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Five Weddings, Four Lawyers, Three Ghosts, One Bound Bear

October 28, 2014

by Guest Blogger: Patrick Mulcahey

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Traditional Marriage

The first time I got mass-married was at the March on Washington in 1987. It was one of the scheduled activities.

We assembled in front of the IRS. Apparently some committee decided to frame marriage as a pocketbook issue, a special discount we weren’t getting. Myself, I thought the Supreme Court might’ve been a better target. This was the height of the plague years, when we had no legal standing even to visit a sick lover in the hospital. Guys were losing possessions, homes, everything they’d shared with a partner who died.

I don’t know how many thousands of us turned out for the IRS not-quite-nuptials. It wasn’t all couples. People even seemed to be mass-marrying themselves. I remember the woman officiating saying to close our eyes and imagine being enveloped by a shimmering violet light, and the crowd was so flamboyant that we almost were. I visualized Scotty beaming us up in a lavender blur out of Ronald Reagan’s America.

It was feel-good political theater, except the preacher went on too long. (Some of us had been hoping for Jesse Jackson, who was at the March. But he was stumping for a presidential nomination, and a mammoth faux homo wedding would hardly have boosted his chances.) Same-sex marriage was not our objective, being entirely implausible then; we were too busy staving off same-sex quarantines. I think the point of mass-marrying was to charm the world into seeing us as people who longed not for orgies agleam with Crisco but for the same things people on TV wanted.

My second mass-marriage was conducted by a progressive nun in a quiet little dell in Golden Gate Park. It was much less massive a mass, thirty at most. The big thing I remember was the presiding nun telling us all to stand closer, closer, for some spiritual purpose and not the body heat, and I was standing next to a woman who manifestly did not want a strange man one millimeter closer, and communicated it by scowl and elbow.

When you’re being mass-married, it’s hard to keep your mind from wandering to silly things. How does the officiant know who’s marrying whom? Shouldn’t that matter at least a little? If it wasBewitched, Darren could end up accidentally married to Endora, and Sam would have a heap of nose-twitching to do.

The readings for mass-marriage #2 were unobjectionable, cherry-picked from the New Testament, which is so much friendlier to start with than all the stonings and smitings in the Old. The whole affair felt a little less ersatz than the violet-light wedding. But beneath the forced coziness and the incantations, we knew we were kids playing house and a nun playing priest, glad no adults were around to snicker.

My third mass-marriage was performed by Willie Brown, who was mayor of San Francisco at the time. It wasn’t technically a marriage but a domestic partnership, and much more deluxe than the two previous events. It took place in the War Memorial Auditorium. We even got a certificate. This was a status that had no legal standing outside the city limits. And the main benefit to us San Franciscans was — well, it was a really nice certificate.

We had to wait a long time up in the Green Room among a herd of mass-marriage veterans and first-timers while Willie yukked it up onstage with the notable couples who’d been escorted downstairs before us. Some of us non-famous, non-A gays passed over multiple times by the event wranglers got tired of cooling our heels, my ex among them. He wanted to bail and go someplace nice for dinner, since we were dressed up anyway. I wasn’t leaving without my certificate.

It was political theater again, this time in the cause of gay votes for Willie Brown. Our certificate was decertified in short order, when California stepped in and took over the domestic partnership business, nullifying local attempts. I guess we could have applied to the state, but it was starting to feel like that trick you play on your dog where you only pretend to throw the stick, and Buddy charges around fretting Where’d it go, where’d it go?

My fourth wedding looked like a real wedding but was doomed not to be. This we knew before we got in line at City Hall. (So many lines we all stood in to have someone recite those magic words over us! Only to have the magic drain out of them once the applause died down.) Our new mayor did Willie Brown one better and instructed the city/county clerk to start issuing marriage licenses without regard to gender. I hadn’t voted for him, but this was unquestionably the most sensational theater yet.

It was a wonderful time to be living in San Francisco. We’d had a Summer of Love, now we had a February of Love. People from everywhere sent flowers and cakes and good wishes to couples standing in the rain waiting to be married in the line that snaked around the block. This was before Maggie Gallagher had been invented, and conservatives were caught off-guard. There was only one little innocuous protester faithful enough to show up in the rain every day. It hardly seemed fair to get mad at him, since he plainly had actual convictions as opposed to manufactured ones, so the couples in line fed him and gave him flowers, even an umbrella.

Everybody knew the courts would call a halt to it. Mayor Newsom pretended to believe no panel of judges could fail to see his rightness, but those of us who’d lived through Bowers v. Hardwick had some sense of how deeply the deck was stacked. I don’t think my ex and I believed a temporary marriage of doomed legitimacy would save the relationship, but we had to go stand in line anyway. I’m sure the day the Berlin Wall came down, not everyone skipping from east to west or vice-versa intended to stay on the other side. Our February of Love marriage lasted longer than we thought it would, six months.

The terrifyingly competent lesbian attorney who helped us break up had more voltage and authority than anybody who’d taken a stab at marrying us. In her lavish downtown office, she steered us into a settlement that minimized taxes and maximized the reserve of good feeling between us.

She insisted I see a separate attorney (#2), to counter any appearance of conflict of interest on her part. I asked her if our case was more or less trouble than if we’d been married. Less, she said, because we were more focused on doing right than on our legal rights, not having many.

I can admit now that getting repeatedly not-really-married suited me. I did not want the long arm of the law reaching into my intimate relationships. I had come round to thinking that having to forge our own commitments and honor them under no compulsion but principle was a great advantage we didn’t sufficiently appreciate.

I think of my mother, how she struggled against the confines of her marriage and resolved to leave. Illness changed her mind. Sometimes people stay together from love. Sometimes they stay together from fear.

I think of my AIDS boyfriend, in 1983. New York was in terror. Everybody was dying. We were going to be each other’s refuge and safety. Until he died and our commitment turned out to be an incubator.

I think of Jim, who kept the garden of well-off neighbors when I was a kid. Jim isn’t normal, my mother warned darkly. I think of the man Jim lived with, thick and compact where Jim was willowy, and the one who always answered the door when I rang to collect for the newspaper. I think of their little house, set back from the street under a big lush maple, co-opting the town symbology for “happily married”: white lace curtains, dwarf ornaments on the lawn, geraniums in a window box, well-weeded grass, carved pumpkins at Halloween even though no trick-or-treaters ever came.

That they wore the same graying pompadour and identical leather jackets might have tipped me off later, but not in the 1960s. I remember somebody threw a rock through their window. It stayed like that for a long time, all jagged and broken, until the FOR SALE sign went up.

Attorney #3, some years later, was a representative of that prized species, the leather lawyer. I charged him with helping me provide for my slave, who lives with me in service and obedience, with no possessions but what I allow him, in the event I was suddenly gone.

One living trust, two dueling wills and four interlocking powers of attorney later, my leather lawyer catalogued for me a long list of legal protections he could not draft documents for: they were only for married people. I remember estate tax, other taxes, various insurance and survivor benefits, in addition to many arcane legalities still opaque to me. Even so, marriage felt out of the question. Marriage would make us equals under the law, whereas under my roof we have a different understanding: we are equals in a human sense, of course, but he is owned.

Yes, spare me, I know ownership of a person is not legally enforceable. Guess what? Neither is marriage. If somebody fails to love, honor, and cherish you for life, you can’t make them. The most a judge can do, if you’re lucky, is award you a cash consolation prize.

And I never liked the commitment structure of marriage. We Masters and slaves negotiate for the balance of freedom and security we like best in a relationship, and that sorts out in basically four ways:

I. Master agrees to keep slave as long as he feels like it; slave agrees to stay slave as long as he feels like it.Much freedom, not so much security.

II. Master agrees to keep slave as long as he feels like it; slave agrees to serve until dismissed, and may be restrained from leaving by force if needed. A.k.a. “consensual non-consent.” Much freedom and security for Master, not much of either for slave.

III. Master agrees to keep slave always; slave reserves the right to request release. Limits the Master’s freedom and security to offset the slave’s surrender of money, property, self-determination (i.e. the conventional foundations of freedom and security). Hence the slave is always aware he serves by choice, and it’s a choice made in the knowledge his home and place with Master are secure.

Security and freedom need not always be opposites. Security leaves the slave free to make choices that might otherwise feel unsafe. It took a while for p and I to arrive at the beauty and simplicity of III.

IV. Master and slave commit to remain together till one of them dies. Maximum security, like certain prisons. Essentially, the marriage contract. Which we know fails about half the time.

Our friend Mr Kevin came for a visit. He wanted me to tie him up and shave him and take pictures for Facebook, and being a sport, that’s what I did. “When are you two getting married?” he said, out of the blue. A gag had not been negotiated.

I looked at p and he looked at me.

Our old marriage conversation went like this: “I never want to get married.” “Yes, Master.” Post-Proposition 8, it had progressed, only a little, to: “I suppose we’ll talk about it someday.” “Yes, Master.”

Now, I had already committed to my slave for life (see III above). So what difference would being legally married make for me? Not a lot.

But wouldn’t it change everything for him (see IV above)?

Would he want that? Would either of us want to rearrange all the careful layers of consent, understanding, submission and structure it had taken so many years to put in place? Just for the Social Security survivor benefit?

And what is the protocol? Can you order a person to marry you?

I had a consult with lawyer #4, a Family Law attorney, also kinky. I needed to ask things like how does divorce work? I never planned to get married so I never knew. p sat quietly to one side. The thing is, I explained, we have an authority-transfer dynamic, not a peer relationship. Oh, yes, lawyer #4 knew all about that, he said, and it didn’t have to change with being married.

I was a little slow to understand what he was saying. Wouldn’t marriage make us equal partners in the eyes of the law? “Of course,” said the Family Law attorney. “But that’s what you are now, just minus a bunch of advantages, and some responsibilities, that married people have.”

He had a point. “But never mind the ‘eyes’ of the law,” he said. “The hands and feet of the law will stay away from your door until the moment you decide to dissolve the marriage contract. That’s when you become the parties of the first and second part. Until then, you can be Master and slave and have a standard, in fact, a very traditional marriage.”

“‘Standard’? Say what?”

“Have you ever heard of coverture?” he asked.

“It’s not a secret ceremony involving a chauffeur’s hat?”

“It’s a legal construction that governed marriage in the western world until the late 19th century, and beyond in many places. A single woman had certain rights under the law, to own property and execute contracts, for instance. Once married — her ‘coverture’ — she lost those rights. She was under her husband’s authority and protection, stripped of her surname and given his, and considered chattel.”

“Wait. So ‘traditional marriage’ is a Master/slave dynamic?”

That night at home, when p knelt at the foot of the bed, as he does every night, I asked if he would prefer to be ordered to marry me or requested to. “The answer’s going to be the same either way,” he said. My slave is a very pragmatic, cut-to-the-chase sort of person, especially on his knees.

I asked Guy Baldwin to marry us, since SlaveCraft either warped me for life or made a man of me, or both. He had to be sworn in as a deputy marriage commissioner for a day, and there was almost a crisis when he saw he had to promise to uphold the constitution of the state of California. He managed to square it with his conscience. “It’s only for a day,” he shrugged.

We were married in the rotunda of City Hall, the bust of Harvey Milk looking down on us. Guy’s voice boomed sonorously under the dome. Our friends Rick and Tina were our Best Humans. They brought a full black leather hide for us to stand on while we made our vows, embossed with our names (which are basically just the same name twice, because of p’s coverture).

p wears his ring on his right hand. I wear mine on my left.

Patrick Mulcahey writes and speaks on leather and M/s topics, and serves as program director of the San Francisco Leathermen’s Discussion Group (

This article is shared with permission from its home at

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