Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why I Cried at Two Weddings and Other Musings on Marriage Equality and Being One of The Gays

I don’t remember a lot about that day just that it was sunny and warm, the kind of day one hopes for when having a wedding outside, under the trees somewhere in Northern California wine country.  Now weddings are not something I would normally write about, in fact they are, in general, a bit disconcerting to me, what with all that heterosexual privilege, taffeta, and bad dancing.  But this wedding, for just a few moments, was special to me.

Anto was my friend and colleague, a driven student with a clever mind and we were in graduate school together.  She was marrying Chris who had his lesbian sister serve as “best man.” My girlfriend at the time (Karen) and I went to the wedding and sat in the back row, squinting and sweating under the mid-day sun as the officiate began saying the usual stuff you hear at weddings.    Back then I had no vision of myself as a settling-down-gettin’-hitched kind of person, for a variety of reasons.  But as I sat there slightly removed, the officiate suddenly made a sharp turn in a direction I wasn’t expecting.

She said something to the effect of Anto and Chris hoping for and looking forward to the day when all people could be legally married in the US.  Now this was the mid-90s, the post-DOMA world, long before Gavin Newsome started marrying the gays and before Prop 8 and the Mormon funded campaign supporting it. So this mention of equality came out of nowhere and hit me like a sneaky emotional kick in the gut.  Tears started streaming down my face and I could not stop them—not even my usual strategy of silently doing math problems in my head could stop the gush of emotion.  I looked over at Karen and saw that she too was crying.  We squeezed each other’s hands and let the tears come.  That was the first time. 

More than a decade later it happened again on the other side of the country in MA.  I was with my then partner, J-, and we were attending our first legal queer wedding, not long after the MA Supreme Court ruled such marriages were protected under the Commonwealth’s Constitution.  I was in the last gut-wrenching stages of ending of my ten year relationship with J- so I was not really romanticizing marriage—I was actually downright cynical and profoundly sad. But with J- and a couple of friends we dressed in our fancy duds and headed east to a small town on Cape Cod.  The officiate, Rachel Maddow, (yes, that Rachel Maddow) started the ceremony and then read from the MA Court ruling.  And motherfucker, here they came again, the uncontrollable tears.  I looked down the row of seats—all the gays were crying. 

In both the above situations it was not wedding sentiment that fueled my tears, it was not the “oh they’re so beautiful and in love” sort of thing that made me cry—I don’t really go for that stuff and I have been to a lot of weddings.  Usually I just feel out of place until hitting the reception and getting a couple of drinks in me.  Weddings are just so NOT queer friendly (in general).  The reason I cried is hard to put into words.  Hearing the simple acknowledgment in those two situations was a taste of something I never knew I was starving for—it’s like eating a small piece of bread when you’re starving, it tastes so good, it gives you something, but it’s not enough and it brings into clearer focus that you are starving.  It’s bittersweet.

Heterosexism is the water I swim in, I know nothing different.  I have never been straight, I have never been “normal”, and my romantic relationships have never been institutionally acknowledged let alone celebrated.  And Anto and Chris’ wedding is the only straight wedding I remember hearing any sort of acknowledgement of the marriage inequality and discrimination faced by queer folks. 

Homo discrimination, of course, is not limited to marriage inequality.  In the course of my adult life, I have seen and read about queer folks being ridiculed, harassed, beat up, and killed.  I still remember standing on 4th Street in Long Beach in front of a queer restaurant, looking down at the sidewalk, solemnly noting the very spot where a gay man had recently been stabbed and killed—a hate crime long before they called it such.  I have dropped my girlfriend’s hand while walking in small towns in the south and in Texas and Utah.  I remember a road trip, driving around the country and being in some backwoods campsite where some folks sported confederate flags, and telling my then girlfriend to not be too familiar with me lest folks figure out we were together—not because I am a pussy, not because I was ashamed, but because I feared harassment or violence or both.

To have any reference of my gayness being acceptable I had to seek sources of support—the Women’s Center at CSUF, The Center in Long beach, books and magazines, teachers, feminists, and friends.  The mainstream of my experience, the messages I had always been bombarded with did not validate my experiences, EVER.  And I do not mean just the mainstream media where conservative politicians and preachers ranted about “unnatural acts” and perversion and inherent pedophilia.  I don’t mean just the lack of representation in movies, magazines, history books, billboards, and newspapers.  I also mean experiences like the time I was in a crowded theatre watching some chick-flick, holding my girlfriend’s hand in the dark. In the movie the protagonist had a gay man for a best friend and neighbor, and in one scene the man was shown in his bed with his boyfriend, not touching, just reading the paper and drinking coffee.  The audience gasped, gave a grossed-out “ooh” and then let out an uncomfortable laugh.  My heart sank.  These people are disgusted by me and they don’t even know me. 

And beyond the media there were other face-to-face in-the-street experiences such as my regular encounters with the Reverend Lou Sheldon and the traditional Values Coalition in Orange County.  Lou and his followers were outspoken about the perils and sinful nature of the gays.  At political rallies, and gay pride parades and festivals, we were always met by a substantial crew of hostile folks wielding signs quoting the Old Testament, or sporting more direct assertions, “God Hates Fags” and “Homos will Burn in Hell,” and the like.  No one in the mainstream media got outraged by their behavior.  In Orange County in the 1980s, there was an implicit tacit tolerance, if not support, for Lou and his ideas and followers. 

The above is just a tiny tiny sample of the messages and experiences I have had in my life, the first 25 years of which were spent living in Orange County.  And they represent an incessant and pervasive message: gay is bad, gross, unacceptable.  And what I am describing here is such a shallow characterization.  The profundity of the affects of heterosexism and homophobia are too deep and complex to contemplate completely.  And I haven’t even touched on butch-phobia.  I could write a dissertation on that alone. 

I have been known to say that the day I moved to San Francisco I exhaled for the first time.  I had escaped from behind the Orange Curtain (Orange County is one of the most conservative counties in the country).  In San Francisco I could walk the streets as a butch woman, hold my girlfriend’s hand and think nothing of it.  And then I spent two and a half years in my Women Studies MA program at SFSU studying my ass off, shoulder to shoulder with brilliant young feminists from all over the country and from disparate disciplines.  And it precipitated a leap forward in my own self-acceptance and confidence.  Chapter 2, I called it.  Things were different from then on. 

Living quietly and homo-ly in the west side of San Francisco, hunkering down on campus with my head in books and journals, socializing with feminists and young folks and hanging out in the Mission and the Castro, I for the first time lived nestled in a hospitable environment.  There were no Lou Sheldons to meet me at demonstrations or SF street fairs—there were gays everywhere and no one gave a rat’s ass.  It was a respite, a relief from something I didn’t realize how much I needed to be relieved from.  And I had a grand time in my new insular world with my smart and savvy friends, my dyke and feminist mentors in my academic bubble.  

But nothing like that lasts forever.  Things were going to change and it was going to hurt along the way.  In 2000 Prop 22 was on the ballot, an initiative in CA that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, ostensibly outlawing same-sex marriage.  The vote was 61% in favor of Prop 22.  I remember not being surprised, having no expectation of any other outcome.  I had no optimism that things were going to change anytime soon.  And so life went on, and I went to straight weddings and waited for the drinks and bad dancing, knowing that, usually, few or none in attendance had any clue of how I felt at such an event.

Prop 22 was challenged in the courts and finally made it’s way to the CA Supreme Court where it was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the equal protection clause.  And then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, god bless him, started immediately marrying same sex folks in San Francisco. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, thousands of queer folks inundating the steps of SF City Hall. It was a beautiful thing.  But we all knew it wouldn’t last.  And it didn’t.  And so it was that Prop 8 was born.

Two months before the 2008 general election, Prop 8 was losing by 22% points in the polls.  And then some prick Catholic priest from Oakland thought that was unacceptable and headed south to San Diego, CA, where he galvanized a bunch of rich evangelicals and Mormons who then dumped 40 million dollars into the “yes on Prop 8” coffers.  In those last two months before the election, Prop 8 supporters launched a nefarious and profoundly effective disinformation add campaign—and it worked.  We were caught flat-footed, our adds sucked (Diane Feinstein prattling on about some abstract notion of fairness?  Are you kidding me?).  The Yes folks went right for the guts, the emotional response, and they scared the shit out of the complacent conservative masses. 

November X, 2008, Election Day, was one wrought with emotion.  I spent the day holding “No on Prop 8” signs at polling stations and on street corners in the relatively conservative town of Hayward, just south of Oakland.  Most folks honked and gave a thumbs up or said, “don’t worry, I’m voting no.”  But more than a few flipped us off, spat out their windows, or screamed mean things.  After this rollercoaster of a day I walked into my house at exactly 8pm.  Jimmy was sitting on the couch watching CNN and I stood there, exhausted, and looked at the TV.  At exactly 20 seconds after 8pm CNN projected Obama as the winner.  I was flooded with emotion and started crying.  More than tears of joy, the joy of electing the first black president (and a brilliant one at that), they were tears of relief—the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld years of insanity were over.  No matter what happened, it would be better than that. 

My friends, four queer friends, came over shortly after and we popped champagne and watched Obama’s acceptance speech.  More tears.  Hope.  And then about 9:30pm the preliminary results were being reported, Prop 8 was ahead and the projections were that it would pass.  Karen and Penny, my friends who were married during the 18 months same sex marriage was legal in CA, looked stunned.  Karen was soon going to give birth to Calder, their first child, and since Penny and she were legally married, Penny was to be listed on the birth certificate as the legal guardian.  Penny stated the obvious, “I now don’t know if I am going to be the legal guardian of my child.”* The mood shifted, we were all torn by emotions, the joy of electing Obama, the sadness and uncertainty of the passing of Prop 8.  We knew it was just the beginning of more fighting, more debate about the legitimacy of our relationships, more rants of bigotry and ignorance, more vilification, and, sometimes, more hate.  Oh goody. 

In the last several years there have been 34 state initiatives across the country concerning marriage equality; 33 cases were successful against the rights of queer folks.  The one pro-gay initiative that passed in Arizona was quickly overturned by another initiative.  I’m going to state the obvious here, the rights of a minority never get supported when put to a vote.  Rights are rights, they should not be subject to the whims of the majority. 

And then it happened, President Obama, after a long “evolution” (I think the evolution was more a political one than a personal one), came out in support of marriage equality.  I sat on my couch and watched hours of the talking heads on cable covering the story, the occasional tears escaping my eyes.  I never imagined a sitting president, in my lifetime, would cop to such a thing.  I’ll be damned.  Things are changing faster than I ever expected.  Shortly after Obama made his announcement, Benjamin Jealous, President of the NAACP, announced that their Board of Directors voted 62 to 2 in support of marriage equality.  Mr. Jealous was emotional during the press conference, noting that it was personal for him—his parents, an interracial couple, had not been allowed to legally marry in the state of Maryland and had to drive to Washington DC to get hitched.  To the NAACP, this was an equivalent, a civil rights issue through and through.  I think this announcement, this expression of political will on the part of the NAACP is profound and will have an influence on it’s constituency and beyond.  And it was damn moving to watch Mr. Jealous make the announcement, teary interruptions and all. 

And then I heard that the governor of Maryland recently signed a marriage equality law making it legal for same sex couples to marry in that state.  Ok, good on him, good on the Maryland State Legislature.  But here’s the amazing part.  In a Poll in March of this year, support for marriage equality was up 8%.  Pretty good margin.  By May, this had improved by 12% points, showing a 20% margin of those supporting marriage equality.  Wow.  That’s a healthy jump.  But looking deeper into the results showed that within the African American population there had been a 36% jump in support for marriage equality, from -8% in March to +19% in May. Damn.  Double damn.  Thank you Mr. President.  Thank you NAACP.  And thank you, folks of Maryland, for seeing the light.

Announcements like these, hearing the President acknowledge the legitimacy of my experience and the romantic relationships in my community, is something like those early days, at Anto’s wedding, and then years later in MA listening to Rachel Maddow read from the MA Supreme Court ruling—it’s a bittersweet feeling. But things are changing.  In my lifetime the discourse has gone from rants about unnatural acts and sins against nature to more nuanced arguments about tradition and civil unions—still discriminatory but one is a far long way from the other.  And seeing this change feels good.  Damn good.  

I still can’t legally marry someone in CA, and there still is no federal recognition of same sex marriages, which has profound material impacts on the lives of many queer folks, impacts I am confident most straight folks are unaware of (immigration law, inter-state marriage recognition, child guardianship, to name only a few). And I am nervous about the potential for the US Supreme Court to hear the case currently challenging Prop 8—what with the majority of jurists being conservative. There are many learned people who conjecture that if the Court does not rule in favor of equality, it will be at least a generation before a case is heard again.  If in the US District Court, our attorneys win again, and I trust they will, there is the chance the Supreme Court will not agree to hear the case and the District Court ruling will stand--there will be equality at last, across the US. 

Discrimination hurts. Having the legitimacy of your constitutional rights debated for decades by bigots, hurts.  It hurts in ways I am sure I am not even aware of or could ever hope to measure. But I never thought I would live to see this day, this day of so much rapid change in so little time.  And I am cautiously optimistic.  At 48 years old and single, I don’t know if I will ever be married, if that is in my cards in this lifetime, but if the day comes that marriage is finally recognized as one of my constitutional rights, it will be a moment of profound healing. And it will give me a new hope for the next generation of LGBT folks who will, hopefully, not know much of the bigotry I have known, and young dykes will never have to drop their girlfriend’s hand for fear of harassment or violence.  That is my hope.  

*After bouncing up through the courts, the CA Supreme Court finally ruled, inexplicably, that Prop 8 was constitutional and (or but?) the 18,000 same sex marriages performed before it passed would remain valid.  Penny, for now, will remain Calder’s legal guardian in the State of CA without further legal action.

Friday, May 4, 2012

People Tell Me Things

Today a sweet middle-aged guy came over to give me an estimate for sanding and resealing my deck. Within fifteen minutes of chatting in my backyard this man had disclosed to me the following:

He had a two pound dog that he loved very much and it died in 1999 and the ashes of the beloved dog are buried with his wife whom he accidentally ran over with his truck as the result of a catastrophic brake failure on the trailer he was towing and he was devastated and was tempted to jump off a roof at a job but he had god who helped him through but his adopted daughters don’t talk to him because they think he ran over their mother on purpose but he’s now married to a lovely Chinese woman and they are very happy and go to China twice a year and have been to very remote places there including “Women’s World” where the young folk have walking dates during which they hold hands and if the girl likes the boy she scratches his hand three times and if the boy likes her back he does the same…and the boys are thrown out of their houses at 16 years of age and are given a piece of bread and a knife to use when visiting a girl at night—the knife is to open the sliding gate to the yard and the bread is for the dog and then he must navigate over a cactus which is always planted under the girl’s window.

Seriously. Within fifteen minutes he shared all this. And there is more. Like how the village folk asked if he could sing a song and he said yes and sang Strangers in the Night and then the girls lifted him up in the air over their heads and several girls scratched his hand but he didn’t scratch back so they started pinching him when he was still up in the air.

I am not kidding. This is a true story. And this happens to me ALL THE TIME—at the bank, in book stores, at bus stops, in restaurants and in bars.

People tell me things.

Monday, February 20, 2012

My Father

It was a Friday night in December, 1998, when my sister Julie and I got the call that my father was dead. She and I and her boyfriend, Ron, were sitting in the living room of our San Francisco house sipping wine and talking when my sister Lauri rang and I answered the phone. Lauri was quick to the point, “Mer, dad died.” Julie looked up when I asked in a serious voice, “what? What happened?” I quickly said to Julie, “dad died” and she let out a gasp and a short sob. I did not. I listened to Lauri’s explanation, how he was found in his condo on the floor next to his bed, how he had apparently been there several days, how his doctor was not surprised and conjectured the cause a heart attack or stroke. I hung up the phone. I was not very sad and only mildly shocked. He was 66 years old.

There were times over the years when I spelled it out for my father, explained that his lack of ability or apparent desire to relate to his children, his cold and erratic behavior, his indifference and emotional immaturity would eventually lead him to being old and alone. It was a plea of sorts, for his sake and mine, for the sake of my four younger siblings, for the sake of their unborn but planned children, his future grandchildren. It was all to no avail. He asserted that it was his life. And he was right. And so he died alone. And I felt no guilt for that fact. I had done my due diligence, more than once, more than a hundred times. But there is a little more to the story, the story of my father’s end.

In the fall of 1998, Julie and I had not spoken to my father in five years. It was by tacit agreement, because of his inability to deal with us as adults who wanted to address some of the fucked-up-ness of his parenting and the traumas of our youth. He had no interest in such a thing. Julie and I had discussed it at length and concluded finally that the costs of a relationship with my father were far greater than any benefit. And so we simply made no effort to be in contact with him. That lasted till the fall 1998.

Earlier that year Julie and Ron had their first child, Devyn, and my sister Lauri and her husband had their son, Ian. Lauri had remained in touch with my father and so he had met Ian, but he had never met Devyn. One afternoon Julie asked me if we might invite my father to thanksgiving dinner, let him meet Devyn, just to be kind, to close that loop if nothing else. I thought for only a moment before saying yes. And so it was arranged, through my sister Lauri, an invitation to James Lee to join us for Thanksgiving. He said yes.

It was a four hour drive to Lauri’s house on the Central Coast where we all met for Thanksgiving. I remember the drive, being a bit nervous as I contemplated meeting my father for the first time in five years. I thought about the letter I had written him before our split, how I had shared my recollections of his abuse and had made a few simple requests. His response was written and included the line, “I have consulted with my minister and attorney and I am asking you to cease and desist.” My father was not a religious man and I had no idea what minister he was referring to, but his legal assertion made it clear he feared I was planning to sue him. I was not. The thought had never crossed my mind, not once.

One of the things I had asserted in that letter to my father is that I would never again call him “dad,” that hence forth I would refer to him by his first name, Jim. Although I did not share this in the letter, for me the word “dad” had become deeply marred, perverted beyond redemption. Calling him Jim also signified that I would no longer relate to him as a dependent daughter. I would be something closer to his equal, at the very least, an adult.

As we pulled up to Lauri’s house early that afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, my heart raced, my adrenaline surged, my breathing was rapid and shallow. I stopped on the porch to take a deep breath, then I opened the door and immediately saw my father sitting across the room. I stepped aside and Julie, Ron, and Devyn entered before me as my other siblings shouted hellos and rushed to the door with smiles and hugs. At last I walked towards my father and was shocked by what I saw. In those five years he had become an old man, thin and pale—his skin sagged and he looked depleted and small. He stood before me, trembling slightly, his eyes watering and filled with fear. I reached out my hand, smiling, and said, “hello Jim.” He shook my hand and said, “hello Marie, nice to see you.” And then he relaxed a little and so did I.

The rest of the day and evening was a strange kind of normal. We all helped prepare the meal, chit-chatted, joked, drank wine. There was no discussion of the past, of the splits, the abuse, the letters. And then early in the evening my father said he was heading back to his hotel because he wasn’t feeling well. It’s the last time any of us saw my father. Two weeks later, he was dead.

The day after my sister Lauri called with the news of my father’s death, all four of my siblings met at our house in San Francisco where we rented a minivan and drove towards my father’s home in Reno, Nevada. During the four hour drive we talked and laughed and despite the solemnity of the occasion, we had a good time together. We arrived at our hotel late that evening and settled in before heading to the casino where we parked ourselves at a two-dollar black jack table and played cards until 3am, getting drunk on free beers the waitresses kept coming. My father was a long time compulsive gambler and we thought it a fitting way to bid him farewell. We cracked each other up, laughed with abandon, and we all left the table with more money than we started with.

The next day we met our Aunt Estelle at our father’s condo. As soon as we opened the door we were smacked with the distinct and overwhelming stench of death. Although my father’s body had been removed, the smell of his death remained in the stained carpet next to his bed where he had fallen. Despite the freezing winter temperatures we immediately scattered to open all the windows to air out the place. And then we started the strange journey of considering the state of our dead father’s home, the place he had lived out his final years.

The place was a mess. Every available plane was covered with junk mail, magazines, newspapers, and porn. The furniture, the dishes, the towels and bedspreads, almost everything in the condo was familiar. The place was filled with the mundane things of our youth, the simple comforts of our family home, the home we had left years ago, after my mother’s death and before my father bought the condo and retired to Reno. And there was some hint of what my father had done for the past five years. He was apparently a man taking stock, looking back, perhaps trying to make some sense of things. This was quite unexpected.

Covering the living room wall were cheap picture frames filled with pieces of my father’s life. There were old pictures of family I had never known, pictures of him standing next to airplanes, a lunar capsule, SpaceLab, the projects that he, as an engineer, had contributed to in his 30-year long career in Aerospace. There were pictures of him in the army and as a young man, a teenager, a child. Also framed were his high school diploma, achievement certificates from work, and the BS degree he earned later in life going to night classes at Long Beach State. And there were pictures of us, his children, at various ages—school pictures and sports team pictures, and a few snap shots of family holidays and such. The frames were hung randomly, close together, completely covering the large wall—they were crooked, didn’t match and were cheap like what you find in a Walgreens. I stood there looking at what my father had deemed worthy of his wall, and in some way, I was shocked to see that I had made it up there. It was an irrational response, perhaps, but it was how I felt.

We were all surprised to see evidence of my father’s apparent self-reflection. In his condo he had never received one of his children as a guest. Not one of us, not once, had visited him. This was not the result of some kind of cruelty on our part. It was simply the logical upshot of the choices my father had made. It was an equation of his making and this scene, his isolation, his lonely death, is what logically followed the equal sign at the end of that equation.

My father was a veteran having served four years in the army, stationed in Germany during the Korean War, and was therefore eligible for veteran burial benefits. The instructions in his living trust were simple and explicit, he wanted to be buried in the veterans cemetery in Sparks, Neveda, just outside of Reno. We all agreed to cremating his partially decomposed body and then made arrangements for the funeral and his burial at the cemetery.

The funeral was attended by me and my siblings, our partners, Devyn and Ian, two longtime family friends of my brother’s, and my Aunt Estelle. The only other guests were an older couple who lived in my father’s condo building, and two older women from the Red Cross where my father had volunteered. The service was short with a perfunctory reading of some military stuff, a thank-you-for-serving-your-country kind of thing read by an ancient veteran, and then a 21-gun salute that scared the shit out of Devyn and Ian. One of the vets folded a flag and handed it to my Aunt Estelle indicating that he thought she was my father’s surviving widow. No one stood up and said anything else. And then it was over.

Soon after the service Julie and I headed back to the condo to continue cleaning and sorting my father’s belongings. The doorbell rang and I answered it and saw the neighbor man who attended the funeral. He stood there, serious, sadness in his eyes and said, “I thought you girls should know this. Your father came home from Thanksgiving very excited because he said he had reconciled with his girls. That’s all. I just thought you should know.” We thanked the man and then he left. Julie and I looked at each other quizzically, “reconciled with his girls?” There was no way for us to know that on that Thanksgiving Day my father was trying, in his own way, to reconcile things in his life, in his waning years and declining health. And perhaps Julie and I had a place in his contemplations, were on some list of things-to-do in his head. And although Julie and I had not considered our meeting with our father any sort of reconciliation, our father had. And I think it interesting that it was only days after that Thanksgiving meeting that he died.

I do not miss my father. I cried little after he died and this stood in stark contrast to the devastating and protracted grief I experienced when my mother died nine years earlier. But a few months after my father’s death I was punched in the gut by something unexpected. It was sparked by a book I read.

My Old Man and the Sea is the true story of a father and son who sailed a 25-foot engineless sloop around Cape Horn. The book’s format is an alternating perspective, one chapter written by the son, the next by the father, and so on. It presents an honest and loving relationship between a father and his grown son, including the father’s encouragement and acceptance of his son being the skipper, the two of them working together on a small boat, sharing a challenging adventure, joking and laughing, talking about life, love, women, and sailing. It’s the kind of relationship I would have wanted with a father. And as I finished the book I was overwhelmed with grief. And I sobbed. I realized that somewhere inside me there had still lived a little girl who harbored that dream, the dream of having a kind father, a father who was a mentor and could become a friend, a father who cheered me on and celebrated my success. And as unreasonable as that hope may have been, it was now, finally, crushed by the death of my father. It would never happen.

I did not mourn my father. I mourned the father I never had.