The Best Two Women Could Do

Posted by Ariel Kaminer on

"Jenna Glazer and Elise Bacolas weren’t looking for the loves of their lives when they met 11 years ago. Both 27, they had each recently ended a big relationship, and felt no rush to start another. But, introduced by a mutual friend outside a bar, they hit it off. Ms. Bacolas gave Ms. Glazer a lift home, and they talked until nearly dawn.

... "It took four years — 'unheard of in the lesbian community,' Ms. Bacolas joked — before Ms. Glazer was ready to move in to her house on Staten Island. The first night, while they unpacked, a fluke tornado touched down on their corner. Tornado Jenna, they joked.

"But darker clouds were on the horizon. Ms. Glazer learned she had breast cancer. A double mastectomy followed, then five more operations, along with radiation and chemotherapy. For Ms. Glazer, who had had ovarian cancer at the unimaginable age of 11, it was all too familiar. For a relationship that had been built on lightness and fun, it was a wrenching change.

"Ms. Glazer survived, and so did the relationship.

"Far smaller crises have driven other couples to break up or get married. For same-sex couples, though, marriage is not an option in New York State. So Ms. Glazer and Ms. Bacolas, who exchanged rings back when they first moved in together, figured they would wait until the law changed, then have fun with a big wedding.

"In April, Ms. Glazer learned she had kidney cancer.

"The couple had always avoided doing any legal planning, but this summer, after an operation to remove part of Ms. Glazer’s kidney, they realized they had to. They wanted to protect themselves and their joint property, and they wanted to give Ms. Bacolas the right to make medical decisions on Ms. Glazer’s behalf. Registering with the city as domestic partners was the obvious solution, but it sounded as impersonal as a trip to the D.M.V.

"Then their lawyer told them about another option: New York City had recently begun performing individual commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, a little bonus to go along with all the paperwork.

"Only the state can legalize marriage equality, which means a commitment ceremony is the best the city can do to be egalitarian — and, perhaps, to attract more business for its lavishly renovated Marriage Bureau.

"Amid all the clamor for equal marriage rights, this lesser option has proved a tough sell: Since the ceremony’s introduction in June, 24 gay or lesbian couples have opted for it.

"That may be because while domestic partnership confers spouselike benefits in some areas controlled by the city or the state — hospital and jail visitation, some health, pension and housing issues — it does not affect any of the more than 1,000 federal benefits and responsibilities bestowed by marriage. And adding a ceremony, even a nicely art-directed ceremony, does not change that.

“'It feels hollow,' said Anthony Brown, executive director of the Wedding Party, a nonprofit group that advocates for the freedom to marry. 'There’s this beautiful, pretty construct around nothing.'

"On a recent Friday, the Manhattan Marriage Bureau — so glamorous in all its marble and gilding that it looked like a stage set from an MGM Grand musical — was packed with every kind of bride: slackers with skateboards and torn jeans, white-gowned princesses with a half-dozen bridesmaids, an invisible woman hidden behind a black burqa. It may have been the highest concentration of happiness in any borough.

"Ms. Glazer wore a purple dress; Ms. Bacolas was in linen trousers and heels.

"They were there for a second-best compromise: not marriage, not truly equal rights. But a chance to acknowledge all they had been through together and a chance to stand up and have their relationship counted. 'You know what’s funny?' Ms. Glazer asked. 'I do feel nervous.'

"Her partner was surprised.

“'I like seeing that people are having their actual weddings here,' Ms. Glazer continued. 'It makes it feel more legitimate. Though I still wish it were more legitimate.'

"They took their place in the Marriage Bureau’s West Chapel, with Ms. Bacolas’s mother as their witness.

"Ms. Bacolas smoothed a curl of hair out of Ms. Glazer’s eyes. Then an official entered and asked, 'Is there anyone present here today who knows of any reason why these two should not be joined?'

"Suddenly, it seemed very real.

“'Today, Bacolas and Glazer proclaim their love to the world, and we who are gathered here rejoice with them and for them in the new life they now undertake together.'

"It is strange to hear a city official making pronouncements about love; stranger still when she refers to lovers by last names, like soldiers in a lineup.

"The women exchanged two heartfelt but demure kisses. By the time they stepped out onto Worth Street, Ms. Glazer had whipped out her BlackBerry to update her Facebook status and was scrolling through the congratulations. They went out to a nice meal, and had a Ferris Bueller-style staycation weekend.

"Then they went back to normal life.

"Ms. Bacolas is still making amazing breakfasts every day. Ms. Glazer still exhausts her BlackBerry. And they are both still concerned about her health. But something is different. They stood up and were counted, and they said in front of the eyes of the law what they had said to each other so many times over so many years.'"

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