In marrying Carl, Geoffrey was trying to do the right thing: take care of a person he loved even after the passion had seeped out of the relationship. But the relationship eventually deteriorated even further. There were “angry outbursts,” Geoffrey says, calls to the police, outrageous threats. Finally, unable to live that way anymore, Geoffrey put his dog in its case one night and walked out the door of their New York apartment, heading to La Guardia for a trip to Florida. Even though it was too late to get a flight, he preferred to sit in the airport all night than to return to Carl at home.
He knew he had to end the relationship, but because of the odd nature of the California window, he wasn’t sure what kind of legal process he needed. In Florida, where he figured he would at least change his will, he consulted a “respected lawyer in the gay community,” who turned out to be clueless about New York matrimonial law. “He told me: ‘Why not just throw him out? Stop giving him any money, and stop enabling him.’ ” But prying a legal spouse from your apartment isn’t as easy as, say, changing the locks. Because they were married, Geoffrey had to get an order of protection, and even then the police at first refused to carry it out. They said Geoffrey’s problem was merely a roommate matter, and referred him to landlord-tenant court.
That mistake was quickly corrected, but the divorce has dragged on. The case involves four actions, now consolidated, including harassment and criminal-mischief aspects that his lawyer, Allen Drexel—who also represents Rabbi Wenig—will not characterize further. At this point, Geoffrey is willing to make almost any monetary settlement to get out of the marriage, even though Carl “didn’t work except for maybe two months in the whole time we were together.” The legal fees alone—both his and Carl’s, which Geoffrey, as the higher earner, has paid—have already cost him more than $60,000.
“Gay folks are not prepared to deal with what comes with marriage,” he says. “Not a clue what they’re getting into. When I tell people I’m getting divorced, most say, ‘I had no idea you even had to do that! Oh my God!’ ”
That’s why Drexel, who is “gay, not married, with a couple of cats,” says that in “conversations with my hypothetical beloved”—and with clients—he very strongly urges “the signing of an agreement that, entirely apart from the financial issues, provides a clear, rational, predictable path through the dissolution process in the unhoped-for event that the relationship should fail. That’s not a zero-sum discussion. That benefits everyone.”
While most matrimonial lawyers would agree that gay couples who marry should have a prenup settling such knotty questions as jurisdiction and custody, gay divorcés tend to be more ambivalent, focused as they are on the question of whether it was worth getting married in the first place. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” conundrum, and something of a philosophical litmus test as well. After all, the marriage-equality bandwagon has achieved its nearly unqualified success in part by papering over with white crêpe bunting the questions that have animated and bedeviled gay activism since the movement began: Are gay people really just like straight people? Should they want the same things? The younger divorcés I spoke to tend to think so: Kevin Muir sees his divorce as a continuation of his participation in the marriage movement, “just from the other side now.” Sam Ritchie says he would marry again, and without a prenup—though only once more.
But for some older gay men and lesbians, the shocking pain of divorce has reminded them that the sublegality of gay relationships in the pre-marriage years was not just a turn-on but in some ways a privilege and a point of pride. “This all would have been much simpler for me 30 years ago when I was a young man,” says Geoffrey. “I could have given him $50,000 or $100,000 and just said, ‘Good luck, good-bye.’ Or often enough just parted without any settlement at all, and moved on. I remember when the biggest problem used to be who gets the recipes, who gets the CDs, who gets the dog.” He pauses a moment. “I still love the idea of marriage,” he concludes, “but sometimes I wish it hadn’t been possible.”
And while Wenig argues feelingly that gay and lesbian couples, like all couples, “should consider ourselves to be ‘publicly accountable’ for our behavior throughout our relationships, including when we divorce,” she knows that a consciousness forged in an earlier era of secrecy and even shame is not so easily discarded. Certainly the mores of that time—and the protective habit of not criticizing other people’s sexual and romantic choices, no matter how outré or destructive—made leaving a partner easier, as she relates in the parable of the lesbian who told her a few years ago: “I miss the old days, when we were in the closet and no one knew what we did.”