Celebrating My (Gay) Divorce

Marriage equality means divorce equality—and I feel pride, as well as sadness, about my split from my husband.

Kailey Whitman

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about the gay-rights movement and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

On August 25, 2013, I said “I do” to Jim, my partner of nine years, who became my “lawfully wedded husband.” Our friend and officiant, Fred Silverman, proclaimed: “By becoming married today, you are making a powerful statement to each other, your family and friends, and—importantly—to the larger world.” Then we recited our vows, flawlessly performed the ring exchange, and, with our dear friends as witnesses, signed the marriage certificate. I was bursting with love, and with pride.

At the same time, the politics of our wedding weren’t lost on me. I didn’t want to be “gay married”; I wanted us to be “married” like any other couple, thank you very much. I wanted us to be recognized like the other married couples in our families and our town. I wanted us to be counted in the next census among all the couples who have chosen to say “I do.”

Nearly five years later, Jim and I divorced, and curiously enough, I felt proud then as well. Our divorce, I think, did as much as to legitimize marriage equality as our wedding.

Like so many other people of my generation, I never thought I’d be able to marry “my husband” and “to love, care for, and support him,” as we put it in our vows. Our wedding announcement ran in The New York Times, as had my brother and sister-in-law’s, as well as my parents’—pride and politics together, a proxy for our newfound equality.

I still remember our officiant’s words that day in California, especially because the language of love—which dares to shout its name—was part of what made our union feel so special. (Marriage equality had come to the Golden State by then, but two more years would pass before the Supreme Court would make it the law of the land, in Obergefell v. Hodges.) Fred noted how marriage “makes us equal—in the eyes of social institutions, friends, and family—to every other loving, committed couple.” I loved when Fred, referencing his husband, Gerard, told the wedding party, “Marriage can become a source of pride in seemingly small but poignant ways. For example, whenever I introduce Gerard or check the ‘Married’ box on various forms, I think, Yes, this is who we are … You can like it or not.”

Two months later, Jim and I held a boisterous wedding reception back home in North Carolina—with more toasts and a food truck. We became known as our town’s first married same-sex couple—not exactly pioneers, but on the early side of what is now nearly 600,000 married same-sex couples in the United States, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank focused on sexual-orientation and gender-identity law and public policy.

In the weeks and months after the reception, our friends and neighbors struggled—not with acceptance, but with our new monikers. We were no longer “partners,” “companions,” or “friends” (the last with the deliberate use of air quotes), and they slowly cottoned to calling us “husbands.” Such language wasn't natural at first, because it was so unfamiliar. (Frankly, it was for Jim and me, as well.)

A next-door neighbor, Virginia Smith Bell, took such pride in referring to Jim as my husband. As she explained later, after other gay male couples in town got hitched, “I like to think that my [male] friends who have husbands can find a tiny bit of validation in hearing that term applied to their chosen one. It’s not that the validation is needed. It’s just a lovely bonus.”

By the time of our first wedding anniversary, symbolized by gifts of paper representing the fragile and modest beginnings of a marriage, nearly all of our community’s linguistic bumbling and stumbling had ended. I felt a tremendous sense of pride when our neighbors introduced us as “married.” I also sensed their pride in us, their investment in us as a married couple.

In the winter of 2017, Jim and I legally separated, and a year later we joined the official ranks of divorced opposite- and same-sex couples in the United States.

But the people around us didn’t use the established language of separation and divorce to describe what we were going through, instead talking around the issue. Friends expressed their sorrow over “our split” or the fact that we’d “broken up.” I was surprised that I found such language disrespectful, and I wrote in my journal at the time: “This isn’t a break-up. It’s a separation. A legal thing. There’s a weight and history to what’s happening.” I wanted the recognition afforded by the law to all divorcés, and respect—as measured by language—from our friends and family. (I also didn’t want to be known as the “gay divorcé,” as some of my friends began calling me.) Four years earlier I had identified with newlyweds; now that I was a divorcé, I wanted equivalent recognition of my status.

I took this as an opportunity to make our divorce a teachable moment, especially when it came to language, which is one way to convey respect and parity. I felt a renewed sense of the legitimacy of our marriage. Any lovesick fool can “break up.” Teens “split” all the time. Married couples divorce. We did not—could not—just snap our fingers and erase our vows.

As it turned out, many of our friends—straight and gay—didn’t think divorce laws applied to same-sex couples. Fred Hertz, a California-based lawyer specializing in same-sex-family law, told me: “What is really surprising to many of my clients is there is no separate set of rules for gay couples—conventional heterosexual divorce law applies to all married couples, gay or straight.”

Same institution. Same benefits. Same penalties.

Like many other divorces, ours proved messy. Our marriage became reduced to inventories and spreadsheets. We hired attorneys to split our assets equitably, according to the law. Without child-custody issues to complicate matters, we fought over our Jack Russell terrier, and alimony.

But through this draining process, I saw clearly that my marriage was recognized by the state. We had to go through the same wretched process all divorcing couples do. That visibility gave me pride—at least on the good days.

On other days, a sense of personal failure weighed heavily on me. I felt much like my friend Bernadette Smith, a well-respected same-sex-wedding planner, who, after five years of marriage, got divorced from her wife. “It was shocking, and devastating, and I had a lot of shame, especially [because] of my work,” she told me. I, too, have been a very public advocate for same-sex marriage, and I feared that I had “let down my tribe,” as another gay man told me after his marriage ended. This fellow added: “I also gave same-sex-marriage naysayers a reason to say, ‘See, we told you marriage is only for a man and a woman.’” Hogwash, of course, but feelings aren’t always logical.

On April 10, 2018, Jim forwarded me an email from his attorney with the subject line “You are DIVORCED!” That seemed excessively jubilant to me, especially in light of the stodgy final decree, which read: “The bonds of matrimony which have existed between the parties are dissolved and the plaintiff is granted an absolute divorce from the defendant.”

I’m back in the dating pool now, and I recently chatted with someone on a dating app who had divorced his husband after eight years. He told me, “I’m actually proud of it. I choose to look at it as a right. ‘I get to get divorced.’ Our community has been protected from that side of things, but it’s part of the deal. You don’t just get to break up … there’s assets … there’s spousal support … there’s all that other stuff.”

It may be ugly, but divorce—just as much as marriage—is part of the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage equality. I found it easy to be proud of our freedom to marry, but the freedom to divorce took some getting used to. Along with the deep sadness about the end of my marriage, I finally came to feel pride in knowing that the hard path of divorce is one that millions of couples—no qualifier necessary—have walked before.