I’d Leave the Country, but My Wife Won’t Let Me


I’ve fantasized about leaving this country since I was 12 years old, but never more desperately than last Tuesday, when the president announced that my gay family should be banned by the U.S. Constitution. Suddenly, expatriation stopped being about wool berets and red wine at lunch. My loved ones and I were standing at the wrong end of a government’s gun—not literally, of course, but in a way that threatens our deepest understanding of our lives. Our hopes for a happy, loving, ordinary marriage had become a national threat. George Bush had called for an amendment against same-sex marriage.

“Can we just go to Canada now?” I asked my wife, knowing the answer. We argue remarkably little for people who have a toddler and spend every possible moment together. Except we do have this one running debate at the breakfast table, which starts with me saying we could get legally married, right now, north of the border. Sarah holds up the weather page and says, “Hey, that cold air out there? It came from Canada, and it got warmer on the way.”

It’s warm in Vancouver, I say.

And we could be freer there. But she’s not going, for reasons beyond the mercury. She wants to live as an American—more specifically, as a New Yorker—regardless of whether this America wants her. She wants our son to grow up an American, even if it means he’ll lack the protections of the kid next door. Being American matters to her, and that means it matters to me. Four years ago this fall, we stood before an Episcopal priest and were pronounced married for life, for better, for worse. “Those whom God has joined together,” the priest warned, “let no one put asunder.” I won’t leave her, Mr. Bush, not even on account of you.

But, oh, the siren call of liberty. Blame my parents for making me rootless by moving too often. Blame me for believing any place with equal rights and a bookstore is good enough. I can accept exile, but I cannot accept less than fair. I want to be a full citizen, with this woman, today. I want to do whatever it takes, sacrifice whatever is necessary, go wherever I have to, for that to be so.

I want to be taxed equally. I want my Social Security benefits to go somewhere besides down the drain. I want the Fifth Amendment right not to testify against Sarah, and to protect our private correspondence from subpoena, the same as other spouses. Couples like us don’t have that right. Surprised? Rosie O’Donnell and her wife were, when the lawyers came after them.

I want our politicians and religious leaders to stop going on television and suggesting that legalizing marriage for us would be like legalizing sex with dogs. My wife, in my arms? They are talking about my wife, in my arms. Do they know, do they care, how much that hurts? Where must we run to be safe from them?

I want my wife not to feel such pressure and fear that she curls up in bed at night and cries. On the night of Wednesday, February 25, a woman in Brooklyn lay crying because she can’t understand why people would hate her so, why they’d have to denigrate a beautiful and private part of her life with the most heinous rhetoric. Think about that. My wife lay in tears because strangers are clamoring for the power to decide whether she belongs, whether the American promise should hold true for her—as if there were any question which way they’d vote.

What stands between us and them? A couple dozen senators, and some of those are on the fence. Where is our right to a meaningful marriage, to the honest pursuit of happiness? We want our justice and “domestic tranquility.” Whose country is this, anymore? Someone tell me. I get the feeling it’s no longer mine.

Enemies of the State: On their summer vacation, Laura Conaway, Nathaniel Goodyear, and Sarah Goodyear wait for the circus to start.

For me, one of parenting’s most profound lessons is that I am supposed to take care of Sarah and the baby, collectively, as a unit. It’s not like she’s a helpless damsel and I’m a butch knight—if anyone’s the tough guy around here, it’s her. Rather, I believe all mothers need protecting so they can get on with the open-hearted business of mothering. What works for me is to have Sarah come first, and with Sarah comes the baby. If there are two seats on the life raft, I’m drowning. House fire, I’m first in for the kid. Not enough food, I’m hungry, not her and not him.

Now comes an enemy who outweighs me, outnumbers me, corners me at will. And you know how I can really tell I’m overmatched? I wish it away. I say to Sarah, they’ll never get this marriage amendment out of the Senate. They may get it out of the House, but never the Senate. This blustering of mine is worth only so much. We each know the amendment would likely pass in the states—it would need approval from 38, and that many already have statutes against gay marriage. Would Sarah leave then? She says maybe.

I look for example to older African Americans, though many of them don’t want us, either. Not wanting to offend, I silently think of the children marching into the fire hoses of Birmingham, the adults who sat at segregated lunch counters while mobs poured ketchup on their heads. Some mothers and fathers back then asked their kids to be first through the schoolhouse door, rocks and bullets and all. Others left for the relative tolerance up North in places like Chicago and Harlem, unwilling to make an existence of waiting. I know what’s happening to us isn’t the same as that, exactly, but it requires of me the same kind of courage. You just hope the breakthrough happens in your lifetime.

The privacy of this struggle may be the worst part, the continued aloneness of being. So many people don’t get it. They say things to us like “Being married isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”—as if we weren’t religiously married already, as if being blocked from the city clerk’s door were great fun. They say, “Wouldn’t civil unions be enough?” or, now that gay couples are marrying out West, “I’d hate for this marriage thing to win Bush the election.” They say, “You really have to pay taxes like that?” and “Being domestic partners doesn’t help you?” and “You should see the marriage penalty we pay.” They say, “Oh, I wish it were different for you.” They say, “Come to our wedding! We’re getting married!”

Sometimes I think the greatest hindrance to our cause is the sheer force of the American legend. So strongly do people believe this country stands for freedom that they can’t fathom it’s ever otherwise. Sign a few contracts, the well-intentioned advise, and you’ll get all the same rights as straight couples—that’s an outrageous fiction, but not as outrageous as the notion that being almost equal under the law is good enough.

For now, we can’t get even that far, with leaders like Bush smirking at this thing Sarah and I call marriage. Should he need proof of the moral weight of our vows, I’d ask him to consider this: If it weren’t for the true marriage I’m in, and the needs of the wife I’ve pledged to love, I would flee this America to fulfill my own dream of equality. Instead, with no small sum of fear, I will stay with her and fight.