Fourteen years ago in July, I was on my first date with the woman who would eventually become my life partner and the mother of my children. How we first met is a lesbian cliché par excellence. No, it wasn’t on the softball field. Remember, the beloved is a femmy theater type. The other lesbian cliché. Right! A Women’s Studies class! (The colorful details surrounding that auspicious meeting are best saved for another time, or perhaps The Book, which, if I don’t just start referring to it somewhere it may never exist.) Now back to the business at hand, which is peeking in on our first date.
She was nervous; I was notorious. Oops! I can’t exaggerate. Some old chums who were witness to our initial courtship actually read this blog, and they’d set things right soon enough. Okay, it was true that she was nervous. It was her first foray back onto the gal side of the river, so to speak, after a lengthy sojourn at the guy shore, and she was a tad concerned I would question her sincerity. (Me? Lesbian Missionary Extraordinaire? Daunted by a conversion challenge? Baaaaaah.)
We had tried and failed to meet up after Minneapolis’ Pride celebration, and had agreed on the soonest possible alternative date, an outdoor screening of Tommy at a lakeside park downtown. I’m sure it was steamy-muggy outside. Not oppressively so, mind you, but insistent, in a nice Midwestern summer kind of way. Enough to put a sheen on the skin. That evening, as I recall, most of the steam came from a combination of our chemistry and the movie screen, on which Ann Margaret was having her way with a throw pillow and a truckload of baked beans (note to self — Tommy: NOT first date material).
While my thoughts were drifting to nothing more profound than whither and how to bust my first move, the beloved was thinking, “By god, I think I just found the father of my children! And he’s a she!”
This is a family blog, so I’m going to slip gracefully past a few details. Let’s just say that not long after, things got off to a smashing start, and only kept on smashing. I recall a phone conversation in the first week or so after that date: I was on the back steps of the house I then lived in (which I fondly refer to as Eleanor’s House of Butches). The beloved and I were talking about some emotional/psychological matter or another, and I recall the eerie sense that I was actually not encountering the solid wall I half-expected, delineating the limits of her insight. In fact, everywhere I expected to find a solid wall (“There! That’s it! No more to her after this point!”), the wall transformed into a curtain which drew aside, coaxing me further on. My mental list of Qualities an Ideal Beloved Might Possess had previously been limited to around ten. In the first heady fortnight of our mining one another, I blew past that first ten, and realized there could be twenty, thirty, more. And each item was ticked off in rapid succession. Spooky.
Two weeks after our first date I had come around to my own version of the epiphany the beloved had that first night. Namely, “By god, I think I just found the mother of my children! And she’s a hottie!” Fourteen months after that we were cohabitating — I know, I know! A full year behind lesbian schedule (cue the old U-Haul joke, linked here for the three of you who haven’t heard it already). Fourteen months after that and I had ditched grad school, pulled up my Midwestern stakes, and high-tailed it on back home to the San Francisco Bay Area, Hottie Future Mother of My Children in tow. That very next spring, several dozen loved ones came from near and far to bear witness to our public commitment to one another.
Like so many of our queer kin, in the absence of legal access to marriage, we created a commitment ceremony that was unfettered by convention, a truly organic event. We wanted celebrate those around us who taught and showed us how to love, as much as we wanted to symbolize our desire to be held accountable to one another by those to whom we felt most responsible. As with so many things about same-sex partnership, our existing outside the heteronormative paradigm was as much a liberation as it was a hardship. No “commitment ceremony freight train” bore down on us, dictating what should happen how, or when, or with whom. Like Thoreau picking through his life at Walden Pond, we kept what we wanted from the marriage rituals we knew about, based on their utility and their meaningfulness; we invented what we needed where it didn’t exist; and we discarded everything else. What emerged was an event, the event, that marked the beginning of our mature relationship.
We held a party following the event at my childhood home, where my father was still living four years after my mother’s death. We feasted on pot luck delicacies and toasted and danced to bal-musette music, played by half of the local band the Baguette Quartet (we could only afford what we dubbed the Baguette Duet). But there was a violin — my mother’s voice to me now — and an accordion.
Last year, on the tenth anniversary of that ceremony, we held a re-commitment ceremony attended by a clutch of friends in our back yard. The beloved showed that her dedication to me is unflagging by learning and singing bal-musette café songs, accompanied on accordion by a dear friend.
This July will mark the eleventh anniversary of our commitment ceremony and the fourteenth year after the launch of our relationship. Neither annual marker is all that symbolically significant, though I did scrounge up a website that lists traditional themes and symbols for both anniversaries (11th: steel! 14th: ivory!). Up until mid-May, we didn’t have much planned for the day. We’d thought maybe we might get the Know-It-All-Brother-In-Law and his wife to watch the kids, and we’d go out to eat. Then on May 16 the California Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in the In re Marriages Cases, finding that
the right to marry is not properly viewed simply as a benefit or privilege that a government may establish or abolish as it sees fit, but rather that the right constitutes a basic civil or human right of all people.
That would be all people. Including, finally, us. A week later, on our bathroom mirror, I taped up a rose from our garden and the printout of an online reservation I’d made. It was our appointment to obtain a marriage license in San Francisco, the city and county whose right-thinking full-hearted courage earned our $94 registration fee. (In red felt pen I circled the relevant info and posed what, based on discussions we’d had over the previous week, was a rhetorical question: Will you marry me?)
It is difficult to describe the complex weave of feelings we each have about the whole legal recognition shebang. See, we’re not jumping for joy, is the thing. We’re tapping our feet for joy, might be a better way to put it. I keep finding myself hemming and hawing when well-meaning, loving folks congratulate us on our pending “marriage” or “wedding.” I say: it’s not a wedding. I say: I’m not even sure it’s a marriage. Legally it is, so okay. “We are going to become legally recognized as a couple,” is what feels most right, though it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. The closest I can get is with slang: “We’re hitchin’.” I’ve spent so many years describing my relationship with language outside the marital compact, it’s not that easy to switch codes. That, and I’ve always had the full feminist compliment of beefs with that institution.
But there’s something more. My desire to protect the meaningfulness of our commitment ceremony is fierce. We made a pact, before our most intimate community, without the benediction of the state. That the state is now granting its recognition is really quite something, since up until recently it has been the state, more than anything we can imagine between us, that we’ve perceived to be the greatest threat to our family. For heterosexual people this may come as a surprise, maybe not. But there it is. All our family torn asunder nightmares involve the intercession of homophobic/heterosexist laws, upheld by homophobic/heterosexist people. So it is truly a breathtaking thing to begin to feel recognized, and by extension in some way protected, by the very system that for so long refused to see or protect us.
And at the same time it’s hard to forget those years of refusal when they occupy the overwhelming majority of my out gay life. Ask me again how I feel about it all in another twenty-five, thirty years. Maybe like around when all this goes federal. The California gay marriage decision is a blessing, to be sure, but to me it’s a mixed one. The relief from an injustice is relief. But justice shouldn’t be a gift. It is a human right, and its restoration tastes bittersweet.
So many different lines subdivide LGBT folks on this issue. And what I’m realizing this week is that alongside the tactical and political ones exists another, generational one. On the one side are those of us who already made commitments long before the state got a hand in this, and on the other, those who will do so after it has joined the love justice bandwagon. My beloved and I have very deep ties to a gay culture that has made its own traditions in legal exile, as it were. And we cherish them. We cherish the tenacity of our relationships, the inventiveness of our subculture when this part of it was sub. And we’re not leaving that behind in the rush to the court house.
I began to be a parent in the moments my beloved and I began to genuinely pursue her pregnancy, the more so when we tried and tried for months, the more so when I nursed her through a miscarriage and the eventual pregnancy that took, and only most obviously when I caught our first baby. When, nearly a year and a half later, the judge’s gavel came down in the county court house signifying the moment when the state recognized my parenthood, I felt more relief than elation. I felt gratitude, certainly, that our state enabled this same-sex second parent adoption. But it’s something all loving parents like me deserve access to, something that would have come along with the territory of legal marriage.
So, too, with my partner’s and my commitment to one another: its most authentic origins, even its dramatic symbolic anointment, exists in a time and place far, far away from these California court houses this summer of love. For so, so many gay people, the moment the state shines its bright protective light on our relationships will have come years and years after they really proved their legitimacy. For Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, more than fifty years.
When the beloved and I go legit this July on our anniversary, in the backyard of my childhood home where my sister now lives with her family, we plan for a modest event that will take no more time than Del and Phyllis’ city hall to-do. Which, according to all the news reports, was about six minutes. After that, the accordion.
[next in this marraige equality series: Licensed to thrill]