Newt Gingrich, thank you -- and not reversed under President Obama -- who was going to be such a big champion of gay rights, thank you -- if I died tomorrow and left everything to Joan, Joan would be taxed 50 percent on it. If you die tomorrow and leave everything to your husband, he pays no tax whatsoever. So think about this: if you own a $500,000 apartment together, you would suddenly have the burden of paying 50 percent taxes on a $500,000 apartment.

So the big difference is in our pension rights, inheritance, and immigration; if Joan was from another country, our marriage would not make her legal, which it does for straight people.

Joan: I do believe within my lifetime that DOMA will be overturned. It’s exciting when gay marriage passes, in a state like Massachusetts, and it's heartbreaking when it doesn’t, in a state like New York, but it keeps coming up. It’s coming up now, overlapping every six months or so, in states and regions that nobody expected, and my feeling is that it can’t be stopped.

Nancy: There are going to be too many states that legalize it for the federal government to ignore the issue anymore. It’s like a snowball rolling down a hill and you just will not be able to stop it, it will be forced to address it.

Joan: Things have changed so much in the last three or four decades, that now I would say across the US in general, and not just on the coasts, more and more people have at least one gay person in their lives, or are familiar with gay celebrities whose gayness is talked about openly and not whispered about. It’s just becoming less and less an issue for people.

Nancy: This has all been an educational process. I want to say that I use the word "marriage" and I use the word "wife", because they are the words that are most likely to make both conservative people and pseudo-liberals uncomfortable. And also is because I want people to know, for damned sure, that I am not trying to hide the gender of the person I am talking about: she's not my "partner", she's not my "spouse". But the word “wife” is not something I ever wanted to be or have – but in some ways it’s like reclaiming the word “queer”:  that you take the most despised term and you say, wouldn’t the coolest thing in the world be, to take this weird-ass term that means all of these horrible things and have it turn into something really kind of fabulous.

So I use the term wife, but we’ve seen it make plenty of our liberal friends and relatives uncomfortable  – because what I say when I say wife, is I’m saying, I got the same thing that you got. I didn’t get an imitation of it, this isn’t a faux ring, I got married, here is my certificate, here we are.

I don’t think this is an instant prescription, and I don’t think it happens to everyone who gets married, but for me, I love being married. I love our home; it’s warm, we’re always cooking something, we get along with each other, we have a dog, and it’s just lovely. When there's a public figure in the news, talking about our right to marriage -- especially a straight public figure, like when Gavin Newsom says of course, people should be able to get married, of course, it’s discrimination that they can't -- that’s when I usually find myself crying. Because it’s such a basic, basic, recognition of humanity and it’s so cruel and ultimately will be so futile to deny it to people.

Anyway, I love it, and I have to say, our relationship did change for me, after we got married. And I never would have expected it to. I mean, if you had said to me, do you think you would have wanted children more if you were married, I wouldn’t have said yes. But the feeling of safety, I think over time, the feeling of sureness, the feeling of being held by something, has increased for me, and I totally dig it.