‘Lawfully Wedded Husband: How My Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family’ by Joel Derfner
Joel Derfner, in Lawfully Wedded Husband (The University of Wisconsin Press), has crafted a compelling memoir of love and family enriched by social history, politics, and sharp commentary on the state of our popular culture. Derfner’s story is primarily a chronicle of the journey toward marriage that he has taken with his partner (now husband), Mike, an accomplished (and very patient) psychiatrist. But there are several other stories here: each man’s experience of marriage within their own family histories, the history of marriage equality itself, and then the story of the challenges and pitfalls of Joel’s participation, while planning the wedding, in the reality show Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys. Derfner is an engaging storyteller, and while his sense of humor is ever-present, he never lets it diminish or undermine his discussions of the book’s more serious subjects. This is a book that is more about reality than reality television.
Some of that reality has already changed—Derfner finished writing Lawfully Wedded Husband before the Supreme Court handed down its groundbreaking (if incomplete) decisions affecting same-sex marriage earlier this year. Nevertheless, he meditates meaningfully on the absurd inefficiency of the system of double standards that these rulings only partially eliminated—for example, the social and emotional costs of having to marry legally in one state but, perhaps, have the actual ceremony (which, Derfner argues, is essential in creating a family) in another.
The ongoing saga of the reality show’s disruptiveness is more than mere comic relief. Disagreements about decorations and guest lists pale in comparison to the resentments that spring from the intrusiveness of a camera crew, the show’s agenda, and a lack of communication between Joel and Mike about the nature of their participation. It’s just one more thing that helps to clarify the real differences that remain in the relationship, even as its purpose is to chronicle the events leading to the joy of the wedding itself. Reading about their difficulty communicating with and considering each other, one cannot escape the fact that, in our committed relationships, we sometimes experience feelings of loneliness, isolation, confusion, and even resentment that can spring from the vulnerability that intimacy both generates and requires.
Derfner writes with a casual, even chatty confidence, but he is also a rigorous reader. His examination of the implications of Proposition 8’s sloppy syntax is not only amusing but compelling. He is just as concerned with precision of his own language. He defines marriage as: “an arrangement whereby, in pledging publicly to take care of each other, previously unrelated people become a family.” He goes on to explain how this definition makes impossible any phantom fears (or alibis) that same-sex marriage will lead to incest-marriage or bestiality marriage—while also managing to respect and include marriage traditions from around the world that don’t match the ideologies that “traditional marriage” advocates prescribe. In short, as he asserts, “[t]he word ‘marriage’ means ‘family.’”
But the beautiful clarity of that statement is just the beginning. Derfner’s recounting of his own family’s marital histories reveals just how different our concepts of marriage can be, once we get past the basics—and how important it is to come to a common understanding with one’s partner about what marriage means—not just in the planning of the ceremony, but in the planning and sharing of a life. And sometimes marriage is a ratification of the fact that a family already exists. Before Joel and Mike get married, Mike’s parents move in with them, so that they can help to care for Mike’s dying father. Joel eventually feels betrayed by Mike’s apparent refusal to establish clear boundaries, to defend the space Joel needs for his work and the time for the private moments they need as a couple. But these legitimate frustrations—evidence that there is already, in the couple, a family unit that needs its own nurturing—can exist side by side with the loyalty, love and mercy demanded by being part of a larger family in crisis. Derfner recalls that, after a particularly grueling day of care-giving, he “spent the rest of the day trying to figure out whether it was the care [he] was taking of Mike’s father or [his] concern for his mother that the Defenders of Traditional Marriage found so goddamn threatening.”
The son of civil rights activists, Derfner has especially interesting observations about how the struggle for marriage equality does—and, importantly, does not—invite comparisons to other civil rights struggles. Aware of the offensive and alienating dangers of false equivalency, Derfner nevertheless observes: “How can it be anything but crystal clear that outsiders are all the same in our exclusion? It’s one thing to be fighting against people in power who are stepping on us, but if we’re stepping on each other then what are we but their creatures, doing their miserable work for them while they laugh at us all because as far as they’re concerned we will never be us and always be them?” Compassion and empathy begin here—the lack of which, in spite of the progress we have made, as communities and as a country, continues to generate and bolster some of the strongest barriers we face.
Lawfully Wedded Husband: How My Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family
By Joel Derfner
The University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, 9780299294908, 248 pp.