Throughout high school I felt like there was a big fat party that I wasn’t invited to. Heterosexual normalcy. Dating guys, being “pretty,” being “popular,” the works. Being Not A Virgin. I felt as if I was looking through a thick Plexiglas window at something. Actually, I was. I was on the outside, and I was, then, looking in. I wanted in. Wanted some guy — hopefully taller than me, hopefully with a brain in his head and a little culture around the edges — to ask me on a date. Never happened.
Once, once, there was somebody in an English class, a tall, skinny, dark-haired guy from out of town, who had been a foreign exchange student to Scandinavia the year before. I pined. He never looked at me. And then he transferred after just one semester. Probably to some swank private school where kids smoked clove cigarettes instead of Kools or Marlboros or Winstons, which is what the “smoking section” kids smoked at our school. Probably students wore berets at his new school, instead of cowboy hats, which is what kids wore at our school.
I felt so very alone in high school. Alone, off-key, wrong. Because I was (off-key, wrong). My second year in college, I came out, first to my first sweetie, then to myself. For the first five years of being out to myself, I was closeted to my parents. This was not such an unusual occurrence in the early 1980s, by the way, a world pre-kd, pre-Ellen. Other than Martina (that would be Navratilova, the tennis legend, for you youngins), there were no public lesbians, no where, no how. At least not to the untutored eye.
When I came out to my mother in an invite to my first commitment ceremony in 1987 — yes, I’m a gay divorcee! — she demurred. Meaning, she did not come. My father came, but only to drop off champagne. My commitment was to a gal, by the way, whom they had invited to Christmas dinner for four or five years running by then, whom they knew to be the personification of kindness and nothing but good for me. When the first party guests arrived at the house where we were to have our ceremony, my dad, there with the case of champagne, skittered away as fast as a cockroach caught by a late-night kitchen light.
“Dad!” I said. “Stay! You know all these people! It’ll be wonderful!” I forget the reasons he provided — what sensible ones could there possibly have been? — but he was gone before we finished hanging the crÃªpe paper.
Five years after that, things were slowly getting better. He made jokes. I was with him in a bookstore and picked up a queer literary journal whose cover article bore the title “Lesbians Who Sleep With Men.”
“Pops,” I said. “I think you might be interested in this one.” He looked at me and smiled and sighed, “Hope springs eternal.” And that was it. But the joke meant a lot to the both of us.
When I came home to visit during grad school, Mom would wash and fold my laundry, generously re-enacting an old parental gesture. She would hold up my Lesbian Avengers and Queer Nation t-shirts, and wistfully ask, Wasn’t I making myself into a kind of target with these things? To which I would say: “Not a target, Mom, a magnet.” And she would kind of go, Hmm. And return to the folding.
It’s a different perspective (magnet rather than target), and it takes time to see things that way. Like it took Western painters ’til the Renaissance before they could actually perceive and render perspective. But also, to be out and gay in the 1980s and ’90s was quite different than being a public homosexual in the 1950s, when my mom and dad’s notions about such things began to be formed.
I mean, sure, my parents knew my ‘twixt and ‘tween gender from the start. They helped me dress up as Robin Hood every Halloween. Got me the Tonka trucks, the Hot Wheels, the Hang Ten boys crew-neck t-shirts I’d asked for as birthday gifts. They were there, that inexplicably sorrowful summer of my eleventh year, when I fell for the pitcher on my softball team and she wouldn’t have anything to do with me, her worshipful catcher. But that doesn’t all inevitably add up to lesbian. I figured my parents needed as much time to come to terms with my sexual orientation as I needed. Which is to say, five to ten years. I just had a jump-start on them.
Ten years after I initially came out to my parents I had another commitment ceremony, and by then things were quite different. My dad came to the ceremony this time; this time, the afterparty was at his home. And this time, my mother was dead. Would she have come, if she could have? I can only speculate.
Parental and public approval, ironically, often comes long after one is in dire need of it. As with so many queer folk after they come out, I eventually stopped staring through the thick window at the party happening inside, and turned around. As I slowly became aware of the rich alternative queer community around me, I realized that my people have been making our own party outside all along. The marital table inside, groaning with vittles, no place set for us, is all well and good. But the picnic outside was made to order, the menu limited by nothing but our imaginations. So now that the door’s swinging open and people — okay, just a few right now, in Massachusetts and California — are waving us in (“C’mon! Have some, it’s great! We been chowing down on this stuff for years!”) — some of us picnic vets will be forgiven for muttering under our breath as we amble on inside.
‘Cause don’t get me wrong, I’m getting me those 1,138 rights and responsibilities. My two best reasons for them are 3.5 and 1.25 years old, and damned if I’m not going to fuse myself to them with every tube of Krazy Glue I can find. State of California nuptial Krazy Glue included.
So a week ago, the beloved and I went to City Hall to get us our marriage license (to be signed and delivered on our July commitment ceremony anniversary). It was just a routine errand, except of course it was legally impossible two months ago, tactically improbable two years ago, and utterly unthinkable two decades ago. I dressed up, the beloved dressed down. Go figure. We were accompanied by two chums and greeted by less public fanfare than we expected. At the end of the first week of legalized same-sex marriage in California, San Francisco City Hall had a festive but no longer manic air about it. Chipper volunteers still stood at nearly every doorway, but the cheering (and occasionally jeering) crowds no longer lined the street.
In North Light Hall, the grand, sunlit room in which the licensing and recording took place, nine out of ten nuptial-bound couples we saw were same sex. A nice little twist on our ordinary demographic status. Every so often, applause would erupt from the corner of the room where couples were submitting their signed marriage licenses and receiving the seal of approval from the state.
“It’s like in It’s a Wonderful Life,” said the beloved. “A little bell rings every time an angel gets its wings.”
Not just one clerk waved us up to the marriage license counter, as it happened, but five or six, simultaneously. “Pick me! Pick me!” they all said, fluttering their hands like game show contestants. The clerk we finally strolled up to was a veritable stand-up comedian. She was, along with everyone in the building, in an irrepressibly good mood. Said there was one couple who came in for whom this would be their sixth ceremony. I had to guess: (1) a home-spun, extra legal commitment ceremony; (2) a ceremony marking their ability to become domestic partners at a city-wide level (locally, early trend-setters in this area were Berkeley and later San Francisco); (3) a ceremony marking their ability to become domestic partners at a state-wide level; (4) a ceremony marking their ability to have expanded domestic partner rights, as of 2006; (5) a marriage by the City & County of San Francisco back in February 2004; and (6) a marriage by the State of California, once and for all — come hell or high water this fall! — as of June 17, 2008.
The clerk told these gals, when she heard it was their sixth ceremony, “You don’t need a license, you need a support group!” Then the clerk added, “Thank God they were from Berkeley. They thought it was funny.”
And so do I. Funny, heartwarming, poignant, bittersweet. Shot through with complexity and contradiction. Kind of like our relationships with our families.
I now have a place at a table I’m not sure I’ll ever feel totally comfortable at. Even if I still want the invite. Younger folk, I bet they will stride right on inside to the party, hoist up a drumstick, and chomp down without hesitation. Hell, for all I know, at some level for them, the party has been “mixed” for years, and this legal stuff is now an inevitable formality. Their parties have always had gay guys teaching the straight gals how to dance, straight guys sneaking peeks from behind their beers. Lesbians flirting with those straight gals when they take a break from the dancing to go get something from the fridge. At least this is how someone of my generation imagines it all.
I picture the young people now strolling past the outdoors picnic blanket, which may still have a rag-tag assembly of radical queer folk at it, young and old. Me, I’ll probably get used to commuting between the party inside and the party outside. After all, I’ve got old friends and family both places. In and out I’ll go, thicket of state-legitimizing papers sticking out of my back pocket all the while.
[next in this marraige equality series: Groom]