A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, October 17, 2014

Marriage



It was a dawn-light crusty-snow Fairbanks-mid-October Monday morning.  We were, as usual, running just a tiny bit late.  As we hurried up the driveway to the school bus stop, one of my eight-year-olds asked me what time it was. 
“Eight o’clock,” I replied, automatically, after a quick glance at my wrist.  Then I paused.  “Right this minute,” I added, “gay couples in Alaska are lining up to apply for marriage licenses.”
I didn’t have to do much explaining.  My third-graders knew what I was taking about.  However, it was a different story when the same topic came up over dinner, perhaps half a year ago. 
“Wait --gay people aren’t allowed to be married?”  Lizzy furrowed her small eyebrows.
As usual, the kids had been ignoring most of the grownup chit-chat at the other end of the table, because booooring. But this particular conversational thread had drawn their attention.  My then-second-graders -- perched there at the table, forking up tortellini and scattering bits of Parmesan on every available surface -- were visibly confused.   
I stumbled to answer.  “Well… no.  Not everywhere.  Not here in Alaska.”
“But… why not?” Molly wanted to know.
The fact that my kids were entirely unaware of – and indeed couldn’t even fathom – a heterocentric bias in our society was so ridiculously naïve that I didn’t know whether to be charmed or appalled.  Shouldn’t they be more clued-in?  Given that I am, for all practical purposes (and perhaps barring post-apocalyptic dystopian scenarios), straight, I feel unqualified to explain the breadth, depth, and pain of the gay rights movement.  And yet – had I already let my children down, by not explaining?
“Aren’t Fiona’s moms married?” persisted Molly.  [Fiona is not the real name of the twins’ friend]
“Well, yes, but not in a way that’s actually legal…” I took a deep breath.  “It’s kind of a big fight that’s going on right now, all over the country.  It’s been going on for a long time…”
A long time.
When I was seven or eight, I had no idea what “gay” meant – other than as used by my British grandmother, who liked to have a gay old time.  It was 1980.  The word “aides” connoted nothing more to me – or to anyone -- than the adult helpers who blew whistles whenever I tried to do anything dangerously fun on the playground. I had no idea that two men or two women might want to get romantic.  Then again, I thought any variety of grownup-type kissing was kinda gross. 
It was at about that time that my parents started attempting to sell our small house (which I swore I’d love forever), so that we could move into a larger one with a bigger back yard (which I swore I’d hate, no matter what, because little kids are innately rabid conservatives).  One interested individual was a coworker of my dad’s.  He looked to be a bit younger than my parents.  He seemed friendly.  I wanted to follow around on the tour (because a small grubby child who has no desire to sell her home makes a super-awesome real estate agent), but as usual, my parents shooed me away.  They took the guest upstairs.  Soon after, they came back down again, and bid him a polite farewell. 
“He doesn’t want to buy it?” I asked, cheerfully.  Ha!  We don’t need to move!
The moment the door closed, both my parents burst into gales of laughter. “There wouldn’t be room for my armoire!” my dad hooted, imitating his coworker’s soft voice, and drawing the last word out extra-long.  Armoooooire.  They laughed some more.
Anything this funny, I definitely wanted in on.   But although my parents did define the word “armoire” for me, I couldn’t quite get the joke.  I puzzled and puzzled.  What was so hilarious about this quiet young man and his preference for large, fancy furniture?  And in what way was this furniture-related knee-slapper somehow, mysteriously, taboo?
In my parents’ defense, they were, for straight people raised in the 1950s, pretty darned liberal, kind, and accepting in their views on homosexuality.  My father was clearly on casually amicable terms with his “perpetual bachelor” coworker, and would certainly never have been cruel to him.  Mom and Dad bore no malice, and had no moral or religious objections.  But in the world they’d grown up in, being “that way” was something one joked about in private, perhaps with a mixture of humor, disgust, pity, and perplexity.  Anyone who was “that way”, it was thought, should have the decency not to make it too obvious, lest they discomfit normal folks.  In polite company, one simply Didn’t Talk About It.
Impolite society, however, was a different story.  Somewhere around fifth grade, I picked up the word “gay” on the playground.  It was, unequivocally, a vicious insult.  It was also, I noted, used only against boys.  I was a bit fuzzy in what it meant, but I knew it had something to do with boys being no good at sports, or too good at schoolwork, or too girly, or too fond of one another.  That’s so gay!  He’s so gay!  Some kids used that word a lot. 
I used it exactly once. 
Brian and Justin were best friends.  I mean, they were, like, REALLY best friends. They did absolutely everything together.  I’m pretty sure they even had the same haircuts – or maybe, back in 1982, all the little boys looked as if someone had upturned pudding-bowls on their heads. They were both nice kids, generally, but one day we had the sort of big playground argument that 10-year-olds have.  It had to do with kickball. 
The game was already underway, and Brian and Justin wanted to join.  Sure, I told them.  We can add one of you to each team. (This begs the question, why the hell was I in charge of this kickball game?  I suck at kickball just as much as I suck at all other team sports.  I have no idea how this peculiar episode of kickball leadership occurred, but since it’s not pertinent, I’ll move on.)  Yeah, everyone else agreed.  We don’t usually add in people after we’ve started, but we like you guys, so okay.  Each of you jump onto a team.
But Brian and Justin insisted that they had to be on the same team.  The rest of us pointed out the obvious fact that this was unfair (particularly because both boys were good players).  It wouldn’t work.  The Best Friends were adamant.  We have to be on the same team! 
Pissed off beyond reason, I snapped, “What are you two, gay?”
Brian and Justin both stormed away.  There was nothing so odd about that, really.  But the part that struck me, the part that I still recall in Technicolor, is the fact that they didn’t storm away together.  The Best Friends marched away in opposite directions, as if I’d hammered a rift between them with my spite. 
Instantly, I felt terrible.  Instantly, I realized that calling someone “gay” was not the same as calling someone a jerk, a loser, a meanie, or even a piece-of-shit asshole.  “Gay” was in a different category.  “Gay” was a word that not only had the power to hurt and stigmatize the two boys as individuals, but to hurt and stigmatize their friendship -- a friendship that was everything to them.
I won’t claim that I understood, in that fifth-grade moment, the enormity and tragedy of homophobia.  I was not that complex, empathetic, or intelligent a child.  I doubt, alas, that I am that complex, empathetic, or intelligent an adult.  But perhaps the fact that I recall this moment in such grim and vivid detail suggests that at that moment, I gained my first inkling of the problem.
I apologized to each of those two boys, separately, privately.  They accepted my apologies.  We never spoke of it again.  I have no idea where either of those 42-year-old men is now.  I have no idea if either of them is gay.  Most likely they aren’t.  But I’ll apologize again now, to all the Justins and Brians who are:  I’m sorry, guys. 
By the time I was in high school, the world had changed – and so had I.  I knew what being gay actually meant.  I knew that my (female) Latin teacher was rumored to be sleeping with my (female) gym teacher.  I knew about AIDS.  I also knew that my (male) boss at the public library was rumored to have a (male) lover who was dying of AIDS.
I also knew that, inevitably, some of my classmates were gay.  I remember looking around a classroom and wondering which ones?  Which ones?  During those years, I was already agonized enough over my own dreary heterosexuality; I lusted after boys, but I was neither pretty enough or cool enough to ever get a date.  But I overflowed with pity at the thought of those kids – whichever they might be – who were harboring a terrifying secret that they couldn’t even whisper to anyone.
It was the idea of the fear and the loneliness that got me.  What would it be like not just to have a secret, but to be a secret -- forever?  What would it be like to find love, perhaps, but to have to keep a desperate and choking distance apart, forever -- not sharing a home, a bed, a night, a touch, a glance -- lest anyone suspect? 
It’s easy enough to feel frightened and unloved as a teenager.  It’s easy enough to feel like a misfit.  How much worse would it be as a gay teenager, I wondered?  I unearthed E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice – written in 1913, but published only posthumously in 1971 -- on my parents’ over-stuffed bookshelves, and read it.  Twice.  I wasn’t given to crying, but the story made tears run down my cheeks. "Someone to last your whole life and you his. I suppose such a thing can't really happen..." 
I set off for college in 1990.  The world had changed since 1913, although that change had come too slowly for the Maurices who had lived and died before 1971 – before I was born.  Nineteen-ninety was the first year in which National Coming Out Day (October 11th ) was observed in all 50 states.  On that day, my brand-new Best Friend Forever and I walked by a huge poster-board, staffed by friendly students with a rainbow collection of Sharpies.  They asked us to sign our names if we would support a gay friend. Steve and I both happily signed. 
Late that night, he told me.
I won’t go into any details as to what that meant, or how it played out.  That’s his story, not mine.  My role was Supportive Straight Friend.  I’m pretty sure I sometimes played it badly.  I’m pretty sure I sometimes Just Didn’t Get It.  But I tried. 
I listened.  I talked.  We hypothesized about potential crushes, and commiserated about failed crushes, exactly as teenaged BFFs are supposed to do.  I agreed – or disagreed – about which guys were hot.  We resolutely spun tales of a future in which Steve and I still got together to play nerdy word games -- but with our handsome, charming, brilliant husbands in tow.
I went to rallies.  I signed petitions.  I wore pink triangles.  I reasoned with my Midwestern roommate (who interned that summer for Dan Quayle – I shit you not), arguing that if she thought the idea of gay sex was “totally gross” it was only because she didn’t feel an urge to participate in it, not because it was really any more or less gross than straight sex, which (just ask an eight-year-old) is also a totally bizarre and icky idea.  “He's mine in a way that shocks you, but why don't you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness?" – Maurice.
I stayed up until awful-o’clock-in-the-morning talking Steve through how he was going to deal with telling his extremely loving but very Catholic family. I went home for winter break and earnestly lectured my own patient, liberal parents about homophobia and gay rights.  I was undoubtedly pompous and irritating, but I tried.
Along the way, I was frequently mistaken for a lesbian – by friends, by acquaintances, by men I might have maybe (please please please?) wanted to date, by my own worried parents (who explained, quite correctly, that being gay would make life very difficult), and by a few fabulous women whom I did not, alas, want to date.  I don’t think this mass confusion stemmed from my activism so much as from the fact that I am a ludicrously butch straight woman.  That’s a topic for separate discussion, but it all turned out just fine; men raised in Alaska, it seems, are cool with that.  I got married.  I had kids – kids who ask lots of questions.
But, for all their rabid curiosity, there was at least one question the twins never asked.  Can gay people get married? 
About once a year – usually on the way east to visit my family – we spend a couple of days in Seattle.  This is a very popular activity. Mom, when are we going to see Steve and Manish again?  At Steve’s and Manish’s house, there is a playground right across the street, real bamboo in the back yard, and the same Set card game that we have at home.  Manish cooks up incredible Indian feasts, and he and Jay each unabashedly root for the person who is not their spouse when Steve and I play nerdy word games.  Lizzy has a cherished stuffed animal that closely resembles Steve and Manish’s miniature dachshund.  The toy and the dog are both named Billy.
Last winter, we wandered the streets of Seattle, stopping in far too many coffee shops, lured in by deliciousness.  We stopped at playgrounds.  We stopped to let Billy say hello to dogs fifteen times his size, and ambitiously attempt to mark fire hydrants as his personal property.  We chatted about subjects of interest to second graders and middle-aged people, and everything in between.  Steve mentioned something about his work.  “What do you do?” Molly wanted to know.
“I’m a professor -- just like your mom.  I work at the University of Washington.  Maybe, some day, you might even come to college here.”
I grinned.  “And once in a while, on a weekend, you could get away from your dorm and go fill up on some of Manish’s cooking.”
Both kids considered this, and looked at Steve.  “But why couldn’t we just live with you?” said Molly, with the perfect sincerity of a seven-year-old.
Lizzy nodded. “Yeah.  You have a spare room.”
“Sure!” said Steve.  He and I caught each other’s gaze, laughing in that way that grownups do, sometimes.


How much do my kids understand?  Not much – and yet, maybe just the right amount. 
In the early stages of any civil rights movement, participation requires enormous bravery, and carries appalling risks.  In contrast, the final stage happens quietly, with very little fanfare.  It’s easy to miss it, really.  It begins when a whole generation of pasta-smeared little kids looks up in confusion and says, “Wait -- gay people aren’t allowed to get married?  But… why not?”
It begins when the United States Supreme Court says, in essence, the same thing.
It was 8 a.m. on October 13, 2014.  While my kids and I skipped and ambled our way to the bus stop, another piece of history was being patched and mended. Marriages were happening.  Not “gay marriages”.  My kids, years from now, won’t think in those terms, so I won’t either.  Not gay marriages, just… marriages. 
The twins already had the gist of what was going on, but I couldn’t stop myself from lecturing. “Sometimes,” I explained, “laws are not good laws.  Sometimes they don’t make sense.  Sometimes they need to be changed.  Our government is definitely not perfect.  But one of the good things about it is that when we decide that something is wrong and needs to be fixed, we can all work together to fix it.  So, we’re working on it.  And now, gay couples in Alaska can get married.”
“Finally,” said Molly. 

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