“On election day itself, as the state of California determines whether to make one last-ditch effort to hold back the inevitable evolution of love in the 21st century, Julie and Amy decide to get hitched (again). It is an act of love but also of protest, an affirmation of commitment but also a land-grab for legal rights.”—From a wedding invitation
“Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality… I think it’s a travesty that people have forced someone who is gay to have to make their case.”—Jon Stewart to Governor Mike Huckabee, The Daily Show
Cleo wore a princess dress and carried a basket of flowers. She handed each of us a flower and primly arranged the ones left over. Then she set them aside and climbed into the alcove where we’d left our coats—as high as her head—and with a “Watch me!” she jumped off. It was a good day for solemnity and leaps.
We stood at the top of the marble staircase in San Francisco’s City Hall, holding our flowers while we watched Julie and Amy, Cleo’s parents, take turns explaining how and why they loved each other. All week, they had fretted over whether to get married to mark this extraordinary time, and in the end they said yes—again—and each went off to write her vows. It had been fourteen and a half years since they’d met in New York City. They had enough time behind them to see their rhythms and loops, and enough time ahead to set lifelong intentions. They had tested out better and worse, and believed that they could rise to whatever life presented.
So they stood up in front of some friends who loved them, their six-year-old daughter, and a motherly Justice of the Peace, and vowed to stay together for the rest of their lives. This part bored Cleo a little, I think. There wasn’t enough about her. And then, a few minutes before 5.30 PM on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008, the Justice of the Peace smiled at Julie and Amy and said:
“By the power vested in me by the State of California,
I now pronounce you
We all clapped, and a few of us cried, and Doug took photos with a sheet of white paper stuck behind his flash, either to soften or sharpen the light, I don’t know which. An Associated Press photographer took some shots too. While we hugged and congratulated, Cleo showed her friend Annabel how you could skid on the marble steps, and then we all walked down together. There is no better staircase in San Francisco on which to flounce the skirts of a party dress—even in motorcycle gear I feel like Scarlett O’Hara in City Hall.
There were other knots of people just like us—pairs of tuxes, pairs of dresses, some with supermarket bouquets, some with kids. When we walked outside there was a crowd of activists on the steps below, waving placards at the traffic. Some wore costumes, others wore slogan t-shirts. Many of the drivers honked their support and waved, and the activists blew their whistles and chanted back. We stood for a moment and watched. The news crews were parked across the street and a helicopter dangled above. The atmosphere was both festive and charged.
“These two just got married,” I said and pointed at Julie and Amy, and everybody on the steps turned to look up and celebrate them, punching balloons into the air, cheering and applauding. Cleo looked bemused at first, but then she took it as a natural wedding thing that strangers would whoop at her mothers and admire her dress. This is going to be a big memory for her.
Julie’s cousin had to go back to her kids—she was temporarily a single parent since her husband had quit his job to spend months volunteering for Obama in a faraway state. The rest of us made our way to a nearby restaurant to celebrate with wine and plates passed family-style. The customers at the restaurant bar were already tipsy with victory, their elbows nearer and nearer the TV, heads thrown back. “He’s got Pennsylvannia,” they shouted, and our chairs scraped back to see for ourselves. My Blackberry chirped: someone still at the office reported that Obama had won Ohio. In a neatly recycled celebration, Julie paid the restaurant bill with cash raised from selling Cleo’s outgrown crib.
Barack Obama was elected that night, and I went to the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, which was hosting the No on Prop 8 campaign party. It was jammed, and I squeezed into the lobby and watched his acceptance speech on the smallish screens behind the reception desk, standing on tiptoe and peering around a pillar. I could hear him but barely see him. He was alone on a giant stage, talking about the hundred-year-old lady.
The St. Francis was a fire hazard. I’m slight enough to weave through crowds so I made my way up to the second floor to find my friends, only to discover at the top of the stairs that no one was moving. Our bodies were pressed together and some people held champagne glasses overhead. We had become a single, breathing mass trying to pour a tentacle down the stairs. On the third floor, people were peering over the banisters to see if they would ever get down. Finally a security guard arrived and shouted instructions into a bullhorn: “No more people going up. No elevators. Make your way DOWN and to the street, and keep moving.”
The people in this crowd had led the fight to keep gay marriage legal in California, and a majority of their fellow citizens had just voted to take this right away from them. I thought of the Christian superstores of Orange County, and how sure their customers would have felt about their votes. In his acceptance speech, President-elect Barack Obama had just acknowledged gay Americans, and yet Julie and Amy’s freshly-signed marriage dangled between today’s law and tomorrow’s.
We had won and we had lost. This crowd—familiar with the rhythms of progress and setbacks—opted for cheerfulness. People practiced saying “President Obama” out loud.
Almost everyone who made it to the exit paused at the door to take in the scene in Union Square below. A cable car was stuck just in front of the hotel, and a gorgeous African-American girl took over the bells and played the staccato rhythms of “Yes, We Can” over and over so that the crowds could roar along.
The tourists had come out to watch the Americans. The only other passengers who stayed on the marooned cable car were a Japanese couple, the man snapping photographs and the woman covering her giggles as the crowd waved up at her. At the edge of the crowd, holding up cameras and then breaking off for multi-lingual discussions, were Italian students, middle-aged Germans, and some excited French. A dull-eyed Irish girl scratched the backfat rippling out of her cami while her sister and their boyfriends held her shopping bags and stared off, waiting for something to happen beyond the world turning upside down. All over San Francisco, strangers were dancing together.
The week before Christmas I went to the last Saturday night showing of Milk at the Castro Theater. As is fitting for the neighborhood, it’s a fabulous 1920s movie palace decked out with frescoes and gilt. Before each film, a platform rises slowly to stage level, bearing a bald man in a red jacket seated at an organ. With his back to the audience, he plays several songs to loud applause. Any movie at the Castro is an event, and none more than this one: the last time I was here, part of the street was roped off for the filming of Milk.
The film opened with real footage of men being pulled out of New York bars and loaded into police wagons. They were homosexuals, and therefore criminals and psychiatric cases, and they covered their own faces as if they agreed with those assessments. That was the detail that shoved me into tears that lasted throughout the film: these men—fruits, faggots, queers—were already imprisoned by shame.
I myself am a flaunting, flaming, flamboyant straight, known to flirt publicly, hold hands on the street, and wrap myself around a man on the dance-floor. I wear lipstick and high heels, and motorcycle jackets—sometimes all at once. I’ve brought men home for Christmas and expected my family to accept them. I’ve exercised my right to have a heterosexual union officially recognized, even though I didn’t uphold the institution of marriage very well. I pursue my straight agenda in spite of underwhelming results.
And yet for all my heterosexual brazenness, I also know about shame and fear. When I was growing up, Ireland had closets for all kinds of conditions that sat outside a narrow range of normal. We had a never-ask, never-tell culture of festering secrets, and every close Irish friend of mine can spill those tales today: madness hidden in plain sight; babies given away and never spoken of; violent wives; gay uncles in London; neighbor men with wandering hands. Our ferry ports and airports were pressure valves.
In AA, they say you are only as sick as your secrets, and your secrets will make you drink. I think this goes for societies as well as individuals, and it takes a long time to get over such training. In my own life I’ve kept silent about relationships, weaknesses, and beliefs that might threaten or draw censure, and in the face of bigotry, I’ve dissented mostly by walking on to more tolerant places. Anonymity matters to me.
That’s why Harvey Milk’s bravery moves me to tears. For forty years he lived a cramped, coded, half-hidden life, as expected, and in return for that sacrifice he got to keep his job and a relationship with his family. And then, at forty, he decided that the price for these small rewards was too high, and he stepped into the San Francisco daylight. Somehow, he had saved up enough faith in himself to believe that if only people knew him and others like him for who they truly were, they would learn to find them ordinary rather than disgusting. He practiced radical acceptance, of himself and of others.
Milk asked for safety and respect—and with a smile he offered his own respect even to those who might fear or abuse him. He refused to underestimate people, and tried to inoculate them against homophobia by letting them react to a dose of his presence: a real, live gay man. He stood on a box and asked for an end to the secrets that protect only darkness.
Silence is complicity, and I am sad for people who still live in the many places where “gay” is a noun, not an adjective. For all the people, not just for “the gays” who are cast out. When some people have to live in the closet, we are all stuck in the dark.
In my home town, the compassionate line was once: “I just feel sorry for gays. It’s very hard for them, very lonely.” The circular logic has pissed me off since I was a teenager. Twenty years later, I live in San Francisco, where homosexuality is banal. Most of my gay colleagues are married with children, and busy with car-pooling and grade-school admissions. They’ve racked up decades together, their dogs growing from puppies to gray-muzzled shufflers. There is no pity required for these unlonely lives, and no need to fear such ordinary people. All that’s required is equality.
I remember chatting to my neighbor, Bryan, around the time San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom brought in gay marriage a few years back. Bryan is four years older than Barack Obama, and has seen plenty. He grew up in Watts, and remembers the confusion of the riots in 1965. He was one of five black students in his class at the University of Iowa. He lived through the exuberant seventies in gay San Francisco, and then through AIDS in the eighties and nineties. His long-term partner can get no citizenship status here, though they could get married and get citizenship in Scott’s country.
As we sorted our laundry in the garage that day, I put out some opinion I’d read about the dangers of rushing through gay marriage legislation. There was an election coming up, or just past, and people were saying that the sight of lesbian weddings had galvanized the opposition. Strategically, for everyone’s sake, might it have been better to wait until after the election?
Bryan interrupted me. “People will always tell you to wait, there’s always some reason to wait.” he said. “Well, I’m sick of waiting. It’s time.”
Dear Bryan, dear Harvey, dear Barack, dear Devin, dear Julie, Amy, and Cleo: thank you for your gracious impatience and your weaponless courage. Please keep pushing us to come out of the dark.
Further reading: Frank Rich in the NYTimes: “You’re likeable enough, gay people.“