“We’re not advocates and we don’t march” Jenn tells me. Dana clarifies, “Well, we can’t say we don’t. We didn’t. We do now.” A 26-year-old college English instructor and 28-year-old aspiring chef, Jenn Smits and Dana Wegener would be more likely to be called professionals than activists. They never expected to join an emerging political movement. Yet, when they signed up as one of the first same sex couples to have their marriages solemnized in the highly publicized recent ceremonies performed by the mayor of New Paltz, NY, they found themselves sudden spokespeople for the growing national equal rights movement for same-sex couples.
The twenty-something couple had been living together as committed life partners for the past 8 years, and “engaged” for several, although “that was just for us” Jenn tells me, since there were few outlets to legalize it. While they’d talked about a possible trip to Vermont (where they could legally get married), they had no firm plans or a date set, and with uncertainties about the legal status of their marriage when they returned, hadn’t been in a rush. They also didn’t know what to call it. “We didn’t want to call it a ‘civil union,’” Dana says with disdain. “And we couldn’t call it a marriage.” Jenn adds, “We didn’t want to call it a ‘commitment ceremony’ because we’ve been committed forever.”
A month ago, the dilemma was resolved for them. While watching the 11:00 news one night, they learned that their 26-year old mayor intended to marry a handful of couples the next morning, and that the ceremonies would be broadcast live. Jenn tells me, “I saw they were going to do weddings and I thought what if tomorrow is the only day this is going to happen? Let’s go down there!”
Still in their pajamas, the two rushed down to the town hall where television vans were already parked. They were in the process of trying to convince those at the front desk to add them to the list when Dana saw the mayor walking by. She called out and thanked him for what he was doing and told him they were a local couple who had been together 8 years and were grateful for his courage. He added them to the list and told them to be back at 10am.
Back at home, now well after midnight, they called their family, friends, and colleagues, most of whom actually made the last minute trek on virtually no notice to be there for their ceremony. With nothing formal to wear and no rings, they were one of 25 couples to be married the next morning without any of the traditional ceremonial hoopla – but with more media attention than most weddings ever receive. Pictured in all of the major papers, they became inadvertent spokespeople, besieged by the media for months and even targeted by extremist right-wing conservative groups.
But although they seized the sudden opportunity to get married, their marriage wasn’t a mere impulse. In fact, they tell me they wouldn’t have done it earlier, even if the same opportunity had afforded itself. But on that particular day the timing just happened to be right. After having been together for 8 years, they were “out” to their families, friends, and jobs. They had found the beginning of their career paths, and worked through major early relationship issues. Now, they had the chance to affirm their relationship legally – and in their hometown. “It was perfect timing. I didn’t have to think about it. I knew I wanted to do it.” Dana maintains. “We didn’t even discuss it” Jenn adds. “It was like let’s go down there!”
Because they’ve been in a committed, cohabitating relationship for so long, the new marriage hasn’t altered their relationship much from the inside. What it has changed is the legitimacy and respect with which external parties now regard their union. “Before we were just living our lives, it was our own business, although we kind of felt invalidated when people didn’t take our relationships seriously. Now they saw us get married on tv. So [they know] yes we really are.” Jenn cites instances of men propositioning each of them in front of the other, even those who knew of their status as a long-term couple, which most men would never do in front of a girl with her boyfriend. But because they were two women in a relationship, men would subconsciously presume it was temporary. “They acted like ‘it’s just for now.’” Dana explains. “It was never respected. But when you tell someone you’re married, there’s more of a line of respect– a universal symbol of I’m taken.” Before, some people treated them almost like roommates – although in retrospect they admit this was partially their fault. Earlier in their relationship, they had always bought two bedroom apartments, dressing a fake room for when family visited, although all their friends knew it was fake. “But we made sure it looked like 2 separate bedrooms lived there for years” they laugh.
Although they’ve ditched the decoy bedroom, they still want things that they couldn’t have without a marriage – essentially the same things most married couples want – a home, kids, the right to adopt, healthcare without extra paperwork or costs, the right to see their next of kin in the hospital, the right to own joint property and not face legal wranglings with unsupportive family members in the case of one of their deaths, and benefits as simple as multi-car auto insurance discounts. They don’t want to have to give a complicated explanation to realtors and mortgage lenders when they go to buy a house together. They don’t want to have to disprove the same attitude from creditors as male suitors – that their relationship might be temporary or a phase. While their auto insurance agent knows their situation, he still can’t put them on one policy, but luckily, they have found a realtor – who happens to be one member of the first couples to be married alongside them.
Though their marriage hasn’t changed their personal life dramatically, it has increased the extent of their involvement in politics. Dana agrees, “Now I understand there is power in numbers and we need everybody out there waving their flags. We have become more involved.” Although while they now feel like part of the larger movement, their approach is very personal. For Dana, “the biggest thing for me is that I’m 27 years old and I’ve never been registered to vote until this past weekend. I’ve always thought that my vote doesn’t count anyways, but now I know I need to vote.” Jenn tells me “I think that we would like to be more activists, but we still have a life. We don’t have the energy to be out there every day – I’m not that kind of a person - but when I have the opportunity I can use myself as the example. It’s personal to people that I talk to now.”
But she wants me to understand, “what was so neat about that day was that it wasn’t about politics the day we got married. It wasn’t about activism. It wasn’t about any of that - It was about me and Dana and our family and oh my god we have the opportunity to get married – quick let’s go do it.”
Liz Smith is a third generation feminist writer with repeated credits in notable feminist venues including Fierce, Moxie, Fabula, Herspace, and Riot Grrl on subjects ranging from Cunnilingus, The Cost of Birth Control, Her First Dildo, Body Image, and Soccer Moms in Outer Space. Other highlights include interviewing female athletes who’ve posed nude and why, the proprietors of feminist sex toy shops on what it’s like to be an empowering force within the mostly misogynistic sex industry, and former Agent 99 from Get Smart on the joys of being single.