Virginia is for lovers

May you live in interesting times,” states a Chinese curse. In a similar spirit I propose a distinctively American curse: “May you be required to get passports on short notice for all your family members.”

Recently I had to do just that for a trip to Canada. It used to be that traveling to Canada had most of the allure of a visit to a foreign country but none of the bother. When I was a boy, my parents would pile all of us children into a station wagon and, on an impulse, drive to French-speaking Quebec for an exotic but inexpensive holiday. No more. Nowadays you need to apply for passports literally months in advance and expect to spend nearly as much time and money on that process as on your holiday.

In the midst of this my wife realized that her own passport had expired. To renew it, she needed to submit a marriage certificate, since she had married me since it was issued and changed her name.

“At least this part will be easy,” we thought--because our city hall has an online system where you can order birth, death, and marriage certificates effortlessly.

Yet when the marriage certificate arrived we noticed that it had been changed. We were married in 1999, and on our original marriage certificate I had been listed as the “Husband” and my wife as the “Wife.” But on this new certificate -- one of the effects of same-sex “marriage”-- I had now become “Party A” and my wife “Party B.”

This disturbed me. When I proposed to my wife, I hadn’t asked if she would be my “Party B”; and as married persons, we definitely understood ourselves as relating to each other with male-female complementarity, not as two ostensibly interchangeable “parties.”

I mischievously wondered what I had done to deserve the first-place label: Was it always the man in husband-wife pairs who got called “Party A,” never the woman?

And in a puckish mood I mused that at last it was possible to discern, in this alphabetic convention, an upper limit as to how many people would be able to be simultaneously married in Massachusetts when polygamy becomes legal (as it certainly will)--namely, 26.

I called the Worcester town clerk, explained my discontent, and asked if Worcester City Hall might print out for me a true replica of my original marriage license, restoring the language of “husband” and “wife.”

I said that I realized that if two men or two women were listed, it would be impossible for one to be the “husband” and the other to be the “wife.” But in the case of people such as my wife and me, who quaintly conceived of our marriage as having essentially a husband-wife complementarity, what would be the harm if the certificate reflected this? Moreover, why should the town actually change the language of a certificate that had already been issued, to make it say something that was never there in the first place?

The town clerk replied that it was simply impossible for him to honor my request. At the directive of former Gov. Romney, he said, all official marriage licenses in Massachusetts are now issued from a computer system which allows only the language of “Party A” and “Party B.” Moreover, this is a retroactive policy: even a couple married for 50 years will henceforth always be “Party A” and “Party B.”

The clerk explained that Romney had ordered this as a goad to ordinary citizens, so that they would see some of the implications of same-sex “marriage” and perhaps resist it. But few of them noticed, and not enough of those cared. And Gov. Deval Patrick certainly won’t change the policy.

The clerk’s explanation made everything understandable but not acceptable.

But then I realized that there was a way, after all, that my wife and I could gain an accurate recognition of our marriage in an official record. To be truly recognized as married, we would need to get divorced. If we divorced in a civil sense in Massachusetts, and remarried in, say, Virginia (the nearest state which in its constitution defines marriage as between one man and one woman), we could obtain the sort of marriage certificate we wanted. We’d skip a second ceremony of course (as the real bond of marriage cannot be broken) and also an expensive reception. But the honeymoon we might retain!

I next thought: Wouldn’t the same logic apply to anyone who was planning to get married for the first time? Why would two genuine lovers choose to get married in Massachusetts, and be stuck with the declaration that they are merely “Party A” and “Party B,” not officially husband and wife? If necessary have the church ceremony (the real marriage) in Massachusetts; but as for the civil recognition go to a state such as Virginia and get a real marriage certificate.

Hasn’t marriage as a civil institution been defined away in Massachusetts? For the state, “marriage” is simply a non-transient relationship for the exchange of genital pleasures (along with various privileges and rights that the state regards itself, misguidedly, as creating and conferring). It would be irrelevant and false to aim to recognize a genuine marriage in this way. The legal framework simply fails to match the reality of a genuine marital relationship.

It’s perhaps never been more true that Virginia is for lovers.

Michael Pakaluk is currently living in McLean, Va., as he is a visiting professor for the year at the Catholic University of America.