Grief & loss

When Marriage Equality Activists Break Up

I was fine, kneeling on the floor of my home office, organizing a three-years-tall stack of children’s art into two bins: one for B, one for K.

In fact, I was downright driven. All my pent-up, my-life-is-spinning-out-of-control energy was laser-beam focused on this one task: eliminating the clutter in my office.

I couldn’t stop the changes that were happening in my life—my wife Tracie would be moving into her new apartment in three days—but I could, damn it, tame the chaos in this ten-by-twelve-foot space.

I was fine, until I came upon a timeline B had made in second grade, a long strip of paper with a series of photos glued to it, highlights from his first eight years.

And there, in the center, was this picture:


Our Legal Wedding

Our legal wedding, October 30, 2008, just a few days before Proposition 8 became law in California, removing marriage equality from our state.

That picture appeared in Courage Campaign’s “Don’t Divorce Us” video, the progressive organization’s answer to Prop 8 proponents’ attempt to invalidate the 18,000 marriage licenses (including ours) issued to same-sex couples between June and November that year.

Holding B’s timeline in my hand, I burst into tears.

Tracie and I became active in the marriage equality movement in 2004, when B was a whisper in my belly, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom opened the doors of City Hall, issuing (what would later be deemed invalid) marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Both our boys were born into the movement and have participated willingly, attending rallies, waving signs, and speaking to the media (as soon as they learned to speak).

As a result, our family photo albums have become not only keepsakes of our private adventures together, but also first-person, historical records of California’s marriage equality movement.

On the flip side, the public record of the marriage equality movement—newspaper articles, television news stories, political advertisements, documentaries—include images and footage of the two then three then four of us, representing the great American lesbian family.


The Great American Lesbian Family

Seeing those images—it brings me to tears, every time.

Partly because it turns out Tracie and I aren’t what we hoped we would be—a “’til death do we part” couple.

Partly because those pictures remind me how often—during the years that politicians, anti-gay activists, and courts were rocking our family’s legal foundation—Tracie and I reassured the boys, “No matter what happens in court, nothing in our house will change. Mommy and Mama will still be here for you. We will always be a family.” And now one third of that promise is broken.

Partly because I am so damn proud of the work we did together to help bring marriage equality to our state.

I could get super maudlin about this right now. I could wade into a shame pool because Tracie and I held our marriage up, publicly, as something to be honored with equal rights, and then (like 50 percent of marriages) our marriage broke. I could fall into a pity spiral, bemoaning how Tracie and I worked so hard to gain our own personal marriage rights, and now we’re tossing them to the wind.

But I know better.

I know we did that work not only for our family, but so all people can marry the partners they love.

I know that the rights and responsibilities we gained are important not only to couples who stay married, but also those who need to separate.

I know that participating in the marriage equality movement brought our family together to stand up for something we believe in, and we will continue to stand up for what we believe in, separately and together. Because that’s what we do.

I know our close and continuing connection to this legal battle has taught our boys how to stay focused on a goal, how to fight for what’s right, how to weather disappointments, and how justice (sometimes) prevails.

And, perhaps most importantly, I know that I can feel both sad about what our family has lost and grateful for what we did while we had it.


Equality for All


Photo Credit: Chris Wiltsee, Cheryl Dumesnil

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  1. First of all, I’m so sorry that you’re going through this and glad that you’re dealing by cleaning clutter and not in more self-destructive ways. Second, you have to understand that the very fact that your marriage and family were under such a microscope ITSELF exerted immense pressure on your relationship. In fact, as you of course know, same-sex and opposite-sex marriages break up at roughly the same rates. Everything that you did for marriage equality, as you stated, is just as important to support couples (and children) through divorce as it is in marriages that end when death does you part. Hang in there and keep de-cluttering! 😉

  2. Cheryl I am sorry for your loss but inspired by the way you are Tracie are handling it. People forget, but one of the most important parts of marriage rights is the rights that go along with divorce. Hugs to your whole family as you find its new form.

  3. Thank you, Jan and Clare. Yes, the importance of marriage rights to separating couples is one of the largely unspoken truths in the ME movement. I have heard horror stories from people who have separated without legal protections.

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