Gay marriage: I regard it with a mixture of fear and rage, but my initial response as it loomed up as a national issue was astonishment. I would no more have expected to see couples lining up to marry in San Francisco or New Paltz than a fish in earlier centuries would have expected to find a submarine running through its salty home.
Surprise overtook me because I had trusted my measurements of American society. Born in 1936, raised in a small provincial city in the Pacific Northwest, I had swum in “mainstream America.” I thought I knew its religious, social and legal values; which were fluid, which fixed. Heterosexuality was stable. I had also lived cheek by jowl with religious fundamentalists, gone to high school with them, shared a locker corridor with popular and intelligent girls who would tell me that when they got married, and they surely would, they would, as the Bible mandated, be subservient to their husbands.
Even the nicest and most tolerant of the people in my hometown would have responded to gay marriage as an utterly alien event, stranger by far than Martians or Plutonians landing in the high school gym. For marriage simply was the yoking of a man and a woman–a crucial part of the apparatus through which everyone traveled from birth to death. To be sure, some female schoolteachers lived together as couples, but, like nuns, they seemed sexless. If they shared a bedroom in their modest homes, the beds were twins, often with matching crocheted bedspreads. Because they were polite and kind and taught children deftly, they had won social acceptance. Otherwise, not to be married or sadly widowed or unfortunately divorced was to dwell in a nameless limbo.
Gay sex, however, did have names and belonged, if not in hell, in criminal domains. Some of the nicest and most tolerant of people felt gay sex was literally nauseating and considered it filthy and forbidden, a peril from which their children had to be protected. It is strange and sad and dislocating to be with people who would vomit and protect their children if they knew what your sexual desires were, but I grew used to it–as a fish might to dangerous pollutants in the waters.
Despite my years of living in tolerant New York, I have refused to forget the lessons of my childhood, reinforced in the women’s college that trusted my mind and distrusted my body. I have retained traces of internalized homophobia, as if mercury had entered my system. This is one source of my fear of gay marriage. I believe that making it such an open issue is like throwing homophobic predators living, bleeding flesh that will nourish them.
But my fear of gay marriage has a second, more affirmative source as well. I have grown to treasure the difference that being a lesbian has made, the existential choice it has signified, the psychic and moral distance from conformity it has established. It has given me an edge. It has also accustomed me to a life of hurly-burly, improvisation and conflict. Behind marriage, especially one confirmed by a religious ceremony, is a dream of unending unity–of the will of God, the state, two people. When children are born, they will join this cosmic, political, legal and psychological unity.
In my spiritual life, I can read the Bible, and I do; I can pray, and I do. Because I was baptized and confirmed in a church with many liberal traditions, most of its doors are open to me. In my political life, I can be patriotic, and I am. I can believe in the rule of law, and I do. I can live with my partner, Liz Wood, for nearly thirty years and help to raise her four children. We were a lesbian couple with children long before it was fashionable and vacation spots were gay-friendly.