Surprise, You're Married!
Washington state’s marriage equality law magically transforms all registered domestic partnerships into marriages.
There’s a woman out there who’s about to become married to her ex—and doesn’t know it.
We know this poor hypothetical chump exists because when the state alerted registered domestic partners that they are about to join the ranks of the wedded, a bunch of the letters came back, undeliverable.
The news of her own impending, unwitting nuptials might come as a life-shattering detonation to one who’s, say, long-since broken up, and living in Ohio, and in a new relationship, with no idea where her ex lives, and unable to legally dissolve her long-ago domestic partnership because Ohio doesn’t recognize domestic partnerships.
This woman exists and so do others like her, and if she can’t find her ex to dissolve their domestic partner status—they will become legally wed this month…aka wedlocked.
This spectacular awkwardness followed when state legislators Jamie Pedersen and Ed Murray, now Seattle’s mayor, hashed out the bill which gave Washington state marriage equality two years ago. Thorniest of many issues was what to do about the domestic partnerships that the state began to recognize in 2007. These state-registered “marriage lite” same-sex partnerships weren’t marriage, but conferred some of its benefits around things like health-care decisions and estate rights.
The lawmakers couldn’t keep domestic partnerships an option for same-sex couples when it wasn’t an option for heterosexual couples. Neither, Murray argued, could they very well establish both classes of partnership for everyone, as that—within the delicate spin cycle of the moment—would play politically as undermining marriage.
So they followed an example of some New England states and set a date by which all domestic partnerships would automatically convert to marriage. (The exception would be domestic partnerships wherein at least one partner was at least age 62; they, for reasons of finances or family, would be able to choose domestic partnerships if they wished.)
That date would be June 30, 2014.
Some of these domestic partners have spent the last year and a half giddily planning weddings. The majority, however, have not gotten married at all. “I think there are a lot of people content to let it roll into marriage,” says Pedersen.
If getting marriage was the goal, avoiding weddings seems to have snuck in as one of the subtexts. Pam Floyd in the secretary of state’s office says many are still registering as domestic partners—never mind that they’d be rolled into marriage anyway. Likewise an unexpected strain of feedback from the over-62 domestically partnered has reflected the wish that autoconversion could apply to them. Like their younger counterparts they’d like to just fill out a form, get it notarized, write a check for 50 bucks—and done.
Something borrowed, something blue. Something bureaucratic too.
Indeed, nothing has thrust the meaning of marriage into the spotlight so starkly as same-sex partnerships, which force us to decide if the meaningful privilege of marriage is the civil contract conferring legal rights, or the sacred bond conferring something more ineffable. As domestic partnerships imperceptibly transform into marriages, that’s a distinction that’s, frankly, weirding a lot of people out.
Take the male couple who signed up as domestic partners, then didn’t pay much attention as ensuing years brought a gradual increase of rights to the designation. Suddenly when they received the autoconversion notice from the state, they got a double dose of news: Not only were they pretty much married in everything but name, they were actually going to become married in June if they didn’t dissolve the partnership first. They were shocked. They hadn’t signed up to be spouses, after all. They’d signed up as partners.
For some the difficulty is a practical one—like a couple who are staying together but undoing their domestic partnership because marriage will remove financial benefits. More common are couples now seeing their relationship problems thrown into high relief under the blinding light of forever. Once the M-word is on the table, some who find it too weighty a commitment are severing ties.
And that’s the quietly groundbreaking upshot to autoconversion. Used to be it took two souls’ whole intention to get married; now that’s what it takes to break up. Getting married simply requires inertia.
A lawyer tells of a couple who has chosen to sever their domestic partnership before the deadline—not because of relationship problems, or financial penalties, but to marry the way heterosexuals have always been able to: in their own time.
One 34-year-old lesbian, who’s planning a wedding with her partner of four years, understands. She waved her ringless hand, laughing, as she confessed that neither she nor her partner is the wedding type. So why not just let it roll over?
“Because we have the choice—and that’s what our community has fought for; that’s where people have been denied their humanity,” she said. “Do I want to tell our nieces and nephews that we defaulted our way together? That’s what will happen June 30. But when we have a ceremony, even a private 30-second ceremony—there will be that moment in time.”