EVER SINCE I GOT MARRIED, people want to know: “How’s married life?” This never fails to surprise me. Haven’t they heard? It’s kind of a popular topic in our culture; there is some degree of consensus about the particulars. Take everything every novel, play, film, song, and sitcom has ever had to say about married life — it’s a bit like that.
To be fair to the askers, different people have different reasons for posing that question. From friends and family, it comes as a genuine inquiry about my happiness, which is very thoughtful. From some of my straight friends and acquaintances, it may also be a coded acknowledgment of sociopolitical solidarity, a chummy back pat with a dash of How are you enjoying them apples? — which is also terrific and appreciated.
After all, this year marks a decade since Spouse A could put a ring on Spouse B in Massachusetts. Since then, more than 22,000 gays and lesbians in the state have made at least that many straight people jealous of their fabulous (but understated in a New England sort of way) gay weddings. I’m sure I join countless florists, cupcake bakers, and Unitarian ministers across the Commonwealth when I say that the newness-high of this whole gay marriage thing has yet to wear off.
From fellow gays, however — especially Massachusetts ones, proudly ever ahead of the curve — a question like “How’s married life?” can carry quite a different ring. There’s often a tone present, an off note with a hint of resignation and a touch of betrayal.
And I get it. Though same-sex marriage is often cited in mainstream culture as the Big Gay Issue of our time, many members of the GLBTQ community anchor that acronym with an abiding sense of that Q, and queering the system does not involve sending out adorable letterpress invitations (guilty) or registering at Crate & Barrel for that luxury toaster (guiltier). To the most progressive of my friends, marriage’s legal benefits and protections are valuable, but it’s ultimately a lateral move. As gays, we’ve gone through enough self-realization that we should be forging new institutions, not subscribing to old, damaged ones. And by some, my marriage was being called the H word: “Heteronormative.”
It’s a word that reminds me of “straight acting,” a term I first saw in the early ’90s as a teenager while furtively flipping through the conspicuously noncommittal “men seeking men” personals in the Phoenix, which were relegated to a seedy pullout otherwise crawling with busty masseuses. Gay life at the time had far more shame than pride running through its veins. Sometimes I’d sneak into the teachers’ lounge to call those ads from the school’s phone, just to hear what another gay person sounded like. I remember my face getting hot, the ear not on the receiver listening for footsteps.
For GLBTQ youth, even today, every moment can feel like an elaborate put-on. You are an actor armed with no material, and each day you wake up struggling to figure out your lines, if only to avoid the hostility and humiliation that could accompany a break in character. Normal was an all-day performance, and thus, those most primary realizations of normalcy — marriage, family, happiness — seemed to exist in some unattainable dream state that I could only (daily) pretend to understand. I was convinced that if you could squint through the daylight, past the edge of the stage and way down the aisles, you could find the exits from the theater.
When gay marriage was approved in Massachusetts, it felt strange to want it. The streets of Cambridge filled with hugging couples, yet I felt an odd glint of empathy for all those bigots on the Internet as I tried to parse cliches like two grooms on a cake and peel them away from the significance of what had just taken place. Before too long, my friends started getting engaged, and I felt my longstanding exemption from this most conventional of social institutions — which, like many gays, I’d actually grown to relish — begin to erode.
It was six years later that my now husband proposed, sitting on an overturned rowboat facing Provincetown Harbor in the sleepy October offseason. And when he asked, it still felt unreal or impossible, but my response came naturally. It was a role I hadn’t prepared a day for, but I knew all my lines — really, just one: “Yes, yes, yes.”
These days, when we sit on the couch together, matching socks out of a laundry basket, splitting an order of Thai takeout, watching Ancient Aliens, and squabbling over which of us must rise to take the trash out to the street, I have to admit — it all seems very familiar, as though I’ve seen this scene a million times.
To some we’ve become the cliche, fully dequeered and willfully assimilated into the marriage mill, tax return and all. But to me, just feeling happy feels progressive. Normal feels radical. It’s like when you realize you’re dreaming and seize control of the dream — you can make of it whatever you want and trash that old script your mind had in mind. In this context, doing the dishes feels incredibly liberating.
So when people ask, “How’s married life?” despite everything we already know and everything we’ve been told, I smile and say the one true thing that can be said about marriage: “It’s a work in progress.”
Michael Andor Brodeur is a Globe assistant editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.