The Entirely Bearable Weirdness of Winning

Results of the four ballot initiatives on same-sex marriage in the 2012 election. Via.

What a difference four years makes. In 2008, the thrill of the nation electing its first African-American president was accompanied for many of us by the bitter disappointment of seeing voters in four states, including California, approving measures that prohibited same-sex marriage or adoption by gay couples. A few days after the election, I wrote that perhaps it was time for those who cared about LGBT rights to abandon the cause of marriage and to seek protections for same-sex relationship by other means or at least by other names. I was tired of watching my community waste its limited energies and precious resources on what felt, after dozens of defeats at the ballot box, like political insanity — doing the same losing thing over and over again and expecting different results. Here is what I proposed as an alternative:

[I]f the issue is gaining legal protections and economic benefits for queer households, does it matter if we call it “marriage”? If the straight majority is dumb enough to grant us all those things – and I do mean all, including the full panoply of federal benefits extended to married couples — as long as we call it anything other than “marriage,” then maybe we should take the deal and throw ourselves a victory party. I know, I know, separate is still unequal, but, but, but – Aren’t we tired of going through these motions over and over again and never really getting anywhere? Aren’t we sick to death of seeing the collective energies and resources of our small community sapped by the ridiculous effort to prove we deserve access to an institution that has been oppressing women and stymieing the relational imagination for centuries?

Yeah, I was tired. And more than a little frustrated. You have to admit, though, that plenty of folks seem willing to extend those benefits to the gayz as long as we call the institution, say, poop on toast rather than marriage, so, hey, why not? Po-tay-toh, po-tah-toh, right?

So, anyhoo, fast forward to Tuesday, November 6, 2012. There are four marriage measures on ballots in four cobalt-blue states, including my home state of Turtle Country. Incredibly, they all win (though we are still waiting on full, final results from Washington State). Just like that, the tide of history is turned! Suddenly, the impossible has become the achievable — indeed, the achieved. Insanity has become like, hey, no big deal, are you guys registered at Pottery Barn?

How did we get here in just four years? Heck if I know. I’m an English prof, not a pundit or a data nerd. My hunch is that generational change and President Obama’s endorsement have done a lot to change the climate of opinion on marriage equality. The losers in Tuesday’s battles claim they were outspent three to one in the ballot campaigns, so perhaps spending money can help win elections, though that obviously wasn’t the case in a lot of the races on Tuesday. On the ground in Turtle Country, I think we can credit smart organizing and good messaging for increasing support, particularly in the African-American and Latino communities. Equality Maryland, the state’s largest LGBT civil rights organization (on whose board I happen to serve) worked in coalition with Latino groups to help pass a state Dream Act. About a quarter of registered voters in Maryland are African American, so a lot of pro-6 ads featured civil rights leaders such as Julian Bond and NAACP president Ben Jealous, as well as faith leaders such as the Rev. Delman Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, MD. This time, supporters of marriage equality didn’t hesitate to frame the cause as a civil rights struggle, and the message seems to have helped drive up support in the African-American community. Question 6 lost by just 4000 votes in Prince George’s County, which is 64.5% black, and African-American support throughout the state was close to 50%.

A couple of weeks ago, I mused here on how deeply estranging and uncomfortable it felt to know that my friends, neighbors, coworkers, and countless unknown fellow citizens would be voting on what felt like a referendum on my humanity. I told you that I was feeling reluctant to talk to my neighbors about Question 6 because I wasn’t sure I could bear to know that they might vote against me. I never could bring myself to knock on their doors and initiate those conversations, but because the universe is small and endowed with a perverse sense of humor, I ended up spending much of election day handing out pro-Question 6 materials at my own polling place. Which meant, of course, that I saw all of the neighbors I had been avoiding talking to. Minutes before my shift at the poll was scheduled to end, a group of women drove up together in a large, spotlessly clean SUV that I instantly recognized. In the bright sunshine of a beautiful November day, in the parking lot of an elementary school, we smiled and greeted one another warmly, with that giddy kind of excitement those who participate tend to feel on election day. I asked if they would like a Question 6 flier, and they all accepted one. Then I hesitated for just a moment before deciding to make a little leap of faith. “Now,” I said, “we haven’t talked about this, but I’m hoping we can count on your support.” To a woman, they nodded affirmatively or said yes, I could. Mine was the last face they saw before they stepped inside the school to vote.

Look, I’m no fool. I know people lie in social situations in which the truth would be awkward. I’ve been smiled at a million times by those who believe they can love me while condemning the sin of my lifestyle. I know it’s possible my neighbors were merely being polite, but as I walked home on Tuesday afternoon I promised myself that if equality prevailed in the election I was going to believe that my experience at the poll was the universe’s way of telling me I should never have doubted the hardworking people who share my lifeworld.

And I do believe that. Because this week, things that felt impossible four years and even six months ago have suddenly become real. This week, it is no exaggeration to claim, as the coalition who helped to pass Question 6 declared, that We made history. We did, and it feels good. The weirdness referred to in my post title is the weirdness of winning after so many losses. After 32 defeats, you begin to feel like Charlie Brown’s baseball team or, you know, the Washington Mystics. You can’t imagine winning and you try not to as a way to protect yourself from the disappointment of yet another defeat. When victory comes — or four victories in one astonishing night! — you hardly know how to react. You laugh, you cry, you hold tightly to those who are close to you, you shake your head in a mixture of joy and disbelief. Two days later, it still feels slightly unreal. Two days later, I think a message I put up on my Facebook wall after a few hours of not very restful post-election sleep best captures my feelings about this delightfully strange moment:

Friends, my heart is so full and my body so weary that I can’t speak yet about what last night meant, here in Maryland and all across the country, for the nation I love and the values I hold dear. For now, all I can say is thank you, to everyone who worked so hard and so faithfully to bring about so many large and small victories for fairness, equality, and inclusion. We are not a perfect nation this morning, but we are better than we were yesterday. And if we keep working the way we have these past few months, then by golly we’ll keep getting better, bit by bit, together.

Yes, we can — because we have. Thank you for your hard, good work.

The nation I love and the values I hold dear? Yeah, sometimes a girl just wants to wave a flag. Deal with it, darlings. And don’t ask me when the wedding is. This queer against marriage but for marriage equality ain’t budging on that point. Yet.

Stay tuned.


  1. YAY! You win some, you lose a lot, and it makes you forget that sometimes YOU WIN!!! And the great thing is that your win doesn’t hurt anyone, doesn’t deprive anyone of their rights, and doesn’t infringe on anyone’s religious beliefs.


  2. I share your ambivalence about the institution of marriage and the po-tay-toh/po-tah-toh thing. Still, as a North Carolinian, this post made me teary. Mostly–I live in my little bubble here in Durham, where 80% of my neighbors voted against the “marriage amendment” and I simply don’t think about it very much. But I have a very hard time with my fellow citizens outside the bubble–the ones who turned out to vote 80% against extending me full civil rights here. And I have a visceral reaction when someone mentions a weekend at Carolina Beach or a trip to Beaufort: where all those people live. Where I would have to spend my money staying in their hotels, eating in their restaurants, and contributing to their wellbeing and comfort when they got up from their beds, got dressed and drove to polls to vote to discriminate against me.

    I am happy about these election results and I raise my glass–albeit tearfully–to salute you and the change that is gonna come.


  3. gary stonum says:

    I look forward to sending a gift for your wedding with MNS. Hugs to you both.



  4. Thanks, Gary. We appreciate the thought. Now, if we could just get past our aversion to the term “wife.”

    And, Kelly: I can understand the teariness, and I really feel for LGBT residents of the 32 states where these votes have gone the other way. As I told my students when we discussed the issue in class the other day, our finally winning on some of these doesn’t change the fundamental unfairness of voting on the rights of minority groups. It still infuriates me, and I hate the idea of having to go back and do it all over again to try to undo those 32 injustices now that “the tide has turned.” Anyway, I raise my glass to you and to the hope that change really is coming. Hang in there, and spend your money where you are loved and respected.


  5. Hey Gary — We look forward to receiving that present and send hugs right back atcha. I’m thinking we could both be husbands. . .or something. Now we’ve got to see DOMA overturned! Surely you and Marilyn will want to come to the shindig celebration! And you too Kelly & Historiann. Of course, I know it’s only if she gets my social security 😉

    And yes, Kelly, it’s simply not fair to be voting on civil rights issues. In fact, it should be unconstitutional.


  6. I’m with you on the wife thing. And really, cheers. It does baffle me how people can’t square the voting on rights thing with inalienable–but if we’re going down that path it’s great to win every so often.


  7. At my place of biz we were all kinda walking around teary eyed all day because of the whole darned thing. Marriage equality, legalizing pot, and, of course, the Skinny Guy, as my mother calls him. Mother of the Radical (otherwise known as MOTHeR on the blog) snapped at every Republican pollwatcher on the way in, “Arntch’a going to ask for my ID? Huh? Huh?”

    Watching people stand in lines that went around the block here in New York — people who bussed in from the storm ravaged districts just to vote — well, it chokes me up now.


  8. professorsusan says:

    As a straight person living in California, it gave me great joy to see that all the marriage initiatives came out the way I hoped. It gives me hope in so many ways. Though really, I’m with John Stuart Mill, the reason you protect the rights of the minority are because they are a minority. And they should be protected. (And while in California a few of the initiatives I supported failed, the most important one for someone teaching at a public university passed. Phew!)
    As someone who has been a wife, the best part of “wife” and “husband” is that they are shorthand. That’s it.


  9. Hurrah! My state’s going to require a Supreme Court decision, I fear, but every state that moves in the direction of marriage equality makes such a decision more likely. May it come soon. I’m looking forward to attending the legal marriage (in yet another state) of friends in whose extralegal marriage I participated (by being a witness — an important role in many traditions, including theirs) over 25 years ago. They want to be legally married, and 2 kids, 2 houses, several advanced degrees and several career changes later, it seems like well past time they had a chance.

    I still wouldn’t object if we separated civil and religious marriage in the U.S., even to the point of reserving the term “marriage” for religious rites. But that’s not at all what the self-appointed “defenders of traditional marriage” are seeking. And whatever civil arrangements we end up with, they need to be exactly the same for different-sex and same-sex couples. That is, indeed, a matter of basic civil rights.


    • contingentcassandra says:

      And i don’t know quite what to attribute the change over the last few years (or even the last few decades) to, either, though I think it gives me some insight into how abolitionists felt when, after many decades of work and many years when things seemed to be getting worse rather than better (see Fugitive Slave Act), emancipation finally became a reality. Many of them credited divine intervention, though of course that still leaves open the question of why God finally intervened then rather than decades or centuries earlier, before horrors of the Middle Passage and generations of slavery on the ground in the Americas. I, too, am inclined to see the work of Providence and/or the Holy Spirit (as well as the work of humans inspired by both) in any movement, however incremental, toward greater justice in the world, but that hardly seems an explanation for the timing of such events — either why they take so long to arrive, or why they finally arrive when they do.


  10. Great post! Random thoughts…
    –take the win!
    –celebrate the win!
    –nobody’s going to make you get married…but please don’t let the big bad Supreme Court stop you.
    –I’m kinda with you on “wife”…old connotations die hard. (Gay men don’t seem to have that problem with “husband”.) But maybe it is a generational thing. I remember my obviously delighted niece regaling anyone who would listen with tales of how she kept saying “Have you met my wife? Have you met my wife?” to all and sundry–even old friends who knew them both well–after she got married. Maybe it’s time to reclaim the word, and make it a good thing (like “queer”). I’d even suggest altering the spelling (“wyfe”?)…but I don’t think I can quite do that to a couple of English professors. Whatever you decide, your friends and loyal readers are FOR you.
    P.S. enjoyed catching a little facetime with you and WFKaG yesterday, a bonus on top of the main event.


  11. Once more you’ve got at my feelings precisely (this whole Madwoman thing is better than therapy!) — not letting myself believe any of it would happen, and then not quite knowing how to digest the wonder of what DID.


  12. One of the reasons I’m so disgusted at the anti-gay marriage people is that they make me have to defend marriage. Ugh. I’m sure that being a Lesbian partner is not like being a heterosexual “wife” and that being “queer” is not the same as being Lesbian. So I will never, ever, use those words to describe Lesbians. You can’t make me do it.



  1. […] Surprises: Marriage equality wins on the ballot in not one, not two, but THREE states in the November election,…. Wow. Just wow. But don’t order those toaster ovens yet. WFKG and I have still not committed […]


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