Beren deMotier * writer * artist * human
THE BRIDES OF MARCH
MEMOIR OF A SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
copyright March 5, 2007 Beren deMotier
published by iUniverse April 25, 2007
As a little girl, I didn’t dream of getting married someday with a Cinderella dress and six matching bridesmaids in puce. I didn’t put lace tablecloths over my head and weave up imaginary aisles clutching a dozen dying daisies. I didn’t even have any predictable wedding fantasies for a child of the sixties, like imagining myself a barefoot princess in a white hippie dress, marrying the handsome (if long-haired) prince and living happily ever after, maybe in a commune. My one childhood foray into marriage fantasy was when I became briefly engaged to a pleasantly plump, easy-going boy named Douglas in kindergarten. It was Los Angeles, fall of 1969, and we planned to marry on roller skates, which seemed ever so important at the time.
Admittedly, I was not exactly force-fed bridal veil, lacy gown, packed pews and Tiffany & Company romance at home. My mother was married in her parents’ backyard with a gold band, a handful of her parents’ friends and a simple off-white lace cocktail dress. Years later, she buried this classy number on the beach next to the charred remains of every single one of her wedding pictures.
My one adolescent wedding fantasy focused on marrying for money while wearing a red satin strapless gown a` la Rita Hayworth as Gilda, because I had a lot more faith in my figure than in love. Marrying a man for love just didn’t come into it; which made sense when I came out as a lesbian (as did the fact that my Barbie doll tended to kick Ken across the room and hang out with that babe, Malibu P.J.); and marrying a woman for love was not an option.
In 1983, gay marriage was unthinkable, legally or symbolically. It simply wasn’t done.
It wasn’t until my spouse and I had spent years living in sin that commitment ceremonies became common and marriage moved from my unconscious back burner to the front of the stove on high. I got wedding fever, wanting desperately to marry the woman I loved, not just for the legal rights, but for the chance to say “I do” with feeling.
Being very able at accessorizing, I developed a whole scenario involving a voluminous white skirt, barefoot children running around, green grass, white flowers and in some versions, a baby in my arms. My spouse, bless her pragmatic heart, had no fantasies in the marriage department other than if it became legal, she wanted to do it. In the end, we both had some of our dreams come true.
This is the story I hope to be telling grandchildren years from now, about the day my wife and I were married in a short, sweet, extemporaneous church wedding, on a rainy Wednesday morning in March, with nary a skirt in sight.
By then, I trust, this story will have a different ending.
The Brides of March
March 2nd, 2004
The phone rang just after six o’clock. It was Tuesday night, and Jannine had just edged her way through the front door with a guitar case on either side of her, coming home from lessons with our nine year-old daughter, Anna, a compact-model blonde who looked too young to be playing electric guitar, as well as acoustic. They were taking lessons together, our daughter learning an interesting juxtaposition of “Zip-a-dee-doo-da” and “I Don’t Give a Damn ‘Bout my Bad Reputation”, while Jannine was still working on “This Land is Your Land”, strumming away in her office after the rest of us had gone to bed, the tune reverberating through the floor, through my brain, and musically scoring my dreams.
I’d just come home from a swimming lesson with our two sons. At twelve, Duncan definitely fell on the smaller end of the height/weight scale, his brain far outdistancing his body. He was the swimmer, lessons just building on the skills he’d already earned with two summers on swim team. His brother, Graeme, had just turned one (a virtual carbon copy of his siblings, though on a grander scale), but while his enthusiasm for water raised my alert level to orange, he was a little young for actual swim lessons.
We were all exhausted, burned out from a marathon season of back-to-school, first head cold, Halloween, second head cold, Duncan’s birthday, relatives to stay, third head cold, travel to Seattle for Thanksgiving, influenza for four, pneumonia for two, Jannine’s parents visiting pre-Christmas, my relatives visiting for Christmas, our anniversary (during which we learned that Jannine’s dad was in the hospital after a blood clot passed through his heart), Jannine rushing to Seattle to see her dad, fourth head cold, New Year’s, a record breaking snowfall closing school for a week, fifth head cold, Anna’s birthday, relatives to stay, sixth head cold, Graeme’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, and then the inevitable parental breakdown we suffer every late February, when we lie on the floor, our bodies twitching, and shake our heads while repeating, “No more… no more… no more…” September through February that year was a pharmaceutically enhanced blur.
We were numbly looking forward to an evening of take-home pizza and the movie, School of Rock. Then, the phone rang. Our friend and across the street neighbor, Terri, had news. Her partner Marty’s eighty-one year-old mother had just called to say that Multnomah County, our county, was going to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at ten o’clock the following morning.
The movie forgotten, my spouse became a woman possessed, and the always lingering “birth certificate issue” raised its ugly head. I didn’t have one—long story involving an irresponsible youth, family-of-origin trauma-drama, a long delayed legal name change, and snail mail gone astray. Not having any compelling reason to possess a birth certificate (international travel seemed unlikely with three kids and a modest budget), I had passive aggressively avoided doing anything about it. But now, it was a problem. Always preferring to search the World Wide Web in lieu of speaking to a message machine or an actual human being, Jannine started surfing. Did we need birth certificates to get a marriage license? Did we need to prove residency? Was there a waiting period or could we get married immediately after getting a license? How many pieces of picture ID would suffice? Not finding what she wanted, she started calling people.
Jannine is a jeans and T-shirt, step out of the shower and go, straight shooter kind of gal. She was once asked to describe herself in ten words or less at a job interview, gave it a moment’s thought, counted on her fingers and responded, “What you see is what you get.” She wasn’t afraid to roust people from the dinner table. Our straight married friends were no help; they’d filled out their licenses on auto-pilot. Jannine called Terri back.
“I’m going down to the County Building to see if they have any applications available in the lobby, do you want to go?”
Terri was slipping on her winter coat and out the door in a heartbeat; she and Marty, co-moms of their daughter, McKenzie, had been together sixteen years. Before I could even explain to Duncan and Anna our change of plans for the evening, Jannine and Terri were in our white mini-van and gone.
Before they’d gone three blocks, Jannine said, “Let’s go get Chris.”
Chris and her spouse, Lisa, are close friends whose two children are like siblings to ours. Chris, like Jannine, is “the boy-mom”, adept at power tool use and able to window shop for hours at Home Depot (or rationalize large purchases) when she’s not
working eighty hours a week as a professor of nursing. Lisa, while toting the emotional baggage and hairstyle of a “girl mom”, is just as capable of wielding a drill or a router; she just knows Chris wants to more. Lisa (a.k.a. “She Who Must Be Obeyed”) is also the nurse midwife who both talked me off the ceiling, and caught Graeme on his way into the world; she made his worrying birth a time punctuated by frequent laughter, as well as guttural growls of agony.
When Lisa opened the door to Terri and Jannine, she was giddy. All pretense of detached rationality was gone. Their phone had been ringing off the hook as friends called them to tell them the news and ask, “Are you going to get married?” Thrilled as they were, they were still planning on watching a movie with their kids (was Tuesday night “movie night” in every house in the neighborhood?), and Chris was at her desk, working as usual. Jannine and Terri put a stop to that, telling Lisa they would literally drag Chris from her third floor office, out the door, and all the way to the County Building should she put up any resistance.
Chris didn’t put up much of a fight.
It Was the Colored Contact Lenses that Brought Us Together
Seattle, November, 1986
“Who are you?” I asked the girl who’d set her motorcycle helmet on the counter where I was working, raking her up and down with my eyes. She was clearly not a customer (or I’d have been all attention, no attitude) and knew me; her china blue eyes eager and friendly, her lopsided smile expectant, innocent of the knowledge that her straight brown hair was stuck “helmet head” to her skull. I searched the mental rolodex, coming up empty. Where in the world would I have encountered this woman I would later describe as wholesome as a warm slice of wheat bread?
Not that I wasn’t used to strange women coming in to the poster and framing store where I worked, thinking they knew me. Sometimes, they would just cruise the card racks, peek over and leave. Other times, they would linger, and when I asked if I could help them, they’d snicker, “Weren’t you naked the last time I saw you?” a by-product of dancing in a red lace g-string in front of four hundred lesbians in a bar.
“I’m Jannine,” she said, “Kelline’s friend.” It came back to me in pieces; my ex-girlfriend at Tugs Belltown, a long, narrow, brick-lined dive, standing with her ostensibly straight best friend, Jannine; me dancing against the brick wall to “Missionary Man” by the Eurythmics, rubbing my ego on the crowd. I had thought it would be fun to scare the straight girl, cozying up to her at the bar, enjoying her blushes. She hadn’t forgotten me.
The excuse for interrupting me at work was a gift for Kelline. I’d known her longer, Jannine wanted my advice. She found excuses to show up a few more times over the next couple weeks as she finished up her Bachelor of Science at the University of Washington, and December found me riding to a mutual friend’s house on the back of her motorcycle.
Never mind that I was dating someone else (who I later learned was already dating someone else), or that Jannine was supposedly straight as a board, or that her best buddy wanted me back, she kept showing up.
Jannine was a nice girl, a junior varsity rower, the manager of a Little Caesar’s pizza restaurant and a former high school softball player whose mother still picked out her clothes. She was on the fast track from undergrad to grad school to business career to please her parents. She’d been a Coast Guard military brat, moving from school to school across the continental U.S., able to say goodbye without looking back or hello without meaning it, and not good at putting down roots.
I graduated from the University of Washington that summer with a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies (useless monetarily, but emotionally liberating), helped manage the poster store days, and spent my nights hovering on the fringe of the cool people I’d somehow infiltrated on the platform at Tugs: professional dancers who invited me to perform with them in their erotic shows for women, S/M dykes who invited me to model backless skirts in leather fashion shows, and pretty people who invited me to hang out. Not having grown up and out of the adolescent desire to be cool, I accepted all the invitations and more.
We were twenty-two.
Shortly before Christmas, Jannine drove Kelline and me in her beat up old Jeep Wagoneer to get a Christmas tree. It was while we were piling into the car, getting ready to go, that Kelline leaned over the front seat and said, “I had the weirdest dream last night about you guys. It was years from now, and you two were together, and had a house, and all these kids.”
What could we say to such an outrageous idea?
At the Christmas tree lot, it started drizzling. Jannine was along for the ride, grabbing any tree I showed interest in, holding it up for inspection. She was walking backward, keeping her eyes on me as we made our way down the line of trees, the day rapidly turning to night. There was something in the way she smiled as she held up the third tree she’d wrestled from the pile of evergreens. I stopped looking at the tree, and looked into her eyes instead. The drizzle turned to snow. The lights surrounding the tree lot twinkled. She bit her lip nervously. I told her, “You have the bluest eyes.” We both held our breaths, time stood still, and we were falling.
I only later discovered that she wore colored contacts.
Then run, rabbit, run, by New Year’s Day she was gone, driving the three thousand miles with her brother back to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, for graduate school—the Jeep breaking down in Mississippi along the way—leaving me with no guarantees.
For me, it was love, which might not have stopped me from doing my best to blow it, going back to dating people I should have been smart enough to avoid, and generally exploiting myself before someone else could do it for me, except for my friend, Tiger. It was Tiger, a runaway baby dyke, who made me ready for Jannine. Tiger, who in November took off her leather jacket, folded it neatly on the cement outside the door of the Capital Hill Alano Club, laid her glasses carefully on top, sat down cross-legged beside them, and in a seventeen year-old moment of darkness and determination, blew her brains out with a hand gun.
Tiger was a permeable girl, boundary-less, and longing to be loved. Despite obvious differences: college grad versus high school drop-out, self-supporting versus public assistance, we had a lot in common. Without recognizing her other assets (her smile, her wit, her good nature, her optimism in the face of heavy odds), she offered her body in order to please. But when she tried to crawl into my bed one late summer night when she’d been kicked out by her latest, I said, “No.” She was incredulous that I wouldn’t accept her offer, her one gift, and in that moment, my paradigm shifted, and I felt a maternal instinct to protect her young soul, and mine.
I hadn’t seen her for a couple of months before she died. She was doing OK, I thought, trying to get her GED, dating girls her own age, instead of adults who knew better, but then her optimism failed her. I couldn’t save her young soul from further harm, but maybe I could save my own.
Jannine, plunging into graduate school in Daytona Beach, was terrified. She had done everything she could to avoid love and dating and romance. She hadn’t had high school boyfriends, or even noticed the softball girls who tried to get her attention. Her team mates on the women’s rowing team at the UW (several of whom had been evicted from another university during a witch hunt for homosexuals) scared her to death with their bravado and sheer brute strength. She did nothing in the dating department, so she wouldn’t have to face whether she could come out or not. Her mother had raised her to believe that being gay meant a life of shame and sorrow. The dating antics among her lesbian friends at college seemed silly and shallow. She is, and was, an all or nothing gal. She wanted to be sure that what we felt was love, which meant all the trappings: in-laws, the picket fence, children, barbecues with the neighbors and a joint checking account, or she didn’t want any part of it.
I don’t know what she saw in me. From that first “Who are you?” she should have run. She could have used a million excuses to let “us” go. But, she didn’t.
I have been a chameleon over time: barefoot hippie nature child, high school theatre geek, bisexual stoner babe, radicalesbianfeminist undergrad, erotic-dancer wanna-be, and finally, stay-at-home mom. Jannine has remained much the same. She started out as a girl who wanted to wear jeans and tennis shoes every day, not giving a hoot about appearances or “gender appropriate” clothing. She is just the same at forty, though her original narrow worldview has grown wide. At the same age, I have somehow gone full circle. I am the nature child again, the one who used to go barefoot on the barnacled rocks on Vancouver Island, showing the tourists where to dig for clams while my long hair whipped around my shoulders; though today, I would do the same wearing lipstick, and my heels are cracked from decades of less than sensible shoes.
If there is something that made us stick, besides the stars, sheer stubbornness and a synchronicity we could never have planned, it would be our values. Values seem silly when they are hauled around like so much baggage by pundits and politicians. But, they aren’t. Values are what make us who we are, even ex-erotic dancer wanna-be’s and the women who love them. Underneath Jannine’s “doesn’t give a hoot” exterior is a fierce dedication to family, to stability, to a middle-class lifestyle she aspires to, not because she wants the coolest toys in town, but because she wants to keep money worries to a minimum, and to offer her children the same opportunities her parents gave her. Her long hours aren’t about avoiding family life or keeping up with Bob in the next cubicle; it’s a dedication to doing the job right.
Like Jannine, I worked my way through college: but when we had Duncan, the real hard work began. I was overtaken by a drive to do the best by our kids. Though “the best” doesn’t mean a spotless home, all the extracurricular classes money can buy, life as a chauffeur or bedrooms that belong in the pages of magazines; it means sitting down to dinner together every night and homemade Halloween costumes. It means reading aloud, talking about dinosaurs until I am blue in the face, making the library a second home—but not doing the kids’ homework for them. The laundry is often undone. The dishes sometimes sit overnight. But we do our best to get the kids to bed happily and unrushed every night, putting sleep first, so they are ready for another day.
The Grooms Get the License
When Jannine, Chris and Terri tumbled out of the van at the Multnomah County Building, the door was locked, even to the lobby. No forms were available. There was no one inside the building and no one else there, except a conspicuous line of news vans jockeying for position at the curb, staking out their spots for the next morning. When the first reporter saw Chris, Terri and Jannine standing at the door, wondering what to do next, she bounded up with a microphone.
“Are you the first ones in line?”
They glanced at each other, smiled, and answered as one, “Yes, we are.”
Chris shared her cell phone all around as “the brides” were called (apparently grooms get the license, an arcane piece of wedding etiquette I had no previous opportunity to learn), and when Jannine had her turn, her first words were, “I’m staying.”
She went on, “Call Marty and Lisa, they’re bringing down sleeping bags and supplies, you can send stuff with them. Maybe the big kids can come, too? Could you find the port-a-potty? Chris thinks we’ll need it, you know, three middle-aged women… and can you remember my camera?”
Stunned at the turn of events, I shifted Graeme to my other hip and made a list on the nearest scrap of paper. “OK, I’ll call them,” I assured her.
She hung up, only to call back a moment later. “By the way, in case I didn’t ask you earlier, will you marry me?”
“Yes,” I told her, “I will.”
She had asked me before, months earlier. When same-sex marriage in British Columbia was announced publicly, within minutes, a ripple of matrimonial momentum swept through our circle of friends, partners phoning each other to propose at the first opportunity: at lunch breaks, via e-mail, by text message on pagers. Jannine skipped that romantic component and went straight to making potential travel plans, not bothering to ask. When I chided her about it, she went down on one knee and asked me to be her wife.
I think, in my heart of hearts, I’d wanted a wedding from the moment I knew she was the one, but only dared acknowledge it when we had a track record to back up such an audacious desire. Somewhere during these years together, we could have found someone to perform a ceremony and rustled up some folks to attend; we even had our own ring-bearer living in situ, and later a flower girl (who would have grooved on the whole thing), but it wouldn’t have been a “real wedding”, with sincere support and the blessings of friends, family and community.
At least, that’s what Jannine said, and I never convinced her otherwise (and I tried), possibly, because I knew she was right.
If you bring home your “true love” of the opposite sex, there’s a good chance that your family will welcome him or her with open arms, glad either that you are happy, or to finally get you off their hands. With a same-sex true love, there’s a good chance that ten years into the relationship, one of you will be getting that “are you still here?” look when both of you arrive for any family function. Jannine didn’t want to celebrate our union when the guests might arrive with serious reservations about the whole thing.
And Jannine has wedding issues. The fuss about minutiae (cream versus ecru, matching bridesmaid shoes, effigies made with marzipan) and the sexist rituals (the garter bit, the crude jokes about the wedding night, the “me, me, throw it to me” bridal bouquet toss) do nothing for her. Over the years, with friends or family, she’s heard too often how many dollars each catered meal costs versus expected return in gifts, seen one too many photographs of piled up wedding plunder, and attended more than her share of weddings which ended in divorce before the wedding debt was paid off .
I guess it took all the romance out of it for her.
But I’ve yearned. I’ve cried in the silver section of department stores, and I’m not especially fond of silver. For years, I couldn’t look at a bridal registry sheet without misting up, glanced avariciously at the window of the wedding boutique on Northwest Twenty-third, and yes, I’d have almost converted to some sort of religion just to be able to marry. Heterosexuality, however, wasn’t among the religions I was willing to join.
The years rolled on, social and family tolerance became acceptance, acceptance became celebration, and by the time we had a circle of family and friends who might sincerely cheer at our nuptials, it had been a long, long time. As my father-in-law, Jon, likes to say about his married years, “Time flies when you’re having fun.”
Without a specific reason to marry—like the hundreds of rights and privileges legal marriage offers—the whole thing seemed pretty moot.
But then, legal marriage started being an option, first in British Columbia, then Massachusetts was moving fast in that direction, and suddenly, Mayor Gavin Newsom was marrying same-sex couples in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day. It was tempting to fly down and take part in the celebration. But, it didn’t seem real. Lisa put it best when a friend asked her whether she and Chris were going to get married in Canada, and Lisa said, “No!” (with emphatic hand gestures), if she were going to get married, she wanted to do it in her community, in her church, in her country. Jannine and I hadn’t thought it out so succinctly, but we hadn’t made a move to marry elsewhere, despite initial urges to emigrate north. We had been holding our breath, I think, with a hope and a prayer that it could happen here, rather than in Canada, or San Francisco or Massachusetts. And it was. We had no idea this was coming. But, none of us hesitated. As Jannine said later, “Who would have expected three middle-aged women to be the first on that dime?”
Just When I’d Given Up on Marriage…
It is ironic that this window of marital opportunity opened just when I’d finally become “at peace” with closing the door to being a bride (though I will never be “at peace” with being a lesser couple in the eyes of the law). I was even able to attend a wedding last year without batting an eye.
Previously hyperventilating and needing therapy every time another friend or relative headed to the altar, I turned the corner three years ago when my cousin, Leah, got married. We arrived home unscathed after a whirlwind tour of St. Louis and Relative City, complete with Hebrew, high heels, beautiful, but basically inedible cake, and the obligatory negative experience with a distant relation.
Luckily, it was the groom’s distant relation, not mine, and just a ghastly faux pas that only Jannine was privy to.
We arrived at my Aunt’s house after eight hours of relentless parental vigilance over our then six and nine year-old children during taxi rides, air flight, airport shuttles, car rental paperwork, and hotel registration confusion, “You want two king beds? But where will the children sleep?” I’d had an hour’s sleep the night before and not enough food, so I was useless. Therefore, it was Jannine who sprang upstairs to check on our children, who were being treated to the delights of Playstation Two by my cousin, Dov, just to make sure they weren’t seeing any decapitations. As Jannine walked by, she heard this callow young man talking on the phone about what a drag it was when you have a wedding and you’re obligated to invite all these distant relatives, when you’d rather have those invites for friends (apparently clueless that the gathering downstairs was arranged specifically for the extended family who had come into town for the big event).
My spouse, travel fatigued and the keeper of the family budget, managed to not turn on him savagely, rip the phone from his insensitive hand and tell him that those distant relatives then felt obligated to spend a thousand dollars to get there, in order to wish the couple well. She showed great restraint in the circumstances.
And really, we wanted to go. We are very fond of my cousin, love her mother dearly, and our children danced into the wee hours, played with the candle wax and ate multiple pieces of cake.
They like weddings.
It was nice not spending the whole time yearning for my own wedding. I didn’t feel even the slightest hint of envy for the bridal role, nor did I want my weight in toaster ovens or even a honeymoon in Hawaii.
All right, maybe Hawaii.
I’m sure Jannine was relieved. I’d wanted a wedding for years, needed it, it was a cleaver in my heart. But it was gone. Maybe, I finally believed that she loved me.
Not that attending weddings has been all pain, no gain, we’ve gotten a lot of emotional mileage out of family weddings. Because of them, Jannine knows my unique and preposterous extended family, including my Great Aunt Joyce, who writes humorous poetry about, among other things, multiple piercings; and I’ve been enveloped warmly by the Eastern Washington branch of her family, who accepted me as a breeding mare of exceptional quality.
It was at my other cousin Maddy’s wedding, a few years back, that my mother and I had an emotional breakthrough. We were in that seeming eternity between ceremony and reception that is meant to be a mix, mingle and drink time, but for me, was a panic attack waiting to happen, since I don’t drink and my mingling needs work. My mother and I found ourselves standing together in the garden court, smiling as Maddy blew kisses from rooms above, running from window to window, radiant and joyous. Turning, I saw Maddy’s mother chatting with her new son-in-law’s parents, her ex-husband by her side, an affectionate hand on her back. They were there for their daughter.
“That’s my wish,” I told my mother, “I want us to be family, for you and Jannine’s parents to come together when there are moments like these. To let differences not matter, and just be happy for us.”
Our mothers hadn’t had a good start as in-laws, partly because they were a lesson in opposites: Republican versus Democrat, married versus divorced, stay-at-home mother versus working mom, high school graduate versus University of California, Berkeley, graduate program. They met at our baby shower, when both of them weren’t most at ease: my mother because a baby shower for her lesbian daughter wasn’t quite within her original frame of reference, and Jannine’s because her first grandchild had disappeared with his father the day before during a visitation, and Grandma was crackling with anxiety, awaiting his eventual safe return. That had been six years before, and the mothers had been politely distant, and sat at opposite sides of the room if they had to be in the same room at all, ever since.
My mother didn’t say anything then, but she soon worked to make my wish come true. Jannine’s mom and dad met her halfway. It was a memorable evening when the two moms sat in our living room regaling us with stories about being poor in the fifties, the cheap crinolines they wore under their dresses, the humiliating lessons in posture they had to endure, and the ways they managed to be fashionable on nothing. The highlight was when both grandmothers told us we should get on with it and have more kids.
So, we had Graeme.
Supplying the Troops
“Why is marriage so important to you that you are camping all night to get a license?” “What makes you want to go through a legal marriage ceremony?” “Where will you get married when you get your license?” “Will you rush right out, or wait to plan a wedding?”
Chris, Terri and Jannine fielded all of the above and more, Chris often taking the “this is an important legal step, not just for us, but for all gay people seeking the right to marriage” angle in her calm, reasonable, radio-ready tones; Terri the “this is about equality” stand in emphatic, forthright and eminently quotable sentences; and Jannine responding in her usual folksy style that she deserves “the same rights and privileges as any Oregonian, and the same protections for our children,” and that she was there to make her relationship at long last legal.
I wasn’t doing my own job of protecting our children too well at the time. I let Duncan and Anna go ahead and watch the movie School of Rock by themselves, hoping blindly that Jack Black wouldn’t do anything too risqué. I stuck Graeme in the baby backpack, which he tolerates with good grace, and headed to the basement to look for the port-a-potty accompanied by our enormous Labrador, who nervously shadowed my every move, his body language saying, “What’s up? What’s up? What’s up?”
Would it really happen? I hoisted the port-a-potty up the stairs, checked that there was a bucket and a plastic bag inside, and set it by the front door. Would we really be able to get a license and get married? I shoved a dozen nutrition bars into a freezer bag. Would there be an injunction before we could have our seventeen year union recognized? The camping area next, water bottles, sleeping bags…
Could this all be real? Would we really, in the eyes of the law, be married? The camera, I had to remember the camera!
There was a heap by the door when Marty knocked, ready to transport young humans and gear to the County Building.
“Can you believe it?” were her first words when I opened the door. Like me, she had a wild-eyed expression that signaled joy, hope, doubt and shock all in one.
It was oh-so fitting that Marty’s mom gave them the news, because Marty knows everything first. If you want to know how to get somewhere, not only will she know where it is, she will remember the exact route, the exit numbers, the mileage, and an alternative route. She’s an obsessive newspaper reader who can analyze both political policy and the personal history of the guy who lives down the street with equal ease (and is hopelessly addicted to the obituaries).
Her partner, Terri, has the calm competence that made her the one we ran to when Duncan slammed a metal screen door on his finger years ago, the fingernail punching through to the other side, knowing she would take him through the obligatory clean-up kindly. She offers assistance with splinters, head knocks and obscure medical conditions, her heart always in the right place.
Their daughter, McKenzie, appeared in the doorway, muffled up to the eyeballs for the weather, “Are we ready to go now?” A take-no-prisoners girl with a mind of her own and chestnut ringlets, she wanted to be in on the action. Duncan and Anna pulled on coats and hats, and fairly flew down the front steps to the sidewalk. We squeezed the camping port-a-potty and our pile into the back of their already stuffed van (chairs, coolers, blankets, a laptop?) and Graeme and I waved as they drove off.
It felt anti-climactic to send the kids off with Marty, and wrong to not join Jannine in line, but a happy and well-rested baby comes first, especially if you might get married in the morning. Achieving “happy and well-rested” could be challenging, since Graeme was newly weaned, and I had no idea what the night might hold.
I’d cold turkey’d him at six the previous morning, one precious last feeding before buttoning up the milk source. It was a hard decision, but seemed necessary since sleep deprivation was getting to me both physically and psychologically, and fast becoming expensive. The previous week, I’d run into a pole at the video return box, putting a five hundred dollar dent in our new van, then inadvertently written a bad check to the orthodontist (wrong checking account) and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the check had bounced.
While I am the kind of mother who would happily nurse her offspring up to the preschool years, I told myself (with the emotional support of some good friends) that I needed to be a good mother not just to number three, but to numbers one and two as well, and I needed a brain for that.
This weaning thing is not just emotionally challenging, but logistically as well. He screamed himself silly for forty minutes the previous evening at bedtime (while furiously trying to pull up my T-shirt) before collapsing across my body, exhausted from his tirade. I’d sent everyone else to another floor of the house so they could sleep in peace. From experience, I knew he would survive this. I believed it was crueler to wean him bit by bit: “Will she nurse me now, or later? When will it be time? Where did the milk go? Why is she messing with my mind?” I could tell that when he screamed he wasn’t terrified, or anguished, or deeply in sorrow. He was mad. So I held him, and soothed him, and steadfastly refused to lift my shirt. I’d done this before.
From Wonder Woman to One-Breasted Wonder
When I first dove into motherhood, like many women, I thought I should be Wonder Woman. I could have a baby on my hip, a pen in my hand, and a vacuum… I don’t even want to speculate. And nothing should be easy, either: no disposables, no baby-sitters, no playpens, cribs or bottles of formula. I would nurture our babies at the breast, with antibodies, and proteins, and the very elixir of life.
Which was why I was a one-breasted wonder. Not that I wasn’t lucky enough to still have two breasts, it’s just that you couldn’t tell by looking at me. One was gargantuan, like the breast of a Mesopotamian fertility goddess. The other was wasted away like the aging inside of a size-two society matron’s ball gown.
Graeme was a left breast baby, like his sister before him.
Before childrearing, the functional capacity of breasts had never particularly interested me. They were a thing unto themselves: sensual, velvety, associated with college dorm rooms, and Geena Davis walking around in her underwear in Tootsie. The only thing I knew about my own breasts was that I wore the same bra size as Madonna and that they evoked interest from others.
All that changed with Duncan. From the moment Doctor Clark placed his newly born body on mine, his chief occupation was remaining attached to my breasts, night and day, day and night. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about the lactation period: their little hands holding you in a vise-like grip lest you get away before they take their fill, that sweet, drunken look they get as they latch on, and the knowledge that even if you are sitting on your butt reading a book while nursing, you are accomplishing an important task that no one but you can do.
I had been looking forward to the lactation lifestyle once more. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. But babies have a way of their own. While Duncan wouldn’t have left a drop un-drunk, both Anna and Graeme had a favorite side, and like any connoisseurs, would not be swayed. Anna was eight months old when she switched, and she may not have been able to speak, but she made herself perfectly clear. Upon being placed against the “wrong” breast, she faked it for a minute and then hurled herself to the other side, rubbing her face determinedly against my left side until I let her in.
Graeme seemed to come out of the womb with his predilection, which after weeks of lactation consultation, we discovered was wise on his part. The left side was like sucking through a milk shake straw, the right like sipping through a clogged coffee stir, unproductive and energy consuming. No wonder Anna and Graeme gave it up. The results were my lop-sided situation. When I told the pediatrician years ago that Anna would only nurse on one side, she replied “Obviously,” and I still had my coat on. Jannine had failed to notice anything until I mentioned the pediatrician’s comment, at which time she blinked, gaped and said, “Whoa!” So much for her powers of observation.
With Anna, I wondered if it was Mother Nature’s way of giving my right breast a much needed vacation after Duncan, or if it was symbolic of an overabundance on my analytical side, and an undernourished creative one. With Graeme, I know it must have been my Wonder Woman complex; I was so powerful I could feed an infant with one breast tied behind my back.
Not even Wonder Woman could do that.
First in Line
“Goin’ to the chapel, and we’re gonna get married,” sang Chris and Terri in unison, complete with finger snapping and swaying hips, as television cameramen smiled and filmed it all. They followed that up with a rousing rendition of “I’m Getting Married in the Morning”, the song nearly complete when their children ran screaming down the sidewalk and literally leapt on them, after Lisa and Marty released them from their respective vans.
The kids were buzzed, almost as thrilled as the moms at this sudden turn of events, and with much more energy. Anna clung like a monkey to Katie, and Duncan and Jacob quickly got down to the business of discussing Dungeons and Dragons, their latest enthusiasm, and one that I met with anxiety, having dated two practitioners of the game: one within the “normal” range of gaming geekdom, and one who would disappear for days at a time to play and consume copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.
Jacob, like Duncan, is intense, though his comes in the volcanic format and Duncan’s in the hidden riptide, and his large, green eyes shaded by thick lashes are a reminder of his likeness to a Renaissance Jesus in infancy. Katie was, at thirteen, the perfect older girl idol for Anna, a charming combination of Ethel Merman, Hilary Clinton and Amy March from Little Women, unblushing in her selfhood.
“Do we have to go to school tomorrow?” McKenzie asked, voicing the unspoken question the kids wanted answered.
Marty and Terri looked at her like she was crazy, “No way, you’ve got a wedding to go to!” creating a spontaneous cheer among the kids at the thought that not only were their parents going to get married, they got to miss a day of school as well.
Eminently practical, Lisa pointed out that even if they didn’t have to go to school, they did have to go to bed, so the kids were hustled back into the vans, waving one last time at the cameramen and reporters, before being driven first to our house, so they could see themselves on the eleven o’clock news and fill me in on all the details.
“There’s something going on outside the Multnomah County Building,” the news anchorwoman said as the local news started, and the kids piled themselves onto our family room floor, Marty and Lisa collapsing on the couch. Graeme was still awake, determined not to miss anything, yet remarkably cheerful considering his routine was upset, his people scattered, and his breast milk mysteriously denied him. The news cameras showed that the line had extended beyond the other two couples who had joined our crew, ready to camp all night, and that others were arriving steadily. Already, the strange contrast between reality and spin was evident, as the news anchor described the “ongoing drama”, and the cameras clearly indicated that what was happening couldn’t have been less dramatic.
The night brought little sleep for Chris, Terri and Jannine. Jannine came home for a couple of hours around midnight to work, finishing tasks due, and sending out an e-mail to her boss and co-workers to say she wouldn’t be in the next day because she hoped to be getting married. Chris tried to sleep in our van, stretching out to ease the pain from her recently broken leg. Terri didn’t even try to rest. She sat on her lawn chair next to our friend, Jeanna, who had joined “the grooms” in line. They chatted with the next women behind them, and whoever came up to them during the night.
From midnight on, supporters brought coffee, donuts and flowers. Members of Love Makes a Family, a gay and lesbian family group, made regular visits to make sure the couples had everything they needed, and felt safe.
The reporters were there for the duration, asking questions of anyone who was willing to be quoted, and not necessarily getting it that the first three women in line had spouses awaiting them at home, resulting in continuous errors as to who was marrying whom. In various reports, Chris was marrying Jannine, Jannine was marrying Terri and Terri was marrying Chris, unnatural combinations that would never work. It got too tiring, and time consuming, for the three of them to correct all the misimpressions, and every couple later received at least one congratulatory card addressed to the wrong set of spouses.
There was also the “first in line” question. All three tried to explain that “they” were first in line, the three couples, and each “groom” had that spot at some point during the night. But the reporters wanted sound bites and the explanation was lost. Chris offered Bonnie Tinker, the head of Love Makes a Family, and her partner of twenty-seven years, Sara Graham, the “first in line” status, in honor of their long commitment. It made a simpler sound bite, too.
I’d finally scraped the kids off the ceiling around midnight, settling them on the floor in our room. The expected tussle with Graeme was nonexistent. He was so exhausted he simply collapsed in my arms. I couldn’t sleep, my mind racing, but I didn’t dare get up and, I don’t know—clean the house, do my nails, wax my upper lip? For fear that Graeme would wake up and scream the house down. I finally fell asleep after four, and was wakened at 5:10 when Jannine called, a catch of excitement in her voice:
“This is your wake-up call! You need to get down here. You and the kids need to be a part of this.”
Luckily, Graeme was hard asleep, his irrepressible instinct to wake and follow me squashed by sheer fatigue. I hustled around in the half-light, brushed my hair, slapped on my face (lipstick, rouge, mascara and three layers of under-eye concealer, including a touch of Preparation H to reduce the baggies), equivocated about clothing for thirty seconds, and woke the kids. They sprang up with a vengeance, jumped into their clothes without prompting, brushed teeth, combed hair and were ready to go, a miracle of efficiency that paid tribute to their enthusiasm for this venture. We called Marty across the street (who was already up, moving, and making coffee), stuffed Graeme into his car seat still sleeping, and managed to join our spouses by 6:15.
The line of couples was to the corner of the Multnomah County Building and beyond, a sea of spouses with one mission. Jannine was right by the double glass doors at the entrance when we reached her, with an Oregonian photographer standing beside her, waiting for developments.
“I need you to fill out your portion,” Jannine handed me a marriage license application she’d been given in the night by Love Makes a Family, who’d stored up copies for just such an occasion. “Don’t change anything or they’ll make you start all over,” she turned away to check on the older two kids, tickled Graeme who was now awake, then turned back, “Oh, and good morning,” she said, kissing me.
A box of donuts was handed to us for the kids, and a man came by with trays of steaming Venti coffees from Starbucks. I declined, fearing an aneurysm if I got any more excited than I already was, though that didn’t keep me from the Diet Coke I’d stuck in my bag.
“My partner and I got married in San Francisco, and someone brought us coffee, so I wanted to do the same for you,” the man told us. After he moved down the line with the coffees, fresh glazed Krispy Kreme donuts made the circuit on a trolley pushed by a jubilant gay man, hocking donuts like a peanut vendor at a ball game, but without remuneration.
A multi-color haired, twenty-something was jumping up and down in place with excitement as she watched the line forming, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, this is so exciting!”
A middle-aged straight man came up to Terri with a bottle of champagne. “I saw you on the news,” he told Terri, “And I had this bottle in the fridge, and when I saw you, I knew what the right thing was to do with it.” He handed it to her with a bouquet of flowers he’d picked up on the way.
Anna’s pal, Jordyn, came up with her mom, Ellen. Ellen’s partner, Jeanna, was still there from the night before, and Ellen came as soon as she’d made sure their older girl, Tori, was ready for school.
Tori and Jordyn are the same ages as our oldest two, and fast outdistancing their mothers in height. Jeanna and Ellen had been together eighteen years: Jeanna, a tiny and youthful woman who competes in triathlons for the almost fifty, Ellen, a red-haired, soothing-voiced woman from a large Mormon family.
The reporters and photographers were clearly fascinated by all these kids. Perhaps this wasn’t what they expected when they got the tip that a line was forming, and marriage licenses were going to be granted that morning for lesbians and gays. Were they thinking drag queens and leather dykes, chanting members of ACT-UP, college sweethearts, or gay septuagenarians who never thought they’d live to see the day? Graeme was photographed endlessly as he bobbed up and down, first in the backpack, and later in my arms. Reporters talked to each of the kids, always polite, never pushing, careful not to make the kids nervous, or hound them in any way.
It felt like the reporters on the spot were thrilled by this event. There was an unspoken sense that they were cheerleaders, not just impartial observers of this social change happening with a bang, an interesting contrast to the television news anchors who looked serious, somber and a little disapproving as they spoke to reporters on the scene from the safety of the newsroom using words like “chaos” and “radical” and “revolutionary”, as if they couldn’t see that it was just couples queuing up quietly and civilly to get married.
The kids handled themselves well, talking to the reporters without fear and with varying enthusiasm based on their shyer or more outgoing natures. All these children are growing up knowing their parents love one another, and they are well-practiced at being out about their families. None of us would have it any other way.
No Closet, After Kids
When we first had Duncan, I wanted to be such an exemplary mother that it wouldn’t matter that I was also a lesbian. I was looking for some kind of benediction for daring to have him, simply because we selfishly wanted him. As if by being exemplary, I could be forgiven this audacious act, and he, and his siblings, would never feel the breath of prejudice.
I got over all that, some strange cocktail of internalized homophobia and post-partum depression that left me breathless.
Many years into lesbian motherhood, I can say from experience that there is a rule of reciprocity about being out. If you feel confident and assume it will be fine, most often it is. Equally, if you approach revealing your sexual orientation as if it is a tender subject and potentially volatile, it will be.
During the long months we discussed becoming parents, before taking the plunge to make that happen, a major topic was being out. We knew that once we were parents, there was no going back.
The real transition from discreet to wide open was a little bumpy. We were the first out of the closet couple to have a baby at Providence Hospital in Seattle; yet, two months later, I was huddling inside our freezing nineteen-seventies Volkswagen van while Jannine brought Duncan to her office at Boeing to meet her co-workers, who knew that Jannine was adopting him (and wondered how she’d gotten her hands on a green-eyed, blonde, white baby in such a short time), but had still to learn that Jannine was living with the birth mother as well.
By the time he turned three months, and Jannine’s co-parent adoption was finalized, her co-workers knew, and rose to the occasion.
At first, it felt like a big deal every time I had to say the words, “He doesn’t have a dad, he has two moms.” I would pause every time someone wanted to know what my husband did, or if he looked like his father, or how long I’d been married. Each time there was that subterranean fear. Would the mom next to me on the bench stand up and walk away? Would I hear a spirited lecture on modern morality? Would my child witness some kind of right-wing religious response right there in the line at the supermarket?
So far, no.
Jannine takes care of most of those “What does your husband do?” kind of questions by posting photographs of me and our kids in her cubicle at work, and she came out in the job interview when we moved to Portland, getting it on the table from day one.
I still get butterflies in my stomach when I’m meeting the parents of one of my kids’ classmates for the first time while setting up a play date, or assuring the parents, before their child comes over, that we have no guns, drugs, or weird relatives at our house. The butterflies aren’t for me, but for our children. I worry that the friendship is going to be stalled by a parent who says, “No, Sarah can’t play with Anna,” when he or she discovers that Anna has two moms. Despite the butterflies, I have to be straightforward about who we are, so our kids will be, too.
Being straightforward can reap unexpected rewards. Years ago, a mom from our son’s school turned to me and said, “So you stay home too, right? What does your husband do?”
I looked at her long bleached-blonde hair, serious cleavage, tight jeans and high-heeled boots, knowing from previous conversations that she was from a large Catholic family, trying not to stereotype her any more than I’d want her to stereotype me.
Then I told her where “my partner” worked.
“Oh”, she said. There was a long pause. Then she told me all about her two gay sisters, one of them struggling with it because of being Catholic. “She should just get over it and be happy.” I still get reports from time to time on her sisters, one now expecting a child with her partner.
Because I was out, she felt free to talk about her sisters.
I think sometimes it is our children who will change the world for us. Three of our daughter’s closest friends are from very traditional, Christian families, nice girls with good manners who like to come to our house because it’s teeming with pets, and because, despite a culture that pressures girls to be mean, Anna is a nice girl. She has become expert at calmly explaining her family structure, knowing when to give details, and when to just give the basics, without apology, qualification, or hesitation. The only thing the girls have said about our family is how lucky Anna is to have two moms.
Duncan has been our biggest proponent from day one; his love and faith in us made it clear that we were OK the way we were, that we were the parents he wanted to have, and he has communicated that faith, whenever it has come up, for his entire thirteen years. He has a calm rationality that lent him the title “Mr. Switzerland” in second grade, and allows him to counter argument or prejudice without sinking to the level of his opposition. Graeme is entering a new world because of them.
I Have Wedding Issues Too
One persistent television reporter from Seattle wanted to interview Jannine, and me, live. He set us up in front of the lights, asked us to hold up our license application, and waited for his cue. Jannine hadn’t slept all night. I was holding a squirming one year-old. When he got the signal that we were “go”, he introduced us, then asked, “Why is it so important to be here today, right now, on the first day of legal same-sex marriage?”
Jannine answered. “For years now, Beren has wanted to get married, to have a wedding, and I was reluctant,” she glanced at me, “But I told her if it ever became legal, I’d be one of the first in line.”
And it hit me. My God, that was why she’d hustled right down to the County Building, to put her money where her mouth was. To let me know she hadn’t just been whistling Dixie, or putting me off because, after all, hell would freeze over before she’d actually have to keep that promise. She meant it. We both had tears in our eyes.
Recently, marriage hadn’t been a high priority. We were thrilled that legal advancements were a possibility; but it wasn’t something I thought about with every waking breath.
There have been times though, when I couldn’t say the same.
It would be a gross exaggeration to describe me as the happy-go-lucky type, though typically I am not one to loll around in misery by choice. However, years ago I entered a mire of matrimonial emotion, caused not only by Jannine’s unwillingness to walk down the aisle, but by an assortment of unrelated circumstances: Duncan, who had dominated my landscape, entering first grade and spending half his waking hours with someone other than me; Anna spontaneously potty training herself in a day, starting preschool, and looking way too mature in her biking shorts and T-shirt; and Jannine’s having spent the entire summer obeying her company’s unwritten rule that none of their employees should have a home life. We hardly saw her.
That September, I went away for a weekend by myself for the first time in seven years, and it had to be to a wedding.
I was happy that my cousin, Maddy, was getting married. She is an effervescent, generous soul who cannot help being drop-dead gorgeous, or that I feel like a piece of halibut in her presence. Her husband is swell, too. They’ve been fabulous to our kids, cheerleaders for us, and even managed to maintain their equilibrium when our Ford Escort station wagon was totaled in a four car pileup on the freeway, with them in it, one Thanksgiving afternoon. Despite any natural desire to avoid weddings in that kind of emotional condition, I wanted to go.
So did Jannine, but she stayed home with the kids because they were not at wedding compatible ages (they were yet to discover the joys of candle wax), and our budget was equally incompatible with four plane tickets plus hotel. Sadly, going solo robbed me of my identity, as well as my built-in conversation pieces: “This is Duncan, he’ll be seven in November”, “Anna just started preschool”, and “Yes, they do look a lot alike, we cloned them in our basement.” In close proximity to my family of origin without Jannine and the kids as a buffer, I become not “Beren deMotier, partner, parent and pundit wanna-be”, I become “formerly-Laura, dysfunctional family member/eternally inadequate younger sibling”. It’s not a pretty sight.
Despite that, it was a good time. Partly because my friend Laurie lent me a killer brick red cocktail dress (since then, I only wear “Laurie clothes” to weddings), partly because, despite being held in a vast, decaying, gothic castle plopped down in the middle of Los Angeles, the wedding party, and those attending, were not a prim and proper group; even the elderly relatives from Turkey were ready to party. It may be the first wedding where the Hora was followed by YMCA on the dance floor. I think it was the sense of communal joy that spurred me to skip making inspired orations on gay and lesbian marriage to anyone who would listen, and to sink later to a depth of depression that had Jannine scooping me from the floor with a spatula.
Certainly being premenstrual at the time added to my poor, poor, pitiful me outlook, as well as the impending onset of a cold, but I can’t be the only lesbian who’s become unbalanced around weddings. At times, I’ve wished I were one of those lesbians who are comfortable with non-conformity, the kind who sport nose rings, crew cuts and facial hair, impervious to the pressures of society at large and living by their own rules (or the rules of their chosen subculture). But, alas, I’m embarrassingly mainstream. We’re born into a society that feeds us expectations, potentials, and judgments about everything, and whether I swallow them whole, throw up the whole mess, go hungry, or selectively binge on them at irregular intervals, they’re part of who I am.
For me, weddings did what a good therapist couldn’t do in twenty sessions: bring to the surface a whole lot of suppressed sorrow. Not about my “lifestyle”, which is just fine, thank you very much, has the usual ups and downs and is about as unthreatening as a cup of organic yogurt, but in the way it is, or has been, treated by the ones I love.
And I’m one of the lucky ones; I haven’t been disowned, disavowed or sent to shock therapy. Yet, was I wrong to mourn that Jannine and I could never have the kind of wedding I witnessed, one where both families were enthusiastic, willing to work through differences and just happy that the couple had found each other? Without spending fifteen years getting used to the idea?
I know that for many gays, marriage seems as assimilation-ist and atavistic as becoming a Freemason or joining the PTA, but even for them, it must hurt to know that we are expected, by many in this country, to be happy our relationships are “tolerated,” as if that is all we should hope for. The dictionary defines “tolerate” as “to endure without repugnance; to put up with.” We deserve better than that.
I also know that, as a community, we have other fish to fry. We have adoption rights, health care issues, legal discrimination, and oh, our nation being bogged down in a military quagmire in Iraq. Marriage seems a luxury when gay people are dying from beatings and lack of adequate medical care. Most of us would be happy to get a date that turned out well, much less an engagement ring. But just call me a glutton, a Bruce Bawer “place at the table” kind of girl because I want the luxury of legal marriage, even if just for that piece of paper that proves our relationship is something more than “tolerated”.
I Come From Interesting Stock
Multnomah County Council members Lisa Naito, Maria Rojo de Steffey and Serena Cruz came by to congratulate several of the waiting couples on their way into the building. Press photographers were snapping images that would fuel the fire of dissent about the commissioners’ decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, eventually leading to an unsuccessful recall attempt for two of the county commissioners and a public apology from County Chair Diane Linn, not for offering the licenses to same-sex couples, she doesn’t apologize for that, but for the way she went about it.
These four women who voted to legally recognize our relationships risked political suicide by agreeing that the Oregon State Constitution required equal privileges and immunities to all, and by listening to the legal opinion of County Attorney Agnes Sowle, who said that those privileges and immunities included marriage. Sowle also suggested that the Multnomah County Commission could be vulnerable to lawsuits if they didn’t allow same-sex marriage. The Commissioners, with the exception of Lonnie Roberts, who opposes same-sex marriage (but supports civil unions) and was left out of the loop (thus the apology by Diane Linn), voted to act immediately, to keep same-sex marriage from sinking under the mire of public debate, while the opposition mobilized, filing petition after petition to make darn sure same-sex marriage in Multnomah County never came to pass.
While I am sure in my mind that these four intelligent, politically savvy women were only interpreting the state constitution as accurately as they could, my heart prefers a more imaginative scenario: all four commissioners, two blondes and two brunettes with a heavy load of responsibility, were letting their hair down at a Hawthorne pub after a tough day in politics, their high heels kicked off under their stools, their symbolic neckties loosened, when one of them took a long drink of microbrew and said, “If I have to sit through one more all-day meeting, I am going to scream.” “Yeah, me too,” agreed the commissioner on the next stool. Beside her, the third commissioner muttered, “You know what, if I could do one thing before my term is over, it would be to legalize same-sex marriage.” The fourth commissioner slapped her hand on the bar and said, “Me, too. I never get to do enough to make people happy, I’m always putting out fires.” “You know, there is a legal precedent here,” added the first woman. “Yeah, we’d be heroines if we could make it happen,” the second woman said, “To some of the voters anyway.” “We’d never live it down,” number four suggested. “And we might never work in government again,” the third one added, “But we’d make a lot of families happy.” I imagine them all silent a moment, drinking in the consequences, then looking at each other and saying, “Let’s do it.”
Lisa finally arrived with Katie and Jacob, her long dark hair loose and wet from the shower. She was flustered and beaming, carrying folding chairs for which there was now no room, her eyes bright with disbelief and barely contained joy. Katie and Jacob joined the other children: Katie to link arms with Anna, Jacob to enter into a serious discussion of D & D with Duncan.
Soon, Tom Disrud, the Associate Minister of the First Unitarian Church, arrived in support of his many parishioners at the front of the line. He was greeted with cheers. Tom is a shy, brotherly man, and openly gay. His sermons meander over everyday issues, bringing meaning to mundane details; he seems human, not an authoritarian god-like person who will tell us what to believe or how to be a good Unitarian, as if anyone could agree on that. When he speaks, you can imagine him puttering in his garden, wondering if his rhododendron is dying or dormant, pondering how to fertilize the grass without harming the environment, or whether he should keep his lawn Portland-style and let it die in the summer and rise again in the fall, surely the most Judeo-Christian of lawn managements.
Tom joined us for the duration, ducking into the building to check out whether he could marry us there and then, at the County Building, when we got our licenses. He came back to let us know he was asked to refrain from marrying couples inside the building, in consideration of the crush, but he was willing to make the sidewalk a sacred space if that was what we desired.
I tried again to reach my mother on the phone. I’d tried twice before with no answer, worrying since she is generally up by five. Then, she answered with a tentative, “Hello?”
“Hi, it’s me. We’re in line at the County Building, and we’re getting a marriage license.”
“What!?” she screamed.
“I know, I know. Turn on the news! We don’t know if we’re getting married today because there may be a waiting period; if there is, we’re getting married Saturday, if not, today.” She squealed so loudly that Terri could hear her a few feet away.
“Do you want to be there if we get married today?”
She yelled, “Do I want to be there? Of course I want to be there! I’ve waited my whole life for this,” adding, “And I’m going to throw a reception and by golly, the relatives are all going to come!”
I was unbelievably happy, this reaction was better than I could have hoped for. She was happy for me. She got it. She wanted to be there. I told her I’d let her know when I knew what was going to happen. We hung up and I was smiling, Chris and Terri hugged me, happy that this went so very well.
My family of origin has offered challenges over the years, and to be fair, I have offered them in return. My mother and I have the usual mother/daughter conflict, but we also have multigenerational junk between us. I come from interesting stock. I am one of two sisters, born of the eldest of three sisters, born of the eldest of three sisters, born of an only daughter. Luckily, I am a younger daughter, so I was able to have two sons without messing up the whole “girls only” tradition that runs along the elder daughter line, though my sister has so far failed to fulfill her quota.
The women in our family also tend to graduate from high school early (and have been college educated for generations), heading off to college at seventeen. I got my braces off the day before leaving for college, and turned seventeen only days before, which, in retrospect, didn’t help my transition to higher education, though it did attract large numbers of leftist young men who wanted to sleep with girls the same age as their sisters.
Our women have also tended to choose difficult men. My father was a moody, alcoholic, folk musician/early computer geek who drank himself to death; my mother’s father, a successful writer, loved my grandmother passionately, yet they engaged in legendary, alcohol-fueled fights during cocktail parties that had the guests running for the door; my great grandfather stuck his head in the gas oven when the stock market crashed, and my great, great grandfather ran off with his secretary, leaving his wife (known in the family as “The Victorian Beauty”) in the lurch and on the hands of her grown daughter, the widow of the man who stuck his head in the gas oven. As if she didn’t have enough problems.
One might think all this had something to do with my lack of interest in mating for life with a man, but really, I was born this way. From an early age, it was plain to me that women were prettier than men, we spoke the same language (that whole Mars/Venus thing never worked for me), and if I couldn’t grow up and marry my zaftig, red-headed school crush, Tina (who I followed around like a faithful dog during my years at Maple Elementary), I wouldn’t marry at all.
Not that I didn’t give boys a try. I had a busy three years of heterosexual activity from sixteen to nineteen, including nearly year-long relationships with: 1. an asthmatic, drug-addled electric guitarist with a great profile who taught me Human Sexuality 400 in his basement bedroom, loved me so much that he threatened to kill me with a straight razor, and while able to spout intelligent, feminist analysis one moment, was a raving anger management problem the next. It was while the straight razor was held against my throat, and he started muttering about his grandfather’s gun, that I thought, “I could die here,” and decided to do a geographic to college, instead of enrolling locally. 2. A nice guy who happened to be the Resident Advisor at my freshman dorm. He was a handsome, wholesome, strapping specimen who sat down next to me on the dorm steps a couple days after school began, to ask how I was adjusting to campus life, and never knew what hit him. I suspect that I scared him to death in my red polyvinyl cowboy boots, a seventeen year-old nymphet with a graduate degree in sex who was willing to home tutor, and having found someone decent (yet warped, I discovered, in a good way), wanted nothing but him, him, him… except, perhaps, that lovely young lady in drama class? 3. A self-described “thief” from Buffalo with a crooked moral compass. He was cute, smooth and probably about as faithful as your average Hollywood husband, though I was every bit as bad. I broke up with him by telling him I was involved with a girl he’d dated, a blonde beauty I met when I was sixteen and she, fourteen. She’d skipped down the smoking area at Lincoln High School, her long, golden hair, sparkling blue eyes and rosy cheeks a vision, and I’d turned to the girl next to me and said, “Who is that?”
The girl looked at me like I was nuts, “She’s your boyfriend’s little sister!”
But it wasn’t the golden girl who actually wrenched the door of my closet wide; it was athletic, suave, gender-bending Jennifer from my Women in Literature class who managed that, though she might have mentioned she had a live-in lover before she stole my heart.
Ironically, she went on to date the golden girl…
I gave dating boys the old college try, mostly for my mother. She wanted me to be heterosexual in a big way, having sat me down when I was fifteen and informed me that sex was the center of the universe (a confusing message) and I gave it my dysfunctional best. When I came out to her twenty-one years ago, eager to tell her about the flawless Jen-Jen, she insisted that she had “two straight daughters”, and she’d have “two straight son-in-laws”.
But, now she was so happy I was marrying a nice girl, instead. And she wanted to be there.
Why Don’t You Marry Your Dog?
“God hates this!”
“You are an abomination to God!”
“How dare you bring children to this place of sin?”
Around eight o’clock, two protesters came to rain on our parade. Both of them were youngish men, Caucasian and brown haired. One of them wore a white shirt and tie and just carried a big sign reading “Repent Perverts,” at first standing across the street, then standing in the street, and then finally standing so close he could almost touch the couples in line, as if his fear of the enemy had diminished over time. The other man, a muscle-bound fanatic, spewed biblical hate-speak at a fevered pitch, like an auctioneer for God, selling our souls to hell. He never seemed to draw breath as he shrieked his vitriolic distaste for our desire to marry, at one point while holding up a sign that read, “Can you escape the wrath of God?”
His message was falling flat in our section, since we’re the sort of women with bumper stickers like “my God is too big to fit in any one religion”, “co-exist”, and “sorry I missed church, I was busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian,” despite being regular church attendees.
He began screaming, “Why don’t you marry your dog?” over and over again, as if to pound home his point that gay men and lesbians were not only an abomination, but mere animals, no more worthy of love and marriage than household pets. The noise of the jubilant crowd couldn’t drown him out, and our son Duncan didn’t miss a word.
Duncan is famous for his hearing. We can whisper three rooms away, yet he hears all, occasionally shouting interjections into the conversation we were trying to keep private. He is a challenge at holiday time.
This talent didn’t help him that morning. It was when the man was screaming, “Why don’t you marry your dog?” that I saw Duncan curled up under a blanket on one of the lawn chairs, his hands over his ears, his eyes shut, and my heart went cold. It is one thing to know in your head that there are people who don’t support your family, it is quite another to hear your parents called an abomination and their torturous stint in hell described at leisure.
I wanted our children with us, but, being one of those individuals who always imagine the worst, in Technicolor, I had feared what could happen. I’d asked Lisa the night before, as we watched our spouses on the news, “Will the kids be safe? Will there be a lot of protesters? Do you think they’ll throw things at us?” Lisa had been confident. “Right,” she said, “There will be a handful of them, and hundreds of us. I don’t think so,” her unspoken words painting a picture of hordes of happy couples attacking anyone who dared hurt our children. She was right, but even if no one threw stones or tomatoes, the words still hurt.
Not that we haven’t been hurt before.
It was five years ago now that a thirteen year-old boy asked Chris and me, “Does it hurt?” when Chris and I were doing a speaking engagement at Oregon Episcopal School. We’d been invited by our neighbor, Bonnie, who teaches middle school there and thought that since the kids were studying anti-gay legislation as part of social studies, they should hear from honest-to-God gay people themselves on the subject.
Measure 9 was coming up on the November ballot, and we were there to talk about how it would eradicate gay people from public education: in history, in literature, in health class, in efforts to end harassment among students. The measure read: “Sexual orientation, as it relates to homosexuality and bisexuality, is a divisive subject matter not necessary to the instruction of students in public schools. Notwithstanding any other law or rule, the instruction of behaviors relating to homosexuality and bisexuality shall not be presented in a public school in a manner which encourages, promotes or sanctions such behaviors.” The obvious result of Measure 9 would be that negative things could be said about bisexuality or homosexuality, but to oppose those statements would mean sanctions against the school. Teachers would be silenced from saying anything to defend us, or our kids. We would be taboo.
It was inspirational talking with those intelligent, thoughtful kids; they asked good questions.
Questions like: “Is there anything about the measure that you agree with?” “Would the measure affect just what teachers say and do, or would speech between students be affected?” “Would you be able to talk to us like this, if the measure passed?”
Toward the end, they asked a few more personal questions: “How did your families react when you came out?” “How do your children feel about your being gay, do they think it’s cool?”
And right at the end, “Does it hurt?”
We had an answer for that one. Chris and I had talked about it that morning. We both agreed that even in a life full of friends and kids and spouses, it hurt like hell to have to fight continually for our dignity and equality.
It’s hard to get used to being demonized.
Chris explained to the OES students the basic difference of opinion between those for, and those against Measure 9, that those who support the Measure believe that being gay is a choice, that it is a moral and ethical failing that brings joy to no one. We, she went on, speaking for those against Measure 9, believe that being gay is natural and normal, like being left-handed or blonde. This, she explained, is why it is almost impossible to bridge this division.
Measure 9 failed, by a tiny margin, thanks to a lot of volunteers going door to door. But I was chicken; I couldn’t bring myself to canvass against the Measure. I couldn’t face hearing, straight from the voter’s mouth, that he or she thought that I was a “divisive issue” and “unnecessary to the public instruction of students”, that my life and I were not things to be “encouraged, promoted or sanctioned” in any way.
Yes, Chris told the boy, it is painful for anyone to think our lives are so unworthy.