Legally Obligated

 

by John Tyler Connoley

February 10, 2004

 

This week, my spouse and I made the biggest commitment of our life together. We did it in a small conference room, with two witnesses. Very little fanfare or ceremony accompanied the event. One of the witnesses gave us a ceramic pot to commemorate the day, but there will be no notices in papers or announcements sent out to friends and family. Rob and I did what millions of people do every year -- we closed on a house. However, as a gay couple, our signature on those loan papers was a long-awaited seal of our commitment.

 

When I told one of my good friends that we had closed, she said, "Doesn't it feel nice to know you're settled? With an apartment, you can always walk away when the lease is up, but buying a house means you have to stay put for a while." She didn't know how right she was.

 

For the first time in our life together, Rob and I can't simply walk away from our relationship. Dissolution of the relationship now would involve lawyers and paperwork, something that wasn't true five days ago. Last week, we would have only had to separate our stuff, and split our bank account. We would have had to do something with the old Toyota we both own, and decide who would get the pets (he'd take the dog, and I'd take the cats), but it wouldn't have been much more difficult than that.

 

Now, however, we're committed to a thirty-year mortgage on a house, and there's a mortgage company with lawyers and legally-signed documents standing behind that commitment. The only way we could be more committed would be if we adopted a child together. And, even though I was confident of the relationship before, it now feels different somehow.

 

Another friend once told me how marriage affected his relationship with his wife. He said that even though they loved each other completely before the wedding, there was something about being married that settled him. At the time, I couldn't relate to his story.

 

When Rob and I married, it was a wonderful experience. We invited a small group of people to a rented country house for a weekend. On Saturday morning, in the presence of God and our friends, we read the vows we'd written for one another. They were beautiful vows, and I meant every word of mine, but somewhere in the back of my head I remember thinking they were piecrust promises -- easily made and easily broken. Though I fully intended to keep my vows, I knew I didn't really have to, and neither did Rob. Even as we signed our Quaker marriage certificate, I knew it was really nothing more than a pretty piece of paper hand-lettered by a friend. It had no real power.

 

After our wedding ceremony, Rob and I changed our names. I had been Tyler Connor, and he had been Rob Pauley. We merged to become the Connoleys. For me, this was an important signal to others that we were now a family. It was another sign of our commitment to the relationship, and it forced us to be public about our commitment to one another. So many times we've had to answer the question, "So . . . you're brothers?"

 

We also drew up legal papers, giving each other medical power of attorney over one another. We felt this was a necessary step, in case we were ever denied access to each other at a hospital. We even added a clause to the pre-prepared documents, making visitation rights explicit. We made copies for our glove compartment and suitcases, so we'd always have one with us. I remember signing those documents, and thinking "now we're legally bound." But even those documents would be fairly easy to destroy -- as would a will. Again, they were important symbols, but piecrust promises nonetheless.

 

Each step along the way, Rob and I have cobbled together ceremonies, symbols, and documents to strengthen the bond we have with one another. But always there was something missing. We had no legal recognition of the commitment, and therefore no legal obligation to one another. It was like living in an apartment with no lease. We intended to live together forever, but there was nothing that said we couldn't decide to move tomorrow.

 

Of course, a mortgage is nothing like a marriage. There are still more than a thousand rights and responsibilities that Rob and I don't have as a couple. I was reminded of this as we were signing the papers on the house. The lawyers who wrote the documents had listed the sellers as "Jane Doe, a married person, and John Doe, her husband." We were listed as "Robert E. Connoley, a single person, and John Tyler Connoley, a single person." In my euphoria of commitment-making, the descriptions written in all caps were like a slap in the face. I pointed it out and said, "Hopefully that will change someday." Rob thought it was a bad time to make a political statement, but I guess I thought of it more as a heart cry. I'm committed to this man, and I want to seal that commitment in every way I can. Sometimes, I just can't help saying that out loud.

 

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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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