A Queer History

I’ve been writing about marriage since 1993—two decades now. I expected these decisions, like everyone else. And yet I was still grinning like a fool when, with one fist, the Supreme Court smashed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—the 1996 law that banned the federal government from recognizing my marriage in Massachusetts—and with the other hand waved away the Proposition 8 case like a gnat. In practice, that means same-sex couples will soon marry again in California, the most populous state in the nation. And it means I am married not just in Massachusetts, but also in the United States (although not necessarily in Virginia, Texas, or any other state that bans same-sex marriage) for such exciting purposes as filing federal taxes, Social Security claims, immigration, and insurance. 

And yes, we’ll immediately be seeing a couple hundred more dollars in my prosecutor wife’s paycheck every month, as Massachusetts informed us by the day’s end, since the feds won’t be taxing my listing on her health insurance any more. And while all that practical stuff matters, it wasn’t what had me grinning like a cheshire cat. Mid-morning, as I watched reactions slide down my Tweetdeck columns, I felt the last bit of my supervillain costume evaporating. 

I first glimpsed the costume at ten or twelve, when I started having a terrible recurring nightmare. An enormous man was in my closet—huge, hulking, hairy—wearing my clothes. He was crouching right behind the louvered doors, just steps away from my suburban trundle bed. It was one of those paralyzing nightmares from which I had trouble entirely waking up: My heart pounded so hard I was frozen. Not for years did I grasp what my sleeping mind had been trying to telling me: that was me. I might not be a girl at all. I was something to fear, a man in a little girl’s body, a supervillain, a queer. 

I wasn’t transgendered; I wasn’t even particularly masculine. But it was the end of the 1960s, which in the Air Force suburb where I lived, meant, culturally, it was the 1950s. My imagination wasn’t very sophisticated, but it knew before I did that I didn’t fit. I was already a little big, a little awkward, a little bookish. I didn’t want to be a supervillain, too. When other girls had crushes on the Monkees, I picked one to squeal about. When I was struck with the horrible insight that I wanted to kiss another girl, I chased boys. 

By the age of twenty, to save my life—I had begun fantasizing about cleaning myself out with drano—I gave up and proudly donned the supervillain costume. I found a girl, shoved open those louvered doors and started shouting, like so many of us, that I was queer. We were the imminent death of civilization? Really? Okay then! Civilization be damned! I’d be transgressive, a proud outsider, a critic of all of you with your boring patriarchal families. I covered my backpack and ancient VW with buttons and stickers. I cut my hair razor-short, wore overalls and hiking boots, and walked around as a stereotype incarnate. When I first came out in 1978, there wasn’t much open gay activism: The closest thing on my state land-grant college’s campus was a feminist “women’s group” that was in fact a lesbian group. The gay boys went partying instead. 

Although I didn’t know it at the time, back then a handful of couples had tried to get married, here and there. When they did, they were snorted out of court. In 1973, two women in Kentucky applied for a marriage license, and sued when they were refused one. The Kentucky Court of Appeals’s reasoning for siding with the state was the same that, today, gets treated as ridiculous: Marriage was by definition between a man and a woman, a union made real by a potentially procreative sex act. 11. As the indefatigable Chris Geidner reports over at Buzzfeed, the court wrote: “It appears to us that [the women] are prevented from marrying, not by the statutes of Kentucky or the refusal of the County Court Clerk of Jefferson County to issue them a license, but rather by their own incapability of entering into a marriage as that term is defined. ... In substance, the relationship proposed by the [women] does not authorize the issuance of a marriage license because what they propose is not a marriage.”

 

I landed in Boston in the early 1980s at roughly the same time that Barney Frank was elected to the House of Representatives. A few determined political folks were starting to lobby for such basics as anti-discrimination ordinances and on-the-job domestic-partner benefits. There weren’t many of us, and we all knew each other. We talked mostly among ourselves in those years. Here in Boston, a local woman, Laurel Chiten, filmed a soap opera called 2 in 20: Because one in ten is so lonely. We jammed the Somerville movie theater for it. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel chronicled my generation’s lives and politics in the fictional strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran in the feminist and gay press. There was the incendiary and groundbreaking Gay Community News, for those inclined to collaborate with the other sex; Sojourner, the feminist newspaper where I was editor ever so briefly; and Fag Rag, for those who specialized in gay liberation. Back then we didn’t exist in popular culture. When the Gay City News office went up in flames—probably arson—you heard about it from the other gay outlets. Few straight people had any interest in our existence. We weren’t mentioned in the mainstream news media, except (wink wink) in home décor and Ann Landers columns. Occasionally, if the handful of activists in a given town pressed a newspaper really hard, it would briefly cover a particularly brutal gay bashing or murder. 

Sex and love, of course, were what helped us have the nerve to throw open those louvered closet doors. After all the anxiety, actually touching one another was insanely energizing: Wait, they made me feel there was something wrong with this?! Like the hippies before us, we queers could believe that simply making love would change the world. Who could hate us for that?

Plenty of people. I was spat upon. Right here in liberal Massachusetts I was called hideous things walking down Cambridge’s Oxford Street. I learned to beware of teenagers, especially a particular gang who lived on my street. I worried about my safety at night. I was never physically attacked, thank God, and neither was anyone I knew. But we knew it was possible. The looks of disgust, disdain, contempt, hatred, fear—any hated minority (immigrants, Muslims, African Americans) knows how those slice into your insides. 

The religious right made hideous films to warn audiences that we were coming to molest their kids. “Researchers” compiled hideous fake facts, which got repeated ceaselessly, painting us as lust-driven superpredators. “Pray away the gay” groups did untold damage to thousands of people like the Prospect’s own Gabriel Arana. Gay groups’ headquarters were attacked, burned, threatened, defaced.

How nasty was the climate? In 1984, the Boston Globe published an article noting that two foster children had been placed with a gay male couple. The governor, Michael Dukakis, yanked those kids out of that home and changed the state’s policy so that such an abomination would never happen again. Everyone “knew” what gay men did to children, right? Nevertheless, the gay-rights establishment backed him for president. Just 35 years ago, the raging New England liberal who insisted that “homosexuals” weren’t fit to be parents was our best, most gay-friendly candidate yet. No wonder we fell all over ourselves for Bill Clinton just four years later: He seemed to think we were human beings. 

Pride was one of the few exhilarating places we could walk around in public without fear or shame, bringing together the ragtag army of ex-lovers that Amy Hoffman described in her indispensable memoir of the era. Pride, which for years felt like a kind of Brigadoon, was a kind of moving sociological display, with different contingents appearing each year as the community changed. Back in the 1980s Boston Pride parades, there were the predictable dykes on bikes, the wild queens on roller skates, the softball gals, the leathermen displaying areas of the body I’d rather not have seen, the well-oiled men in Speedos and headdresses gyrating on bar floats that pounded out dance music, and of course, lots of ordinary folks wearing Mardi Gras beads. As AIDS progressed through the 1980s, Pride got increasingly angry, featuring “Silence = Death” signs and offshoots of ACT UP and Queer Nation dropping abruptly to the ground to enact death. Then, in the wake of AZT and the anti-retroviral cocktails, new groups emerged: religious groups like the Catholic gay group Dignity, LGB corporate employee groups, an ever-growing sober contingent, and eventually, a contingent of parents pushing strollers. 

The national marches—all of which I attended, the March on Washington in 1979, in 1987, in 1993, and the Stonewall 25 anniversary in New York City in 1994—did much more, of course, than just give us the enormous relief of being together. As Sue Hyde of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, who helped organize the early ones, has said, organizing them meant building a nationwide political network with nodes all over the country. At least some of those who attended came away energized to go home and pass local ordinances, talk to state legislators, build AIDS hospices or LGBT centers, or try to get their employers to offer domestic-partnership benefits. That took a lot of guts or recklessness—you could lose child custody, or jobs, or homes, or family for being out, or have your life threatened for being HIV-positive.

Mary Bonauto, 22. Mary Bonauto’s unofficial title is the marriage movement’s Thurgood Marshall whose work led to Edie Windsor’s victory yesterday; she is the visionary strategist behind the New England wins, and launched the anti-DOMA lawsuits that paved the way for Windsor. She is very private and little noticed, fiercely insistent on sharing credit, but really must go down in the history books as the mother of the marriage movement, alongside Evan Wolfson, who equally deserves the credit he gets as its father. civil rights director at GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders), once told me that in her early GLAD years, when she’d argue a case, she’d often have to just talk for about ten minutes in front of a judge as he peered down at her, visibly aghast, obviously thinking: That’s a queer! After the glazed look of disgust wore off, she would repeat what she’d said, hoping he might hear. In Massachusetts, Arline Isaacson did the same with the legislature, showing up, day after day, in her suit and pumps, trying to persuade the good Irish Catholics that God would forgive them if they protected the queers. Similarly ordinary heroes were doing the same all across the country.

 

By the 1990s I had become, briefly, a professional homo, doing my little part, writing about the ordinary fears and anxieties and thoughts that we felt inside the supervillian suits. In 1993, in The New York Times Magazine, I wrote about the moment that a pair of motel clerks in a rough New Mexico town realized that my insistence on getting a double bed, not two singles, meant that my partner and I were queer. We were unnerved enough by their reaction to bar our hotel room door that night. I was stunned by the national response I got for being the first to write openly about being a lesbian in the august Times. The same year, in The Nation, I defended the cause of same-sex marriage (which no one yet called “marriage equality”) as feminist, against the queer activists who wanted us to invent new institutions instead. In the LGBT press I repeatedly urged everyone to take on Thanksgiving-table activism: “Hey Mom, Karen and I want to get married, please pass the cranberry sauce.” I wrote one of the first books—and the first feminist one—exploring how it was possible to ask whether two people of one sex should be able to marry. All that was possible in part because of the cultural changes wrought by AIDS, as Americans witnessed queers across the country desperately trying to care for those they loved—and because a politician from Arkansas had begun talking about us as ordinary people, forcing the mainstream press to follow suit.  

Soon enough, of course, Bill Clinton broke our hearts by giving us two backlash pieces of legislation—Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. The latter came after three rogue Hawaii couples sued for marriage licenses and, in 1993, got a signal from the state Supreme Court that maybe they had a case. When it looked as if the state of Hawaii was going to be the first to break the marriage barrier, panic broke out in the U.S. Congress. Republicans and Democrats alike stampeded to the microphones to speechify against the threat we homos posed to civilization, motherhood, and babies. You’ve heard their arguments: Next comes incest, polygamy, and bestiality. You think they sound ludicrous now. But 20 years ago, the measures passed the House and Senate with overwhelming support. It was a despairing time. 

And yet I think that’s when the rest of you started to see beyond the supervillain costume. Because at the same time, we were breaking open into the mainstream culture, as I’ve written here before. The next time I remember so many lesbians packed into a theater was in 1997, when we lined up around the block to watch Ellen’s “puppy episode” broadcast live on ABC. My friend and hero Hillary Goodridge and her partner Julie read my marriage book and signed up for one of Mary Bonauto’s lawsuits (Hillary used to mouth to me, it’s all your fault!), becoming the named plaintiffs in the case that broke marriage open. I was so grateful to them for being willing to stand up in front of the TV cameras as role models, acting just like ordinary people who wanted to marry. Which of course they were. We weren’t radical young things any more, dismantling the patriarchy. We were homeowners, partnered, often with children. 

But by 2002 I was writing, here, that we had won. Not the legal battle, but the cultural battle, from which all else flows. It wasn’t inevitable, as Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson regularly and rightly insists; everyone had to work at it—hard. But they did, or if not everyone, enough of us. Seeing where things were heading, I stopped writing so much about LGBT life and shifted my attention to other issues where injustices remain far more rife. I’ve gone long stretches of forgetting that I’m a supervillain, mainly because no one else around me seems to recall. That little flicker of horror that we used to scan for obsessively has disappeared from others’ eyes; saying “my wife” or “my son’s other mother” doesn’t even register, here in Cambridge, as anything but ordinary; and, perhaps most important, it’s no longer acceptable for public figures to call us queer. Even Antonin Scalia was oddly polite in his dissent in Windsor, scarcely calling us any names whatsoever, as if his rage had finally faded. At this point I recoil from a bumper sticker or button; I can no longer handle the shouting, although I appreciate those for whom that’s the right role. My job now is a quieter one (except, of course, when our ten year old is awake). 

Ten years ago Wednesday, to the day, the Supreme Court knocked down homo-only sodomy laws. Scalia saw exactly what that meant. Having such a law, he wrote:

… cannot itself be a denial of equal protection, since it is precisely the same distinction regarding partner that is drawn in state laws prohibiting marriage with someone of the same sex while permitting marriage with someone of the opposite sex. ...

This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. 

Of course, he was right. We all knew it, even if we weren’t going to say it in public yet. If you couldn’t say that loving someone of the same sex was a danger to the nation’s moral fabric, how could you bar us from marriage? Victory was on the way.

Nine years ago, Massachusetts began marrying same-sex pairs. The reaction was a nationwide gasp of horror—and then, with the right messaging and thoughtful activism, a slowly increasing understanding that we just want to love and take care of one another, just like everyone else. Of course this shift deserves a long disquisition, but I’ve written about this before. For today, let me just say that to me, it’s felt startlingly quick over the past five years, as if the table had tilted and absolutely everyone rolled down to my side. People who were warning gay people not to push so far so fast just ten years ago are now gobsmacked by the irrationality of the opposition. The of course attitude of some liberal allies can be hard to take. But that’s whiny, really. I am profoundly grateful that the country has stopped being shocked and grasped my secret: I was never really queer at all. None of us were. People just thought we were.

Yesterday, after the DOMA decision and the Prop. 8 decision came down precisely as everyone had predicted, no surprises whatsoever, I told my tough-guy wife. She had said she didn’t care, except that the feds would stop taking big chunks out of her paycheck for carrying me on her health insurance, treating that as additional imputed income. But she teared up visibly. It passed fast; she’s a jock, and as we all know, there’s no crying in baseball. But I would bet my last penny that hers was a common reaction. No matter how socially independent you may feel, it does matter to have the highest Court in the land declare that you’re a full citizen, a real person, after all. 

Then I had to take our ten-year-old to the dentist. I put on my ordinary sundress-wearing identity, dressing up as a conventional, mortgage-paying, work-at-home mother of a child on summer vacation—all of which, of course, I am. At the dentist’s office it struck me, out of nowhere, that this year I will check off “married” on my federal taxes. That’s when I finally started to sob, trying of course to keep it quiet. Who knew that the prospect of being recognized by ordinary bureaucracy could so completely undo me? The receptionist with the industrial-strength Boston accent asked me if I was okay. We were perhaps a mile from where those teenagers had once tormented me whenever I walked to the bus. She could easily have been one of them, back in the day. I told her about the morning’s decision. She clucked like a mother hen, and said, Well, it’s about time people had some sense. You go celebrate tonight, honey. We’re all so happy for you. 

I’m sobbing again as I write this. It’s been a long time coming, but the supervillain costume has evaporated. There wasn’t a scary man hiding in my closet after all. It was always only me, ordinary and boring. As everyone can now see. 

Comments

Don't forget Jack? Baker of Minnesota. He was an early legal case in that state, I think before 1973.

I know how EJ feels. It didn't hit me until a friend called on Friday to say the stay was lifted. What stay? The one on marriages, she said. I started to argue thinking she must have misunderstood. We can't be allowed to get married again in California. I called the Sacramento Clerk Recorder's Office and asked, "Are you issuing same-sex marriage licenses?" The clerk replied, "Sure are, we've done about 10 so far and we plan to stay open until 7. Come on down."

I choked up with emotion. I couldn't even answer. I could barely continue to drive. Just like that, the fight was over. The government bureaucracy was staying open late to HELP us get married. No grudging, sneering production of a license, but a cheerful, glad-to-be-of-help attitude.

So, Gavin Newsom was right, "It's going to happen, whether you like it or not." A politician told the truth and, of course, was roundly criticized for it. We are not at the end of this fight, but, as Winston Churchill put it, we are at the end of the beginning.

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