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.