Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Midwestern Marriage, Part Two: Why Marriage?

This is Part Two in a three-maybe-more part series on our recent Iowa wedding. This is especially for Jeffrey, because he asked, and deserved an answer much sooner than this, but even more deserved an answer as thoughtful as his question.

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So, when last we spoke, I was twenty-one, head over heels in love with Julie (o.m.g. she was so much fun, and I was really ready to stop being so deadly freakin’ serious all the time). I was also totally riding high on being a lesbian, and not so much thinking about farming and food.

The beginning of my relationship with Julie was just a teensy bit complicated, the details of which I will not bore you with, but suffice it to say that when we graduated a few months after falling in love, I jetted off to the West Coast for a previously-made appointment to spend time with a not-quite-but-very-soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend; and Julie headed back to Philadelphia with her already-but-only-just-ex-girlfriend to run the summer day camp program at what is now our church, Old First Reformed. (Go ahead: shake your head and mutter something about “only lesbians….” You know you want to!)

Except, as it turns out, we still had Midwestern dreams. When Julie and I returned from our respective coasts to Bloomington, Indiana half a year after we graduated, it was partly because neither of us could agree to pick up and move to the opposite coast. But even more than that, we had idealistic and starry-eyed notions of moving back to the heartland to be English teachers, and to make a difference. Sure, we’d need to lead a mostly closeted life, but we were ready. We were going to make the pilgrimage home, because we loved the Midwest, and we really believed that you can go home again, as Gene Logsdon has written. Except, as it turns out, it’s really hard if you’re a lesbian. Call me na├»ve, call me what you will, but I was so completely unprepared for how damn hard it was going to be to put myself in the closet.

After getting our teaching certification at Indiana University, Julie and I both got teaching gigs at rural Indiana high schools, and we found a lovely apartment back in Richmond, from where we commuted. Her first year of teaching, Julie taught six classes, including the senior vocational English classes – five girls in the secretarial track, and twenty-eight boys who were already auto-diesel mechanics, all of whom were only a few years younger than Julie, and most of whom (the boys at least) had gun racks in the back of their trucks and spit chewing tobacco on her back wall. That first semester, Julie felt like she was going to throw up every morning on our commute, during which I would drop her off twenty miles west of Richmond, and then drive another thirty miles west to my school. But after that trial by fire, Julie really found her vocation, which continues to this day: she is still a high school English teacher – and I am decidedly not.

My first year I had seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh graders, each in a different room, to which I pushed my classroom library around on a cart. I was probably a more thoughtful and certainly a more well-planned teacher than Julie, but she had all the skill and most of the success, whereas I had mostly a lot of anxiety. We taught many of the same classes with the same textbooks, and each morning on the way to work, she would quiz me about the lessons I had planned. Each evening on the way home, she would tell me all about how fabulously well my lessons had gone, always far better than they had for me.

But it wasn’t just my lack of vocation that made those three years so difficult. In addition there was a war that I thought was a very poor idea, an opinion I quickly, but not quickly enough, learned to keep to myself. More significantly, my mother died suddenly at the end of my first year of teaching, so really, I could have been the most natural teacher in the world, in the most accepting environment ever, and nothing much was going to make that an easy time. Still, when I look back on those three years, it is not just grief that looms, but how soul-crushing and toxic being in the closet was.

And I imagine that people knew, or suspected, or speculated and gossiped. But there was a very clear if unspoken understanding that under no circumstances could I come out and keep my job. Julie has always been better at letting stuff roll off her back, but even she found herself dodging around Richmond, anxious that a student might be lurking about, outside our house even, and the truth is that she was pretty wildly popular – not popular enough, of course, to come out and keep her job, but certainly popular enough to have students find her address and drive by the house for a glimpse.

Those were pretty queer days, in every sense of the word -- but mostly in the it’s-awful-to-have-queerness-imposed-on-you sense of the word.

Which is not to say that I did not name and claim my queerness – quite on the contrary. I was still very high on being a lesbian. I loved being queer. And, not surprisingly, we found plenty of queer culture in Richmond (because, after all, “We Are Everywhere, We Will Be Free!” And also: “George Bush, Read My Labia: U.S. Out of Saudi Arabia!” They may have won all the battles, but we had all the good songs!) Every Thursday night we would walk from our apartment about a hundred yards across a parking lot to the back door of Richmond’s gay bar, The Coachman (a.k.a. “The Coachthang”) and share a pitcher of really bad beer and watch well-groomed young men and flannel-shirted women play pool, and we would promise not to talk about our students (“well, okay, just one thing I need to tell you, and then I promise not to talk shop any more tonight.”) I served on the Board of the AIDS Task Force, Richmond (ATFR), back in the days when AIDS had only recently stopped being called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) and “Fight AIDS, Not People With AIDS” was still a controversial button to wear on your jean jacket in rural Indiana. But best of all were the “salons” hosted by an elderly gay couple who had lived together in Richmond for forty years in a beautiful, old Victorian house downtown, near our apartment. This was the hot ticket in the Richmond gay scene, and we got VIP treatment because of our ATFR connections. I honestly can’t even remember what happened at these “salons” that warranted such a name; I certainly don’t recall much conversation of great literary or even political merit. What I do recall most clearly was that the gay men were much more our speed than the lesbians, who mostly drank cheap beer in the kitchen and traded tips for beating DUI raps.

So they were queer days, in the best sense of the word too, in the I-love-being-queer-and-would-choose-it-even-if-I-had-a-choice sense of the word. I actively choose being queer, although, ironically, I didn’t mind at all putting that part of me in the closet in order to be an English teacher. It was the young-and-in-love part of me, the Julie-as-my-home-and-my-refuge part of me – in short, though I would NEVER have named it that then, it was my marriage – that was so devastating to put in the closet.

I would never have named that tender, blooming love a marriage, though, because I chose queerness and rejected marriage. In my mind, marriage was the antithesis of queerness, which seemed patently self-obvious to me, and almost beyond needing explanation. In my exuberance, I not only rejected marriage, but I felt certain that anyone with any sense would also reject it, in particular my many dearly beloved straight friends, who, after all, actually had a choice of whether to marry or not. I, of course, knew that I did not have such a choice, and certainly never expected to in my lifetime, but I was equally sure that if I had the choice, I would not choose it, such a flawed institution as marriage was.

Right before we left Richmond for Philadelphia, we had what Julie came to call a “Hooptie” because we could not settle on any other term for it. What it was, in fact, was a wedding, but I was adamant that we not call it a wedding. First of all, I most certainly wouldn’t get married, even if we could, and second of all, we couldn’t, so why pretend and call it a wedding when it wasn’t really? But “commitment ceremony” seemed just plain wrong, silly even, since obviously we had already made a commitment – I mean really, hadn’t we just come through a crucible and survived? Three years of being in the closet, looking over our shoulders, not to mention the almost unbearable grief of my mother’s death? Our commitment had already been forged through years of hard work, damn it! (Yes, I do tend to over-think things, so shut up already, okay?) Julie is a very patient woman (we’re a little yin and yang when it comes to thinking hard about things), but I think I may have worn even her patience a bit thin; she just gave up and started calling it “The Hooptie,” and it stuck.

But for all my bravado about rejecting marriage, and for all my careful parsing of the issue, it is difficult for me to express how painful was my sense of stigmatization and exclusion as one by one (and quite reasonably, I realize in retrospect) all of my straight friends got married. Some of their weddings it was simply too painful to attend. Others I attended, but at great personal cost. Finally I just decided to put all that pain in a neat little box and bury it very deep, because really, isn’t it easier and more fun to embrace your friends’ weddings than to feel all that ugliness? And I was really clear at some point that not a single one of them was going to choose queerness in the end, not because they valued it, not even in solidarity with those of us who had no choice.

I will admit that while my intellect sometimes feels cold and hard and sharp (way more so than I would like, actually), I nonetheless have a very tender heart. I feel things deeply, and dwell on what all that deep feeling means, probably more so than your average girl. I know that not all gay men and lesbians felt quite so acutely the pain of being excluded from the institution of marriage; or maybe they were just sooner and better able to put that pain in a box and bury it. Maybe they really were queer, and really didn’t care, and I was just playing at being queer to hide how much I cared; that is certainly possible. But even while I am willing to concede that some of that deep feeling was unique to my particular sensitive soul, I think most gay folk will admit that it is just no fun to be categorically excluded from an institution as central to having a grown-up relationship, and to having a family, and to participating as a couple in a particular community, as marriage is. Even if you think that institution is deeply flawed, and even if your cold, sharp intellect believes the world would be better off with a very different institution for organizing relationships and families, still, your tender soul just feels really, really sad.

In Brown vs. the Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court held that separate cannot be equal, precisely because of the psychological pain being excluded exacts on a minority. The only reason to categorically exclude one type of relationship from the institution of marriage is because as a society, we believe one type of relationship is inferior to another. Even if we create another institution called, say, “civil union,” and attach to it exactly the same bundle of rights as marriage, as long as we segregate same-sex relationships into that new and separate institution, we are still in a very real way insisting on the inferiority of those relationships. We are still imposing queerness on gay and lesbian folks who do not necessarily want to be queer. Some may argue that this is mere symbolism, mere semantics, but I’m here to tell you: language and imagery and symbolism matter.

When I was young and proud and queer, it was almost impossible for me to admit, even to myself, that when I met young, straight, married couples, many of them my friends, many of them with newer relationships than my own – that they seemed so much more real somehow. Like they were the real deal, and we were just playing house, pretending to be, but not quite grown-up. It was both a painful and embarrassing sensation that would wash over me, but mostly it was just confusing, this extraordinarily ridiculous notion that a legal contract recognized by the state and called “marriage” made these couples somehow more … Real. Grounded. Substantial. This feeling left me eventually, and honestly, I’m almost glad that I didn’t have “marriage” to fix it; many, many good things came of having to chart our marriage on our own, without a ready roadmap, outside of the institution called “marriage.” And there’s nothing like a few decades and home ownership and a couple of kids (and a 1989 VW camper van) to make you feel married, even if you want to be queer. And by this time in my life, I don’t actually want to be queer, not in my marriage anyway. I’m queer enough in so many other ways, I find that my quite traditional marriage feels like home, like a refuge I would not trade for the world.

At our Hooptie, just before we high-tailed it out of Indiana to find safety in the big city, I spoke about a Spanish term, querencia, which roughly means a place where one feels safe, a place from which one's strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home. It comes from the verb querer, which means to desire, to want. I taught Advanced Placement English, and one of the practice essays my students took gave an extended definition of “querencia,” and then asked them to write an essay describing such a place. One of my many dilemmas as a closeted English teacher was that I believed passionately that I should write with my students, that I should write personally with them, just as I asked them to write with me. I often tried, but would inevitably stumble on the lies my closet required of me: almost anything I wanted to share with them, it seemed, required at least a casual reference to Julie, or our home, or our life together, and I just wasn’t willing – just couldn’t – call her my “roommate” or even simply leave her out. So most of the time I left my page blank. At the Hooptie, I shared all this, and then read the essay I had not been able to share with my students: that Julie – and, I now would say, our marriage -- is my “querencia.”

(Julie’s notes here: “que the soundtrack to the very special Lifetime movie.” Isn’t she sweet?)

4 comments:

primalmommy said...

Thanks for this. I remember your conversations on VS year ago about why not marriage.. I am happy to follow the trail of breadcrumbs to where it has led.

Kate Haas said...

Marta, all this is so fascinating and just like reading a novel - except one where you actually went to college with the characters. Many, many congratulations on your wedding! (And dang, that chocolate bread sounds delectable.)

Julie Steiner said...

I just want to clarify that I did not "quiz" Marta about her lesson plans in order to steal them, but rather,"casually inquired in the course of conversation." Everything else is accurate. And Marta is quite a fine writer (and still a better lesson planner than I am).

Marta said...

kelly: stay tuned for part three (i'm not sure when i'm going to get to it, but i hope in the next few weeks) 'cus you're going to make a brief appearance i think! (hint: peaches)

kate, i should probably just send you a check each month and fire my therapist! do you know Brother Juniper's Bread Book? if not, i can post the recipe for straun, then you just roll it out, sprinkle with chips, roll it up, pinch the ends, bake. voila!

steiner: you totally *stole* my lesson plans! still do. good thing i think you're so damn cute.