A place at the table

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 crêpe 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.

fight [next in this marraige equality series: Groom]

7 thoughts on “A place at the table”

  1. I love when people share their coming out to their parents stories. Makes me feel less crazy about beating around the bush with my parents. 🙂

    I can honestly say my generation is a bit different about being out. The F and D nicknames (I hate them, so I don’t type them) were pulling from the mouths of my peers in elementary and middle school. By high school it was cool to come out. I went to a brand new, highly wealthy urban high school where people had their parents buy them nice cars and prom dresses. I remember when this guy I was completely crushing on came out and I was shocked. Not that he was gay, but that I never got to date him.

    I then went to a college where being gay was so closeted. It was a Church of Christ school. Why I went there I’m not sure, but my first girlfriend and I hated ourselves for doing it. As I’ve come out to my friends from both college and high school, I’ve been greeted with a great happiness that I’m being who I am.

    As I become more apart of a culture I always loved but never knew why, I realize so many great steps are being taken towards acceptance and understanding. My sister, who’s 12, told me about a program on Nickelodeon(targeted towards her age and older) where characters are openly gay. She even told me about a program that was about being a lesbian.

    Times are hopefully changing for the better.

  2. Oh god, what a beautiful way to describe your place in this sea-change of cultural recognition of diverse sexual orientations and gender identifications.

    It’s bittersweet to know that because of when and how I came out, that picnic blanket isn’t a place where I’ll ever be completely comfortable. But oh how glad I am that the picnics took place – and continue to take place.

  3. Things are definitely getting better, though I don’t think it’s quite how you imagine. At least not in my experience. I just graduated from college, and I went to a women’s college back east, Mount Holyoke. It’s wonderful there–queer is pretty normalized–but it’s *still* really heteronormative in some pretty basic ways. And high school? Forget about it. I went to a small-city public high school, graduated in 2004. I had two friends who were thrown out of their homes for being gay, and there wasn’t a single out student in school, though I knew many (myself included) who were out to themselves and close friends.

    And there is still a sizable queer population in their early 20s who are as ambivalent about marriage as many from previous generations, though perhaps for different reasons. For me, it’s bitterness–why should I rush in to take what you’ve always had and haven’t wanted to give to us? It’s pride, maybe. And also fear of normalization, of a kind of normalization that will only further alienate and marginalize members of the queer community who don’t fit into the neat rubrix of marriage.

    There’s a lot of work to be done. I’m so happy that today’s middle-schoolers and high schoolers, especially in more progressive places, like here, are getting exposure to queer concepts in the media and in school and even at home, because that can only make things better. But I’m worried that the larger community is fighting the wrong battles, or at least, we’re *not* fighting some really important battles, and that the result will be further fractioning and prejudice among queers. I don’t want us to lose each other, you know?

  4. Nice post…let’s not forget the Red Baron pret a porter! So this means that some of your out-laws are going to be in-laws, now?…

  5. Thank you, libarygrrrl. You’re welcome to an ant-trammeled slice of our picnic cake anytime, sister.

    And thank you, Penelope and Calliope, for the reality check about the brave new world we’re now in. Clearly it’s in a mixed bag. It’s easy for folks who came out in an earlier, less open time, to idealize and oversimplify the situation for younger folk now. Yes, people go to the prom with packs of friends now, and same-sex prom couples aren’t unheard of. And yet thirty miles south of me, just a few years ago, a transwoman was murdered for being trans. She was 17 years old. In suburban San Francisco Bay Area.

    I share your worries, Calliope, and do hope that much more far-reaching, federal-level civil rights protections remain clearly visible as a goal, at least in the realm of our civil rights struggle that’s influenced by the government. One hopes that once we all see that the earth doesn’t hurtle into the sun, several years into these isolated, enlightened patches of marriage equality, such broader-scale protections will seem shamefully overdue. As they have been for a long time.

    As to your last concern — ” I don’t want us to lose each other, you know?” — I’m right there with you, sister. I think as long as we talk and listen across the generations (and classes, and races, and more), we just might not.

    Finally, violetta: Red Baron prêt-a-porter?


    [with apologies to Chas Schultz]

    As to the out-laws becoming in-laws: this maybe the saddest aspect of the goin’ legit blowback. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid ( & Thelma & Louise) get all cleaned up and become sitcom regulars or something.

  6. very beautifully written, I loved reading your story.

    I really can understand and feel what it’s like to be on the outside and look in. I’m from Austria, which makes some things slightly different, socially and legally. when I was in middle school (10-14 years), I often felt like an outsider. I did have some friends, but I was never one of the “cool” girls and in the first two years, I was happy to just hang with my friends. then, I started being best friends with the most popular girl in class which meant that the other students accepted me and didn’t bully me. but when we, my bf and I, would fight, I would get a reality check (as in ppl slighting me) and I would know that I’m still an outsider, but due to the friendship ppl didn’t dare to harrass me. then I went to high school (14-19 years) and I thought things would change. I tried really, really hard to be friends with everybody and talked to everbody and made an effort to get to know the ppl in my class. but within 2 month, I was an outsider again and had about 3-4 friends in a class of 30 students. I had a really hard time accepting that I was different and why I was different and when I realized that year that I was gay, everything started to make sense. I could finally put my finger on my otherness. now, at age 20, I realise that being gay is only a small part of why I am different to peers in my agegroup, but thats a whole different story. in high school, I was part of a small group of friends who all were strange in one way or another and we were friends simply due to the fact that we didn’t fit in. sometimes, this was a good thing (we understood each others otherness better and accepted it easily), sometimes, it was a not-so-good thing (we didn’t really share interests). I had a really hard time with being an outsider and not accepted, especially when the “cool” girls in my class bullied me for being who I am. they didn’t know that I was gay back then, but they found enough other things to make fun of.

    BUT: now, I don’t even want to be part of the cool gang. I don’t want to sit at their table. their usualness bores me and I don’t even really try anymore to make friends with ppl who will never understand me and my social struggle. I met this awesome girl at university who is a lot like me. she went through the bullying and the being an outsider and all of that and even though we don’t really share that many interests, I am having the best time with her because we can talk about everything and anything and she’ll listen to everything I want to tell her and I’ll listen to everthing she wants to tell me and we’ll share our opinions and we can disagree on stuff without being mad or hurt and we have a very special bond just because we went trough very similar experiences. I feel like I could never be friends with someone who always was popular and socially accepted the way I am friends with her, just because they’ll never fully understand me.

    So, my point is, I’m proud to stay outside and not look in. Yeah, I want the right to marry as well, but I’ll still be the odd bird and the social outcast and I’m proud to be that way!

    (sorry for the long comment, but your post triggered something inside of me…)

  7. I remember being a kid in the early 80s and being so hurt and confused by the slurs that were being thrown around on the playground. I remember my mom telling me that people are afraid of what they don’t understand. I couldn’t understand how anyone could be afraid of the kinds of men that I was growing up with, the men who shared housing with us, and who were more fatherly to me than my real dad, and more supportive of my mom than any of her 3 husbands had ever been. When I tell gay men my age about roller skating in the radical fairy parade in 3rd grade, they think I’m being cheaky and some are offended. They’ve never heard of radical fairies and I have to remember they were just little boys when these men were paving the way for them to hold hands in the street. Most of the men I grew up with have passed away from AIDS, but the ones who are still here, are close and dear to me. Just like young women today breaking the glass ceiling with their executive positions because they can, it’s hard for younger generations to always appreciate how recently those roads have been paved. Unfortunately, as with racism, prejudice runs strong. It may be obsolete to the general public, but if you’ve experienced it, you know how to recognise it. So, I say Congratulations that you can legally tie your bond to your true love. Congratulations that your children can recieve benefits all children should be entitled to simply for being alive. Congratulations that change is happening slowly but surely. But I also send praise to you for walking the path to self realisation even when those you loved were afraid to join you. Praise for loving who you loved even if others tried to deny you. And praise for knowing that children thrive and prosper in loving environments, regardless of the race, gender or orientation of those who raise them.
    We’ve come a long way baby… those gay and straight among us. May we keep on keepin’ on.

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