Thursday, November 29, 2012

Avoiding Gay-Nup Slip-Ups

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat explores the brave new world of the Washington marriage license.  I assume officials in Maine and Maryland are likewise struggling.

You May Now Kiss the Applicant

by Danny Westneat

Skip Moore is trying his damnedest not to offend anyone.

"You know what that means," he says. "That means I'm probably going to offend everyone."

Moore is the Chelan County auditor, in Wenatchee. Like all keepers of official records around the state right now, he is fretting over how best to update a document that hasn't been changed much in his lifetime: the marriage license.

Gone from the official form, tentatively, are the words "groom" and "bride." Gender-specific terms won't necessarily work as of next Thursday, when same-sex marriage becomes legal here.

But what to replace them with? That seems as elusive as true love.

The state Department of Health has come out with its suggestion: "Spouse A" and "Spouse B."

Which sounds more like a divorce proceeding than a wedding.

"It drains the romance right out of it, doesn't it?" Moore said.

Other counties are trying other words. Spokane County is going with Applicant A and Applicant B, with check boxes for gender. Snohomish County is using Party A and Party B — which at least makes it sound like a good time.

But who wants to be a lesser B to someone else's lofty A? Maybe this will become a sort of marriage fitness test. Couples that can fill out the new form without getting into a bitter power struggle are a match.

About a week out from the change, though, most counties still are using the old forms. With one section marked Groom, the other Bride.

That blew up on New York City last year. On the first day gays and lesbians could apply for licenses, two lesbians were told they had to choose who would be the bride and who, awkwardly, the groom. A local tabloid dubbed it the "Gay-nup slip-up."

"We're all struggling with how to do this, without a bunch of generic, government bureaucratese," said Chelan County's Moore.

Chelan County is more traditional than most with its wedding forms. Its application is color-coded in blue and pink.

Since 2001, it has given out commemorative certificates with a seal and a Bible verse — the one about the husband cleaving to his wife and the twain becoming one flesh.

"The pink, the Bible verse — that's all obviously got to go, for some couples," Moore said.

The county is keeping the old certificates for heterosexual couples who want them.

It's printing new ones that drop titles such as Mr. and Mrs. and use descriptions amorphous enough so as not to trouble anyone, of any sexuality or politics. Hopefully.

"I was in the Navy, so I know there are plenty of men who don't even like to be called 'spouse,' " Moore said.

Auditors also worry that licenses such as New York City's — which now shows every possible permutation, "Bride/Groom/Spouse A" — may irk some more conservative couples.

"We're honored that we get to sell some of the first marriage licenses to couples of the same gender," Moore said. "But that doesn't mean we've figured out what everybody wants to be called."

"It's a mine field."

Potato, potahto. Let's call the whole thing off?

Leave it to the public to come up with a better idea. The state is hearing input on its Spouse A, Spouse B proposal, and one citizen noted the whole point of the new marriage-equality law was to stop categorizing love and family. So why impose new categories?

"Please do not bastardize the English language where nothing is necessary," wrote Jim Fox, of Bellingham. "No Spouse-1, Partner-B, Sig-Other-X. Just eliminate them. Provide two blank lines for two people to sign, in whatever order they wish."

That's essentially what King County is doing.

Genius. We'll call each other what we please anyway. So, government, call us by no name.

They could have figured this out by looking to marriage itself.

Anyone who's married knows that when you can't think of the right way to say it, it's usually better to say nothing at all.

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