My friend took one look at the blurry digital picture I sent her of my new engagement ring, and wrote back, “It sorta screams ‘I sold my sex life for this sparkly rock!’”

A couple of years ago, I would have agreed with her — there are precious few things in the world less queer, less transgressive, than an ordinary diamond engagement ring.  I had always seen the engagement ring less as a symbol of undying love than a visible token of male ownership of female sexuality, and a material manifestation of the matrimonial monogamy.  

I was never the traditional kinda girl — I never imagined the ring, dreamed of a wedding, or named my bridesmaids, not even in my head. My thoughts on commitment everlasting were always less “happily ever after” than “what a fucking disaster.” Commitment to me was not just settling down, but settling, period. It was the first step on a journey that would end, inevitably, with me as a harried housewife in the suburbs growing bored and bitter, reduced to chasing children and swapping recipes, voting Republican and worrying about Capital Gains taxes. A diamond ring symbolized the beginning of that descent.

But I have recently discovered that everything is not as it appears to be, and that wearing a diamond engagement ring is a little different when you’re a dyke. For one thing, there is no question of male ownership in a girl-on-girl relationship, and for another, monogamy is easy to take when your toy drawer rivals your sock drawer in variety of colors and styles. And after three years with my partner, the whole commitment thing didn’t seem to be so bad after all. I had begun to see the appeal of getting all of our friends and family together to celebrate what we had found.  

But beyond all those arguably schmaltzy justifications, there was a compelling political reason to want to announce our relationship to the world. For the last few years, gay relationships were coming under increasingly hostile attacks under the slash-and-burn morality of the Bush Administration. By proclaiming our commitment, by getting engaged to be married, we were not only celebrating our relationship, we were making a radical statement about our definition of marriage. And while gay marriage was once firmly in the territory of Human Rights Campaign assimilationists, it had moved into the province of radical queers at the very moment the Right denounced it as moral depravity worse than sodomy (which had just been officially sanctioned by the Supreme Court.)  

In that light, marriage started looking pretty hot. I’ve always been a sucker for subversion. I discovered the potent aphrodisiac power in defying social norms when I first came out as a lesbian. When attraction meets activism, the act of locking lips is more than simple titillation; it becomes a portal to self-liberation. I spent a few very liberating years shoring up my lesbian-activist credentials.

There was the poet from Smith with a penchant for cheap Thai food and sleazy sex.  There was the Swedish kickboxer getting her PhD in French Studies at New York University. There was the Hungarian girl whose red Doc Martens were always flawlessly shined. There was the one I called “Rock Star Girl,” who claimed any of six different professions depending on the day, and was never without her Gucci shades, a flask of rum, and a fat spliff. There was the surly butch with a Long Island accent living off unemployment in a slummy loft with her three dogs and six cats. The Army lawyer, who cried into her beer on our first date. The Singaporean stewardess whose tiny back was a sea of ocean-themed tattoos. The gym teacher whose mastiff puppy snored louder than she did. The masseuse, the vet, the ad exec.

Canadian hers-and-hers engagement rings: all the sparkle without the blood.

Given the rate at which I was going through girls, it was statistically inevitable that I would eventually meet someone I liked more than the others, someone who I would keep around for longer than it took to dig cab fare up out of the couch cushions. This one defied the reductive epithets I was given to using for the women who passed through my life, and after trying one or two, I allowed her to have a name, her name: Alex. After her name, I gave her space in my apartment. Room in my coffee cupboard for a box of tea. A carton of milk in my dairy-free fridge. Space in my underwear drawer for her boxers.

It was all downhill from there. Soon after the merging of the underwear was the merging of the apartments, the acquisition of pets, the purchasing of joint property. So after three years, four apartments, two dogs, and two cats together, we got engaged. But then there was the problem of diamonds. If I am vehemently nontraditional, Alex is the exemplar of all things tried and true. For her, there is no such thing as a diamond-less engagement.  

And this is why we are meant to be together — because compromise is the highest expression of love. And even though I had come to view marriage as a revolutionary act, I had told Alex I could still not get down with the diamond: They have long been a primary source of income for both insurgent groups and brutal dictatorships, funding genocide and civil war in diamond-rich countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Congo, and Angola — and more recently, of course, they were linked to terrorism through al-Qaeda. Knowing all that, instead of presenting me with a ring as she was down on one knee, Alex handed me a plane ticket — we were going to Canada, she explained, so we could pick out some rocks that could broadcast our engagement with a PC pedigree to match their dazzle.

Canada is one of the only places in the world that offers a laser-inscribed proof-of-origin on its rocks to show that they have not come via a war-torn country where they contributed to human rights atrocities. Canadian diamonds were not dug up by the hands of children. They did not come at the cost of miles of agriculture in a famine-struck land.  They do not come at the cost of human life or dignity. But they look just like every other diamond in the world.

That’s the funny thing about this brand of activism I have come to embrace. On the surface, it looks a lot like the very institutions it seeks to reform. Fiancée sounds a lot like fiancé, Alex sounds a lot like a man’s name, and a conflict-free Canadian diamond looks just like any other rock. The defiance is in the details.

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