Seeing Edie Windsor

I caught a glimpse of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in United States v. Windsor, on the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, moments after oral arguments in her challenge to the odious Defense of Marriage Act were concluded. I even managed to get a picture of the spunky 83-year-old, but it is awful. She is gingerly making her way down the courthouse stairs, supported on each side by a younger woman. She is looking down, and her face is almost entirely covered by her impossibly thick mane of blondish hair. You can see the hot pink scarf she wore for her day in court as well as the diamond brooch that her late wife, Thea Spyer, gave her in lieu of an engagement ring in 1967 (because the two knew that a ring would engender curiosity among Windsor’s co-workers at IBM). Still, my picture, hastily shot from the crowd waiting eagerly on the sidewalk in front of the court, has no focal point and doesn’t capture at all the energy and grace with which Windsor is playing the historic role in which she finds herself.

Fortunately, another, much more skilled, photographer managed to capture everything my own pathetic snapshot missed on Wednesday afternoon:

Edith Windsor in front of the Supreme Court. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Edith Windsor in front of the Supreme Court. 3/27/13. Photo Credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images. Via.

I am so taken by this image, which brilliantly captures the moment mostly by what it leaves out. To the right of the picture you see the edges of the press area, which was a tangled mess of people and equipment. The photographer is positioned in front of the crowd in which I was standing and to which Windsor is so exuberantly gesturing, so you see none of that motley, mostly happy crew of sign holders and smart phone documentarians. (The only unhappy people I encountered in the crowd were a couple of anti-circumcision protestors who wore white pants with strategically placed bright red paint spots. Can’t say I disagree with you, kids, but, well, there’s a time and place for everything, right?) Instead of the dozen or so cops who were stationed across the steps, you get just one debonair beefcake who seems more chorus boy than law enforcement officer. Don’t you love the way he seems to present the gorgeous, aging diva for her curtain call? The cop is also perfectly positioned to obscure the main entrance to the court, which at the moment is an unsightly opening in the canvas covering the west facade of the building. (What you see there is actually a full-size photograph of the facade, which is being restored. We apparently picked this clever trick up from Europe. Who knew?) The effect of the cop’s positioning is both to reduce clutter and to heighten the monumental superficiality (or superficial monumentality?) of the scrim enclosure. How fabulous is it that the Supreme Court of the United States is deliberating the legal status of gender in marriage behind a massive curtain/screen/photograph, a giant artifice of the edifice in which the nation’s laws are adjudicated? It is as though, in this moment of acute gender trouble, Judith Butler has been named the Architect of the Capitol. No wonder Justice Scalia is so on edge!

Also: I like the puffy white clouds and the pretty azure sky in the top third of the photo and the way Windsor’s head and left hand break up into that space. I defer to my friend Kate Flint‘s judgments on this point, but it seems to me the photograph beautifully exploits the rule of thirds to make Windsor the center of energy and attention. With her mouth and arms wide open, she looks as if she could huff and puff and blow down the monumental yet insubstantial building behind her. It is a glorious image of diva citizenship, of a New York queen who has made her pilgrimage to Washington determined to remake the intimate public sphere. Which is, of course, exactly what Edie Windsor is doing these days.

I got a few decent photos of the scene on the sidewalk in front of the court on Wednesday. I was pleased to see that there were signs of ideological diversity in the pro-marriage crowd, aside from the aforementioned opponents of circumcision. I liked seeing this smiling critic of the gender binary:

Genderqueer at SCOTUS

And these devoted, warm-blooded spouses from two countries (this one’s for you, Robert McRuer):

Binational Couple at SCOTUS

Yes, homonormativity was well and attractively represented:

Let Freedom Ring at SCOTUS

And there were actually not one but two really cute Westies in matching Ralph Lauren dog sweaters with two equally adorable guys, but this was my favorite of the several photos I snapped of the happiest queer pack in Washington:

Westie at SCOTUS

There have already been mountains of commentary, analysis, and speculation produced on the biggest, gayest week in American legal history. You don’t need more of that from me, but if you are looking for the good stuff I recommend that you check out the indispensable SCOTUSblog, which has been all over both the Windsor case as well as Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which struck down the right to same-sex marriage in the state in 2008. For queer legal analysis of both cases, check out Nan Hunter‘s Hunter of Justice blog, especially these posts: on what might happen next; on what happened in the DOMA argument; on what happened in the Prop 8 argument. Suzanne Goldberg has also done a couple of eloquent reflections on what it felt like to be a longtime LGBT legal advocate sitting in the Supreme Court during oral arguments on two such high-stakes cases. Those are posted here and here on Columbia’s Gender and Sexuality Law blog.

Queer critics of marriage have not been silent during this moment of (impending, apparent) homonormative triumph. Laura Flanders, in The Nation admits to getting teary while witnessing the same-sex wedding of a couple of close friends in Manhattan, despite her deep queer and feminist resistance to the institution. She tries to imagine that the profound pledge to love and cherish that is the core of the marriage vow might be extended outward to include all members of society, not just those to whom we are intimately tied. Lisa Duggan has been raining on the marriage parade all week on Facebook, reminding readers of HRC’s dubious history and the otherwise horrible politics of many of the corporations that have now signed on to the cause of marriage equality. She provided a link to a prescient piece she published last fall in The Scholar and the Feminist Online in which she forcefully, stirringly outlines a “beyond marriage” agenda that would “expand the forms of partnership and household recognition begun by the LGBT movement in the 1970s” rather than contract them, as the marriage movement has done.

I respect the critique and share the skepticism. I cling, proudly and stubbornly, to my own position as a queer against marriage for marriage equality, a stance outlined here and here, among other places. And yet Wednesday afternoon, I, too, found myself fighting tears as I stood in the sunshine of a spring that has been reluctant to come to the national capital area this year. Wednesday was my birthday, and I realized on Tuesday that I wanted to spend part of it demonstrating the solidarity I feel with Edith Windsor, standing on the edge of changes I could never have imagined thirty or so springs ago when I kissed a girl and felt the course of my life shift forever. Of all that I have read and heard about these cases, what has resonated for me most is perhaps a short post by Amy Davidson in her Close Read blog at The New Yorker. It’s titled “Will the Supreme Court Recognize Edith Windsor?” It really comes down to that, doesn’t it? Will the nine justices of the court — or at least five of them — recognize Edith Windsor as a person deserving of the same rights to which other persons similarly situated are entitled? Will they see her, as Jewel Samad clearly saw her, in the photo at the top of this post, as someone worthy of recognition not because she is well off and elegantly dressed but because she is alive and human and a citizen of this country?

That is all, my darlings, and, as I suspect you know, that is everything.

Love Your Butt, Srsly

A Public Service Announcement from The Madwoman on a Spring Break Mini Staycation:

Is the rectum a grave? It might be if you don't get screened for colorectal cancer. Sign spotted in a station of the DC Metro. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 3/18/13.

Sign spotted in a station of the DC Metro. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 3/18/13.

Is the rectum a grave? It might be if you don’t get screened for colorectal cancer. And of course nobody wants to do that or think about that because digestion and elimination are even more shattering to the self than sex is, but you gotta think about it and do it, kids. Why? I’ll let my pal Janet Golden, whose best friend Joanie died of colon cancer, tell you:

[A]ccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. In terms of gender, it is an equal opportunity killer. In terms of race, it is not. More African American men and women die of colon cancer than do their white, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander counterparts (although plenty of them die as well). Health disparities is a major problem we need to address. For more information visit the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health.

Now, here’s the good news. According to the CDC, “if everybody aged 50 and over had regular screening tests, as many as 60% of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented.”

My father died at 60 from colon cancer that had already metastasized to his lymph nodes before it was detected, so the need for awareness and screening has been on my mind for decades. I’ve long felt that what colon cancer really needed was a skilled PR agent, someone who could make cleansing and probing around the digestive tract sound more exotic and thrilling than it actually is. Which is why I was delighted to stumble upon a sign for the Love Your Butt campaign, a project of the Chris4Life Colon Cancer Foundation. Finally, I thought, cleverness has found the colon. Poop-making has found its poet. Yeah, I know: There was this guy, once upon a time, a long time ago, but nowadays you need eye-catching signs, irreverent blogs, and commercials full of people laughing over jaunty ukulele tunes to break through the message clutter and achieve true public awareness. I love this campaign because I firmly believe that humor is a great teacher and that the world would be a better place if people could talk more and laugh loudly about bowel health and well-being. Among other things.

Love Your Butt: It’s an idea we can all get behind. March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Celebrate by showing your butt some love and attention, especially if you are over 50 or otherwise at risk for colorectal cancer.

Love Your Butt: Because it would be really dumb to die from embarrassment, wouldn’t it?

Twenty-Nine Years as Nobody’s Wife

roxie valentineOver on the old blog, we had a tradition of anniversary posts in which an aging — and then dead — dog waxed sentimental over a couple of cranky English profs who had managed to keep company quite happily for an impressive number of years. The first of those posts ran on March 8, 2008 and was titled “Twenty-Four Years of Queer Delight.” It was followed, because the old dog was lacking in imagination and clung to a theme as fiercely as she had ever clung to any bone, by “Twenty-Five Years of Queer Delight,” “Twenty-Six Years of Queer Delight,” and “Twenty-Seven Years of Queer Delight.” We cheated a bit in 2012 and merely acknowledged the twenty-eighth year of queer delight in a post celebrating the March 12 anniversary of the blog. March involves a lot of celebrating in our household!

This year, with a new blog and a new persona, it felt weird to drag the old tradition over here, so I celebrated on Facebook instead with a mash note to the Woman Formerly Known as Goose and a recent ridiculously adorable snapshot of the two of us. It got lots of “likes” and heartwarming comments and reminded me of why I still hang out on Facebook, despite its many flaws. I like public feelings, or the nice ones anyway, and Facebook works well for making nice feelings public. I think it works less well for the airing of not nice feelings, but that is another story.

Here, though, having not written a post called “Twenty-Nine Years of Queer Delight,” I want to reflect on this anniversary within the dramatically shifting context of marriage equality in the United States. This year, for the first time, WFKG and I commemorated our durable and genuinely delightful partnership in a state that issues marriage licenses to both same- and opposite-sex couples. That felt . . . strange. Not only that, but the Supreme Court is about to take up two cases that could restore the right to same-sex marriage in California and begin chipping away at the marital apartheid that exists at the federal level because of the odious Defense of Marriage Act. It is entirely possible that by next year, when I don’t write a post called “Thirty Years of Queer Delight,” WFKG and I will be free to enter into a marriage that would be legally identical to any opposite-sex marriage in the eyes of both our state and the federal government. That would be . . . something well beyond strange.

ice cream sundaeIn one of those anniversary posts over on the old blog, I asked readers to imagine that they were prohibited from having something that the vast majority of people were permitted to have, something that was generally available and widely thought to be good. Let’s say that something is ice cream, I said, and that you are enjoined from eating it “not because you are lactose-intolerant or diabetic or anything else that would make eating ice cream hazardous to your health. You are told you can’t eat it because you don’t deserve it. You are not good enough for ice cream. Indeed, you are so unfit for ice cream that the mere thought of your tasting it poses a threat to the goodness of ice cream. Stay away, the Committee to Protect the Deliciousness of Ice Cream screams, or the rest of us won’t be able to enjoy ice cream anymore!” Time passes. You construct a perfectly satisfying life in the shadow of this bizarre prohibition. You become, perhaps, a committed hater of ice cream, heaping scorn on those who eat it as dupes of the ice cream industrial complex. And then, one day, the prohibition is lifted! Suddenly you are permitted — nay, expected! — to become an eater of ice cream. Suddenly everyone wants to know what flavor you’d like and how many scoops and whether you’ll have it in a cup or a cone (waffle or sugar).

What do you say? What do you do? What do you want, and how is the condition of your wanting or not wanting changed by the lifting of the prohibition? It is, after all, one thing to say you don’t want ice cream when you are legally prevented from having it, quite another to step up to the counter, take a close look at all thirty-one flavors, and then say, “Thanks, but I think I will stick with the cheesecake. It’s really delicious.” Or perhaps you say, “By golly, I would like a triple scoop of butter pecan with hot fudge sauce and a cherry on top. And sprinkles, please, a whole bunch of rainbow-colored sprinkles.”

Three years later, that analogy seems more apt than ever. I stand at the counter, hesitant, slightly bewildered, trying to figure out what I want and why I want it, while a crowd of mostly younger people waits impatiently behind me. They can hardly wait to get their ice cream, and I am holding up the line. What the hell is the matter with me?

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press was widely criticized for seeming to ban the terms “husband” and “wife” to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages. Those terms would only be used “with attribution” — i.e., in quotations from one of the parties involved. A followup seeking to clarify the style policy indicated that “husband” and “wife” “could be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms (‘Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones’) or in quotes attributed to them.” The clarification wasn’t sufficient to mollify some of the policy’s critics, including law scholar Nathaniel Frank, who argued that the AP’s stance “creates the perception that it is taking sides — and the losing side — in a culture war issue.” Frank goes on to explain:

[T]hose who get married have already decided about terminology. They have chosen to become a husband or wife, and that’s what they deserve to be called. Failing to recognize this means failing to recognize what the gay marriage battle has been about: achieving equal dignity by accessing the same institutions and occupying the same symbolic spaces as everyone else.

Being “married” is, after all, a collective identity, in the same way “citizen” is. Both terms connote certain responsibilities, obligations and protections, as well as a sense of dignity and belonging for which there is no substitute. They confer equality on all those who occupy them. Using such a term fairly matters in the same way the front of the bus mattered to those banned from sitting there for no other reason than to designate them as second-class citizens.

With all due respect to Frank and the many married queers I know who toss the words “husband” and “wife” around as happily as if they were indeed the rainbow-colored sprinkles on top of an ice cream sundae, I don’t think the question of terminology is nearly as settled as this critique asserts, even among same-sex couples who have hopped on the marriage bandwagon. I also don’t think the AP’s style policy is necessarily discriminatory. (Jeffrey Bloomer also takes this position in a piece he did in Salon.) One could argue that the policy acknowledges and respects the social and linguistic variety, complexity, and creativity of the alternatives to marriage that developed in LGBT communities over the years. One could also argue that the refusal to slap the label of “husband” or “wife” on everyone who marries is an indication of progress, a sign that broadening access to marriage might actually transform the institution into something more flexible and egalitarian than it has historically been. For many of us, after all, the words “husband” and “wife” don’t confer or connote equality, as Frank implies, though what he means is equality with other married people. Those terms are rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law, and some of us want nothing to do with them. There is no dignity for me in the idea of becoming somebody’s wife, and I for one am glad the Associated Press will not automatically label me that if WFKG and I ever decide to tie the knot. (Tie the knot? Good grief, people, after twenty-nine years, could it really get any tighter?)

LGBT people know well that we don’t always get to choose the names we are called, and we’ve done an impressive job of resignifying many of the terms that have been used to wound and stigmatize us. I delight in calling myself dyke and queer and admire the courage and ingenuity of those who have fought to wrest those words away from the haters and the hurters. For me, though, the term wife is beyond reclamation. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I don’t like the feel of it in my mouth or the sound of it in my ears. It grates. It simpers. It titters and totters, uncertain of itself, as Emily Dickinson brilliantly, devastatingly shows:

I’m “wife” — I’ve finished that —
That other state —
I’m Czar — I’m “Woman” now —
It’s safer so —

How odd the Girl’s life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse —
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven — now —

This being comfort — then
That other kind — was pain —
But why compare?
I’m “Wife”! Stop there!

The quotation marks tell you everything you need to know. Access to the word “wife” is not comparable to access to the front of the bus. For many of us, indeed, it is very nearly the opposite, implying neither dignity nor liberation but, for women throughout much of American history, the loss of many rights and an independent legal existence. I participated in the battle to bring marriage equality to my home state and am proud that we were among the first states to affirm the right to same-sex marriage through a popular vote. I am also proud, however, that here in Turtle Country the attorney general issued an opinion making it clear that clerks and administrative judges who perform marriages should not assume that anyone who marries is interested in being pronounced a “husband” or a “wife.” Asked to resolve a number of questions around implementation of the Civil Marriage Protection Act, the AG recommended that all couples be offered “a choice of different terminologies or, better yet, the opportunity to choose exactly how they will be referred to in their vows. Leaving the nomenclatural decision to the parties themselves will ensure that all parties receive the ceremony they desire and, thus, remove any question of discriminatory effect.”

Gaining access to the same institutions to which others have access doesn’t mean we have to occupy them in exactly the same way, and using different terms to name the parties to a marriage needn’t diminish the dignity or stature of the marriage. Words matter, yes. And that’s why we should choose the words by which we are known as carefully as we can, understanding full well that our nomenclatural decisions are never entirely our own. Words are public property and marriages are public acts, but the terms we use can make a difference.

Happy anniversary, darling, from the aging girl who, married to you or not, will never be your wife nor call you a wife. I love you. Let’s go get ice cream. Or cheesecake. Here’s to twenty-nine and more years of queer delight, no matter what we call it.

Saturday Afternoon Pick-Me-Up

I have a cold, a twisted ankle, and a dog who needs to have her anal glands expressed. You really don’t want to hear from me today. No, you want me to post a happy little video, get dressed, and go out to see if Jennifer Lawrence deserved that gold statue she won earlier this week. (The dog will visit the vet tomorrow. I am all for expression, but if it’s going to involve the anal glands I’m thinking a highly trained professional should take care of it. Am I right, dog owners?)

The happy little video is of feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar accepting their National Book Critics Circle Award for Lifetime Achievement. You could do worse than to spend 9 minutes listening to a couple of brave and brilliant pioneers express their gratitude and reflect on the decades of work they did together. It’s a good reminder that scholarship matters, that friendship endures, and that sometimes two heads really can be better than one. Congratulations, Susan and Sandra, and thank you, for everything.

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