Queer Love in the Time of Covid (Part 1 of 2)

But What Do I Call You?

We’d been living together for years. Got a mortgage and together cared for kids, two cats, a dog and a huge garden. Domestic life 100 per cent, then.

But not married. We’d both been married before and weren’t keen to do it again. Nobody wanted a ‘wife’. And certainly, nobody wanted to be a bloody ‘wife’.  We never had a satisfactory word for our status; all the existing ones sounded wrong.  ‘Partner’ is like you’re in business together.  ‘Girlfriend’ is way too gendered and femme – and also a bit weird when you’re over 60. The old 1980s term ‘lover’ seems to have fallen totally out of fashion, sadly, as it most nearly sums up how we feel about each other. But ‘wife’? That smacks of heteronormativity, domesticity, boredom and LBD

Nobody wanted a ‘wife’. And certainly, nobody wanted to be a bloody ‘wife’

And all those arguments about gay assimilationism are right, for sure. When cisgender white folks just want to opt into the mainstream, where’s the queerness? And what about those who then get cut out of this picket-fence life: the cruisers, the kinksters, the polyamorous?  Would Marsha P Johnson have thought marriage equality was the most important thing to fight for? In the era of BLM, food banks, and transphobia, how can two older white folks getting married be anything but an exercise of privilege?    

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Then Covid.

People going into hospital, dying.

Troubling memories of the last pandemic to touch home – HIV – began to surface

What if it happened to one of us? Who’s our legal next of kin? Who could make decisions about medical care if one of us was in ICU? What would happen to the house if one of us died? Troubling memories of the last pandemic to touch home – HIV – began to surface. (Old queers – you remember; young folks – you’ve got TV to show you). Would our parents and kids be more legally connected to us than either of us to each other? What was our official status? If one of us got very ill, would the other one be able to demand to be that one single person who is allowed hospital visiting rights, on the basis of being a ‘girlfriend’?

In the first phase, then, a shift. Re-evaluation. Pragmatic wonderings.

Covid continued. Work stopped, lockdown happened, life slowed right down. In our home, time opened up, spacious and reflective.

Last Love – Just Like First Love, But Without the Baggage

I’ve known since the earliest beginning of this, that this person I’m living with is my last love – a much different thing from first love. Just as giddy and thrilling in its onset (I’ll spare you the full details), but much more profound in its implications. This is the partner I’ll die beside, or whose death I will have to face. This is grown-up love: it stares with acceptance into the face of empty nest, imminent orphaning, ageing and death. It isn’t leavened by daydreams of an expansive imaginary future, or supported by joint life-projects. No neediness or bio-clocks or pragmatic-domestic calculations drove it into view. It just – well, it just is. Extravagantly unnecessary, as grace generally is. Love in neon lights and extra boldface. 

Photo by Maksim Goncharenok on Pexels.com

Why aren’t we married, then?

I felt an urgency to do some kind of public statement of rest-of-life commitment and a ceremony that would feel like a spiritual binding. Adding that to those Covid-prompted pragmatic thoughts and you get a wedding. 

I decided to ask. Hoped she’d say yes.

… the complex cosmic truth that, somehow, when the house is burning down, remembering to laugh and to dance is important

On one of our weekend getaways – in between lockdowns – at a Worthing hotel (where we drive just 10 minutes up the road once every few weeks, to get away from domestic life and the over-familiarity of home ) I proposed. Shocked, she responded, “thank you”.  We both laughed at the response and at the thrill of making something good happen in the middle of all the horror around us. The older you get, the more you understand the cosmic complex truth that, somehow, when the house is burning down, remembering to laugh and to dance is important.

Energised and feeling slightly weird – are we too old for all this romance and fuss? What’s appropriate? How do we make this work for us? – we started list-making. I wanted to do it fast, in some kind of superstitious fear that something might happen to block it. Like the many Indian weddings I’d witnessed down the years, the rhythm was high-speed: once a decision is made, you need to get on and make it happen. Long engagements are for the under 30s, who imagine time stretching out forever, and for whom one more year is not potentially 1/20th of their imagined life left together. (And that’s already taking a hell of a lot for granted). 

We wanted local, independent, with some style – and a fun party for everyone who would be drawn in to take part. It had to be as queer as it could be, too. 

After the event, several of our 30 Covid-safe guests told us that this had been the best wedding they’d ever been to, or the most fun, or a really moving experience, or the craziest afternoon of entertainment since lockdown wrecked everybody’s social life. “I never want to go to a normal wedding ever again”, laughed one family member –  who just 5 years ago, had not been massively pro-queer. Maybe there was a little political goodness, then, in the heart of this hedonistic couple-fest. 

Tom Rasmussen, drag queen, gets to the heart of the ambivalence here. Anyway, we did it. And recognise our privilege in being able to do it. 

Read Part Two to hear about some of the lovely local independents who made it happen.

Postcript August 2021.

Amazing. Just had a bout of wrangling and confusion with Student Finance England about support forms for the youngest, who is at university. Student support forms expect that ‘Person 1’ in the student’s home household will be male and the dad, while ‘Person 2’ will be female and the mum. The phone advisor told me they’d not come across a case like this, nor had their supervisor, and that the SFE handbook has no advice on how to proceed or how to name the two ‘shared household’ people, nor who is to be ‘Person 1 and Person 2’. All they could say was, “So sorry, this is out of our experience and usually Person 1 is male, so maybe we make you Person 2 and treat your spouse as Person 1”. I can hardly believe this to be true at all in 2021. But still, the whole confusion and lack of guidelines as to how to handle this makes me realise that, maybe, there is still some tiny bit of political goodness in this ‘gay marriage’ situation, beyond assimilationism. Imagine this kind of stuff multiplied to the count of about 10 googol to begin to approach the kinds of shittery that trans folks have to contend with.

Published by Caroline

After 30 years as an academic anthropologist doing ethnography in India and the Gulf, Caroline now avoids airports and spends a lot of time walking, cycling or quad skating around for conversations and stories in their adopted home of Worthing. Caroline does public sector consultancy work and project evaluation, using creative research methods. Caroline also writes. Find them on Substack at https://substack.com/@carolineosella. (Yes, there's a WIP and yes, it's a campus novel, but hang on - it's not a memoir, and it's not a thinly-disguised writeup of people and situations. I studied creative writing, trained, practiced and ** made it all up**).

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