Gay couples ask: Is marriage right for us?

In the weeks since the California Supreme Court's historic ruling to allow same-sex marriage, gay men and lesbians have hugged, kissed, popped bottles of bubbly and danced in the streets.

Some have also looked themselves in the mirror and asked, “I do?”

Beneath the widespread euphoria at having the right to marry lies individual ambivalence about actually doing so.

Yes, there will be a rush of weddings beginning Tuesday, the day the court ruling goes into effect. But there will also be questions, though not always voiced.

Is this the right person? Is this the right time? Is marriage right for me?

“Up until now, we've never had to think about those questions,” said the Rev. Neil Thomas, senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church Los Angeles, which was founded to minister to the gay community when many mainline churches wouldn't.

Gay couples have long held commitment ceremonies, registered as domestic partners or just grown old together in lifelong, committed relationships.

But marriage?

“In a sense, it changes nothing,” said Jeffrey Chernin, a family therapist who works with gay and straight couples. “But in another sense, it changes everything.”

Mixed emotions

Some couples welcome the change. Ron Elecciri, who works in television development, and his partner of 11 years, attorney Andy Birnbaum, have been waiting for this ruling since the high court nullified their 2004 San Francisco marriage and those of 4,000 other same-sex couples. The court at the time said that the city lacked the authority to violate the 2000 state proposition banning gay marriage; its May 15 ruling found that ban unconstitutional.

“Both Andy and I did not hesitate to say we're going to be married again,” said Elecciri, 43. “The only decision we're not together on is whether we want a big wedding reception or not.”

Birnbaum, 38, wants a small one. Elecciri wants to see their families and all of their friends from throughout their lives in the same room – something they didn't do when they married in San Francisco or when they registered as domestic partners.

Other couples face bigger divides than the size of the wedding. Marcy Israel, a San Luis Obispo, Calif., wedding photographer, would like to marry her partner of 13 years now that she finally can. But she knows her partner is not as enthusiastic.

“We haven't had a real in-depth discussion yet, but she questions the whole idea of marriage for anyone,” Israel said.

She said her partner “feels no need of outward reinforcement for what she feels.” Israel, on the other hand, is “more romantic and also more political. I feel that the more gay couples in committed relationships who take this step, the harder it will be to say sorry, you hundred thousand people, but you're no longer married.”

Dollars and sense

Ken Howard, a psychotherapist who works with gay men, said that for some gay couples marriage raises significant financial issues. Although marriage brings benefits that can be a boon, especially for low-income couples, it also brings shared responsibilities and debts.

Some financial advisers, for example, counsel gay couples not to register as domestic partners if one or both partners have HIV and could leave the other on the hook for potentially catastrophic medical bills.

“For legal and financial reasons, a couple may not want to be legally tied,” Howard said.

Of course, there's always the prenuptial agreement.

Some gay couples already sign such agreements when they register as domestic partners, said Steven Stolar, a family attorney in Beverly Hills, Calif. But in the excitement and emotion surrounding the recent court ruling, not all couples may think about such practical matters.

“All of a sudden, half of their earnings will be their partners' earnings,” Stolar said. “And if they want to leave each other, it's not as easy as just packing a bag and moving out.”

For some gay men and lesbians, marriage may not be politically palatable. Just as heterosexuals in the 1960s and ‘70s began to challenge marriage as an institution, some gay men and lesbians resist adopting the mainstream model of marriage and children.

But few expect such differences to be aired publicly, at least until after the November election.

“With this anti-gay initiative on the ballot, you're seeing the community coming together like never before,” said Torie Osborn, an adviser to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Views shift with age

If the experience of gay-marriage pioneers in the Netherlands and Massachusetts is any guide, those who marry in California will be for the most part longtime couples in their 40s and 50s.

But that is also the group with the most ambivalence about marriage. M.V. Lee Badgett, research director at the Williams Institute of Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimates that in the first three years, only about half of California's more than 100,000 same-sex couples noted in the 2000 census will marry – assuming the constitutional amendment doesn't pass.

Surveys have found that the younger they are, the more enthusiastic gay men and lesbians tend to be about marriage. But it's often later in life, when practical and legal considerations concerning having children or buying property come into play, that people take the leap.

In the Netherlands and Massachusetts, people's views on marriage shifted over time, Badgett said. Lesbians, for example, began to think how marriage between two women, or two men, could change an institution they considered inequitable.