I found myself doing a lot of thinking this weekend about the split-up between Julie and Hillary Goodridge — the couple who lent their name to the case that grought same-sex marriage to Massachusetts — and I’ve come to the conclusion that contrary to the inevitable conventional wisdom is doesn’t prove anything and it doesn’t hurt the movement.
Just two years ago Julie and Hillary Goodridge – with their girl-next-door good looks and adorable child – became the perfect poster family for gay marriage in Massachusetts. They were the lead plaintiffs, in fact, in the case Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health.
But now the couple so publicly wed is separating. And that private, personal decision has become, like their decision to marry, a subject of contentious public debate.
Alex Westerhoff is tough and critical. With his spouse, Tom Lang, he publishes names of anti-gay-marriage citizens on their Web site, Know thy Neighbor.org. Westerhoff called the separation “irresponsible. It hurts the cause, especially since the decision was named after them.”
Please, people. Everybody just calm down. We’ve been through this before. Even though they didn’t have the benefit of marriage, we went through it with Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche. We went through it with Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cipher. And ya know what? It didn’t prove anything then, except that relationships aren’t any easier for us than they are for heterosexuals, and it doesn’t prove anything now.
Look, relationships are sometimes difficult. They take work, and sometimes they don’t work out despite the best efforts and intentions of the partners involved, even after years or decades of trying. And that just relationships that don’t have to bear up under public scrutiny, where the partners don’t have the added burden of being perfect poster-children for same-sex marriage, in addition to trying to be good partners, parents, etc.
Even the most solid, steady relationship would start to show some cracks under those circumstances, particularly if it’s a relationship that’s already had to survive without the social supports, etc., taken for granted in many others. As one friend of theirs put it:
They married at the end of a crusade. They were pioneers in a social revolution. As one gay woman who knows them put it Friday, “Most couples don’t have to declare their perfect love, to talk about it publicly in endless poetic terms” to prove to a suspect, doubting world that they are worthy of matrimony.
“In some sense,” the friend said, “they volunteered to be used by a social movement that needed just such a regular couple. We took advantage of that, and that’s part of why I feel why bad. No one can ever anticipate the toll (public scrutiny) can take.” Or the stress of maintaining that public image.
We build our relationships and start our families without waiting for the world to catch up, flying without a net while simultaneously stitching one together. We often do so without the support of our families and have to construct communities and families of choice to provide that support. If marriages that enjoy the support of government, society, family, community, etc. , have difficulty surviving it should hardly be surprising that our relationships — which exist without these supports, and which require the dual tasks of working on the relationship and finding/building a support network — sometimes fail too. It should be considered an achievement when they survive for years or decades despite those difficulties.
The Goodridges were married for 21 years as far as they, their family, friends and community were concerned. The state of Massachusetts only got around to recognizing that marriage in the last few years, and then only after a public campaign that required the Goodridges to be the “perfect couple” and to carry the weight of having to represent all of us to the American public. That their relationship suffered as a result proves less than does the fact that they stayed together for 21 years.
And it doesn’t change anything except maybe that it makes it possible for more, anonymous, couples to get married and stay married even longer.