“Don’t worry, we’re still sluts! We just want a Cuisinart like everyone else,” read a recent marriage announcement by a queer, polyamorous couple I’m friends with on Facebook.
Blender jokes aside, the subject of marriage can be a fraught one for queer couples, many of whom have only had the legal right to say “I do!” since 2015, when the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
For the last several hundred years in the US, marriage has meant one thing: a legally recognized union between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman. But that’s finally changing. Many LGBTQ people are redefining what it means to be married by making their own rules around sexual openness and what constitutes “family”—creating space for their relationships in traditions and institutions that have historically excluded them.
I spoke to three queer, married couples who are proof that marriage can be and look however the hell we want it to. (And who offered some tips on having a healthy marriage.)
Kim & Tiq: “As queer people, we are creating our future”
“The gift of queerness is options,” Kim Katrin Milan said in a TED Talk she did with her partner, Tiq Milan in 2016. Indeed, the New York City couple’s whirlwind romance was anything but conventional.
Tiq, a trans man, met Kim, a queer, cis woman, through a friend of a friend on Facebook in January of 2014, where they exchanged a flurry of 3,000 messages over the course of a few days. Less than a month later, on Valentine’s Day, Tiq proposed to Kim.
“We hadn't met in person yet, we were just doing video chat,” Tiq recalled.
On May 5 of that same year, they were married in New York’s City Hall, and they now have a two-week-old daughter.
Most people are taught to stick to the “relationship escalator”—a defined set of expectations to which couples are supposed to adhere. Meet, date, cohabitate, get married, have kids, etc. Tiq and Kim queered that script entirely. Were they nervous about tying the knot so fast?
“My mother was my strongest role model when it came to unconditional love,” said Tiq. “Obviously, when you love someone unconditionally, there is no ‘but’ after that...and when I met Kim I knew she was the person I wanted to love like that.”
“I felt with Tiq in particular, I wouldn't feel limited by marriage,” said Kim. “I often get really nervous in relationships that look like duplicating existing gender norms of like, I'm cooking and cleaning and doing all of these things, and you're out there working. Our relationship didn't feel limiting. It felt like opening up in a lot of different possibilities.”
They wanted to keep the wedding small, because they felt that big weddings were about “other people,” and they “wanted something to be for us.” A friend of Kim’s made the corsage and bouquet with local flowers that she picked from Brooklyn, including lavender and sage. “She was trying to keep us grounded,” said Kim. Afterward, they ate at a gourmet vegan restaurant and drove around the city in a rented BMW.
“I often get really nervous in relationships that look like duplicating existing gender norms."
Tiq pointed out that queer people “rarely get to see ourselves reflected in love and happiness,” and often don’t have role models for the kind of relationships they want to have. “I never grew up watching a healthy, loving, supportive mirror of relationships,” Kim added. Both found this possibility ultimately freeing, however.
“As queer people, we are creating our future,” said Tiq. “We have to be the blueprints for what we want.”
What does it ultimately mean to be queer married? Tiq said it’s about “implanting ourselves within these family structures and disrupting these models, these unhealthy models of heterosexual love that we've seen. Part of that disruption is having that space to create something whole and new. Taking an institution that was never meant for us as Black people, as queer people, and claiming it as ours.”
Although Tiq and Kim didn’t model their relationship on hetero marriage, Kim did take Tiq’s last name because her grandfather was a slave owner. “I didn't love having that as a last name and being tied to that legacy,” she said. “So, I was happy to find a way to feel connected to another family or another lineage.”
Kate & Amy: “Partner is a verb”
Part of creating spaces outside of convention, as queer marriage often does, means creating a new romantic model entirely. This is precisely what Kate Sassoon, a cis, white, bisexual woman, and Amy Chang, a Chinese lesbian, have done. In our interview, the Berkeley, California couple pointed to the role that queerness, polyamory, and BDSM play in making their marriage better.
“Queerness has definitely prepared me to do long-term relationships better in this odd, interesting way," said Kate, "because I was already primed to reject a lot of narratives, including the ones about how marriage is supposed to be this fairytale, forever thing—when, in fact, everyone in your family is divorced.”
Kate and Amy met in college and have been together almost 12 years, “a third of our lives,” Kate noted.
Their wedding was unusual in the sense that they had three of them—four if you count their initial domestic partnership, which Amy suggested to Kate as a way to access health insurance. Their first wedding was for friends, which involved spankings, handmade dinosaur and princess costumes, and Kate’s dad officiating. The second ceremony was more customary. “We thought in order to get [Amy’s family] to be OK with both queerness and marrying—and marrying a white woman!—we needed to do something really traditional.”
“Traditional” ended up meaning a bilingual friend reading a folktale in Mandarin, rope bondage, a ten-course Chinese banquet, board games, and beer.
“We equally weighed chosen family and blood family in terms of the guest list because [Amy’s] got way more family than I do,” Kate said. “Me being the rejected queer, I don't have any extended family. My aunt sent me a ‘Jesus hates you’ card.”
Kate and Amy’s first and second ceremonies happened before Prop 8 was abolished and same-sex marriage was still illegal. So, once Prop 8 was overturned, they got married a third time at Oakland’s City Hall.
The pair also bucked convention by baking polyamory into both the wedding guest list and invitation, which said “in celebration of our open marriage.” At their City Hall wedding, Kate and Amy’s other romantic partners were in attendance. “We get to the part about forsaking all others and both of us just crack up,” recalled Kate.
“Because there's my girlfriend holding her baby,” Amy said.
“And there is my hetero life mate who I've been fucking right there. We both just had dates with them,” Kate added.
In addition to being very pro-therapy, the couple said they schedule regular relationship check-ins with each other, for things like finances, cat responsibilities, quality time, as well as once-a-year meetings to review their vows. This kind of planning and attentiveness to their relationship is tantamount to its success. As Kate put it: “Partner is a verb.”
Both also spoke to how their experiences with kink helped them become better negotiators and communicators in their partnership. “We are exercising the skills of BDSM daily,” said Kate, “because if you're going to play with something high-stakes or dangerous [like marriage], you have to learn. And it's part of learning to do it that helps you bring those skills into your everyday existence.”
Alex & Albert: “[Marriage] has a meaning to it and we can define what that meaning is”
“There's pretty much nothing in my parents’ marriage that I am interested in duplicating. No offense if they read this,” said Alex, a queer, trans-masculine, non-binary person who’s married to Albert, a cis bisexual man. (Both requested that their names be changed, for privacy.) “But I do appreciate that they were always really candid about the fact that it's not always easy and it's going to take a lot of adjustment, and if you can, [you should] find somebody to partner with who's willing to at least try and make some of those adjustments with you.”
Like Kate and Amy, Alex and Albert also initially got hitched for health insurance reasons and had more than one ceremony—a small private one in their home, and six months later, a party with family and friends.
“As queers a lot of us have already grown up realizing that this script is not going to work for us."
The Oakland, California couple have been together 11 years, are polyamorous, and were first married in their living room, with Alex’s adopted gay uncle officiating. “He kind of invented a ceremony,” Alex said, “which I think my parents loved because it was way more spiritual and hippie-dippy than either of us would have planned.”
The couple admitted that being in a queer relationship comes with both freedom and fear because it routinely forces them to interrogate the concept of marriage and what it means to be long-term partnered. “As queers, a lot of us have already grown up realizing that this script is not going to work for us,” Alex said. The question then becomes, “Why do I want the things that I think I want?”
The concept of chosen family—that is, people to whom you are not biologically related, but are emotionally close to—came up often in the couple’s “interrogations” of marriage. Because many queer people are rejected or disowned by their biological relatives, they said, marriage becomes one way to take some of that power back, to deliberately choose who gets a say in their health and their lives.
“Thinking about it that way has always been a really powerful feeling to me," said Albert, "through marriage, you get to tell everyone in society and from a legal perspective, this is my closest relative and it's legally binding.”
All the couples I interviewed rely on one refreshingly simple principle: Relationships aren’t static. They’re ongoing and, at times, require diligence to maintain. The pairs are also all proponents of therapy, with Alex likening it to taking one’s car in for a tuneup. Their other piece of (deceptively simple) advice? Have sex. “If you have that connection and that chemistry with each other, you have to feed it. It isn't just going to happen on its own,” Alex said.
Though Alex and Albert had reservations and critiques about the institution of marriage itself, they also couldn’t deny its pull. “Standing up in front of everybody...has a cultural weight in any community, whether you're straight or queer,” said Alex. “It has a meaning to it and we can define what that meaning is.”