By Theresa Tyree
When I was still at Portland State University completing my M.A. in Book Publishing, the student press I worked for took on an interesting project. It was an anthology called Untangling the Knot that focused on how marriage equality (although wonderful) didn’t mark the end of the fight for queer rights. The anthology focused on themes of cultural acceptance, language and gender, and legal protections for queer family groups.
The anthology began with a story about a person who had two partners. This person talked about how there was no way for their family to be as safe as a family that only had two partners in it. Their two partners and their child were in a state of flux. They spoke of how they decided who should be legally “married” on paper, and why. Ultimately, it came down to who was covered on health insurance through their work, and who needed to be on one of the other spouses’ plans.
The anthology was eye opening. It was inspiring.
In 2009, I met a girl. Her name was Ainsley, and she was going to be my college roommate. She was nice enough. Quiet, and a little sheltered, but nice enough. I moved in thinking that we would probably get along alright but that I might have to spend a lot of time outside of the dorm room to really do anything interesting.
I was so wrong.
Ainsley became my closest friend. It got to the point where we stayed in on Friday nights and watched old Doctor Who episodes together rather than going out to party.
She was quiet, and I was loud. She was compliant, and I was rebellious. Someone on the outside looking in might have expected us to destroy each other or hate each other, but Ainsley was my balance. I was her courage. She taught me to relax and I taught her to speak up. We were eye-opening for each other.
When it came time to choose roommates for the next year, we stayed together. We did so at the end of the next year as well. When the school housing system changed and we couldn’t be guaranteed that we would be able to room together if we stayed in the dorms, we moved off campus to stay together. When I graduated and she didn’t, we made a point of visiting each other. When I went back to school, and then abroad, we made Skype dates.
Today, we still live together. Today, she is inarguably family. But there’s no way for us to make our society, the government, or the world acknowledge the strength of our bond culturally or legally.
We’ve thought about a civil union. Unfortunately, it really is just a dumbed down version of marriage, because if you’re in a civil union with someone, you can’t marry someone else.
We’ve thought about adopting each other—but it doesn’t offer us the same protections as something like marriage would.
And we could get married…
…but both of us feel strangely about the connotations of doing that.
Ainsley is as important to me as any romantic lover—but we aren’t romantic. Perhaps it’s society’s romantic connotations for marriage that keep us away from the idea of being married.
Perhaps we should just get over them and get married anyway so we can keep each other safe.
But if we do, we may face even more prejudice for not being romantic or sexual—and we already face plenty of that, me for identifying as bisexual, her for identifying as asexual. For example, if we were married, this is the sort of question I would expect to hear on a fairly consistent basis: “Why don’t you want to kiss her? Isn’t she your wife?”
Ainsley and I have done a lot of things to stay together, including sharing a very small one-bedroom living space outside of college. When my aunt heard about it, she assumed that Ainsley and I were romantic and sexual, and told my cousins about my new “relationship.” You can imagine how awkward that became at Thanksgiving that year. My cousins heard me out and seemed to understand. On the other hand, I’m sure my aunt still doesn’t get it. To her it’s baffling that Ainsley and I would behave the way we do with each other if we’re not romantic and sexual.
She’s not the only one, though.
Ainsley and I play this game whenever we’re getting to know new people. It’s the “how long will it take them to ask if we’re a couple?” game.
Ainsley and I behave “like a couple.” We use pet names for each other, we’re often within touching distance of one another, and we anticipate the other one’s needs. Our level of synchronicity is culturally reserved for those in a romantic relationship—and so we sit back and mirthfully wait for the new acquaintance to ask “the question.”
Once the question is asked, that’s our opening to explain the situation.
Most people come to understand our “platonic life partner” bond fairly easily.
Some have more difficulty than others.
My friend, Valarie (not her real name), is a fairly old-fashioned gal. She means well, but she sometimes has difficulty thinking about things outside her own experiences.
When told of Ainsley’s sexuality, she said, “How does she know she doesn’t like sex if she hasn’t tried it?”—completely missing the point that an asexual person simply doesn’t experience sexual attraction. While it’s my understanding that there are asexual people out there who do have and can enjoy sex even without experiencing sexual attraction to others, Ainsley is not one of them.
Valarie has also said such gems as, “Well, if you’re going to act like lovers, it’s just sad you can’t be lovers,” and, “It’d be so much easier for both of you if you were just sleeping with each other…”
Valarie’s ideal future involves a partner with whom she can be both romantic and sexual.
Ainsley is my person. She’s my family. Anyone else that I would want to bring into my life would have to understand that before coming into it. Because Ainsley isn’t just some substitute for a romantic and sexual lover. She’s something that society never told me about in story books. She’s my best friend and my partner—even if she’s not my girlfriend.
She and I are in this together, and that makes me feel safe.
Life is better with her in it.
Theresa Tyree is a freelance writer and book publishing professional.