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My Experience: From Closeted Adolescence to Marriage Equality

Jason Schneiderman Jun 28

With the Supreme Court having decided that same-sex couples are married in all states, one question will be where to start the history that led to the moment? With Stonewall? With the founding of the Mattachine Society? With the Oscar Wilde trial? With Edward the Second and his lover Gaveston? With David and Jonathan? Perhaps we should make a new myth and finally Adam and Steve can get their due, sharing co-parenting duties and a chore wheel in the Garden of Eden with Eve and Lilith.

At a personal level, Friday’s decision completes a journey that I’ve been on since June 30, 1986. I was watching the television and heard about the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. I went upstairs to ask my mother what the word “sodomy” meant. My mother—never a shy woman—told me that it was when men had sex with each other. I nodded and went back to the news, but I knew that I was in trouble. I was pretty sure that this was something I wanted to do, even though the contours of sex were a bit fuzzy. I was nine years old. The only thing I knew about gay sex was that I wanted to have it at some point, and that it was illegal.

During my closeted adolescence, I was more or less aware that things were getting better, even though they were pretty bad. I am part of a generation for whom K-12 was homophobic by design. We waited till college to come out; college was the place to explore, the fall in love, to have safe sex. One of the major activities of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Association at my college was sending out a panel of us to classes and clubs and organizations. We would then answer whatever questions the students had. I can’t tell you how many times I had to field “which one is the man and which one is woman?” and “How did you know you were gay?” If it sounds pretty wretched having to do Gay 101 for frat boys and human sexuality classes (Ask a real life homosexual!), it was worse having to do it because it needed to be done. The University of Maryland would not even extend the smallest of benefits to domestic partners. Our professor’s partners couldn’t even use the library.

The Confusing 1990s

The 1990s were confusing. Bill Clinton was the first president candidate to court the gay vote, but then everything seemed to go south. His promise to allow military service turned into “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” The Defense of Marriage Act ended up seeming necessary to head of a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexuals. I remain appalled at what passed for reasonable argument in the 1990s. I remember hearing an “expert” on gays in the military explain that in the countries that did allow service by gays, very few of them came out, so really, there was no point in decriminalizing same-sex sex for people in the armed services. Huh? I heard an openly gay congressman explain that once we had proof that homosexuality was purely genetic, homophobia would disappear. I asked him how he could make that argument when the first person to look for the “gay gene” was trying to help pregnant women abort gay fetuses. He didn’t answer my question. He also argued that AIDS had been good for the gay community. I won’t even touch that.

I was actually sad to see the 90’s end, but in 2000 I met the man that I ultimately married. I was very clear that marriage mattered to me. Michael proposed to me on March 3, 2003, our third anniversary. I believed that our engagement would be a lifelong statement. I had visions of myself walking down the aisle in my 60s or 70s. On June 10th of that year, Ontario began including same sex couples in the institution of marriage, and we thought about getting married in Canada. On June 26 of that year, the Supreme Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick with Lawrence v. Texas, finding that intimate sexual contact is protected by the 14th amendment. In 2004, when it became legal, Michael and I married in Massachusetts. We planned the wedding in six weeks. Mitt Romney was pretty upset about it, but look where that got him.

Why Gay Marriage Matters

I often find myself caught between the we’re-just-like-everyone-else wing of the gay rights movement and the let’s-blow-shit-up-till-everyone-is-equal wing of the queer right movements. There’s a Yiddish saying about money: It’s not that having money is so great; it’s that not having money is so awful. That sort of sums up how I feel about marriage: what you lose without it is terrifying. I get the arguments that marriage is an exclusive institution, a bourgeois institution, a way to separate the good gays from the bad gays, nothing more than a conservative arrangement of property.

Still, I think of those couples at the height of the AIDS crisis who were separated by unsympathetic families. There were men who weren’t allowed to be with their lovers as they died, who lost their homes, their finances, everything. If you want to see me cry, start talking about the vicious cruelty of homophobic families during the AIDS crisis. When Michael and I married, we weren’t motivated by love—we didn’t need marriage to love. We were motivated by custody rights and property arrangements. Michael is the person I want to decide when to take me off of life support. In 2003, in a letter to The New York Times, Michael wrote, “Yes, I want my partner to get my Social Security check when I die, and that is no trifle, but rather the equal protection of the Constitution of the United States.” We’re not cynical; we’re realists. We know how scary it can be to love without the protections of marriage.

On Friday morning, while waiting for the announcement from the Supreme Court, my husband and I began discussing our renovation, and began having an entirely bourgeois chat about the pace of renovation, the size of the washer and dryer, the debris cluttering our backyard. We missed the announcement, and at 10:20, Michael told me to be quiet, and we learned that our marriage is now recognized in all fifty states. I’d like to say that we jumped for joy, confident that we can be assured that no matter where we live in the United States, we will never be kept out of the other’s hospital room, never have to worry about our relationship being questioned, never have worry about that social security check. But the truth is that we didn’t. We hugged, kissed, and then went back to discussing our true feelings about our kitchen appliances. Just like a real married couple.

What you will be reading for the next few days will be some version of “fight over, we won.” Don’t believe it. First, if our history is any indication, gay rights victories are followed by backlashes. Second, anti-gay forces in the United States have already begun outsourcing their hate. Don’t be surprised that the anti-gay laws and rhetoric in Uganda and Russia sounds like an American export. Remember that there were a lot of people who celebrated Hardwick v. Bowers back in 1986; they thought they’d won a permanent victory. Stay vigilant. And let me know if you like our new washer and dryer. I think they’re great, but husband thinks they’re too big for the space.

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