Watch This Amazing Ode to Marriage Equality, by Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco

The Daily Beast

September 21, 2014

It is a decade since the U.S. first state, Massachusetts, enshrined marriage equality in law, and since the founding of campaign group Freedom To Marry (FTM). It has been a fruitful, frustrating decade, a bizarre range of weather systems of advances and losses—but mainly now, finally, advances.

To mark the 10 years, FTM commissioned Richard Blanco, the poet for Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, to write a poem commemorating the decade. So powerful was the result, titled “Until We Could,” the organization then commissioned a video to bring Blanco’s words to evocative life.

To date, marriage equality is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Forty-four percent of people live in a state where gay and lesbian couples can marry; 59 percent of people support equal marriage.

On September 29, the latest attempt to make marriage equality a federal right will unfold when the justices of the Supreme Court consider whether to hear a case about same-sex couples’ marriage rights and, if so, which one to take. On the table are cases from Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

Until We Could is personal and universal, a series of glimpses of intimacy, qualified with the words “but still, we couldn’t,” referring to not being able to marry. The lines in Until We Could about love are gorgeous: “Two mirrors face to face with no end… Yes, I counted your eyelashes.”

We read and see couples living everyday life: a hand on a back as one partner heads out to do the grocery shopping, another couple goes through boxes of pictures, a female couple holds each other tenderly in bed. The video makes clear the struggle for marriage equality in the context of the wider post-Stonewall gay civil rights movement.

The film is directed by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and Yen Tan (Pit Stop), with voiceovers by Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) and Robin Wright (House of Cards). It was an official selection for the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Blanco, who lives in Maine with his partner of 14 years, Dr. Mark Neveu, told The Daily Beast: “It seemed like the perfect fit immediately. It was a cause I believed in and wanted to be part of. As the first openly gay inaugural poet, it felt very inspirational. Love is love, marriage is marriage. In both cases they come with the good and bad, the great and dysfunctional.”

In the back of Blanco’s mind, having been brought up in the 1970s and 1980s in the Miami suburbs at the time of (arch-homophobe) Anita Bryant’s (Save Our Children) campaign, “Marriage was always something I thought of as denied to me. I didn’t come out till I was 25.”

Nobody has the monopoly on love, he adds. “I wanted the poem to convey that in a way that even straight couples could relate to. I took moments based on personal experience, so I’m retracing the love I have for my own partner, and my own sense of marriage.”

After delivering the inaugural poem in 2013, Blanco finally met Obama in May. “We sat down for 20 minutes, and made wonderful small talk about health care and the poem. I went to shake his hand but we hugged it out. I was like, ‘Are we going to have a beer now, man?’ He and Michelle are so disarming; he is like the president next door.”

The poem and video was the initial brainchild of Peter Spears an actor, director, and producer—and FTM volunteer—whose had the idea to approach Blanco. “We shot it in Austin’s film community, and Texas is on the precipice of marriage equality,” says Spears. “There are real couples in the film—like the male couples in their 40s with kids—and also actors. Austin was off the charts, they put all their talent and time into making this happen.”

Until We Could is a romantic and realistic vision of coupledom. Part of one stanza reads:

I taught you how to dance Salsa by looking
into my Caribbean eyes, you learned to speak
in my tongue, while teaching me how to catch
a snowflake in my palms and love the grey
clouds of your grey hometown. Our years began
collecting in glossy photos time-lining our lives
across shelves and walls glancing back at us…

Blanco was hesitant about making a movie for the poem. “Would it get the feelings between the lines? But they did it brilliantly. I was crying.”

The video for Until We Could shows families getting ready for the day: shoelaces being done up, children at the table, cups of coffee, a loved one in hospital and dying, loving glances—everything about the lesbian and gay love on display is the same as the straight, but—as the poem reiterates—“still we couldn’t.”

Is Blanco married?, I ask: Maine legalized marriage equality in 2012. “We still haven’t gotten around to it. The poem has inspired us to start talking about it. Since the inauguration, I’m really only at home three or four days at a time. In some ways, we feel we have been married for 14 years. And we are—we’ve had the fights and phases of any marriage—but we are not. It would be wonderful to able to call my partner my husband. We feel married, but we are not in a final sense.”

At home, his and Neveu’s roles have reversed in the wake of the fame Blanco has acquired since the inauguration. “Before it, I was the one at home. I used to know where the brooms and batteries were, I’ve been Mark’s emotional support. He tried to be my assistant, but he wasn’t my assistant, he was my partner. I told him his life was not being Mr. Blanco’s husband, he has his own life, I said, ‘Mark, I’m still a poet, not Beyoncé.’”

Blanco and Neveu hope to finally marry this February, around Blanco’s birthday. “It will be small, intimate,” says Blanco. “We already feel married, I liked what a friend had at their second marriage—a big barbecue. This feels like our second marriage. I hate that I can’t go back in time to experience all this when I was young, but what does excite me is the idea of all those gay young people now growing up with the idea, the possibility, the chance, to get married.”

Evan Wolfson, FTM’s founder and president, said what most appealed to him about the poem and video was their combination of quiet, ordinary moments of love when one spouse looks to the other, “alongside scenes from the bigger history of the movement.”

As Blanco writes:

When the fiery kick lines and fires were set for us
by our founding mother-fathers at Stonewall,
we first spoke defiance. When we paraded glitter,
leather, and rainbows made human, our word
became pride down every city street, saying:
Just let us be. But that wasn’t enough.

And so, over time, “town by town, city by city, state by state” the notion that love is love and the right to say “I do,” whatever one’s sexual orientation is becoming universal.

For Wolfson, the general attitude that equal marriage is inevitable obscures the pressing necessity that it happen as soon as possible. “Every day without it is a denial of freedom and equality. Time really matters. It makes a difference. These are people’s real lives and relationships; it’s not a hypothetical. People are dying without being married, kids are growing up without the security of having both parents married. Couples are being denied important protections. In the biggest sense of the word, federal marriage equality is inevitable. We will win. But the issue is timing. Whether it’s one year or five years makes a big difference.”

For Blanco, the Obama administration is going down “the tipping point” route, “where the whole country gets to the stage of saying, ‘This is ridiculous. Just do it.’”

What happens after equal marriage? Wolfson says this issue “is a tremendous engine for non-gay people to understand who gay people are. We still need to campaign for gay people to be protected against discrimination in the workplace, and places of accommodation and business. We need to make sure the law’s guarantees are felt for real in the lived lives of people and in every corner of the country. We still have a tremendous amount of work to do. When there was formal legislation marking an end to race and sex discrimination it didn’t end the battle.”

Blanco adds, “We are still not quite in Oz yet. The liberties and acceptance are not across the whole board. How do we support gay kids coming out?”

The U.S. should also set a global gay equality example, Wolfson says. “America should be leading, not lagging. We expect America to be the engine of human rights around the world, especially when there are so many places in the world where the clock is racing backwards, with hardship, thuggery and violence. We need to lead the world.”

For Blanco, it has been “wonderful, since the inauguration, to travel the country and see how art and particularly poetry can open doors and make a difference, and make things better.”

As for his and Neveu’s own nuptials, Blanco reveals that he may read some of Until We Could there. “That’s one of the things I hope for it—that it can be used at gay weddings, for all generations. I hope the poem reminds young people about the work their mamas and papas did for equality to get them to this point, that they realize the struggle isn’t over, that they must keep carrying the torch for those who aren’t as lucky, who cannot say ‘I do.’”

And that is how the poem ends, with a tableau of beautiful images of what “I do” encompasses:

I do, I do and will and will for those who still can’t
vow it yet, but know love’s exact reason as much
as they know how a sail keeps the wind without
breaking, or how roots dig a way into the earth,
or how the stars open their eyes to the night, or
how a vine becomes one with the wall it loves, or
how, when I hold you, you are rain in my hands.

With those words, the final image of the film is a blissful one: an older lesbian couple, eyes closed, smiles wide, at peace, together, holding one another.