Yesterday, I finished reading an advance review copy of Michael J. Klarman’s From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (forthcoming from Oxford University Press, Oct. 2012; review to come). A legal historian, Klarman explores the history of litigation and legislation around gay and lesbian marriage from the 1970s to the present. Reading his historical account prompted me to think about the historical context in which I came of age and into my sexuality and sexual relationship, and how this colors how I think about same-sex marriage particularly, and even more specifically how my historical context shape the decisions Hanna and I have made. Here are my thoughts, in roughly reverse chronological order.
1) I’ll start with the fact that we can get legally married in the specific time (2012) and place (the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) in which we have come together. Massachusetts recognized in same-sex marriage as legal under the state constitution in 2004 (Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health) and our ability to become, legally, wife and wife, on the state level is normal here. While DOMA still prevents us from being recognized as married nationwide, we will be treated as spouses at the state level. If I hadn’t moved to Massachusetts from Michigan, I would be unable to legally wed without traveling. And given that neither of us are involved in a religious community, we likely would not be planning a private (non-legally-binding) commitment ceremony.
2) I’ve experienced nothing but welcoming acceptance of my relationship with Hanna since we got together in the summer of 2009. The only direct bigotry I’ve encountered has been online; I’ve been comfortable being open about my relationship at work, in public, on both sides of the family, in my home town, blogging, etc. I actually dealt with more directly-homophobic statements and actions before I was visibly queer (see below) than I have in the past three years. This is in part a matter of geography, in part a matter of the circles in which I’ve been moving, and in part a macro-level cultural sea-change in which anti-gay animus is becoming less acceptable by leaps and bounds, at least in the public square.
3) Marriage equality was part of what brought me to Massachusetts. One of my first memories of driving into Boston in the summer of 2006 — when I interviewed at Simmons — was getting turned around and ending up in Harvard Square across from Zero Church Street, where they had a huge banner across the front of the First Parish Church proclaiming support for marriage equality. Even though I understood my sexuality to be primarily hetero at the time, I immediately felt a sense of expansiveness — the ability to be more at ease in the political climate here than I had felt back in Western Michigan where I was reminded daily that my views about human sexuality were at odds with the dominant culture.
|lesbian recruitment party, summer 2005|
4) I had long-term, same-sex relationships modeled for me. I had friends whose relatives were in same-sex relationships (some of whom had had commitment ceremonies, some who hadn’t). Through my undergrad women’s studies program (oh the irony) I was introduced to lesbians in committed partnerships and had a chance to think about what it would be like to build a life for myself with another woman. I am a person who experiences my sexuality in very contextual ways, and while I don’t discount the notion that having been born in a different time or place I might have fallen in love with a woman without such models, the fact that I knew that lasting, committed same-sex relationships were a possibility by example helped open me to an awareness, a receptivity, that it could be possible for me as well.
5) In my early twenties, I wrote letters to the local newspaper speaking out on topics like abortion and gay rights. I always got incredibly bigoted responses in print (though my friends and relations were supportive). I remember particularly writing in as “a young straight woman” in defense of the summer gathering for gay and lesbian families that happens annually in the little town of Saugatuck twelve miles south of where I grew up (in the “reddest” county in the state of Michigan). In my letter I thanked the newspaper for doing a favorable piece on the camp and preemptively addressed the haters by pointing out that same-sex parents gave me hope for the future. Again, I think it’s note-worthy that even in an incredibly conservative corner of the Midwest, I was participating as a presumptively straight person in normalizing queer families.
That is, I didn’t think “gay” and imagine that being a lesbian would mean custody battles and depression and suicidal impulses. I thought it meant family camp and lesbian communes and sprawling poly households, not unlike the life I was already starting to envision wanting for myself, even if I thought my primary partner would likely be a man.
5) My best friend came out in 2001. I’d say this moment was the start of my serious self-education on issues of human sexuality and the history of homosexuality and the modern gay rights movement. I was twenty and while he wasn’t the first queer person I knew personally, he was the first person I knew intimately and felt more for than a general political commitment in favor of equality. My sense of radical acceptance (borne out of innate stubbornness and feminist theology) and my life-long commitment to fairness had always drawn me toward LGBT rights — but suddenly it was personal. And I discovered my ability to be fiercely political.
7) Because of the college where I went to undergrad, issues of sexuality and gender were deeply intertwined, and both were morally-fraught religious concerns. This deserves its own post (or several), but suffice to say that my introduction to feminist politics as a college student came in the form of a raging controversy my first year at Hope over what and how the chapel program was teaching students about human sexuality generally and homosexuality specifically. My women’s studies faculty were committed Christians and vocal queer allies, and so my trial-by-fire education in organized protest was around these issues. I was able to think deeply about sexual morality, gender and sexual identity and expression, sexism, and homophobia in the midst of a group of LGBT-friendly Christian folk who helped me articulate passionate responses to the homophobia and hate we were experiencing in daily ways on campus.
In effect, I had a queer community around me long before I understood myself to be queer.
8) In the mid-90s, the AIDS quilt came to town. Its stop on national tour was organized, in part, by the gay deacon at my church. In appointing him to an ordained office, the church had broken with the denominational position (which remains in place today) that homosexuality is sinful. Twice during my adolescence, the church went through a contentious period of “dialogue” on the issue and members left the church in protest over the deacon’s ordination. While I don’t remember much about the AIDS epidemic, I do remember the viewing the quilt with my family and others from the church and city when the sections were on display at one of the area high schools. Rather than AIDS being interpreted to me as “the gay disease,” it was simply a deadly illness, like cancer, that killed people and left behind grieving partners, parents, siblings, children.
9) Our Bodies, Ourselves (and feminism!) contextualized being in lesbian relationships as one life path for women to pursue, both sexually and in relationship with one another. In my adolescent reading about the 70s feminist movement, I encountered primary source documents about lesbian activism, lesbianism as a political decision, and same-sex relationships. While I wasn’t politically active on these issues until college, these texts prepared the ground-work for understanding human sexuality more expansively, and lesbian relationships as a viable option, long before I was aware of resistance to homosexual identity and relationships in my community.
10) The earliest memory of I have concerning same-sex sexuality is at age eleven when two friends of mine, over for a sleepover, were giggling together over the word “gay” and I asked my mother what it meant when they refused to tell me. It was obvious from their behavior they thought the word was a naughty one (one girl was from a conservative Wesleyan household, the other a Mennonite). My mother’s factual explanation (along the lines of “someone who falls in love with a person of the same sex”) put gayness on the radar but confirmed that I need not be alarmed about it. Since there were lots of ways in which my family’s values differed from those of our friends and neighbors, I assumed this was just one more thing to add to the list!
I’m sure there are other ways in which my life has shaped how I think about lesbian relationships, lesbian identity, and the viability of marriage as an option for Hanna and I. For starters, the fact that we’ve both remained unmarried until we were over thirty, and don’t plan on having children are also deeply historically-contextual options/decisions. In the 1910s we might both have been college-educated library professionals in a “Boston marriage,” but it would not have been legible to the world at large as a marriage.
We often think of ourselves as historical actors, with the ability to defy social norms and break new ground. And we are. But they manner in which we defy society, and the norms which we are countering, are historically dependent. And self-aware historians, such as myself and my beloved, are no more exempt than anyone else.
(As usual this “few thoughts” post became much longer than I envisioned it!)