The arrival of marriage equality offers a generation a future they could not have envisioned. But is it what they want?
Throughout this article: Readers who responded to a Times request about L.G.B.T.Q.+ identity shared their perspectives on getting married, raising children and reimagining the future.
Even in the twilight of print media, news buffs pause to take notice when Time magazine centers its red cover crop on a subject — elevating it, if only for a week, to the subject.
On May 13, it was Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., a Democratic presidential contender, and his husband, Chasten. “First Family,” the headline proclaimed. Beneath it stood the couple, arm in arm in front of their stately porch — Mr. Buttigieg’s wedding ring on clear display.
It was only four years ago that same-sex marriage became the law of the land. As millennials, Mr. Buttigieg, 37, and Chasten, who turns 30 this month, belong to the first generation of L.G.B.T.Q. people free to marry nationwide at the same age as their straight counterparts: 29.8 years is the median age for men and 27.8 for women, according to the 2018 census.
The speed and complexity of these events are not lost on other L.G.B.T.Q. millennials, a generation born between 1981 and 1996. The arrival of marriage equality has allowed them to consider a future they could not have envisioned as children, but what this future looks like remains unclear.
“I just moved to the United States in 2016 from India, and India has only just decriminalized homosexuality. So, to say that moving here and now living here and experiencing this life as an L.G.B.T. millennial is very different than what life was back home is kind of like a mild understatement.”
Anita Kanoje, 32, Jersey City
Mr. Buttigieg and his husband, as depicted on the cover of Time, represent a privileged paragon of these possibilities. But is this supposed to be the L.G.B.T.Q. millennial American dream for those with the economic and ethnic advantages to afford it? And what about those who can’t?
While it will take some years to see what L.G.B.T.Q. millennials do about marriage, current data shows they aren’t marrying at the same rate as their straight counterparts. Economic and legal challenges still abound for many, and for others, ideology is a deterrent: Marriage is regarded in certain corners of the L.G.B.T.Q. community as assimilationist — a renunciation of the unique family structures that L.G.B.T.Q. people have needed to create for most of their history.
And families are anything but simple.
Fitting In. Standing Out.
Phillip Picardi, 28, the editor in chief of Out magazine and former wunderkind of Condé Nast, contends that legally sanctioned same-sex marriage in the United States “was a hard-won fight that we actually won because it most definitely and definitively appealed to a very heteronormative lens of what queer culture is.”
“They love to see us as the Pete Buttigieg and Chasten Buttigieg on the cover of Time looking like that all-American ideal of what love looks like, right?” he said. “That didn’t necessarily apply to our wider community.”
“One of my friends used the words, ‘We’re gay, we have the get-out-of-jail-free card. We don’t have to conform to these social norms.’ And we can live our life the way we want to, versus the way society expects us to.”
Nicholas Sanginetti, 32, Lenox, Mass.
Zach Stafford, 29, the editor in chief of the L.G.B.T.Q. publication The Advocate, takes it a step further. “What people are saying is that, it’s still, like, you can be gay, but not queer.”
This distinction speaks to a historical chasm in the L.G.B.T.Q. community between those who chose to minimize their difference and those who celebrated it. Pre-Stonewall organizations such as the Mattachine Society, while undeniably bold, fought for the right to fit in — respectfully. Photos of the Stonewall Inn after the rebellion on June 28, 1969, show a makeshift sign in the boarded-up window that reads: “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village.” It was signed “Mattachine.”
In response, more radical groups such as the Gay Liberation Front sprung from the sudden visibility of Stonewall, asserting and celebrating their difference — rebelliously. Within this context, “queer,” as Mr. Stafford invokes it, came to take on a more provocative, button-pushing connotation. “Queer” equals Gay Liberation Front. “Gay” equals Mattachine.
“It’s important to me that I am able to identify as queer, and I am openly accepted as being queer, despite the fact that I pursue what are perceived to be traditionally heterosexual romantic relationships.”
Kathleen O’Donnell, 27, Washington
Over time, marriage as an institution became tangled in the debate between those clashing points of view, now amplified by the echo chambers of social media.
Dan Savage, 54, the author and sex-advice columnist, challenges the tendency among some members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community to measure the “queerness” of others’ lifestyles. “This stuff makes me crazy, because it’s so myopic, and it is a kind of homophobia,” he said. “If your notion of queer rights doesn’t allow for the fact that some queer people of all stripes … are going to want marriage, and suburbs, and house, and family, then you’re not pro-queer rights.”
Forsaking All Others
Ideology is one thing; numbers are another.
In 2017, Gallup suggested that “as future generations of L.G.B.T. adults come of age, having grown up in a time when there were no legal restrictions on same-sex marriage and greatly reduced societal norms against it, they may marry at higher rates than L.G.B.T. Americans in generations before them.”
“When I was a kid, the way that I could conceptualize my orientation was that, ‘Oh, I won’t get married.’ That was a completely different, roundabout way of saying ‘I’m gay,’ without ever saying that. But it turns out, no, I just honestly don’t want to get married.”
KJ Gormley, 29, Portland, Me.
Current data is scarce, but it suggests lower levels of marriage among L.G.B.T.Q. millennials when measured against both their straight counterparts and the L.G.B.T.Q. generation before them. An online study funded by TD Ameritrade last year found that only 29 percent of L.G.B.T.Q. millennials were married, in contrast to 52 percent of straight millennials.
The Williams Institute at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, which conducts independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, has done a Generations study, examining identity and experience among three generations of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. It found that, among its “midrange” contingent (ages 34 to 41 in 2016, when the study began), 37 percent were legally married to a same-sex partner, as opposed to 48 percent in the age group above (52 to 59).
Ilan Meyer, 63, a distinguished senior scholar of public policy at the institute, estimated that the true impact of the 2015 Supreme Court decision on millennials would not be known for another 10 years. Gallup said it could take up to 20 years to determine if the rate of marriage among L.G.B.T.Q. millennials increased.
“He completes the other half of me. But just because he’s there, it doesn’t take away from my past experiences. Growing up, I had no idea that I would even be able to talk about being bisexual.”
Allyson Fleming, 25, DeRidder, La.
And whether L.G.B.T.Q. millennials are opting to get married, family building, in general, is on the rise — an indication that something has changed. A recent online survey by the Family Equality Council, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting L.G.B.T.Q. families, found that “77 percent of L.G.B.T.Q. ‘millennials’ (aged 18-35) are either already parents or are considering having children, a 44 percent increase over their elders.”
The Rev. Stan J. Sloan, 55, the organization’s chief executive, said he had a feeling this would be the case after the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling: “Our hunch was that, basically, our young people stopped seeing their lives as different from their straight counterparts,” he said.
Mr. Picardi himself recently became engaged to his partner, his ringed finger generating waves of Instagram adoration. “I grew up in an Italian Catholic family, right? Marriage was always something I strived for,” he said. “Even when marriage wasn’t law of the land I was, like, ‘I’m going to get married one day, and I’m going to kill it when I walk down that aisle.’”
“When it was legalized in New York, I changed my status update on Facebook saying that, at some point, when I find the right person, I’ll be able to marry the love of my life in my hometown. What’s funny is that that’s actually happening. We’re getting married in Brooklyn in July.”
Chrishana White, 31, New York
Others are still grappling with the new possibilities — especially people of color, whose experience is not reflected in the predominantly white L.G.B.T.Q. figureheads who’ve proliferated in American media.
Whembley Sewell, 26, executive editor of Condé Nast’s digital-only brand Them, recalls how she didn’t think she’d ever have the option of accessing these rights. “I didn’t see anybody who looked like me, have any representation of people who were thriving as a queer woman of color within the boundaries of this idealized, longstanding American dream,” she said.
Mr. Stafford is The Advocate’s first black editor in chief in its 50-year run, and, like Ms. Sewell, he had few L.G.B.T.Q. role models of color growing up. Nevertheless, he found himself facing the ability to completely rethink his own future the day marriage equality was passed — and feeling overwhelmed by the options. “I have to live in a world that is mine to make. And while that is a great privilege, it also is a great burden at times,” he said.
He sees L.G.B.T.Q. millennials, on the whole, struggling with this. “They were, like, ‘Wait a minute. I just grew up being told I can’t get this. Now I can get it, but I don’t even know if I want it, because I was planning for a world where I wouldn’t have it. So what do I do?’ And I don’t have the answer.”
“You kind of live your life expecting that you’ll never do the things that you want to do when you’re in the closet. And it does feel kind of strange now, at this point, to suddenly realize, ‘Oh, I am going to be around, and I am going to be out, and maybe marriage is something that can happen. … I only came out about a year ago, and I’m still in transition.”
Sophie Hall, 24, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Richer, Poorer. Sickness, Health.
Mr. Picardi is quick to emphasize that, while marriage may be legal, equal treatment is far from guaranteed — a significant deterrent. “One of the things that gay couples still grapple with is, like, ‘O.K., once we get married, where can we adopt?’”
Sarah McBride, 28, the author and national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign, relates millennials’ “real concern around the fact that they can be married on a Sunday, but still be fired from their job, kicked out of a restaurant, denied services or refused housing simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The Williams Institute reported in March that about half of L.G.B.T.Q. workers ages 16 and older in the United States — 4.1 million people — live in states without laws that protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. With the recent passing of the Equality Act in the House, which offers unprecedented measures against such discrimination, this younger generation has only faint cause to celebrate, as the act still needs to pass the Senate.
“As a parent, I identify as nonbinary: Like, what would that look like? I feel like I haven’t seen many people model what that looks like, so it’s almost like uncharted territory for me. It’s something I want to do, but it’s very scary at the same time.”
Willette Williams, 28, Boulder, Colo.
The transgender community has been especially hard-hit by recent Trump-era legislation, making the issue of marriage seem like a moot point when the mechanics of daily life are difficult to navigate.
As a transgender woman and outspoken activist, Ms. McBride needs no reminding of the challenges. Taylor Brown, 28, a staff attorney at the L.G.B.T.Q. civil rights organization Lambda Legal, goes even further, drawing from her own experience growing up in North Carolina, a state she ultimately had to leave to get the care she needed.
“For trans folks, health care is a huge, huge, huge aspect of our lives — especially even if you think of it in the romantic setting,” she said. “A lot of us are in bodies that we’re not comfortable with. And I think that’s key in terms of developing a relationship that’s going to lead into marriage.”
Ms. Brown started her transition 10 years ago. “That’s a very long chunk of my life that I’ve spent while other people are focused on careers and focused on relationships and things like that. I’ve had to focus on something that’s literally kept me alive.”
And yet, for some, marriage has proved instrumental. A little less than five years ago, Ms. McBride married “the love of my life” — Andy, a transgender man — after he was found to have terminal cancer. He died a couple days later.
“As tragic as the circumstances were that surrounded our wedding,” she said, “the fact that it was possible — the fact that we grew up in a time where we could make that public commitment to one another surrounded by supportive family — that is profound and that is life-affirming.”