This week it’s a spelling-impaired chicken. Last week it was a buffooning politician. Some time ago it was a red-faced talk show host. On and on and on. Ad nauseum. Gays, marriage, God and rights. Big abstract nouns. Big big umbrellas of words that house all kinds of tiny little specs of meaning, atoms and molecules and breath and heart that build the un-holdable mass of real people who make up any of those terms.
So let me break it down to one. Me. I’m in there. Right in there with all kinds of people I know and love as well as innumerable people I don’t know and/or don’t like. Me. So it’s personal. How you stand on this issue is not abstract or beside-the-point or separate-from-how-you-feel-about-me. It’s personal. Really fucking personal. It tells me exactly how you feel about me, whether you think it should or not.
And every time this topic swells up in the news and in social media – every time it becomes the super-heated topic du jour – my mind replays a two-scene drama that rips through my body like a swift and sharp electrical current. I feel it tell itself in my body. Every time.
There was a moment in time in the spring of 2004 in Portland, Oregon where some ‘rogue’ city commissioners started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples because they couldn’t determine where in the law it said they couldn’t. There’s a lot to be read or written about the politics of that time, about the right and wrong, bureaucratically or otherwise, of that brief spell in Multnomah County’s history. But for me, personally, it was a magic moment in time – full of the giant wobbly iridescent bubble of hope and faith and electricity. Shiny and fragile and unbelievably weightless.
I am with a man now. In love deeply with a man. But back then, I was seven years into what I thought would be my life-long love. She was (is, still, to be sure) a woman. She. I pass as straight now. I passed as lesbian then. I am neither, really. But that point is adjacent to what I am trying to say here, which is, at least partly, that I am one of those people who were not (are not) allowed to get married.
When we saw on the news, on a Tuesday night, that licenses would be issued the next morning to any and all same-sex couples, I didn’t fully believe it. Hope is a tricky beast and social progress is always a dance more like the Hustle than the Tango. Sideways and one foot forward and one foot back, moving in a fluid square until you realize you’ve shifted enough from your original footing to be in a whole new place. I did not believe. I foresaw police and official decrees to cease and desist. I imagined broken up protests and folks sent home without that flimsy but powerful piece of paper.
When I showed up to work Wednesday morning, person after person looked at me and said, “What are you doing here?” And meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, as the day went on, more and more and more people were handed their license and sent on their way. Folks were getting married on the sidewalk. People were planning speedy weddings that made shotgun weddings look like Martha Stewart affairs. There was an energy and a hopefulness in the air along with a hurried kind of rush and panic. Let’s do this, quick, while we can, hurry, hurry, hurry before they take it away. The momentum was, literally, breathtaking.
So we made plans to try to go the next day. We were already married, in our hearts and in our minds, but we wanted not only to be part of this historical moment but to set up the safeguards that would guarantee that no one could legally wash away what we were to each other. Should one of us get sick. Should one of us die. Should anything happen where the legal flimsiness of our union could slam down on us like a dull guillotine blade.
We watched the news that night. We turned it on that next morning. We showed up to work for the first half of the day and then, when talk of a 3pm meeting that could shut it all down was being forewarned, our employers practically pushed us out the doors, saying go, go, go. We each drove to the county building and parked and met up on the sidewalk. Giddy. Nervous. Afraid we might be too late.
As I turned the corner onto Grand Avenue and I saw the giant brick building and the line, two people wide, down the sidewalk and around the corner and then down and around the corner again – as I heard people honk and cheer as they drove by, as I saw the countless people holding signs in support and nearly none in opposition – my skin became electrically charged, my chest ached and swelled, my eyes filled with tears and I wiped them from the corners of my eyes as we walked over to our place in the line. Last in line, but only for a minute, and then many behind us. I was floored by my own very physical reaction. This was big. Monumental. And not just as a historical moment. To me. For me. As a human. As a person.
And when we walked out of that building with that certificate, as we called our closest Portland friends and asked one friend’s husband to officiate, as we made plans to meet in a park in a tree filled neighborhood, I was awash in the headiest cocktail of emotions. What I can say now, after untangling all of the emotions, is that it was the first time I felt what it was to be suddenly validated. What it was to be told you were whole, even when you knew you were already – what it felt like to suddenly and completely realize the weight that had been pushing down on you telling you that you were less than at the exact same time that you feel the levity of it all disappearing in one swift swoosh.
I’ve never been a conventional girl. I wasn’t opposed to marriage, but never felt like I needed it to feel committed, to feel bound to someone by deep love. In the middle of saying my nearly impromptu vows, though, I lost my words. I lost the ability to say them. I wasn’t overwhelmed by social victory. I wasn’t overwhelmed with a feeling that the world liked who I was. I was nearly knocked over by something so personal and sacred and private, that space between two people who say, publicly and face to face, that they love each other and will be there for each other. Something no group has any place in deciding for me or for anyone else. No place.
There was a sequence of time where licenses were still being issued, but fights were being waged. The issuing stopped. There were campaigns about the sanctity of marriage. It dragged on for more than a year – what felt like a lengthy time and also just a blip. Because my body only fully remembers two polar moments: standing in that park that evening in March and then opening an envelope from the county more than a year later that had a $60 refund check and a note explaining that my marriage license was, after all, nothing. The moment my eyes saw that check, time collapsed and I had stood, weeping and speechless, in that park only seconds ago and that check’s invisible swift kick to my abdomen felt real and I bent slightly at the waist as I opened the letter accompanying the check. I cried while I held the edge of the counter, still slightly doubled-over from the impact.
I could spend hundreds of words on that moment, but I won’t, not here. I will only say that the giant fist of Fuck You was painful and crushing and infuriating. More than it would have been if they had yanked the license out of my hand before I had made any vows, because the voters had not only said I shouldn’t get married, but that I did and they still had the power and the right and the vindictiveness to take it away from me. Here: here’s your money, we’ll take all that love bullshit back because it’s not real, we won’t acknowledge it and you don’t deserve it.
So when anyone – people I don’t know, too, but especially people I do know and love – says that it’s not personal and they are entitled to their beliefs I say, Like hell it isn’t and sure you do, but . . . .
But, I am not telling you to get married or not.
But, I am not voting on the most personal and basic rights you should and do have by nature of merely being born.
But I am not voting for a man who wants to nullify you, I am not standing in a long line to eat fast food chikin in the name of free speech that says you are not a full person, I am not spending that dollar in the name of religious bigots having the right to inflict their bigotry on you . . .
But, but but but.
But, fuck you. Because it is personal. Very fucking personal. Painfully so.
And I don’t mean to be harsh. But someone denying me my most basic rights to choose who I live my life with and how protected I will or will not be based almost entirely on the genital combination of the couple in question – well, that’s fucking harsh. And it feels that way. Like a punch.
When I see people who say they care about me taking a ‘patriotic’ bite out of a sandwich whose profit is used to keep punching me, when a relative votes for a candidate who offers lower taxes but will fight to keep me fractional in the eyes of the law, they are saying that I am not worthy in their eyes. And when they say that I shouldn’t take it personally, they diminish me once more and I feel like a teenager bursting to rage against everyone. Fuck you – this is the most personal thing. The most. Personal.
I have the luxury of being able to marry the person I love, today, right now, in any number of places should we both decide that’s what we want. But not because I am a full human with full rights in the eyes of my nation. No, simply because I had the ‘good fortune’ to fall in love with a man. I am still as queer as I ever was – but I am monogamous and so, to all outside eyes, I am ‘normal’. I have rights. For now. The truth is that I am still one relationship away from being stripped of that option.
And even if I weren’t, even if I do end up with this man for the rest of my life, whether we choose to get married or not (what a luxury to get to ponder such a thing . . .) – even if that whole thirteen year ‘lesbian phase’ had never happened to me – I would stand up for a person’s inalienable right to be a full citizen bestowed with full rights. Because it’s right. It’s right. It is.
So sing your song and dance your steps that everyone is entitled to their beliefs and mine shouldn’t infringe on yours while you pump money into places that fund groups whose only goal is to slam their beliefs down on my rights. Mine. Maybe yours. Definitely your family and friends, whether you know it or not.
I want to repeat that: their only goal is to slam their self-righteous fist down on my right to be the person I am. Slam. Fist. Really – that’s how it feels.
So I take it very personally. Anyone fighting that fight is an affront to me. A danger to me. And to people I love. Lots of people I love.
Standing up for the people you love is about the most basic goodness we have as humans.
To say: I am here for you, not just to watch as you struggle, but to say that the struggle needs to end and that if you are struggling, then it is my struggle, too.
To say: I will not be blinded by fear and ignorance but I will say that even though my rights are just fine and dandy, I will make sure yours are, too.
To say: I love you and I will stand right beside you to keep you safe.
None of this is abstract. None of it is merely political. Anyone who loves me needs to replace gays with my name, replace rights with my name, see my face anytime they see an ad or a protest or a picket sign that says One Man One Woman or God Hates Fags – because those last four letters are full of the letters in my name. And the person carrying that sign is talking to me, is hating me, is working to make my life not only less full, but miserable. And if that was your name on that sign, or in that politician’s mouth or in the donation check of that business owner, I would yell to be heard, to denounce, to scream.
To say: I’m right here, with you, friend. Let’s fight.
It’s not unreasonable to expect the same in return.