When Claudia and Nancy met 40 years ago, Nancy had no idea that she lived just half a block from Claudia. Nancy, who had just joined Claudia’s chorus group, needed a ride home and asked if anyone lived in Berkeley. When a friend pointed to Claudia, Nancy thought “Oh, who is this?!” It turned out that Claudia had noticed Nancy cleaning her gutters and remembered her.
That was 1976, and the beginning of a lifelong romance that weaved together a shared love of music. Fitting then, that music was at the heart of the couple’s 2015 wedding, which took place in November, just a few months after the Supreme Court ruling that allowed same-sex marriage in the United States. At the time of their ceremony, Claudia was 66 and Nancy was 80.
The couple chose the Women Making Music camp at Bishop’s Ranch, west of Healdsburg as their venue. “It just made sense to do it there,” Nancy says. “My feeling is marriage is about community, and these were old friends.” The couple has been attending the music camp since the disbanding of the San Francisco Lesbian Chorus, where they first met those many years ago.
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Ben Hanowell, a data scientist with A Place for Mom, recently found that same-sex marriage appears more common among the country’s oldest elders (those 90-99 years old) than other age groups. The data, which comes from the IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota American Community Survey is simultaneously interesting and limited.
“Our data can only speak to same-sex marriage as inferred from the variables for sex and relation to household head from the American Community Survey,” Hanowell says. “Unfortunately, there are only two gender options available in the sex variable: male and female.”
This means that while this data includes marriages amongst bisexual, gay men and lesbians who have married a person of the same sex, it does not account for the entire LGBTQ community. Transgendered individuals for example, are an important part of this group for which little to no data is available.
Despite the limited data, the emerging trend isn’t surprising to Claudia and Nancy.
“When it was illegal for us to marry I was all countercultural about it,” Claudia says. “’We don’t need that,’ I’d say. But when it became legal, I realized I really wanted to marry my sweetheart – not because it’s expected, but because it’s what we chose. We’re blessed by being together – we have a life of ease and fun and deep love and affection. Getting married is a way of affirming that,” she says.
Geriatric Psychologist Dr. Melissa Henston, has noticed a similar marriage trend amongst her older LGBTQ patients. “Some of these couples have been together for 30 to 50 years and they want to tell the world that they love each other,” she says.
Although for every couple the decision to marry is based on unique factors, for Claudia and Nancy, it was more about expressing their love and exercising their rights than about practicalities. “We had done a commitment ceremony years ago, when we were first together,” Nancy says. “We were already domestic partners so we could be on each other’s medical plans for work, and we did a revocable trust for inheritance to get around not being legally married. It’s a lot of bother not being able to be married, but we had everything in place and our legal marriage didn’t really change a lot for us, except how we paid our taxes.”
Although the couple already had such necessities in place, “a marriage certificate means you don’t have to go to the expense of getting a lawyer to do all the stuff we did for inheritance, for medical and legal power of attorney,” Nancy says. “It’s not fair for some people to have access to the perks of legal marriage while denying them to others, and it is that freedom of choice that is important to me. That is why I wanted to celebrate the Supreme Court decision by getting legally married,” she explains.
“My parents stood up in front of a gathering of their friends and declared their relationship. A couple of years later, they decided it would be more convenient to be legally married. I was toddling around during the ceremony and my father said to the minister, ‘it isn’t often you get to judge a union by its fruits while you perform the ceremony.’ The minister replied, ‘I don’t marry you. You marry yourselves. I just witness it.”
Like her parents, Nancy felt that she and Claudia were married well before the court said they could be. Despite having a committed relationship for almost four decades, having their love witnessed by their community, family and friends was important to Claudia and Nancy. “When we filled out the marriage license application, I was surprised by feelings that came up when I entered my parents’ names,” Claudia says. “The feelings are hard to describe, but they have to do with gratitude at having come from them and gladness that in a way, my marriage is a fulfillment for them, as well as for me.”
This generation of LGBTQ Americans fought hard for equal rights. So now that the option to marry is available to them, the data shows that they’re taking it. Ultimately, though marriage is about more than legal status and trends. It’s about love, no matter your age.
“A lot of older LGBTQ couples are at last marrying their partner after 30 years,” Dr. Henston says. “It’s lovely to see such joy.”
Were you surprised – or not surprised at all – by these same-sex marriage trends? We’d like to hear your thoughts and any stories that you’d like to share in the comments below.