‘A Passionate Engagement’ by Ken Harvey

Those watching the marriage equality debate from afar imagine that, in a given state, couples either can or can’t get married. But citizens of states that have addressed marriage equality know legal processes can be complex and protracted, creating many more states of being.

As Ken Harvey of Waltham, MA. tells us in his tender, heartbreak-ing, cautiously triumphant memoir, A Passionate Engagement (Aequitas Books), there are Might-Be-Able-to-Get-Married-if-We-Jump-Now, Might-Stand-a-Better-Chance-if-We-Wait, Might-Be-Able-to-Get-Married-but-not-Stay-Married, and many more states of marriage.

While courts and legislatures jerk couples back and forth, there are halls to book, caterers to hire, a partner’s children to be visited in the hospital (under “relationship” Harvey scribbles “family” and hopes the nurse won’t notice) and daily life to be lived as whatever the legislature says you are this week.

Queer people who shrug off this debate – saying marriage is an outmoded institution for “breeders”—would do well to read Harvey’s report from ground zero. When a straight government dangles marriage, then snatches it away, then asks you to be happy with a watered down version, suddenly you see marriage as fundamental and universal and you will long for one of your own.

It is a gut-punch to the rest of us to raise our eyes from this riveting memoir and realize that we can not have what we have been cheering for Harvey and his partner to have. For a look both tough and heartwarming at what you are missing, you can’t do better than A Passionate Engagement—and you might buy extras for friends and family of all sociopolitical and sexual persuasions.

When you face the question of whether you can or can’t get married, you must also decide who you are. The public debate spotlights you, and you must react. Harvey’s reaction is a narrative that swings deftly from frank personal history—coming out at 34, dating a divorcé with children, teaching at a liberal school where colleagues make him a poster boy—to history in the making. With perfect timing, the storyline switches from intimate moments to significant judicial and legislative landmarks. Harvey and his partner exchange rings at home, thinking this is the only wedding they will ever get. Then the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court hands down its legendary decision. Then the legislature steps in.

Harvey is lonely taking the train to Boston for a rally (his partner eschews rallies, wanting to keep his expectations low; he also travels a lot on business). The author huddles with other gay marriage supporters singing “We Shall Overcome,” while across Boston Common, a crowd raises banners saying “Gays Will Burn in Hell.” On the first day queer Bay Staters may apply for marriage licenses, Harvey drives a route to work that will take him past as many town halls as possible. He presents an indelible image of two older women sitting side-by-side on the steps of the Watertown town hall, waiting for it to open. If ever a book demonstrated conclusively that the personal is political—and vice versa—A Passionate Engagement is it.

The specific, elegant, and sometimes devastating human details will be familiar to readers of Harvey’s short story collection, If You Were With Me, Everything Would Be All Right (Pleasure Boat Studio). Amazon suggests you buy them together, and so do I.

A Passionate Engagement, while frank, is not as eerie or oblique as the latter. In his marriage memoir, Harvey hints at childhood abuse and recounts awkward disconnects with his partner (the more closeted of the two), but he avoids messier emotional or sexual details. He keeps his focus on the personal impact of the marriage debate, and thus also keeps his book suitable for young adults, including, perhaps, more liberal high school classrooms. It would be a lively and lucky civics class, indeed, that would get to read A Passionate Engagement.

Some omissions I found frustrating. If the personal is political, we must know exactly what the political is. What exactly can our courts and legislatures do and not do, and how and in what order? To follow the Massachusetts marriage battle – to understand what was won or lost at each point – requires the average reader to be led by the hand through the legal-judicial maze. Harvey does not always do this. “We lost the first battle,” he con-cludes, when the legislature votes for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But we have to flip pages back and forth to be reminded why this is not a total loss and what the second battle will be. More detailed legal context and periodic recaps would help; Harvey certainly has the savoir écrire and wit to keep such details interesting. A personal/public timeline would help, too, as it is also easy to lose track of where Harvey and his partner stand at certain times in the eyes of the state.

The book omits the resolution, such as it was, of marriage equality in Massachusetts. That second battle—another go at an amendment—ended on June 14, 2007, when gay marriage opponents came up five votes short. That was their last chance. For the moment. That day, the Massachusetts State House flew a rainbow flag. But gay marriage in the Bay State is still not a done deal.

Even as the legislature now deliberates over an amendment that would prohibit any new ballot initiatives that would curtail civil rights, a new initiative to ban same-sex marriage could get to Massachusetts voters by 2012. Throughout Passionate Engagement, Ken Harvey keeps us on tenterhooks, even as we know the public outcome and can guess the private one. (Spoiler: Yes, they get married, really and truly and legally, and it’s beautiful.) For us to understand the lurking possibility of further legal maneuvers would add a disturbing twist to this enormously affecting story of one man’s fight to be recognized as fully human.
A Memoir
By Ken Harvey
Aequitas Books
Paperback, 9781929355686, 204pp.