Nobody’s Wives, Together

Or, Thirty Years of Queer Delight

Facebook already knows how this story ends, so I might as well tell you right up front: Reader, I married her.

blackberry pineapple mojitoIt was an impulse move thirty years in the making, one made possible by the voters of Maryland and finally irresistible because of a ballsy woman named Edith Windsor. We billed it as a celebration of our thirtieth anniversary and, “by the way, a wedding,” which was our way of saying that what mattered most to us was not the change in our legal status but the three decades of shared life and love that had preceded it. It was a small, elegant, impromptu affair, which we planned and executed in three weeks in the middle of an already insanely busy semester. (How busy? The night before the wedding, I took a job candidate out to dinner while relatives and out-of-towners were gathering at the house.) We were able to pull it off because a trusted caterer happened to be available and a dear friend is an interwebz-certified secular officiant. My advice? If you’re going to get married, don’t spend more than three weeks planning and executing it. Ignore the whole marriage industrial complex. I got married in a ten-year-old suit and never got around to buying new shoes for the occasion. The suit looked great and I kicked off my old shoes an hour after the ceremony. The world didn’t end. Also: Serve mojitos. And shrimp with dry ice wafting off the platter. No one will notice your shoes if there are festive cocktails and a dry-ice haze hanging pleasantly in the air.

Fine, Madwoman, I hear you muttering. You’ve told us the how of your wedding. What about the why?

What, you can’t just congratulate me? I’m not sure I owe you an explanation, but, having publicly proclaimed myself a marriage resister, I suppose I can understand why you might expect one. It’s simple, really. I stand by everything I’ve ever said against marriage: It’s not necessarily the best way to organize intimacy, it’s a terrible way to distribute benefits and protections that all citizens should have, and it’s an obscene (and probably unconstitutional) way for states to enforce judgments about who and how people love. At the same time, it is, at the moment, the best way to secure a relationship legally and financially. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose and I have already been together for thirty years. We are not getting any younger. We’ve reached a point in our lives where such security feels both appealing and necessary. As I explained to a friend, I may be ambivalent about marriage, but I’m not ambivalent about my relationship. It’s my future. I want to protect it. Besides, I’ve been working to create change from inside institutions my entire career. I’ll treat marriage the same way I’ve treated academia: I’ll resist and subvert it from within. And I’ll continue to argue against compulsory marriage and for the full range of queer intimacies. I’ve always been a firm believer in the value of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time or, as a more eloquent pal put it on Facebook, of being able to balance the both/and.

The_trouble_with_normal_(book_cover)To the queer purists who would dismiss such talk as a load of self-justifying bourgeois crap, I say, fine. You win the cool contest. I understand the romance of precarity and marginalization in queer culture, the veneration for all things anti-normative. I enjoyed my outlaw status and have mixed feelings about giving up my strongest claim to it. I was and am proud of the sturdy, resilient alternative to legal marriage that WFKG and I lovingly built and sustained. On the other hand, I also experienced the terrible insecurity of that alternative one day in 1994, when my partner nearly bled to death on an operating table in a Catholic hospital. I sat for nine excruciating hours in a surgical waiting room, not knowing what was happening to her and not at all sure that the medical power of attorney she had given me would be respected. A volunteer at the desk had shaken my confidence when I asked her to call the OR to try to find out why the surgery was taking so much longer than expected. “You’re not family?” she said in the course of our exchange. “Well, I don’t know if the doctor will talk to you at all.” Live through a moment like that and then tell me you wouldn’t do everything you possibly could to assure you’d be able to care for the person you love in a medical crisis.

More recently, I ran into an old friend in the grocery store, someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. We chatted in the produce aisle, catching up and kvetching about the winter storm we were both preparing for. She told me she and her partner had sold their sweet bungalow and moved into a condo near the store in which we stood. “That sounds like a great idea,” I said. “I love our house, but there are days when I’m sick of taking care of it.” She smiled and nodded, then paused briefly before saying quietly, “Well, I got this diagnosis a couple of years ago.” “Oh, no!” I said, and to my quizzical look she matter-of-factly replied, “I have Alzheimer’s.” I was astonished by the news and pained for my friend, who is probably in her mid-60s and has lived as healthy and mindful a life as anyone I know. She’s a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a yoga teacher, for heaven’s sake! The encounter forcefully reminded me of things we all know but generally avoid acknowledging: That virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded, that life is a crap shoot, that the bottom can suddenly and inexplicably drop out of everything, re-arranging the world and one’s way of moving through it. That chance encounter had a lot to do with my decision to say to WFKG, “Let’s do this. Anything can happen. We need to put ourselves in the best possible position to manage the worst possible circumstances.” She agreed.

The ceremony was simple and sweet, performed in front of the fireplace in our great room thirty years to the day after we spent our first night together. We reaffirmed vows we made in our 1989 commitment ceremony while the rings we have worn since that day were passed around in a small silk bag and lovingly re-warmed by each guest. As part of my vows, I surprised WFKG by singing to her, John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me,” which is based on a poem by Robert Browning and is one of the last songs ever written by my beloved’s favorite Beatle. I hadn’t sung in public since my killer performance as Mona Kent in Dames at Sea in high school, but the song’s tender lyric so eloquently expresses what love and commitment feel like in the middle of life that I was willing to risk humiliating myself in front of a group that included a number of professional singers and musicians. By obsessively studying Mary Chapin Carpenter’s beautiful rendition of the song I managed a creditable performance, but I did have to make one key, queer revision to Lennon’s lyric. Where he writes, “Spending our lives together,/Man and wife together,” etc., I sang

Spending our lives together,

Nobody’s wives together

World without end

World without end

In last year’s anniversary post, I wrote that the term “wife” is for me beyond reclamation, rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law. “I don’t need it,” I declared. “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” in her poem “I’m ‘wife’–.” A year later and newly arrived in the state of matrimony, I can state emphatically that my feelings toward the W-word have not changed one iota. I reject it. I will not use it, and I don’t want it used in reference to me or the person to whom I am legally married. (Note to the Associated Press: Partner, please. Even “spouse” feels weird to me, though WFKG and I have been trying it out this week.) I continue to believe that same-sex couples can and will queer the institution of marriage simply by occupying it. We can heighten the queering by refusing traditional roles and terms and by calling out marital privilege for what it is, which is perhaps why I can’t resist making jokes about only marrying WFKG for her money. The sentimentalists may cringe, but the truth is that, while my marriage may be legally meaningful, the change in status means little to me personally. It doesn’t change how I think or feel about myself or my relationship. It has no bearing on my sense of worth, belonging, or responsibility. To pretend otherwise would be to buy into the hierarchy of values that so troubles the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, as she looks back on a “Girl’s life” that is supposed to look “odd” from the comforting “soft Eclipse” of marriage. “Why compare?” asks the speaker, unable to bear or bridge the gap between what she feels and what heteropatriarchy tells her she is supposed to feel. “I’m ‘Wife!’ Stop there!” she frantically concludes.

Rather than stop there, I will use this occasion to say that perhaps it’s time to begin imagining a post-marriage LGBT politics. Many of us never wanted marriage to be the primary goal of LGBT activism and aspiration. We had more radical dreams for our relationships, our movement, and our world. We entered into the marriage struggle reluctantly if we entered it at all only because it became a fight to assure that discrimination against non-heterosexuals didn’t get enshrined not only in state laws but in the Constitution itself. In this extraordinary moment when we seem on the brink of full marriage equality nationwide, we should be thinking about how to mobilize support for, for example, economic justice, queer elder care, and protections for non-marital relationships. Some of us will be saying, “I do,” but all of us need to be asking, “What’s next?” There’s still plenty of work left to do, kids. The party was swell, but it’s time to get back into our comfortable shoes and put our queer shoulders to the wheel.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our "Practically a Wedding" in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend's legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our “Practically a Wedding” in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend’s legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

Fun Home, Or, Visual Pleasure and Dyke Spectatorship

Fun_Home_musical_original_Playbill_cover,_OctoberOver at the always illuminating Feminist Spectator, my pal Jill Dolan has already published the definitive lesbian feminist review of the new musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel‘s 2006 graphic novel Fun Home, currently playing at New York’s Public Theater. (Playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori did the adaptation. Get a little info on the show here and a short musical montage here. The show’s run has been extended through December 1. Read this, and then go get yourself some tickets. Has the Madwoman ever steered you wrong?)

I defer to Jill’s expert judgment on the brilliance of the show and the excellence of the cast. (Ben Brantley also gave it a rave review in the New York Times.) What I’d like to do here is justify the day of my life I devoted to training up to New York to see the show by riffing some on a comment Jill makes at the end of her review:

I left the theatre . . . feeling strangely seen and not quite sure how to think about that; I’ve spent so many years watching for lesbian subtext and trying to read queerness underneath protestations of heterosexuality. To see lesbian desire as the text felt almost startling — and more wonderful than I can even begin to describe.

My experience and sentiments exactly. I went to see the play alone, the Woman Formerly Known as Goose being occupied, as she often has been lately, with research and other shenanigans having to do with an obscure nineteenth-century poetess. No disrespect to WFKG, but I quite enjoyed my solitary Muppet Takes Manhattan adventure — the long, early morning train ride when a strong and steady internet connection helped me motor through a huge backlog of grading, the spontaneous stop at the “Queer History of Fashion” exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum, the pre-matinee brunch at a sunny Italian place in the Village. Most especially, though, I was content to be alone when the lights went down and Fun Home began its 90-minute meditation on the love, ambivalence, and haunting uncertainty of a queer daughter’s relationship to her gay, deceased father. By “alone,” of course, I mean that I was in a theater full of strangers and didn’t have to worry about whether the sweet Asian guy to my left or the stocky dyke to my right were enjoying the play. I could give myself over entirely to what was happening on stage, where, as Dolan suggests, the action was mesmerizing and remarkable and painful and strangely interpellating.

Like the novel, the play is retrospective and delightfully meta. The narrator is Alison at 43, a lesbian cartoonist struggling to sort out her family history and the mystery of her father’s life and death. Played with ease and authority by Beth Malone (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Alison Bechdel), Alison is on stage and at her writing table throughout the play, stepping away from the table to observe and comment on scenes from her earlier life and to join occasionally in the singing. She watches herself, and we watch her working on the book that will become the play we are watching. Two other actresses play Alison at earlier ages, and their performances are spectacular: Sydney Lucas plays her as a precocious gender-bending child; Alexandra Socha plays her as a charmingly confused college student who steals the show with a belted-out ballad of lesbian first love called “Changing My Major” (to Joan, the name of the first girlfriend, winningly played by Roberta Colindrez). (Speaking of adventures in meta-ness, the New Yorker‘s Michael Schulman has a nifty little note up on watching Stephen Sondheim watch Fun Home. [Literally: Schulman sat directly behind Sondheim at a performance.] It muses on Sondheim’s “pervasive influence on the genre” of the musical and on this one in particular, in part by detecting the echoes of several Sondheim songs in “Changing My Major.” It’s a smart piece that ends by wondering if Sondheim, who, “in his decades of work, . . . has never wrestled explicitly with his sexuality or his upbringing,” wasn’t, at Fun Home, “watching the one show that he could never write.”)

Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, and Alexandra Socha in Fun Home. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, and Alexandra Socha in Fun Home. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Okay, back to Jill’s “feeling strangely seen” by the play and the alluring frisson, for the dyke spectator, of seeing a play in which lesbian desire is the text rather than the subtext or a wild fantasy born of some powerful (dis)identificatory need. Yes, darlings, I, too, squandered hours on the couch in the 80s desperately seeking the lesbian subtext of Cagney & Lacey. Meanwhile, WFKG had a thing for Clair Huxtable, which I didn’t mind because it meant I could have Kate & Allie all to myself. As well, you know, as the early Jodie Foster. To find pleasure in looking at most mainstream cultural texts, dyke (like queer and feminist) spectators can’t mindlessly surrender themselves to the fantasy structures of stories that assume and cater to heterosexual male desires. We must be willfully resistant readers, taking what we can or what we want from texts that ignore or despise us. We become skilled in remaking even the most toxic representations, recycling damaged stereotypes so that they become what José Esteban Muñoz calls “powerful and seductive sites of self-creation” (Disidentifications 4). Such resistance and revision become habitual, reflexive. They are, as Muñoz claims, “survival strategies” that minority subjects practice “in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere.”

So it is hardly surprising that, despite The L Word, Ellen, and Orange Is the New Black, the dyke spectator (particularly if she is white, middle class, and of a certain age) might still find it strange to feel truly seen by a play — to feel, in other words, that her own experiences and desires are on every level (content, form, and fantasy structure) reflected back to her in what she sees on the stage. It is, as Jill implies, an intensely pleasurable experience, but it may also, after decades of wrestling with and against texts, be slightly unhinging to feel that one is invited into the cozy spaces of this fun yet fraught and complex home. I know that I felt unhinged, sitting in the darkness, as college-age Alison sang with lascivious gusto of her desire to change her major to Joan before shifting abruptly to consider the turn her life has suddenly taken:

I don’t know who I am.
I’ve become someone new.
Nothing I just did
Is anything I would do.
Overnight everything changed. I am not prepared.
I’m dizzy, I’m nauseous, I’m shaky, I’m scared.

Love and sex are giddily transforming and terrifying experiences, even, I’m told, when the norms of heteropatriarchy aren’t in any way violated. Still, it has always taken considerable effort and ingenuity for me to believe that Fraulein Maria and Captain von Trappe were singing about me as they confess their love for one another in The Sound of Music‘s “I Must Have Done Something Good.” (WFKG shared so fully in my creative appropriation of this song that it was performed as the processional at our commitment ceremony in 1989. Which proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that we were queer before queer was here, don’t you agree?) At Fun Home, I didn’t have to fight the text or mock it or translate it or lovingly subvert it. I just sat there, in awe, reveling in yet also feeling overwhelmed by the pleasures of identification. “Majoring in Joan” made me cry because it so viscerally recalled for me a similar night of my own college life so many years ago. A friend who saw the show the night before I did said she cried through most of the second half of the play and was surprised because she didn’t react so intensely to the experience of reading the book. There is something, I think, about seeing such a story brought to life on the stage, something about the intimacy and proximity of the performers to oneself, even across the dark space of a theater. There is also something about seeing the multiple time frames of this particular story dramatized simultaneously, as when, in the photo above, the three Alisons are on stage together for the show’s final song, the beautiful “Flying Away.” The song recalls the daughter’s childhood love of playing “Airplane” with her father, which is evoked in the illustration from the book version of Fun Home projected on a screen at the rear of the stage as the play concludes. That is the only time an image from the book appears in the play. In this moment, the play’s queer temporality is gorgeously realized. Desire makes all time present, brings all our selves — past and present, living and dead, printed and performed — to us. It is a fitting, generous, not overly sentimental ending — and it left me feeling shattered. In a good way.

I left the theater eager for company, ready to end the solitary part of my long day. I was glad I had plans to meet friends for dinner and was thrilled that the friends were queer art and culture geeks who would be eager to talk with me about the play. They were, we did, and this post is what that dreamy yet solid queer conviviality helped to produce. I loved Fun Home, and I needed the ache it gave me. Recognition, it turns out, can hurt as much as misrecognition. I’m grateful to have had the occasion to learn that lesson after more than half a century of spectatorship. I raise a more than half full glass to the marvelous looking-glass of Fun Home in all its incarnations. Long may it run.

Pre-Fun Home Bloody Mary. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/2/13.

Pre-Fun Home Bloody Mary. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/2/13.

Tab Overload Disorder

Tab overload is a real thing in the virtual world. It’s what happens when you spend your days skimming, clicking, reading, and thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’ll finish reading it later. Maybe I’ll share it on my Facebook page. Maybe I’ll even blog about it!” Soon you’ve got two or three browser windows open and eleventy billion tabs crammed across the top of your screen and you imagine that the virtual chipmunks who keep your machine running are panting, sobbing, begging for mercy. Sensible people, technologically savvy people, deal with the problem of tab overload (which actually does put a strain on your computer’s memory) by adding free extensions like OneTab to Chrome. OneTab will convert all your open tabs into a list. When you need to access the tabs again, you can either restore them individually or all at once. No, I haven’t tried it, but just writing this paragraph has enabled me to close one tab in my browser that has been opened for nearly a month. Spring cleaning FTW!

Less sensible people who are sick and tired of trying new things manage Tab Overload Disorder by being secretly happy when their computers crash and all their carefully arranged tabs disappear. (Yes, I know they can all be restored through “History.” I’m not an idiot, just lazy.) Or, they finally bang out a blog post that is little more than a link farm so they can close a few tabs and start the Madness all over again.

Welcome to the Madwoman’s Spring Link Farm Extravaganza. I’m still alive. And blogging. Sort of. If you are reading this, you are alive, too. Congratulations. Follow these links and your mind will feel refreshed for the next round of grading. Or at least my Tab Overload Disorder will have become your Tab Overload Disorder, which will bring us closer, sort of, virtually. Read on.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet was on my campus yesterday. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose and I spent the whole day in the presence of this affable fellow, who was as impressive and remarkable as I had heard he would be. We liked his humility, his playfulness, his obvious delight in every aspect of the occasion, including the Terp schwag he got as a gift:

Photo Credit: Gary Cameron, Reuters. 5/7/13.

Photo Credit: Gary Cameron, Reuters. 5/7/13. Via.

(Yes: We are aware that His Holiness has a thing for visors. We’re just glad he liked ours.)

Our favorite moment was when the Dalai Lama went nose-to-nose with Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley as the big wigs gathered on stage at the end of his lecture. We may not become Buddhists, but we are definitely committed to becoming nose-rubbers:

Photo Credit: Nicholas Kammnicholas, AFP/Getty Images. 5/7/13.

Photo Credit: Nicholas Kammnicholas, AFP/Getty Images. 5/7/13. Via.

Question: Would the world be a better place if President Obama rubbed noses with, say, John Boehner or Wayne LaPierre? Call me crazy, but I think it’s worth a try.

Second Question: Does the Pope do nose-rubs? Again, totes worth a try, in my opinion. Nothing says humility like a good eskimo kiss.

Enough religion and hyperlocal news, let’s turn to the Black Gay Sports S/Heroes tabs that have gotten opened up in our browsers in the last couple of weeks. Kwame Holmes has an excellent analysis of how class factored into the highly respectable coming out of basketball player Jason Collins. Holmes doesn’t disrespect Collins or underestimate the significance of his announcement. His aim is to situate it within the context of black respectability politics, which is helpful indeed. Meanwhile, Wesley Morris explains why Brittney Griner’s coming out was totally no big deal. It’s a deft analysis of how Griner’s self-confident gender performance over the past few years made her official coming out seem so superfluous. Griner herself addresses her sexuality, the bullying she has endured over the years, and her commitment to helping to ease the way for others in an essay in the New York Times. Brittney, we’d look up to you even if we wouldn’t have to climb a step ladder to rub noses with you.

Meanwhile, in academia, our friend and QTU colleague Keguro Macharia is resigning his assistant professorship and returning home to Kenya. His staggeringly eloquent “On Quitting” is about precarity, professionalization, toxicity, deracination, and bipolar disorder. Among other things. It deserves a response, but I am not ready to produce one. Not yet. Not publicly. Go read it. Also, Tim Burke will make you think and feel better with a marvelous piece called “The Humane Digital.” It explains the necessary messiness of humanistic inquiry and its many differences from managerial modes of thinking. I would declare Burke my blog boyfriend if Chris Newfield didn’t already occupy that position. Chris, by the way, has some thoughts on MOOCs up on Remaking the University, for those of you whose Tab Overload Disorder is all about the MOOC Madness. Knock yourselves out, people.

There, that’s better, and I didn’t even bother to burden you with several dozen links related to the recent publication of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by my pals Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. That’s big news in my neck of the professional woods, but I’ll save it for another post. Meantime, happy grading or happy avoidance of grading or happy celebration of finishing your grading. And remember: Close your eyes when you rub noses with someone. It’s sweeter that way.

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.

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.

Lifetime Achievements: Jodie Foster and the Madwomen

Yes, as a matter of fact I did watch the Golden Globes Sunday night, in sisterly solidarity with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who, as it turned out, needed no help from me. Girls, you had me at, “[Meryl Streep] has the flu and I hear she’s amazing in it.” I tuned in not knowing that Jodie Foster was going to be honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award for being considered a worn-out old hag at the age of 50 “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” FYI: The average age of Cecil B. DeMille Award winners is 62. I did the math myself, because I don’t have to teach for 11 more days believe that numbers sometimes reveal important truths. (See, Nate Silver — I’ve been listening!)

Jodie, you might have heard, gave a little speech in accepting the award. Folks, queer folks in particular, have had a lot to say about the speech, which was, admittedly, kinda weird. Before we go any further, here’s a little link farm of reactions:

  • Andrew Sullivan hated the speech, which he described as “narcissistic, self-loving,” “unadulterated bull$hit.” Don’t hold back, Andrew. It isn’t healthy to hide your feelings, which is why I can’t resist mentioning that the redundancy of describing someone as “narcissistic, self-loving” gave me a headache. Also: It takes one to know one, doesn’t it?
  • Advocate editor-in-chief Matthew Breen declared the big gay magazine “deeply conflicted” about the speech because he doesn’t understand Foster’s avoidance of the L-word, even as she acknowledged former partner (“my ex-partner in love”) and co-parent Cydney Bernard and claimed to have done her coming out long ago, “in the Stone Age.” Breen is disappointed that Foster wasn’t willing simply to declare, “I’m a lesbian, and there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it.”
  • Our good buddy Tenured Radical offers a thoughtful critique of the speech focused on Foster’s problematic (to TR and many others) assertion of a right to privacy that is steeped in blind class privilege and insulates Foster from “having to make ethical decisions about what it means to be a lesbian out in public.” It’s a good piece. Click over and read the whole thing, and your reward will be a hilarious clip from the coming-out episodes of Ellen. (Toaster oven: Need I say more?)
  • Speaking of hilarious, the obtuseness of the speech provoked The Onion to do a report on how Foster is inspiring teens across the land “to come out [to their friends and family] using vague, rambling riddles.” The brilliant Justin Vivian Bond weighed in with an episode of The Drunk News that takes up not only Jodie and the Golden Globes, but gun violence and the crisis of uncertainty regarding . . . seafood. Go empty your bladder, and then give Viv a click.
  • Sam Leith in The Guardian has a piece on the rhetorical genius of Foster’s speech.  In which we learned that the whole coy/evasive/obtuse “I’m-going-to-talk-about-this-without-talking-about-this” thing was a dazzling rhetorical maneuver known as occultatio. Say that ten times fast, word nerds.
  • Richard Kim in The Nation declares himself grateful that Foster frustrated a form of role modelism that he thinks has been overly valued in the gay movement in recent years. “We maniacally search for the next has-been child star to splash across the covers of our magazines, as if fame were a short cut to liberation. We measure our success by the number of out actors/rock stars/professional athletes, as if this were somehow an index of political power. We seek to make Positive Examples of the lives of celebrities, because really, what can be a more useful primer of how to grow up gay than the life and times of Lance Bass?” Point taken.
  • Nathaniel Frank has a wonderfully nuanced take on the public/private issue that acknowledges the healthiness of disclosure but also the unique burdens imposed on gay people to come out, often repeatedly, as we encounter new people and situations in which our gayness is not known. Frank ends by urging compassion and by reminding LGBT people of the importance of “not bullying our own” for failing to negotiate “the messiness of the public-vs.-private dilemma” in a neat, (politically) correct way.

Here is the Speech Itself:

So, what do I think? Jodie Foster and I have a long, fraught history. (No, of course she doesn’t know anything about it, unless she’s read the posts filed here.) Like many dykes of a certain age, I overly identify with her. Or I just totes have a crush on her. I’ve never been sure whether it was a desire to be or a desire to have situation, but never mind. I’ve taken her to task for being publicly coy about her sexuality, so, yeah, I’m guilty of the kind of role modelism Kim decries. As a teacher, I have felt a responsibility to be publicly out, to stand up and say, as Breen puts it above, “I’m a lesbian, and there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it.” If I had written the speech Foster gave that night (if only she had asked!), it would likely have been more in the mode of the Celebrity as Super Teacher. It would have been charming, funny, focused, clear. More humble than Foster’s actual speech. More gracious. Devoid of gratuitous swipes at little kids.

In other words, the speech I would have given written would have been far less queer than the one Foster delivered. I’ve watched it several times now (because I don’t have to teach for 11 more days I believe that careful attention reveals important truths) and am struck by how off kilter the whole performance seems. Tautness is one of Foster’s great strengths as an actor. (Think of those terrifying scenes in The Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling is nose-to-nose with Hannibal Lecter. She doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t look away. She barely moves.) At the Globes, though, Foster seemed wound a little too tight, overly amped, as if she had prepared for the occasion by lifting weights and watching NFL films rather than spending 20 minutes in yogic meditation. To my eyes and ears, she seems palpably uncomfortable during her seven minutes at the microphone. She rushes through her lines, steps on what are supposed to be jokes, and then, when she doesn’t get the reaction she was expecting, demands more from the audience. (“Can I get a wolf whistle or something? I mean, please, Jesus!”) She seems overly eager to advertise her intimacy, even kinship, with different pockets of the live audience (the “fathers mostly” among the industry heavyweights, the “fellow actors” with whom she has vomited and blown snot and had other kinds of fun, the “members of the crew” with whom she has formed “blood-shaking friendships, brothers and sisters”). It is as though, after 47 years in the film business, Foster is still unsure of her place and yearning for some form of recognition that has nothing to do with the award she has been given.

Meanwhile, toward the broadcast audience, Foster conveys an unsettling mix of anger, arrogance, and contempt that likely fueled the harshly negative responses that started cascading down my Facebook feed on Sunday night. It’s hard to imagine why Foster felt this was the occasion to lecture the public on the value of privacy and the difficulty of living authentically while being ridiculously famous. Suffice it to say that the line that begins, “But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler,” probably didn’t make Foster any new friends among the plebeians watching on TV.

So, she was rude. She was off, out of sorts, ill at ease. She was insufficiently humble. She got loud where she should probably have been quiet and publicly declared her allegiance to a man (Mel Gibson) universally regarded as a jerk. She was not a good girl or a good gay. She was unruly. She was mean. She was fractious. She was queer. Am I alone in finding it odd that reactions to the speech have been so harsh when queer studies has spent more than a decade celebrating precisely these qualities as aspects of anti-normativity? Did I miss something, or isn’t queer negativity supposed to be cool?

On Facebook, Ann Cvetkovich used the term “butch vulnerability” as a way of explaining and more sympathetically framing Foster’s speech. The term resonated with me, because I saw enormous vulnerability in the performance and agree that Foster didn’t look especially comfortable in that dress. No matter how hard she tries, Foster can’t look at home in one of those gender-normative Hollywood get-ups. She always looks like she’d rather be wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. (Moi aussi, mon amie!)  I was also really struck with the way she just sort of melted near the end of the speech when she started talking about her mother, Evelyn, who got Foster into show business when she was three years old and now suffers from dementia. Under everything, perhaps, is a daughter’s fear that her own mother might soon forget her. What does any award mean if that most primal form of recognition is lost? Ah, Jodie, on that point, at least, I can truly, painfully relate.

Bottom line? Yes, the speech was messy, which is what I found fascinating about it. I think the messiness makes all kinds of sense and that Nathaniel Frank is wise to urge queers not to bully one of our own, even if Foster has gone out of her way not to ally herself with public queer culture. I also think it will be interesting to see, though, if the speech signals a shift in Foster’s career. Many have wondered if she wasn’t announcing some kind of retirement. My hope is she was signaling a shift away from Hollywood and toward bolder, more radical films. I don’t care if we need a dog whistle to understand them. I just hope we don’t have to sit through anything as painful and repugnant as The Brave One. (About which I had this to say when it came out.)

The Madwoman in the AtticInterestingly, as I tuned in simultaneously to the Globes and the critique of the Globes coming in on my laptop Sunday evening, I saw some similar but different and very happy news pop up on my Facebook feed: the announcement that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar had won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle for their transformative work in feminist literary criticism. To which I say: hip hip hooray! Go read that article, which is full of deserved praise and the kind of warm, fuzzy reaction one hopes/expects to see in lifetime achievement stories. My favorite line is the last one, from Gubar, who notes that, though she and Gilbert haven’t worked together in several years, “We’ve remained fast and true friends.”

And that, my darlings, is an achievement worth celebrating. Congratulations, Susan, Sandra, and, yes, you, too, Jodie. Thanks for showing the world that you don’t have to be a good girl to be great.

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.

The Unbearable Weirdness of Being Voted On

My humanity is up by nine points in Turtle Country, according to the latest Washington Post poll on the referendum that would extend the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples.  The poll of likely voters shows that 52% intend to vote yes on Question 6, while 43% say they don’t have a homophobic bone in their bodies but are pretty sure the Lord God Almighty thinks that Edith Windsor should have had to pay $363,053 in federal estate tax after her partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, died in 2009. Wow, who knew the Lord was such a micromanager?

My humanity is also leading in Washington state, by the way, and doing well in Maine. Things are little shakier in Minnesota, but it’s possible my humanity will prevail even there, depending on turnout and how the undecideds go. No lead is comfortable, of course, because the Not Homophobes Opposed to Civil Equality tend to lie to pollsters about how they intend to vote on questions regarding my humanity. Funny how that goes, isn’t it?

You are justified in wondering why a Madwoman Opposed to Marriage But in Favor of Marriage Equality has come to see the election in such dramatic terms, as a referendum on her very humanity. Oh, well, you know, that’s what happens when one’s fellow citizens — neighbors, friends, coworkers, and relatives as well as millions of strangers — hold one’s rights in the palms of their kind or unkind hands. The stakes feel both high and personal, because they are. One cannot not care, even about a 15-year-old African American boy whom one reads about in the (online version of the) newspaper, whose mother explains his opposition to same-sex marriage this way: “He is very accepting of people with alternative lifestyles, but doesn’t believe they should be able to get married.” Fifteen-year-olds cannot vote, of course, but wouldn’t it trouble you to hear one so blithely judge what you should or should not be permitted to do? Wouldn’t that make you want to meet this young man, look him in the eye, and ask why and how he came to make such a judgment on your humanity or lack of it? You might briefly imagine such an encounter, mightn’t you, before you sensibly shifted the focus of your questioning to why that young man lives in a world where such matters are subjected to popular votes?

Yes, that is the question, but I can’t stop thinking about this young man. And I can’t stop thinking about my neighbors, the ones with the impossibly manicured lawns and the spit-shined cars and the “No Pooping” signs in their yards. I have known them for close to 20 years. We are on friendly terms, warm ones even. We don’t just wave and exchange greetings. We pause to talk as they rake the mulch to the edges of their perfect beds and I take Ms. Ruby out for her twice-daily constitutionals. They dote on my dog and assure me she is welcome to poop in their yards — because she is adorable and they know I will clean up after her.

We do not speak of politics, my neighbors and I. There are no campaign signs in their yards, and they don’t mention the “Vote For Question 6” sign in my yard. As the election approaches, I wonder if I should broach the subject of the referendum. I feel that I ought to, and yet I hesitate, worried about how such a conversation might go and what its aftermath might be. The threads that connect us across multiple lines of difference — of race, class, sexuality, structures of intimacy — feel enduring yet delicate. I worry that such a conversation, if it went badly, could irreparably damage something I value highly: the pleasantness of encounters I have nearly every day with individuals who are a part of my lifeworld.

I realize that my anxiety may be unfounded and that it may do my neighbors a terrible injustice. It is possible that the conversation I am avoiding would go swimmingly if I summoned the nerve to start it. Most of my neighbors don’t seem to be churchgoers, and many of the households are sustained in part by the devoted care of unmarried adult daughters. For all our front-porch friendliness, I haven’t a clue what really goes on in my neighbors’ houses, so I shouldn’t presume to know anything about their politics. I shouldn’t, and I don’t really, but still I hesitate, because my humanity feels at stake and I’m not sure I could bear knowing that my neighbors would vote against that, against me.

In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler writes eloquently of the task of LGBT politics as “a remaking of reality, a reconstituting of the human, and a brokering of the question, what is and is not livable? So what is the injustice opposed by such work? I would put it this way: to be called unreal and to have that call, as it were, institutionalized as a form of differential treatment, is to become the other against whom (or against which) the human is made. It is the inhuman, the beyond the human, the less than human, the border that secures the human in its ostensible reality” (30). Further on she notes, “[W]hen we struggle for rights, we are not simply struggling for rights that attach to my person, but we are struggling to be conceived as persons” (32).

I taught Butler this week and found myself moved by her emphasis on livability, precarity, norms, and intelligibility. Happily, many of my students seem to have had similar responses. Instead of hearing complaints about the denseness of the writing and the complexity of the ideas, I heard enthusiastic affirmation: “She is rocking my world,” declared one convert. Even in the classroom, I hesitate to bring up Question 6 as an example of the kind of injustice Butler has in mind when she writes that “no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor.” I need the students to see this parallel for themselves. I cannot name it. I cannot say it. I feel overly implicated in the analogy and don’t want them to worry that their grades and their votes might have anything to do with one another.

My humanity is on the ballot, and that feels deeply estranging and acutely uncomfortable to me. Between now and election day, I will try to find a way to make these conversations happen, because I need to do everything I can to help secure a just outcome. In the meantime, I hope my students and my neighbors recognize that in important ways their humanity is at stake in this election, too. What kind of person are you, after all, if you would deny the personhood of others? Think about that as you consider your choices on November 6.

Who You Calling Chikin?

I work on a Chick-fil-A campus.

And a Pepsi campus.

A Capital One campus.

A Comcast campus.

Oh, and let’s not forget: A Northrop Grumman campus.

You, too? Yeah, welcome to the neoliberal university. I’m not a big fan of any of these companies, all of whom (yes, whom — because corporations are persons) either make crappy, dangerous products or engage in practices that are at odds with my own values and commitments, even when they aren’t flat out illegal. Only one of them is currently being targeted by a petition aimed at booting them off campus, and I’m guessing you know it isn’t the one that once employed Scooter Libby as a consultant.

Here is a link to the petition to remove the homophobic chicken purveyor from the sacred space of the food court in the student union at QTU. (Attention, new readers: “QTU” stands for Queer the Turtle University. It’s the pseudonym for my employer that I started using on Roxie’s World several years ago. The pseudonym is explained here.) I imagine there are similar drives being launched on campuses all over the country. There are, for example, at least two going on in that hotbed of homo-enablement, Kansas. By all means sign or launch one of these petitions if you feel moved to do so. I haven’t and I doubt that I will. On the other hand, I’m delighted to support the effort by QTU grad student Brian Real to get folks to donate the cost of a Chick-fil-A value meal (about $6.50) to LGBT causes and organizations tomorrow, August 1. That effort is a response to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s call to make tomorrow national “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” in support of Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s recent declaration that the company supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Cathy said in a radio interview in June, “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'”

Raising money for causes such as marriage equality or anti-bullying is an excellent way to shake our collective fist at Cathy’s bigotry, because it will materially help to counter the more than $2 million his company has contributed to anti-gay groups and causes over the years. That’s a positive tactic and one likely to be of significant political value, particularly in places like Turtle Country, where marriage equality will be on the ballot in November. (Hey, Turtles, if you’re looking for someplace to send your $6.50 [or more!], click here.) I would also support a boycott, but that would be pointless in my case because I haven’t eaten at Chick-fil-A since I escaped the malls of my Midwestern girlhood. I can’t, however, get behind the charge to kick the company off campus because, as the opening of this post suggests, the outrage here seems selectively applied. QTU did not, for example, kick ROTC off campus during the Vietnam war or over the military’s discriminatory policies on sexual orientation. As far as I know, there’s been no serious opposition to the university’s doing business with any of the other companies mentioned above, though I’ve heard rumors of contraband Cokes stored in top-secret refrigerators in rogue offices on campus. That is strictly entre nous, of course.

Look, consumers have every right not to give their money to companies whose policies or practices they find objectionable. Such withholding does not infringe on the company owner’s freedom of speech or religion, contrary to what the shrieking idiots of the right might want us to believe. I assert my own freedom by refusing to do business with homophobes, though, like a lot of bourgeois lefties, I manage to turn a blind eye to the labor practices of companies like Whole Foods and Apple because they sell stuff that I want a whole lot more than a fried-chicken sandwich. I would be delighted if Chick-fil-A would leave my campus because customers decided they would rather take their business elsewhere. I would feel uncomfortable booting them off campus for failing to represent the values of the university when it’s clear we don’t hold the vast majority of companies who do business with the institution to anything like that standard. We — and by “we” I don’t mean the administration; I mean all the consumer-citizens of the university community — turn a blind eye to the banks, cable companies, and defense contractors on campus either because they seem too big to fight or because they supply goodies we want. There are very serious questions here about who universities are doing business with these days and how we might pressure our schools to be more transparent about where money is coming from and how contract and licensing arrangements are made. We don’t look serious, however, if we target one chicken-$hit bigot and conveniently ignore the missile manufacturers in our midst.

Tell me if you think I’m wrong about this, Madpeople at your Laptops. Should I, as an official BDOC (you know — Big Dyke on Campus) be leading the charge to get the chicken-$hit purveyor of fried-chicken sandwiches off my campus? I’ll go pour a cold, frosty glass of unhealthy, illicit Coke while I await your replies. Remember, though, that tomorrow you are going to send $6.50 (or more!) to some totally gay cause or group as a way of annoying Dan Cathy, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and assorted other chicken-$hit bigots. Need help finding a cause or group? The Madwoman likes this one, because she wants Turtle Country to be the first state in the nation to win a vote on marriage equality. You choose your own, though. It’s a free country, right? Peace out.

(Image Credits: Picked up here and here.)

Madwomen in the City


Karen Ball as Emily Dickinson in Emily & Sue: A Love Story in 5 Scenes and 4 Seizures, Fresh Fruit Festival, NYC. Photo by Martha Nell Smith, 7/26/12.

Road trip! The woman known on Roxie’s World  as Goose has spent her career studying the complex, intimate, generative relationship between Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson. (See, for example, this co-edited collection of letters beloved by Sisters of Sappho everywhere.) So, when you need an English prof to supply some steamy historical context for a cool, queer, one-woman play that dramatizes Dickinson’s passion for the girl next door, Goose is the gal you call to be the scholar on your talk-back. The play, Emily & Sue: A Love Story in 5 Scenes and 4 Seizures, was written by Carolyn Gage and Merry Gangemi and ran for two nights at New York’s Fresh Fruit Festival. Karen Ball plays Dickinson as the fierce, even volcanic, poet who said of the woman who inspired and edited her, “With the exception of Shakespeare you have told me of more knowledge than any one living.” The 30-minute monologue, which is composed entirely out of lines from Dickinson’s poems and letters, pushes hard against the myths of Dickinson as a dotty, white-clad, virgin recluse. Ball wears black for the role, and her dancer’s clothes call attention to the strong corporeality of a sexy woman who dreams of spending “Wild Nights” moored in the port of her beloved’s body. Her voice is strong and commanding, even in expressing the pain and vulnerability Dickinson at times experienced in relation to Sue. The seizures in the play’s title refer to the claim in Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds that Dickinson may have suffered from epilepsy. The claim has been controversial in Dickinson studies. The play hedges its bets on this point by projecting the seizures as jumpy videos on a screen at the rear of the stage. The “seizures” thus come across as metaphors for moments of heightened or fractured consciousness, when the poet’s brain crackles with perception. (One such moment is captured in the photo above.)

The Dickinson striding and prowling the stage in Emily & Sue is the Dickinson brought into public consciousness by a line of painstaking biographical and textual scholarship focused on sex and gender that goes all the way back to Rebecca Patterson’s The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, published in 1951. It’s good to see that forceful, fascinating figure brought to life in a taut production that does justice to both the intensity and the complexity of a relationship that endured for close to forty years. If Emily & Sue comes to your neck of the woods, you should see it. It will banish the timid ghost of the gingerbread-bearing Belle of Amherst from your memory banks forever.

And remind you that, before she had a Laptop, The Madwoman perhaps made do with a quill pen for recording her dazzling, divine sense.

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