One of the last things I did before leaving the home we had made together was pull the five-foot portrait of our faces out of the closet. What is one supposed to do with oversized portraiture in the event of adversity?
The picture was a gift, bestowed by network executives when we became the first married same-sex couple to co-star in and co-create a television show: “Take My Wife.” It went up on our wall as a joke — who would ever hang such a gaudy object? — but I quickly got used to it.
“I love that gaudy object,” I thought, sipping seltzer from one of our “Mrs.” highball glasses. I got those at Crate & Barrel, when I marveled that they were selling equality ephemera, like “Mrs. & Mrs.” ring dishes, and took the acceptance bait. I already had a ring dish and never took my ring off. Instead, I went with the highball glasses.
So pardon my surprise when, a few years later, there I was, ringless, pulling a giant photo of my gay face from our closet (ugh, I’m not going to make a “closet” joke). Well, my closet. That’s why I was moving.
After they moved out (that’s a singular “they”), the closets stayed our closets in my mind, even if now only populated by my stuff. The spaces where their things had been seemed to glow, as if lit by the sun of my sadness.
Here’s where “The L Word” DVDs were. And this cleaner-than-the-rest rectangle of wall was formerly covered by an art print they got in college. It was like living in a relationship pain museum; I was the docent giving tours to no one.
I hate this divorce. Because I really loved being married.
And I hadn’t rushed into marriage. I waited 13 years and 10 girlfriends to marry the person I thought I would be with until one of us croaked, or, preferably, until we croaked simultaneously at 90, holding hands and listening to Tegan and Sara. And this was all after the three boyfriends, each of whom I thought I would marry. There is such a thing as being raised so Catholic you don’t know you should be sexually attracted to your boyfriend, and that had been me!
Back in 2004, I sat on the steps at Boston City Hall with my then-girlfriend, watching and cheering as a steady trickle of pioneering newlyweds emerged victorious, the first legally married same-sex couples in the whole country. Twenty-two years old and a week from college graduation, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “Should we just do it?”
Ever rational, she said no. I didn’t push for us to tie the knot — the mood was powerful, but I felt fairly certain pre-graduation marriage wasn’t for me. We split within a year, which felt impossible at the time. She was the woman whose kiss opened my eyes to my own queer heart.
A few girlfriends later, in 2008, I also didn’t marry the woman I loved. We met when she was on a student visa, which turned into a work visa, which then was set to expire. By the time an immigration lawyer said there was no way to extend her stay, we were living together.
We couldn’t legally marry in Illinois where we lived, and any pre-federal-benefits marriage wouldn’t have qualified her for a green card anyway. She went home to another continent and I briefly followed her there, where we could have married and where I could have stayed. But I came back. My standup career was blooming in Chicago and I chose standup.
Which is where, in 2010, I met my future wife at a standup show.
We started as co-workers, became friends. I fell hard, committed harder, and soon we moved to Los Angeles. The day DOMA was overturned, my father heard it on the radio and pulled over on his way to work to call us with congratulations. That’s how we found out. A few months later, on top of a mountain we could hike to from our beloved, starving-artist apartment, my future wife got down on one knee and I said yes.
We married two years later at a rock club alongside friends, family and a buffet of Chicago-style hot dogs. When pronounced wife and wife, we raised our clasped hands just like I had seen those first legally married queer couples do over a decade before. After our first dance, we stayed on the dance floor all night.
Friends and family kept asking how long we had practiced our slow dance, the spinning, flicking, flinging and dipping. We hadn’t. “That’s just how well suited we are,” I thought. And we were both in suits.
I was 35. I didn’t marry too young or commit because of extenuating circumstances. I took my time, chose well. And was the best gay I could be along the way — out, proud and social-justice minded with an aggressively queer haircut. I fought for our space and our rights alongside so many others, and in the end, none of that kept my marriage together.
Somehow, the only part of my Catholic upbringing that seems to have survived my youth is the feeling that divorce is wrong, preventable and my fault. So I’ve wondered: Should I have been gayer? Waited longer? Chosen not to date so I wouldn’t have to feel this pain? Married everyone I dated so this wouldn’t be such a shock?
Humiliating as this is for me to admit as an artist, I grew up in a seriously stable home. My parents have been together for 50 years, are best friends and share one pair of gardening clogs. I have no frame of reference for dissolution except for what I’ve seen in movies. And there isn’t a Beyoncé song about being two independent adults who shared a friend group, a business interest and a button-down shirt collection but can’t make it work. Do you know how scary it is to exist beyond the edge of the Beyoncé catalog? Terrifying.
A lot of that terror comes from fear that I wasted the moment in which I get to live. My adulthood lined up with the fastest civil rights movement in history, one that applies to me directly. I expected strides in my personal life to match our strides in freedom. I expected to perfectly navigate marriage like some sort of lesbian phoenix that never stops rising. Then I remembered the phoenix combusts again and again. Maybe the Icarus story is more appropriate. All I know is my wings broke, I’m tired and my life isn’t what I thought it would be.
For the first time, I am down for the count. I took the initial rejection of my queerness by family, friends and my faith and used it to become famously gay. My past is rife with moments when I got cut from the swim team and the next year made captain, or, more seriously, wrote an hour of material about my sexual assault to raise money for rape crisis intervention. My life has been typified by my obsession with being a survivor, the comeback kid.
But this year has been a full stop. I miss the person I trusted with my squishy, small, inner self. And I miss the safety that came with being an example of queerness done right in our outside-the-home life. I can’t sleep. When I do, I relive the loss in my dreams. In my waking, I drag myself from place to place, unable to force a purpose or a lesson or a next chapter.
This is the year of my life when I put an Alka-Seltzer into a LaCroix to see if the extra bubbles would help with my nervous indigestion, when I downed a dose of my dog’s CBD oil during particularly bad insomnia, and when I took a spoon-carving class to see if spoons and carving could solve my pain.
I guess in some ways this is what I was fighting for — the right to be queer and human, to have the privileges straight people enjoy, like the privilege to be imperfect and fail. My queerness lives within a larger history of adaptation over perfection.
Ours is a history marked by new kinds of families, new kinds of trauma, new kinds of healing, new pronouns, new moments of hope and new types of pain. We are chosen family, we are friends with our exes, we are marked by lives filled with many loves. We are human; I am human, knocked down and flawed and sad and gay and proud and sometimes free.
The “Mrs.” glasses are gone. The ring is off. The giant portrait is in storage, because how can you throw something like that out? But at least my closet feels like it’s truly mine. And maybe in the future I’ll share it again.