My $5 groom

Or how I helped preserve the sanctity of marriage with a complete stranger fresh out of jail

Here comes the bride: Getting married in Sacramento is a breeze once you get your gender balance right.

Here comes the bride: Getting married in Sacramento is a breeze once you get your gender balance right.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

As I sat next to my new fiancé, Michael, in the county clerk’s office, talking with the clerk about our marriage plans, I couldn’t help but smile when I heard him say these romantic words: “I don’t have any ID. I just got out of jail, and the cops took it.” At that moment, I reflected on how he was 20 years older than me and how I’d known him for 10 minutes (since I met him on the street and asked him to marry me for five bucks) and how I didn’t know his last name and how his last marriage ended the year I was born and now here we were getting married on my lunch break. Every girl’s dream! My mama would be so proud! Lest you think me crazier than I actually am, perhaps I should explain how I came to be sitting here next to Michael What’s-his-name, getting married.

In August, California’s Supreme Court invalidated each and every one of the thousands of same-sex marriages that had been facilitated by Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco. The day after the decision was handed down, Marriage Equality California (www.marriageequalityca .org) held a march and vigil in Sacramento that I attended, sporting my very own home-made sarcastic shirt, reading, “But if we give gay people civil rights, soon everyone will want them!” Ready for action, I jumped at the opportunity to voice my protest in my own corner of the world. A speaker at the rally suggested that everyone go down to the county clerk’s office to ask for a marriage license, and, when denied the right to marry because of our gender, we were to ask that they keep a “Certificate of Engagement” on file until the laws change. My mission (and I chose to accept it) was clear.

The next day, my (female) friend Claire and I met for lunch and then dutifully set off to get married. Although we are not a couple, we wanted to stand in solidarity with our gay and lesbian friends, and we also wanted to perform a little experiment. When we reached the office and filled out our paperwork, we noticed there was no space on the application for filling in male or female, making us wonder: If one of us looked a little more butch, and we simply filled out the groom’s name and bride’s name, would they require us to drop our pants or flash the clerk to verify that we had different parts and were OK to proceed? Wanting to keep our pants on for the time being, we scratched out “Groom’s Name” so the application read “Bride’s Name” and “Bride’s Name” and got in line behind two young straight couples, also eager to get married. Another straight couple behind us in line audibly snickered at us. “What, are they getting married?!” scoffed the oh-so-marryable hetero couple in a not-so-subtle whisper. Chortle. Snicker. Guffaw. Ohmygod! They are different from me! Giggle!

After years of watching my friends who are in same-sex relationships, who are deeply devoted to each other, who love each other wholeheartedly and who are denied their civil rights on a daily basis, I was angry. Furious. I was ready to meet my nemesis behind that marriage-license counter and raise some hell. I was ready to go down fighting. What I got instead was an incredibly nice, understanding and sympathetic marriage-license worker who kindly informed us that she would not be able to accept our marriage-license application “because of the laws in California.” She was so sorry and wished that she didn’t have to turn us down. So disarming was her kindness that I was left completely speechless. Where was my snarling redneck, tearing my license and throwing it in my face? Here was a woman full of compassion, telling us that, professionalism aside, she supported our cause and wished there was something she could do. We asked if she could keep our “Certificate of Engagement” on file, and she, with an angelic look of solidarity, informed us there was no place for it to go on file; it would just be thrown away. In other words, the office does not track, tally or in any way note the number of same-sex couples who are rejected. Realizing my battle was not with this kind soul, we left, unmarried.

On the way out of the county clerk’s, amid a passionate discussion about the court’s decision and the blatant prejudice behind the so-called Defense of Marriage camp’s desire to ban gay marriage, I was hit with a stroke of investigative genius. The foremost argument against gay marriage is a religious/traditional one, that we need to protect the “sanctity of marriage,” sanctity meaning something considered sacred (forget that tired old separation of church and state!). Now, I can understand the argument that religious groups have the right to decide who is allowed to get married in the church. But in this country, marriage is not simply a religious ceremony; it is a legal status that brings with it exactly 1,049 distinctive federal rights and responsibilities, with most states adding on a few hundred more. Domestic partnership, on the other hand, deprives couples of hundreds of the rights granted by marriage. These rights include issues such as veterans’ benefits, tax breaks, inheritance and hospital visitation rights. A church has the right to declare who can be married in its eyes. The state, however, is obligated to treat people equally. I decided to further my experiment and see just how important the sanctity of marriage truly was. I would do this by finding a man sitting on the street, possibly homeless, whom I had never met before but who might be willing to try to marry me in exchange for five bucks. That’s how I met my fiancé, Michael (sigh).

Michael was sitting on a bench outside the library when I met him. After being turned down in my marriage proposals by the man eating soup on the bench next to him, and the man staring into space on the bench behind him, I knew Michael was the one for me. I explained I was doing some investigation and asked him if he wanted to go through the process of trying to get married, but I assured him he would not actually have to marry me. When he asked the very legitimate question of what he would get out of this, I promised him five bucks, to which Michael replied, “Why not? Do I have time to put on my shoes?” Turns out, my new fiancé had been released from jail about five minutes prior, for assaulting a man who tried to steal his cell phone.

We walked the two blocks to the county clerk’s office and sustained the awkward conversation that happens between two strangers who are on their way to get married. When we arrived at the office, we filled out the one-page application and walked up to the counter. I had decided that I would go as far in the process as I could, without actually getting married, and that I would not tell any lies about our “relationship.” As it turned out, there was no need to lie. I was asked to sign us in on a sheet and was a little embarrassed when I had to ask my new fiancé, in front of the clerk, “What was your name again?” The clerk didn’t flinch. She asked for clarification about how many years I went to college, but nothing about how long Michael and I had known each other or any details of our relationship. Apparently, that wasn’t important. When she asked to see ID, we ran into our only glitch. Michael had had his ID confiscated when he was arrested the night before. He informed the clerk that he had just gotten out of jail that afternoon and didn’t have ID. No worries; he simply had to sign a paper pledging that he was who he claimed to be, and we were back on the marriage train. At one point, we were offered our choice of two different keepsake marriage licenses. When we both picked the same one, Michael exclaimed, “Wow! We do have something in common!” Looks like my fiancé had a sense of humor. I always wanted that in a man.

We were ushered into a waiting room while our license information was processed. Upon approval, we were asked to sign it. Starting to get a little nervous that I would actually end up married to a man I’d known for no more than 10 minutes, I asked the clerk if this would make it legal, and she informed me it wouldn’t be legal until we had a ceremony performed and that we could have that ceremony performed right then and there at the county clerk’s Chapel of Love. “Did you want to get married now? It will be $113,” she chirped. Uh-oh! We were down to the wire. Should I reveal my secret and tell her I didn’t actually want to marry this man? Luckily, my Prince Charming jumped in to save me, saying, “Maybe we should wait a week and think it over!” I asked about 10 more times if it was legal, or could become legal, or could be mistaken for legal, just to be sure. She said all we had to do was to have a ceremony in the next 90 days. We were almost official. All that remained was to pay $68 for the license. There was my out. I told her I wouldn’t be able to pay that now. (Whew! Close one!) She asked if I wanted to get cash from the ATM. She was tricky. I told her I didn’t think I could pay it today at all. She informed me that she would have to void our certificate and that we could return with the money to make it official. In other words, all that was standing between me and my marriage to a total stranger was $68. We got to keep the keepsake certificate, though.

Michael and I shook hands, I gave him his hard-earned $5 and thanked him for being such a good sport, and he was on his way. We both agreed that it was a beautiful thing for the 36 minutes (start to finish) that it had lasted. And Michael walked out of my life forever.

The argument that marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman is one based in tradition. True, that has historically been the case. But the definition of marriage has not remained unchanged throughout the years. It used to be that black people couldn’t get married, period. Or that black people couldn’t marry white people. Or that women were the property of the men they married. Marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman because that is what it has meant—not what it must mean. Definitions exist to explain a meaning, not to exclude any other possible meanings. Definition follows meaning, not the other way around. The idea that we must do something because that’s the way it always has been done would be a sad condemnation for the human race. Thankfully, traditions change.

This experience has made me reflect on what an empty argument it is to claim that we need to “protect the sanctity of marriage.” Where is the sanctity in Britney Spears getting married for a lark in Las Vegas, only to get the marriage annulled 55 hours later? Where is the sanctity in Rush Limbaugh’s third divorce? Where is the sanctity in allowing people who don’t know each other, but want to marry millionaires, to battle it out on TV to win the chance at marrying the bank account of their dreams for our entertainment, while loving same-sex couples, whose dedication to each other has spanned decades, do not have that same right? I guess “sanctity” just sounds a lot better than “homophobia.” It is in the love between any two people that we find sanctity. It is the hatred and discrimination against people who simply love each other, hatred in the name of the church or the state, that desecrates both the institute of marriage and the Constitution of this country.