The pause is what did it. The pause often is the giveaway, the awkward sign of a potentially awkward situation.
An interviewee had mentioned early in the conversation about being openly gay, slightly more than a passing detail in the grand scheme of things but not the primary reason why we were speaking. Got it. Move on. Fifteen minutes later, maybe 20 — short enough to where that earlier relationship mention should still be fresh in my mind but long enough to where it wasn’t an immediate follow — the chat ended with some perfunctory questions. Name spelling. Age. Length of residence. Then the kicker — are you married?
When collecting biographical information, I often default to simply asking “Do you have family you’d like to mention?” as a good catch-all but a significant other having been mentioned, being more specific felt the better path in this instance. Wasn’t it appropriate — accurate, even — for me to ask specifically about a spouse? I didn’t hesitate before inquiring.
However, there was certainly a pause before the answer and in it I heard the silent thoughts likely crawling through the subject’s mind. Um, didn’t I mention I was gay? Did she forget so quickly? How dumb is this reporter?
“Um, no. Legally, we can’t right now,” he replied (in my best recollection of his actual words) and I quickly went into overdrive trying to show that in the effort to be relevant I had inadvertently come across as an insensitive or at least an uneducated hack.
They could have been legally married in that brief window in California. They could have been married in another state, another country even. Because of the constantly changing political landscape of same-sex marriage laws in the United States and globally, I can’t assume the couple is not married — nor would I want to.
The issue, though, is not whether my implied idiocy sparked the pause. The issue is that there need be a pause at all.
A pause may seem insignificant; frankly, I may be reading way too much into a few seconds of silence. But oftentimes, it is these small pinches that sting more than the overall hit. The options only of “single, married or other.” The inability to share customs paperwork. The implied question marks by those unsure of a preferred label — Is it girlfriend? Wife? Partner? Husband? Boyfriend? Significant other? And, of course, those pesky pauses from those who for all purposes feel married but can’t quite claim the privilege.
Fingers crossed — fingers waiting to wear wedding rings, mind you — the U.S. Supreme Court will act by the end of this month to do away entirely with the need for future halts in conversation when the subject of marital status arises. The fate of California’s Proposition 8 lies in the court’s hands and a ruling is anticipated any time through June 27.
An affirmation of the marriage law won’t quell the fight for equality which will leave in place that unique division between same-sex couples who did legally marry and those who cannot. Likewise, striking down the law won’t make everybody who isn’t married start mailing save the date cards. But such a ruling opening up the possibility means, when asked, a person should no longer have to hesitate between “yes” and “no.”
It is certainly time. In California, we’ve been on pause long enough.
Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: email@example.com.