People who get married young occupy an odd place in our collective imaginations. I associate early marriage with bygone eras of glamour and disaster: Henry James novels, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Today, they’re the provenance of Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears, cloaked in an air of celebrity misadventure. They feel abrupt and brief — marriages fumbled into and discarded; splashed across tabloids for a couple of months and then forgotten. Mostly, I've thought of young marriages as something that has always inspired my radical queer friends from university to roll their eyes: Well, of course so-and-so got married, they’re straight, did they have any better ideas?
But I didn’t spend much time thinking about them at all, honestly, until I got married — well, technically speaking, a civil partnership — at 23, baffling my friends and family, and providing me and my girlfriend with the best joke we’ll ever have.
We were on Skype when the idea first came up. She was in Germany with four months left of her university year abroad, eating her dinner. I was huddled up on my bed in Bristol, frowning while I went through the UK’s visa requirements for Australians again. I’d been in Bristol a year: one of two that I got for free as part of my young person’s holiday working visa. I was trying to figure out if there was any way I could convince the nonprofit arts organization I worked for to sponsor me for a new visa. It was looking unlikely. Scanning through the PDFs, I frowned, rubbed my hand over my mouth and said, “We might just have to get married.”
My girlfriend raised her eyebrows. “That better not have been a proposal.”
But it was one — as close as it would come, delivered online and without a ring or token, like too many of our relationship milestones.
We met in the spring of 2013, when I was doing my Grand Tour of Europe, breathless with my own daring and arrogance. At the time, I was certain that I would never be in a relationship in my life, let alone a marriage. I’d decided that I was the kind of freewheeling spirit who loved too deeply and generously to be restricted to any kind of heteronormative structure. Besides, I wasn’t sure I was capable of romance. (I was 20, in case that is not immediately obvious.)
Then I went to stay with a friend-of-a-friend in Bristol, a British student who had space on her floor for me to crash. When she met me at the train station, she was tall and pretty with shabby leopard print gloves. We started talking immediately and then never shut up, wandering around Bristol's hills but only really looking at each other, spending late nights out and lazy mornings in. She was smarter than me, and funnier; she was brilliant on politics; she laughed that she could talk me into anything. But I ended up talking her into coming with me across the continent, dipping in and out of my life in Bristol, Prague, London.
I was newly reluctant to keep traveling. I wanted to stop and stare, I wanted to sit with her for hours in a pub, I wanted to spend days in bed. For the first time in nine months of traveling and carousing my way across the northern hemisphere, I wanted to stay.
But I couldn’t. After only about two weeks total spent together, I went back to Australia to finish my final year of university, and she continued studying in the UK.
Long distance relationships may no longer rely on longing letters delivered months apart, but today they present new challenges. It’s easier than ever to keep in contact, and most of the time when we were apart I spent every minute of my day talking to her. (At one point, thanks to a well-timed car accident, I ended up with no work for a few months and managed to adjust my internal clock to the UK’s, sleeping only when she slept, often still on Skype, a dark room and dark screen and the sound of her breathing carried over unsteady internet connections.) My girlfriend told me that she felt like her phone was her daemon — something she could carry around in her pocket, with my brain and my voice to keep her company. But it’s hard to maintain a relationship that is conducted entirely online. Sometimes we’d log onto Skype and stare at each other blankly, having spent the whole day texting and with nothing new to share. We wanted to take walks, see a band, go to dinner; instead we spent frustrating hours trying to synch up Netflix close enough that we could watch it together.
It gets wearying, which was why I moved to the UK once my degree was finished. We spent nine months together in Bristol, wandering up and down the sunny hills between our houses, inventing drinking games and spending huddled nights in freezing tents in the British countryside, swinging into London for plays and drinks and picnics in a friend's backyard. I forgot what it was like to not see her every day. Then, like a mean reminder, she had to move to Germany for her required university year abroad: another nine months of separation, this time with me stuck in Bristol and her somewhere new.
When it began to look like we were staring down the possibility of being wrenched apart yet again, something as sanctified and scary as marriage started to seem very convenient indeed.
The idea of getting married at 23 threw my family and friends, as two years before it would have thrown me. The people I’d known were going to get married when they were 18, 19, 20 had already done so and gone right ahead to having babies. In contrast, my university crowd was a ragtag group of kids in their early twenties unsure of how to be adults. They were also mostly queer, and in my home country Australia, my girlfriend and I are still not allowed to get married. Many of my friends don’t believe in monogamy at all, let alone a public declaration of it.
Along with many LGBT activists in Australia, they believe that marriage rights aren't something the LGBT movement should be fighting so hard for. In Australia, de facto relationships hold most of the same legal rights as marriages, which makes the equal marriage argument a little more complicated. Many radical queers think that we are "weakening" our commitment to queerness by begging to be allowed into an institution created by a church and government that have historically has oppressed us. Some worry that by prioritizing equal marriage so highly, we are letting other — arguably more pressing — issues settle onto a second tier: from the safe schools legislation, to the rampant demonization of trans people, to the significantly higher levels of suicide and mental health issues experienced amongst LGBT Australians.
But it’s also impossible to ignore that the fight for equal marriage has been built on the back of the AIDS crisis; that a lack of partnership rights historically meant that same-sex couples were blocked from looking after each other, in hospitals and pensions and wills; that marriage is not, in fact, just an issue for the gay community, but for the entire LGBT community. While it is by no means the only issue on the table that we should be fighting for, equal marriage has become a cultural and legal necessity, and in Australia, it’s both embarrassing and dehumanizing that we have not followed the lead of the UK or the US.
The mean compromise the Liberal government finally gave into — now, in 2016, after years of campaigning and judgment — was the potential for a plebiscite. The plebiscite was roundly opposed by LGBT activists in Australia, and filled me with a sense of dread. Between Bill Leak's homophobic cartoon comparing LGBT activists to Nazis, Liberal-National MP George Christensen aligning consent law changes for anal sex to pedophilia, and a recent bomb threat at an LGBT radio station, the climate of campaigning grew ugly, and it was a sour sort of relief when the plebiscite failed to make it through the Senate. But it makes the future of equal marriage in Australia even more uncertain, with our best hope now a cross party Senate bill.
Sometimes, living far away, I have the privilege to forget about the institutionalized homophobia in Australia. But in the midst of all the visa paperwork, I looked briefly into what would happen if we moved there, and experienced a jolt of horror: my home country still refuses to recognize our partnership.
My accidental proposal eventually spiraled into an actual conversation, one that we picked up and turned over, in Berlin, in Bristol, in secret Facebook chats at work. By the time we were seriously considering a visa marriage, I felt trapped by a lack of other options, and guiltily complicit in the equal marriage opponents' arguments. We weren’t getting married for the usual reasons: symbolism, convention, some traditional idea of romance — we were getting married for the visa. I said the two words in the same breath, hastening to explain it to anyone who found out and looked on the brink of congratulations, or, more often, shock. Sometimes I worried we were playing into the right-wing arguments that we were making marriage less sanctified. That was one of the reasons that we opted in the end for a civil partnership — legal in the UK between same-sex couples since 2004, and only recently made a somewhat obsolete option in 2013 when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was passed. A civil partnership — somehow less terrifying, less grown-up — would do just fine for the UK Home Office’s visa restrictions. And we declawed our decision still further by calling it a civvie in our irreverent Facebook event inviting friends.
I didn’t want our marriage to be viewed as one of those thoughtless, doomed marriages between young people, nor to put too much pressure on my two-year relationship. I tried not to take our pending nuptials too seriously, so as not to make people think I'd settled into something boringly conventional and heteronormative. To help play down the seriousness, I’d wanted to make things official in Bristol’s civil registry office, with our roommates drafted in as witnesses — a piece of paper signed and then back to work for the rest of the afternoon.
But my girlfriend disagreed. We talked it out quietly, late at night over Skype and then in person when she returned to the UK. It wasn’t a real wedding, we decided, and maybe not quite a real marriage, but it was a real choice, something we were doing together to stay together. We’d chosen each other hundreds of times in hundreds of different ways over two years, but we had to choose each other now in a state-sanctified manner so that the state couldn’t separate us.
We didn’t have a wedding. But we did have a party.
Three months after the Skype call when I’d first accidentally proposed, we went to my girlfriend’s hometown, a British tourist trap on the coast, for the rocky shores and one of the last humid days of summer. We had the civil partnership at the registry office there, and then went to the beach with a small assortment of British or British-based friends and family, most of whom were as bewildered by the whole situation as we were. One friend volunteered to take photos. My girlfriend wore a sari she’d stolen from her mum’s closet that morning; I wore a skirt I’d found for £6 in a charity shop and a shirt I’d bought in a hurry from H&M the day before.
The photos are nice. We both look very happy. On our way out of the registry office with our bemused audience cheering, my girlfriend offered me a fistbump and said, “Job done!”
I am an outlier among the queer kid radicals I grew up with: I do want to get real-married one day. Many of my friends still see marriage as an outdated, patriarchal institution, and I agree with them. My parents were together for 15 years before they married, and my sister and I served in the wedding party. I don’t believe marriage bestows anything upon a couple that a thoughtful and loving partnership does not. Equal marriage is an important right, though I don’t think that marriage as a certificate by itself is anything that extraordinary.
But I am, at heart, a fiend for attention. I want the dress; I want to make a speech about my girlfriend, how clever she is, how funny; I want as much of my enormous and ridiculous and lovely family to be there as possible. My girlfriend knows all this — when we went through the civil partnership paperwork together she said, “Let’s call this a practice run for when we can afford to do the real thing.”
It was a practice run. But it made me quietly, cheerfully happy, assured in the certainty of our relationship and the certainty of me being able to stay. Sometimes I think about her hands on my hips as we lingered back behind the beach hut while her sister put candles on our cake, friends and family eating fish and chips cross-legged on the beach. She’d said, “Are you having fun?” and grinned at me, and I’d stroked my thumb along her cheek. We’re almost at eye-level when I wear heels.
I was sure before the civvie that I would continue to refer to her simply as my girlfriend. For the most part I have. Sometimes, though, “wife” slips out: usually in jest, often when I’m trying to get my own way (“I’m your wife!”).
We didn’t have a honeymoon — it was right back to work and study. The night we returned to Bristol, I managed to mess up on timing. We missed our late bus, and endured an anxious wait to see if we’d be able to get the next one. My girlfriend was grim-faced and unsure; I plucked at her sleeve and said, laughing nervously, “Don’t you love your flighty little wife?”
“God,” she said, startled out of her anxiety and laughing too, “that’s so weird.”
It’s the moment I think of most, among the whole to-do. Not the golden sunshine of the day or the drunken night out that followed; not our dresses, our friends, our family (as much as could be gathered up), or the vows that made me giggle nervously like a kid in church; not even the promise of another proposal to come, this time not on a deadline decided by the Home Office.
Instead, I think of just the two of us out of our fancy gear and back in jeans and T-shirts, grimy and tired and dealing with some new, unexpected difficulty together. The way we had before and would again, but in the same country, in the same space, two flighty little wives with fingers hooked through each other’s belt loops. Looking after each other. Job done.