Here in Michigan – and in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee – we were recently told by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that our marriage equality ban would not be overturned. We should wait for the public to vote on our rights again, we were told. You are not fully worthy, we were, once again, reminded.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a moment from years and years back: a moment that I regret. I was on a peninsula walk – a lovely and a regular Charleston thing – with some graduate school friends. I was fresh out of the military, fresh out of the closet, and freshly in love with the new life of letters I was living. All of the four or five friends I was walking with were straight, and the most beloved of them – a husband and wife I adored with the reverence of a thirsty person coming accidentally across a glass of water – were Catholic. Their faith, to me, was a gift. It never occurred to me that it was exclusionary. That it could hurt me. Politics aside, I am a deeply religious person with no religion. I have a heart full of God-love and no known God. So M and N were lovely to me: faith-filled and sure and endearing and honest and whole in their brokenness. They were of-God and loving them made me feel of-God too. We talked about everything on those walks, but on this particular night we landed on the subject of PhD schools and their competitiveness. M was a year ahead of me in our MA program, and she brought up a student who’d been a year ahead of her, and who was now in his first year of a prestigious PhD program. She said – this sister I’d waited a quarter of a century to meet – that he’d gotten in, of course, because he was gay. So much privilege in these academic settings, they all agreed. With her Catholic faith and her long blond hair, what advantage would she have to draw on when her time to apply came along? They all nodded. Charlie was living this dream we all shared because he was gay. And I said nothing. And in and of itself, that’s not great. But what haunts me now is: I figured she must be right. I probably – if I could see myself in my mind’s eye the way I can see them, all these years later – even nodded too.
I thought of that moment for what must be the thousandth time when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided against decency last week. I thought of all the lessons I’ve learned since I was first told that Charlie – and by proxy I – walked with privilege. Since I consented to that ignorance with my silence, and maybe even with agreement.
But of course, M wasn’t right. And agree with her though I did – discounting how small and afraid I’d been made to feel in favor of this sisterhood for which I longed – I lost her friendship anyway in what was to date the most painful abandonment I’ve ever experienced. And so not standing up for myself, for Charlie, accomplished nothing aside from making me feel small again (and again and again). I wouldn’t relive too many moments in my life for fear of ending up somewhere different from here, but I would relive that one if I could. I would say no. I would say it with love, but I would say it firmly because they were wrong in a way, in exactly the way, that lets folks live with the inequity of our times. That lets them sleep at night.
But the truth is, we all sleep at night (or, you know, when our kids let us). Because the suffering injustice causes is often invisible. Even allies, even queers: we’re all just used to it. Shamefully used to it.
But this needs to be said: it is degrading in a way that lingers. In a way that makes Charlie’s supposed privilege laughable.
I still remember – not abstractly, but intensely, bodily – the humiliation of campaigning against the marriage ban in South Carolina. The things people said to me. The shame of standing in line to vote on whether or not employers should be allowed to fire gay employees in Kalamazoo. The terror of nearly being run off a cliff, literally, because bigots in a big truck in rural Ohio didn’t like our bumper sticker. The humiliation of being told – while holding my brand new and so deeply wanted baby in my arms on his first day of life – that my name had no place on his birth certificate. The humiliation of this exact scene again two years later. How small I felt taking the stand in a covert hearing in another state to ask (beg, plead, with money we didn’t have) a judge to grant me parental rights over Bram. The wave of nausea I feel each time I imagine what it will be to explain this, all of this, to my children. I still remember these and dozens of other shameful, terrorizing, humiliating moments: where I stood, the faces I saw around me, the tight chest and rush of blood and suffocation.
All of these wounds, this fear, this degradation? It’s real. I carry it all in my body in ways I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. And I know that compared to so many, I’ve been profoundly lucky. I’ve suffered so little.
I’ll never be the girl on that peninsula walk again, in part because of these experiences. And so I’m not sorry to have lived them. I also know what a privilege it is to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us, and so I am proud to be here. But it hurts me that I probably nodded that night. It hurts me the way this dad’s reaction now hurts him. It hurts me that in my desire to be loved by those friends, I walked with them in their careless bigotry. It’s funny, how often it’s the small moments that continue to haunt.