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    A Cautionary Tale

    The week I won the right to marry in California, I volunteered to help with the expected rush of same-sex weddings at City Hall. I was sworn in as a deputy marriage commissioner and my thrill to be part of the historic moment was palpable.

    My enthusiasm bubbled over at a dinner party with several gay couples. The appetizers hadn’t arrived yet and I was asking everyone when they were getting married. I also announced that if they got hitched before my temporary commission expired in August, I could marry them!

    My partner Lionel hit me under the table. But it was too late. I had already brought the conversation to an awkward silence.

    Lionel’s swift kick made me realize my faux pas: I had just publicly forced unmarried couples to talk about marriage when they may not have yet discussed it themselves.

    This is a cautionary tale for anyone who knows a same-sex couple. Yes, we won a fundamental right in California and 12 other states (and counting). That’s worth celebrating, but it doesn’t mean every gay couple is ready or even wants to marry.

    “Now gay people will know the oppression of family and friends pushing you to get married,” one of my straight friends said recently. He lived with his girlfriend for years and even had a commitment ceremony before finally getting the official paperwork at City Hall just to quiet the nagging.

    It’s ironic that gays and lesbians have won the freedom to marry only to learn how stressful society’s expectations around marriage can be. Marriage talk puts a lot of pressure on a new couple. It puts even more pressure on a longtime couple when one expects a ring and the other prefers the status quo. And it can create anxiety for a single person of a certain age— afraid they will always be a bridesmaid and never a bride.

    Plus, a fair number of gay people have no interest in getting married. Some find the institution outdated and unnecessary, or antithetical to what it means to be proudly gay and different. Others just enjoy being on their own. Plenty of divorced people probably wonder why anyone would ever want to get married. But most agree that having the right to marry is important, even if they don’t choose to use it.

    No one wants to be a second-class citizen. That’s why I spent many years working on the issue for the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU lost every same-sex marriage case I worked on, but those early lawsuits helped introduce America to gay couples and win the court of public opinion.

    Now that gay couples can say “I do” for real, we don’t have to rush them to the altar. The beauty of greater societal acceptance means gay people are free to experience every life milestone alongside their straight counterparts without fear and restriction.

    Gay teens can learn heartache in high school and have a crummy prom just like everyone else. They can also have hook-ups in college and serious romance as young adults. They will know their relationships have the same value as any other because marriage is available to them if they want it.

    As for that dinner party I almost ruined, it turned out OK. We laughed away the awkwardness. I realized my excitement was about the possibilities with the wonderful man sitting by my side. The man who knows my favorite flavor of ice cream and who brought me to Taiwan to meet his parents.

    Now everyone is asking us when we’re getting married.

    Joel Engardio serves on the board of directors of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and Plan C, a San Francisco organization that advocates for moderate solutions and legislation. Follow his blog at