Peter Williams – Commitment

“We were just friends, right?”

I didn’t think that marriage [equality] would happen probably in my lifetime. I thought that civil unions or domestic partnerships would be more acceptable to the general population, and that personally I wasn’t interested in being married, because of the flaws that I saw with marriage—both in my family of origin and other families.

When [Cheryl and I] first got together, we had known each other socially and done things together in group setting. We each had other partners. Our partners each left us at about the same time—about January of ’87. There were several of us in that spring who were single. Some of us newly single, some of us for a while single. We would do things together as a group, just because we were single. None of us thought that there was ever going to [be something more between any of us.] I mean, we knew each other. We were just friends, right? If you’d asked Cheryl or me beforehand, we would’ve said, “Get real.” You know? “I know her too well.” It didn’t seem like a possibility.

We went down to whatever [gay] club was on Sprague in ’87, for the Harmonic Convergence celebration. [That’s] when different energies where coming together . . . a planetary something or another. I don’t remember. Anyway, there was a big thing at the bar. Of course, bars are always big on incorporating anything that’s happening to make it so more people show up, right? [Laughs.] We started dancing together. We’d done that before. No big deal. We were not slow dancing, but just dancing, having fun, whatever. All of a sudden, it just was like this spark. We kissed and it was like “BOOM” type thing. It was like, “Well, that’s weird.” Seriously, that’s what I thought. “That’s weird. I can’t be interested in her. I know her. There’s never been anything before. Why would it show up now?”

I had my birthday soon after that. Somebody threw me a birthday party. Cheryl gave me a card for my birthday, saying she was going to take me to a movie. So we went to a movie, and we just started doing things together. She wanted me to move in. I didn’t want to move in, because that whole thing of, “You have one date and then you move in together.” But I was living with [Cheryl’s] ex-partner, which was uncomfortable. She had an extra room, when my [former] partner and I broke up. It was just kind of a strange, convoluted situation.

I went back to the March on Washington in October of ’87 and pretty much moved in, after that, with Cheryl. But it was always, “Well, we’re together, but we’re not going to make a commitment.” That was probably more mine. I know she said that too, but I think that was probably more mine.

I had always had a problem with the whole concept of marriage from my parents’ situation. It was like, “I don’t want to be just jumping into something and saying, ‘Oh, this is it, forever-type thing.’” A very clear example . . . I can remember, one afternoon, my brother—he was probably six-ish—practicing the piano. [My mom] was sitting there telling him what to do and he was saying, “Well, [my teacher] said to do it this way.” And [my mom] says, “No, you do it this way.” She used to play the piano, so she had her own preset [ideas. My brother] and my mom were arguing. My dad came home and my dad started yelling at [my brother] and then whapped him upside the head. Then my mom yelled at my dad for doing that. It was this constant way things worked. Then, besides that, I remember when I was in high school: [my mom] was complaining about something about my father. I said, “Well, you should get a divorce.” And she said things like, “Well, your brothers need a father figure.” I was like, “What kind of father figure is this?” She also said, that the minister of the church said, that she had to honor her commitment. That was another thing. The whole thing about marriage is like, “Well, what’s this farce of marriage? You have to honor a commitment to somebody who’s going to physically, verbally abuse you? Your kids?”

[Cheryl and I] actually never did do anything to formalize [our relationship early on]. We just lived together. We put our names on each other’s vehicles. I got put on the house mortgage, when we refinanced to have the roof and stuff like that done. She was on my work for insurance and all that . . . in case I died, or whatever. For that stuff. When I had gone into the hospital to have surgery, we filled out all those powers of attorney.  That was ’92-ish. So we’d been together five years, maybe. Thereabouts. But there was never a formal [ceremony]. I know a lot of people were having commitment ceremonies.

[We did register as domestic partners] and partially that was a political statement, in my head anyway, at the time. [I thought] “We can do this. It’d be foolish not to, because we’ve been together this many years. I can go into work and say, ‘Give me insurance for my partner.’” There were practical benefits. There was sort of a sense that, “There’s still people afraid to do this. The more of us who are showing that it’s okay to be out, to be identifying as being with someone, the better.” Not that I was politically active per se, but it felt like somewhat of that kind of a stance. “We’ve gotten to this point. It’s a big step.”

I know I really shocked Cheryl, when it looked like it was possible that [marriage equality] was even going to pass, [when I said] that we should get married. It came up at our book group. We had book group right before the election. Somebody said to us, “Are you going to get married if it passes?” I said, “Sure,” without even really thinking about it. Or just sort of, “Why not?” I don’t remember. But Cheryl looked at me and said, “WHAT!!!??” [Laughs.] Pretty much like that. Then we went home and had a long conversation.

She said, “but you never wanted to commit to anything!” And I said, “Well, lots of years have gone by. Things have changed, things have happened. I’m not the same person I was then.” [Laughs.] Obviously that hadn’t been communicated in a way that made sense to her. Then she had to think about it for a while. It’s not that she was opposed to it. I think she, if it had happened sooner, would’ve been more interested in it. We were already domestic partners; why not; it would make a ton of things easier. Obviously, “I’m not planning on going anywhere.”

I hadn’t consciously ever thought about it. It was just, when somebody said, “Are you two going to get married?” It was like, “Well, sure. Why not?” And then it was like, “Oh. I guess that’s the first time I’ve ever really said, or considered, that I would ever get married.” [Earlier on] I was in the mindset of—and I don’t know exactly when it really changed—“I’m never going to make that kind of a commitment.”

Part of it, I’m sure, had to do with getting sober, realizing that the resistance to the whole idea of marriage was a carryover from a resentment from my family issues. Part of it was that the acknowledgment of the fact, “Well, you know, we’ve been together this long. It’s a good relationship.” It’s not perfect, obviously, but it’s a good relationship. There’s things that work for both of us. Then there was the practical: financial, social security, taxes . . . All that stuff. One of the things that just really pissed me off like crazy was, after domestic partnership got passed in Washington State, the IRS said, “Well, now you have to file counting each other’s income.” It was like, “You don’t recognize us, but we have to file [considering each other’s income]!” It just got my whole self riled up about the whole thing. There was a whole lot of things—practical, emotional, dealing with issues from the past—that then made a difference in how I felt about things.

So, when [marriage equality] passed and we decided to get married, Cheryl picked someone who she knows who’s a minister, who she plays tennis with. I knew this woman, vaguely. We sat down and talked. I gave the example of my mom saying, “The minister said,” and she said, “Oh, your father broke that commitment long before.” It was like this “AH-HA. Oh.” Because what I saw . . . and I know it still happens with women in domestic violence situations: they don’t leave! They think they can’t. Whether they think they’re going to get killed, or they think they shouldn’t because they’re married, or they think . . . They don’t leave. It’s nuts. The whole concept of marriage shouldn’t include having to stay in a situation that’s like that. And I never wanted to have kids. I knew I was a lesbian. I wasn’t one of those who [say], “Oh, I want to have kids too.” I never wanted to have kids. I had enough with kids with helping raise my brothers. So what’s the [point]? Why would you want to get married? And the whole rebel issue: Why would you want to get married?  Because my concept of what marriage meant was that it’s this “appearances” thing, I guess.

[Now] I see [marriage] as sharing a life with someone. Being committed to helping each other through whatever comes up. And obviously, the whole . . . Love is . . . I’m not even sure whether I know what love is, for crying out loud! You know? That sort of “magic spark” thing is a transitory, but there is something that’s intangible, that’s hard to put into words, that connects the two of us. It’s like it’s hard to think of a time not living together, or not being part of each other’s lives, or not helping each other out with things. It’s not that we don’t ever fight or have disagreements . . . We’re just together.

My brothers, of course, [were] just like, [gasp!], “Oh, we could come to your wedding!” Even though they were so young, they know about the hardships that happened, through me getting kicked out of college and stuff. They’re glad to see that things have changed as much as they have. And one of them is a Republican. Go figure. [Laughs.] He’s still excited that I can get married. [So] my brothers came [to our wedding]. Cheryl’s mom and dad didn’t come, because Cheryl’s stepdad’s got Alzheimer’s. Her daughter was there, and her daughter’s husband’s extended family. Pretty much all of his extended family was there. We were trying to keep it to 50-ish people, but it was about 75 altogether. I invited a few of my friends from AA. She invited friends from tennis. If you count the whole extended family, we probably had 22 or more family members. One of my nieces came.

It was pretty cool because, at work, my—not immediate supervisor, but the one above him—is a gay man who’s planning on getting married. He came and he was really excited, because he was looking for [ideas for his wedding]. They’re going to get married this July. I don’t know how much influence that had, but everybody knew I was getting married. Everybody knew that my partner was a woman. They sent us a bouquet of flowers, and they wrote a card, and all that stuff.

I don’t know that it’s made a whole heck of a lot of difference. For the day-to-day, I don’t feel any different. That was what people would ask me over and over again, “Do you feel different?” “Ah, not really.” I don’t need a piece of paper to make me know how I feel. My biggest problem is, when I’m talking about Cheryl, I still refer to her as “my partner.” People say, “Your wife!” [Laughs.] It’s like I don’t think of her as a “wife.” I mean, she’s been my “partner” for so many years.

I just wonder, sometimes, when you get into situations . . . Like with the domestic partnership: they gave us a plastic card that showed we were registered domestic partners, right? When you’re married, there’s no such thing. You have this big formal marriage license. You don’t exactly carry that around with you from place to place. There have been times when we’ve been somewhere, they say something, and we say, “Well, we’re married.” I sort of click in my head, “Are they going to say, ‘How can you be?’ Or, ‘No, you’re not?’ Or ‘Prove it.’ Or . . . ?” Because for so long it wasn’t [possible]. When we were back in Omaha, visiting Cheryl’s mom in the fall, what if something happened, and one of us had to go into the hospital? You know, how do you prove that?  I mean, they take your word for it, generally speaking, as a man and woman. But would they necessarily if you’re two women and you don’t have the same last name?

You know, the stuff that I was just talking about—“What are other people’s reactions going to be?”—is more in my head again. Growing up in the times when it was really not okay, having been through some troubles, getting kicked out of college because I was a lesbian . . . That’s one of the things I talked about a little bit in the ceremony: “Who would’ve believed that, 48 years ago, when I got kicked out of college, that it would’ve come to a point where I could get married?” It’s hard to let go sometimes of those things that [are] in my own head. I think that’s partially, the whole thing of letting go of the resistance to even the idea of getting married. It wasn’t allowed. I didn’t have a good example of what [marriage] was, so why would I want to do that?  That just sort of clung to me for a long time.

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Sources: Interviews with Laura S. Hodgman on 9 November 2012, 3 December 2012, and 20 February 2014.