“I exist as I am, that is enough” –Walt Whitman
My brother got married this weekend. Only it was not your run-of-the-mill kind of wedding; it was a DIY gay wedding on a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere sanctioned only by our community since gay marriage is not actually legal in the state of Oregon. Our Midwestern family mingled with friends from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and our neighbors. It was beautiful and sincere, full of love, tears, and smiles. Everything you could want in a wedding celebration except for the part when my aunt asked for the fourth time if my (non-existent) boyfriend was coming to the wedding and then as they were leaving, several guests asked me, “When will it be your turn?” Ooof! I thought. We were doing so well with the unconventional. Why do we always head “straight” back to the hetero-normative?
I am a heterosexual, but not necessarily pursuing the normal relationship path. If we look at statistics though, I appear to be quite normal because I am single, which is now true for the majority of American adults. And, unmarried women are the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group. We are people who date, have lovers, close friendships, families, successful careers, and are actively engaged in our community, yet marriage seems to be the only form of relationship that most folks understand: a union between two people and typically those two people have to be a man and a woman. In practice though, relationships take many different shapes and sizes, and often, it is not as monogamous life partners.
I could have said to my aunt, “Well, it is possible that one of three men might show up tonight, but given the nature of those that I attract, it is unlikely.” Or something like, “None of my current or potential lovers are here tonight, but three past romances are in the room which I think is a testament to how I conduct my relationships and goes to show that there are many ways to share love, friendship, and intimacy.”
Marriage is defined as a socially or ritually recognized union or legal contract between spouses that establishes rights and obligations between them, between them and their children, and between them and their in-laws. No wonder people are fighting for this status— it also comes with better access to health care, housing, social security, social acceptance, taxes, and political representation. What is it about going solo that isn’t worthy of all these same things? Why must gay couples fight to legitimize their relationships they have carried on for years? Why am I, a single woman in her mid-thirties, not afforded the same rights or benefits that a married woman my age might be? Why is my brother’s marriage still not recognized by the state that we live in? It seems strange to put so much stock in an institution that is only serving a portion of our population.
Seemingly, it wasn’t always this way. In Sex at Dawn, co-authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá show that our ancestors lived in egalitarian groups sharing food, child care, and often, sexual partners. They argue that the invention of agriculture, around ten thousand years ago changed these relationship dynamics as the concepts of ownership, surplus, and power created a patriarchal society. This led to the idea that men have to “lease women’s reproductive potential by providing them with certain goods and services, such as meat, shelter, status, and protection. In exchange, women have offered fidelity or at least the promise of fidelity” so that men could be assured their investments were secure. What happens when there is no reproductive potential between couples, or women are independently financially secure, have their own shelter, and have brothers down the road that raise animals for meat and dairy?
Recently, I went out for an afternoon run with borrowed dogs from my brother’s farm. I was enjoying the thought of not needing dogs of my own, or kids, or a husband for that matter since there are plenty of all of those to go around, when one of my neighbors stopped me on the road for a chat. Completely unprompted, he observed that it was nice to have me in the neighborhood, but he was aware that I needed a man if I was going to be able to stick it out. He then offered to set me up with the one single guy he knows in town. “He lives in a trailer and has a couple of kids,” he said, “but he really is a good, solid guy.” What else does he have to offer– goats? Building skills? Tax incentives? Otherwise, this isn’t going to cut it.
Unfortunately, relationship status figures so much into one’s identity and our basic human rights. While the gay community is fighting for this right, single women everywhere are rejecting it so that they too may be recognized as equal citizens. Couples are divorcing at an astronomical rate. This all seems pretty ironic, don’t you think? Yet whether you are single or married is still one of the first things you fill out on any form; it is a constant topic of conversation among friends and relatives, and being “alone” is often seen as a problem to be fixed instead of a readily understood and accepted lifestyle.
In truth, being on my own has been a truly transformative experience. It brings a deeper understanding of one’s self and all of our relationships. It can help build community, establish meaningful work, and encourage self-reliance. If someday I am able to stand in front of my friends and family and profess my love and commitment to another human being, then so be it. If not, you Pomona, and everyone else are all stuck with me anyway— as a sister, a neighbor, a lover, a friend, a colleague, a travel companion, a niece, a dinner date, a dance partner, a daughter, a community member, a euchre player, an auntie, a farm hand, an educator, an activist, an organizer, and everything else I may be or become…except perhaps a wife, in the most traditional of ways.
In the name of love,