When I was 18, I almost married my best friend.
We both knew we were queer in our early teens, making the odds pretty low that we’d ever end up romantically involved. But we almost got married anyway, because our parents couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help us pay for our sophomore years of college. My financial aid advisor told me marriage was the least-bad way that we could make ourselves legally independent — our other choices were “join the military” or “be 24” — so we got engaged during winter break.
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Jon’s parents had cut him off financially when he came out. Not all at once — they forced him out of their lives in fits and starts. They’d have a family dinner, then shove him through the glass in the living room window; take a vacation, then have him arrested for grand theft auto when he drove the family car back to school. Eventually they told him that he had to choose: be straight and get help paying tuition, or be gay and try to make it on his own. It wasn’t much of a choice.
My own mother was too consumed with her own demons to be particularly worried about mine. By the time I was in college, we’d gone five years without trash pickup or steady electricity. Our house had been foreclosed and my little brothers were legally squatters in our childhood home, biding their time until the bank came to claim it. When I finally called my mom to tell her I was pretty sure I’d need to leave my dream school if we didn’t figure something out, she stayed lucid just long enough to tell me to get a different dream. Then she started slurring her words, and I hung up the phone.
By then, Jon and I had been each other’s family for two years. He drove me to school and to the doctor; he slept at my house sometimes, and helped us clean up what was left of it when we finally got evicted.
When it comes to queer families, we’re pretty unremarkable. LGBT people are much more likely than straight people to cobble together ad hoc support networks — our chosen families. We’re more likely to be poor or rejected by our biological families, so we make our own families in order to survive. We’ve been doing this for as long as anyone can remember — from the romantic friendships and Boston marriages of the 1800s; to the house and ball culture that took root in the 1960s; to me and Jon, and our teen-marriage plan of December 2007.
These families are very real, but the law isn’t made for people like us. With just a handful of recent exceptions, we can’t get time off work to take care of each other if we’re sick, or give each other health insurance. The only way we can make the law work for us is by bending it a little to match our realities — through adult adoptions or, say, marrying your best friend.
That kind of legal status matters. It makes a practical financial impact on people’s lives. But there’s more to it than that. When the government acknowledges that your family is valid, it legitimizes your worth. It’s not a coincidence that teen suicide attempts dropped after same-sex marriage was legalized.
Jon and I didn’t end up getting married. A few months after we got engaged, Jon met a nice boy and we rethought our plans. He joined the Navy, and I staged one-person sit-ins in my dean’s office until I annoyed him into bending the rules to give me financial aid. I quit writing — the only thing I’d ever been sure I was good at — and found a job teaching so I could pay the bills.
Jon never finished college, and I have six figures worth of student debt. The fallout from that will shape the rest of our lives — and it’s from choices we never should have had to make, but did, when we were 18 years old.