Gay Marriage Quandary: Am I the Bride or Groom?

PHOTO: Cathy and Leah McElrath Renna were married in a religious ceremony in 2003, but they will soon legally marry in New York.
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On the first day that New York State allowed same-sex couples to start the process to get a marriage license this week, Sandra Rodriguez-Diaz and her lesbian partner Miriam Soriano had to make an "awkward" choice on the application form: Who was the bride and who was the groom?

Fredy H. Kaplan and Anthony Cipriano faced the same confusion filling out their personal information, according to a story in The New York Times -- until Kaplan declared to his partner of six years, "You're going to be the bride."

Clerks at city hall told baffled couples to wait until online application forms could be adjusted to accommodate same-sex couples, who captured the right to marry July 24 after New York joined five other states and the District of Columbia to legally sanction gay marriage.

As the right to marry gains momentum across the United States, same-sex couples are redefining the traditional roles of husband and wife, and bureaucrats are scrambling to keep pace with the social revolution.

"This kind of thing doesn't set well with [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg," said Richard Socarides, president of the national advocacy group Equality Matters and former advisor to President Bill Clinton on issues affecting gays and lesbians.

It only took Bloomberg -- one of the most vocal supporters of the gay marriage bill -- 24 hours to straighten out the mess, ordering the city clerk to update the online applications to rephrase the personal information categories to "Bride/Groom/Spouse A" and "Bride/Groom/Spouse B."

"I think it's important not to try to put gay couples in traditional heterosexual married roles," said Socarides. "What we consider traditional roles of the husband and the wife, even in a heterosexual relationship, are certainly evolving into something different. Just like everything else, it happens much more quickly in the digital age."

But even as modern heterosexual couples are moving beyond stereotypes, cultural perceptions of gay couples -- one is assertive and masculine, the other more feminine and submissive -- still persist.

"This topic is always funny to me because we are a couple that juggles a business, a child and care-taking of a parent in our home," said Cathy McElrath Renna, 46, who owns a public relations agency with her lesbian partner. "People still make assumptions about me and Leah in terms of roles."

"When people meet me, I am the face of the business and I am more androgynous looking, so they assume I am the aggressive man of the house, and that is just not the case," said Renna. "I see myself as a true partner."

The Long Island couple exchanged vows in a religious wedding ceremony in 2003 and is raising a 5-year-old daughter together. Soon, they will make their relationship legal in New York.

"I always call her my wife," said Renna. "I consider her my life partner and spouse."

Renna cooks and Leah McElrath Renna is better at negotiating contracts. They share activities with their daughter Rosemary.

"We do different things with her because we are two different people," Cathy McElrath Renna said.

"I think same-sex couples can offer a way for everyone to rethink rigid gender roles -- men do this and women do that," she said. "In some ways, we offer an opportunity to rethink the way a relationship can work and also challenge people's assumptions."

"I am amazed at how fast things are progressing," she said of the New York law, which doubles the number of same-sex couples nationwide who are offered the opportunity to legally marry.

Even indelicate questions about same-sex relationships are important, according to Socarides.

"They are very much on people's minds as this country becomes more familiar and comfortable with same-sex marriage," he said.

Same-sex couples, he added, are "open to looking at a relationship for what they are -- two people trying to create a life together based upon commitment, love and family. And they do it in sometimes unconventional and untraditional ways."

Sometimes, one is the income earner and the other the homemaker or primary childcare person, but often they share the responsibilities, he said, rather than "strict divisions of labor."

Stonewall Uprising Redefined Gay Movement

Historically, same-sex couples lived on the fringes of American society and never thought they could aspire to marital rights. All that changed after the Stonewall Uprising, the 1969 police raid of Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn and the six-day violent street protests that followed.

Before that, gay couples "organized themselves along heterosexual gender lines," according to New York City psychiatrist Jack Drescher. "In a lesbian couple, one would be more masculine-looking and the other more feminine-looking, and they would kind of use the larger cultural ideas about how that would go."

Drescher wrote about the evolution of same-sex family life in his 2004 book, "Uncoupling Convention."

"Gay couples talked about their struggles that emerged out of not having clear gender guidelines," said Drescher. "For example, in heterosexual couples, if a man earns more money than the woman, that's OK. That's the way it's supposed to be. We know when that's not case, it can create problems."

Same-sex couples who "never had a problem beforehand" also struggled with income disparities. "Who is the woman and who is the man?" he said. "It didn't come up until they settled into their roles."

But today, in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, there is a "blurring of the boundaries," he said. Men are increasingly taking on childrearing responsibilities that were once delegated to women.

When gay couples marry in the states were it is legal -- Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, District of Columbia and now New York -- they have more choices, calling themselves, "wife and wife" or "husband and husband," or the neutral term, "spouse."

But even Drescher, 59, who is in a legal domestic partnership, is sometimes surprised.

"I hear of people referring to themselves as husbands and wives, and even though I am gay myself it's something that startles me," he said. "I grew up in a culture where things have different meanings."

As an illustration of the complexities of gender roles, Drescher cited the story of Thomas Beatie, the so-called "pregnant man" who gave birth to a girl in Bend, Ore., in 2008. He insisted that he be listed as the father on the child's birth certificate.

Beatie was born a woman, but legally changed his gender from female to male, surgically removing his breasts, but not his sex organs.

"The delivery room nurse said he had to be listed as the mother and wrote it on the form," said Drescher. "He was unhappy and went to the state to get it changed. They said he could be listed as the parent in gender-neutral language, but he kept insisting he wanted to be listed as the father."

Drescher said he grew "extremely annoyed" with Beatie, "and I didn't know why."

"I had some empathy for people on the religious right who don't like the notion of defining marriage," he said. "I had one idea of what it means to be a father. His idea was bumping up against my idea."

Drescher said most Americans are not used to seeing two grooms or two brides on a wedding cake.

"The cartoonists visually get it," he said. "But something in the way we use language strikes people as strange and they are not used to it."

"Culture can be both comforting and oppressive," he said of traditional roles.

As a society, both sexes are moving past the gender stereotypes as a majority of married women help support their families and more men stay at home and nurture children.

"In the early psychiatric literature, one of the early critics of homosexuality was a major theorizer about homosexuality as an illness, like a lot of 20th century thinking," said Drescher. "He asked, 'Why do couples act if they are a man and a woman if they are not trying to imitate heterosexual life?"

Instead, in both gays and straights, gender roles overlap.

Drescher's partner of 29 years is an architect.

"He fixes everything around the house, but neither of us feels any stereotypes," he said. "I am not interested in what the house looks like. My personality is all about books and scholarship. Our home is decorated based on how he decides, but I have veto power."

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