After years of hiding their love, Barbara Kenny and Tibby Middleton found a place where they felt comfortable being a couple -- until Virginia’s lawmakers chased them across the Potomac
Barbara Kenny’s eyes narrow as she cranks the faucet in a freshly painted bathroom of what will soon be her new home in Frederick. On, then off. On, then off. Barbara peers at the spout, unhappy. “The water pressure sucks,” the lanky, 66-year-old clinical social worker snaps as she moves on to the next room, trailed by a perky real estate agent wielding a clipboard and Tibby Middleton, Barbara’s partner of 40 years.
Barbara leads the trio down the newly carpeted stairs to the kitchen, where she clicks a stove knob and criticizes the burner for not going on quickly enough. The real estate agent jots down the problem as Barbara disappears into another room, grumbling about how the neighborhood is a “PUD,” a not-so-complimentary acronym for a planned unit development. From the front windows of the three-story gray colonial, the mountains of Western Maryland are visible, along with rows and rows of neatly manicured, identical homes.
Tibby, a bubbly retired teacher, flashes a mildly apologetic look at the agent. In her 66 years,Tibby has learned to make the best of things, to put a happy face on dark times, to pretend. “We do have sidewalks, and that’s a grand thing,” she says.
But Barbara is already out of earshot and is not likely to be mollified by sidewalks, anyway. “This just makes me madder and madder,” Barbara says, staring out the window at the bare February landscape. “I mean, this is a perfectly fine house, it’s just not where we want to be.”
Where they want to be is Virginia, in the little townhouse in downtown Fredericksburg they’ve owned for 17 years, in the community they’ve come to treasure. It took them three decades of isolation and living in the closet to find Fredericksburg, and come out as lesbians. And their townhouse there -- filled with their books, Barbara’s landscape and abstract paintings, and the sunshine that pours in from skylights -- embodies everything they’ve finally managed to build together. Now that house has stacks of empty moving boxes in it, and, as senior citizens, Barbara and Tibby are about to take on the biggest mortgage of their lives.
Their pre-settlement walk-through is finished, and the door to the new house shuts behind them. Without a backward glance, Barbara and Tibby bundle into the car and head to their lawyer’s office. A few hours later, they finish signing the settlement papers and their lender hands them a gift basket. They are officially Maryland homeowners.
“Any illusion I had before about changing my mind is over now,” Barbara says. She points their car toward Fredericksburg, where moving vans will be pulling up in eight weeks to take the women away from the first place they found acceptance, the place they finally planted roots, the place where they expected to die. They don’t want to leave, but they are convinced the state of Virginia has left them no choice.
Barbara and Tibby were watching television in their living room rocking chairs in the summer of 2004 when they heard the news they’d been dreading for months. A new law in Virginia had taken effect, called the Affirmation of Marriage Act. It declared that couples like them were not entitled to any of the benefits or protections that straight, married couples got.
They had been hearing about the law, part of a national backlash against gay marriages in California and Massachusetts, for several months. For Barbara and Tibby, the legal language it used was scary: A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited and such an arrangement entered into in another state or jurisdiction is void in Virginia and any contractual rights created thereby are void and unenforceable.
Tibby initially refused to believe that the legislation was aimed at Barbara and her. They were law-abiding, low-key Virginians, people who ran their neighborhood homeowners association, called bingo nights at the firehouse and served on their church’s board of trustees. “That’s not meant to include us. It means people who come from other states,” Tibby said with her typically earnest tone to Barbara, who responded with a typically skeptical look. They are partners and best friends, but often opposites when it comes to their gut instincts on human nature. Tibby believes the best of people; Barbara doesn’t.
It wasn’t new to either woman that they weren’t entitled to all kinds of benefits that straight, married couples enjoyed: No leave from work to care for a sick partner. No access to a partner’s Social Security payments when he or she dies. No right to live together in a nursing home.
Barbara and Tibby never had those rights and never made a fuss about it. Having been raised in what they describe as the patriarchal, deeply conservative climate of Salt Lake City in the 1940s and ‘50s, they expected little as women and even less as lesbians. But now there was no room to be silent, to not make a fuss. An aneurysm in Barbara’s brain, first detected in 2001, had changed all that. As the Affirmation of Marriage Act made its way through the Virginia General Assembly, Barbara became gripped day and night by images of herself unconscious, on a respirator, with someone other than Tibby beside her, making decisions for her.
“If this goes through,” she warned Tibby, “we’re outta here.”
No, no, no, Tibby replied. This is where we live, this is our community. Tibby began researching the law, and asked Barbara not to tell anyone in Fredericksburg that they might move. “I thought the minute we say something, it’s like a train that starts to leave,” she says.
But there was no changing Barbara’s mind. And, eventually, there was no changing Tibby’s, either. Supporters of the law insist that it isn’t intended to take away anyone’s rights, but to affirm traditional values and an existing law that already banned gay marriage. But no one Tibby consulted -- legislators, lawyers, activists -- could tell her what judges might do with medical directive documents and wills under the new law. The legislation would have to be challenged in court before anyone could know for sure.
“I would eschew the word ‘safe’ for the moment,” says Edward D. Barnes, founder of Virginia’s largest family law practice and former head of the Virginia Bar Association’s family law section. Contracts such as wills and medical directives aren’t really marital documents, he says, and, therefore, the law doesn’t appear to be aimed at them. But because the law hasn’t been tested in court, he is advising his gay clients to craft paperwork that plays down any romantic connection to their partners -- the opposite of what he told them before the new law passed. For now, he says, gays and lesbians need to seek out expert legal help and pray that their documents can withstand any potential legal challenge. “Since there’s been no interpretation of this law, no one could give an ironclad” guarantee that wills and medical directives won’t be affected, he says.
At this stage of their lives, Barbara and Tibby can’t afford to be a test case. All that matters to them is being able to know, 100 percent for sure, that they will be together until the very end. They already know what it is like to be kept apart. Tibby still reflexively puts her right hand on her heart when she describes being barred from Barbara’s recovery room at Alexandria’s now-closed Circle Terrace Hospital, where Barbara had a hysterectomy in 1984. “Family only,” the nurses said, quoting hospital policy. Then, as now, the law did not entitle Tibby to be with Barbara.
“I could see her being wheeled in there, and it just pulled at my heart, to have her alone in there,” Tibby says. She stalked the waiting room until shifts changed and returned to the nurse’s station with a new identity -- Barbara’s sister.
Now the Affirmation of Marriage Act had stripped away their confidence that their medical directives, which left each in charge of health care decisions for the other, would trump Virginia’s refusal to recognize their relationship. How could they stay in a state that was treating them this way?
“I’m saying, ‘I’m not a victim, and you’re not going to treat me like this anymore! I’m taking my retirement money somewhere else,’” Tibby says, banging her fist on the dining room table one afternoon. But the women know there is another side to their decision to leave Virginia, a skittering away, a cautiousness that has clung all these years. And the story of where that caution comes from explains why they believe they need to go.
Growing up in utah, Barbara Kenny knew something was very wrong with her feelings for other girls. She knew it from her mother, an advertising executive who made the teenager promise never to tell anyone in their family or in their meticulously Mormon home town that she was gay. She knew it from her best friend’s father, who bitterly called the 15-year-old Barbara a “lesbian” and said she’d better stay away from his daughter. Barbara says she had no idea what a lesbian was or what she’d done to prompt his tirade. She says she tried to end her life, gulping down a handful of sleeping pills during last period at school. She went home and slept for so long her parents figured out something was wrong and called for the family doctor. She remembers being half out of it as the doctor talked to her about libido and how sometimes “we get attached to the wrong people.” There were more suicide attempts throughout her teens, involving razor blades and trips to the emergency room. She tried to run away, she says, but her father brought her home to Salt Lake City, a place where right and wrong were crystal clear.
Barbara knew Tibby Middleton from their sophomore world history class at East High. Petite and pretty with short blond hair, Tibby was active in the Mormon church and married right out of college in 1959. Even then, Tibby says, she knew she was physically and emotionally attracted to women, but she desperately wanted to live up to what was expected of her. She taught English for a couple of years before having two children, James and Holly, and staying home to care for them.
By then, Barbara was wandering in search of herself. She became a carhop in Los Angeles, a grocery checker in Denver, a taxi driver in Baltimore. A black-and-white photo of that period shows her in her twenties, wearing a moody, James Dean-like expression and an Army shirt on which she had written “Pilgrim,” after a Kurt Vonnegut character who lives in two worlds, lonely in each.
By the time Barbara returned to Salt Lake in 1965, Tibby was having a harder time ignoring her sense of hollowness. One night, she says, she had a vivid dream about Miss Shannon, her world history teacher from sophomore year. Miss Shannon had moved to Baltimore, but something about the dream made Tibby write to her. When Miss Shannon wrote back, she mentioned that she’d seen one of Tibby’s classmates, Barbara Kenny, who’d since returned to Utah and was working as an artist in the basement of her parents’ advertising office. Tibby found herself heading to that basement studio, ostensibly to buy some art for her house. The women were both in their late twenties. Barbara can still remember Tibby coming down the stairs. This is the most beautiful person I have ever seen, Barbara recalls thinking. Tibby says it dawned on her at that moment that Barbara was gay. And she was struck by Barbara’s willingness to live an authentic life in a stiflingly conformist place. Here is a real lesbian, she says she thought.
She still couldn’t comprehend how a relationship with a woman could be a real option; after all, she’d been taught that gays were freaks, sinners. But over long talks and walks with Barbara, Tibby could tell that this connection was something meaningful. She asked her husband for a separation.
In 1968, the women moved into a house together: Barbara in the basement and Tibby upstairs with the children. Even as Barbara was thrilled to have found a partner, Tibby went numb. She had lost her husband, her church, her position in life. Her 5-year-old daughter, Holly, missed her father and bucked against Barbara. Desperate, Tibby took the truth about her relationship with Barbara to a psychiatrist, who turned with it to the very authority she feared the most: the Mormon church.
One night church officials were at the women’s door, telling Tibby the relationship was immoral and suggesting that Holly could be endangered by being exposed to it. Church officials could excommunicate Tibby as a lesbian. She says she also feared that they would press her ex-husband to bring the matter before civil courts presided over by Mormon judges obedient to church leaders. Tibby was terrified that she could lose not only custody of the children but the right to even see them. She went to church officials and lied about her relationship with Barbara to keep the question of what was best for her children in her hands.
She never faced a church proceeding, but she and Barbara decided they couldn’t stay in Utah. And Tibby came to the painful conclusion that she couldn’t take both children with her. While James was deeply attached to her, Holly adored her father, who’d remarried. Tibby thought she might do better with him, his new wife and stepchildren. She and Barbara would make a home for James.
The bar was low that day in 1970 when Tibby and Barbara drove out of Salt Lake City and headed east. At that point, the best the women believed they could hope for was to be left alone.
Amazing. Tibby was drinking a glass of wine in public. She was 32, and a new resident of Alexandria, Va. And she felt like she was running down the street naked, that’s how liberating it felt to drink alcohol in public on her first major excursion outside Utah. No one was watching, monitoring, reporting back. No one cared.
“I felt free,” Tibby says now. “People seemed far more liberal here. Interesting in variety and the sense that not everyone had to be the same, not like in Utah.”
“We didn’t know,” Barbara says with a sad shrug, looking upon her adopted state differently now.
“We never expected any rights,” Tibby adds, half-mournful, half-angry.
Whatever sense of liberation they found proved very limited; plus, Barbara and Tibby had no idea what to do with it. Modest and conventional to start with, they’ve never been the type to march or wave flags. Couple that with the shame heaped upon them in Utah, and the women spent the next two decades making Northern Virginia their own sort of closet. They established separate bedrooms and an understanding that there was to be no outward sign of romance, either in public or in front of James, who called Barbara “Kenny.” They lived in a suburban development, built bike ramps for James and entered him in the soap box derby.
Tibby was named “most popular female teacher” multiple times by students at Fairfax County’s Robinson Secondary School, but she kept all details of her personal life private. The family of three moved to Stafford County in 1975 to be closer to Barbara’s job as a clinical social worker in Fredericksburg and farther from Tibby’s students. “I didn’t want to wind up running into any of them at the grocery store,” she says. “I wanted to just live my life.”
James, now 43 and working in film and television in Los Angeles, remembers a very stable, supportive home with the women. Because they kept their relationship so “circumspect,” he says, other kids didn’t know or care that he had two mommies. “As a kid I didn’t care [that Tibby was gay], I really didn’t,” says James, who saw his father in the summers. She and Barbara “were good parents.”
Tibby’s relationship with Holly was far more distant--the result of family tensions that continued to play out long after Tibby fled Utah. She and Holly were able to talk only about once a month and saw each other once a year. Yet it was Tibby who talked Holly into attending college when she graduated from high school in 1980. Almost immediately, Holly says, she fell in love with her female roommate at Utah State. She remembers telling her mother she was involved with a woman.
“Honey,” she says Tibby told her softly, “if there is any way you can make another choice, make it, because this is no kind of life.”
Holly says she quickly came to the same conclusion her mother had: Utah was no place for gay people. She moved to Virginia the following year, where she finished college and finally established a close relationship with her mother.
By 1988, Tibby and Barbara had been in Stafford for more than 12 years and realized there would be no one to say goodbye to if they left. “When you make yourself so private, how can anyone know you?” Tibby says. That year, the women moved to Fredericksburg, a small city between Richmond and Washington with a grid of charming historic homes, a winding romantic river running through town and not one gay bar but two, right next to the Civil War posters, the tourist trolley and the Ben Franklin store.
Barbara and Tibby loved city living: walking to the farmer’s market, the coffee shop, the train. People who knew the women could guess they were a couple, but they never discussed their relationship with anyone around them.
Then one weekend in 1993, Tibby was at a retreat at the Unitarian Universalist Church, which she had recently joined. The group had broken into threes, and her trio was sitting outside on a deck behind the church, discussing their spiritual paths and what had brought them to this place. A black woman was talking about her anger about racial discrimination and how it had left her soul unsettled. Tibby listened as the woman gave voice to something powerfully resonant. How you are dealt with in life affects what you take in, and what you give out, the woman said. It has a spiritual component. And suddenly Tibby found herself sobbing.
I have been closeted for years, Tibby told the women, who held her as she bawled. Suddenly the anguish caused by all she had suffered in her life, the terrible loss of years with her daughter, the whole thing just began to pour out, she remembers. She cried uncontrollably off and on all afternoon. But after that, Tibby started inching out of the closet, and she began pulling Barbara out with her.
They didn’t change radically. They still didn’t touch in public, even in the gay mecca of Provincetown, Mass., where they vacation each summer. And they still “cleansed” the house of romantic photos when the cleaning lady came every other week, for fear she would quit if she knew. But something began to take root. “I might not describe the relationship exactly, but I would say Barbara and I were ‘together’ if someone asked,” Tibby says. They began putting “one household” on official documents for the first time. They stopped telling doctors they were sisters -- usually.
Together, they joined church committees, the investment club, the women’s circle and an elderstudy at the local college. Barbara’s practice prospered, growing to 25 to 30 clients at a time. She and Tibby became the type of people who went to the 11:30 a.m. Sunday service early to schmooze with the 9:30 crowd, who knew the names of all the tellers at the bank, who got their hair cut by the same people for 17 years.
Part of the way they grew to know their neighborhood so intimately was by taking many long walks together.
“Walking is a major activity for us,” Tibby says in their living room one March afternoon, as they prepare for a regular Friday stroll. Before they leave, they each don a pair of huge brown glasses that look like safety goggles; they wear them over their regular glasses, in place of sunglasses.
“I like them,” Barbara says. “They make the world look amber-colored.”
Then they head up Hanover Street, to the track at the University of Mary Washington, which they circle, Barbara with her hands in her pockets, Tibby, bouncy and gesturing enthusiastically. They make their way past Mrs. Campbell, their 94-year-old neighbor, who is outside gardening and waves cheerily. They stop at Picker’s Supply guitar store, where they take lessons and know the guys at the counter. And at Goolrick’s pharmacy, where they know the pharmacist and like him, even though they’ve heard he is a staunch conservative.
Walking is a good activity for two people who have such different personalities and habits. Tibby likes to travel, fund-raise, socialize; Barbara remains more of an introvert. She often climbs to her little art studio in the attic and cranks up the music. Sometimes she paints to Beethoven concertos, other times (”When I am pissed off,” she says) to manic, hard rock from Nine Inch Nails. Barbara has filled the space with some 200 paintings, from realistic landscapes of the afternoon light on the trees outside the house to abstract pieces that look like rocks floating in a cosmic realm, falling apart and trying to come back together.
In the spring of 2001, Barbara noticed a heartbeat in her ear. Worried that she had inherited her mother’s deafness, she went to a doctor. Dye shot into the arteries around her brain showed that her problem wasn’t in her ear, it was a 6mm aneurysm deep in her brain that could rupture at any time.
Tibby was in the kitchen when Barbara’s doctor called one day. “I’m very sorry,” he told Tibby, a condolence that shook her into the realization that Barbara could die of a stroke. Neurosurgeons in Richmond and Baltimore recommended surgery, which would involve removing a part of Barbara’s skull, cutting into her brain to reach the aneurysm and putting a clip on it to seal it off. Such surgeries carry risks, including paralysis, memory problems and confusion. Barbara was afraid of the possibility of brain damage and decided not to have the surgery. For a while afterward, she felt panicky. Will I die tonight? What will Tib do if she finds me? But eventually different thoughts took hold. I better live every minute, she decided. She had played guitar before -- bluegrass and gospel, mostly -- but now she played every night. She brought more color into her art, her clothes. And because stress can cause an aneurysm to break, Barbara realized that it was medically necessary not to let her blood boil over things like people “tolerating me” (one of her pet peeves: the word “tolerance”).
She and Tibby started to lose patience with discrimination, with paying two sets of health care bills, with being denied spousal discounts when they rented a car. But they said and did nothing. They are uncomfortable with being singled out as “a minority” or being associated with in-your-face groups such as Dykes on Bikes or ACT UP. The gay rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s mostly passed them by. It took the AIDS epidemic to get them to their first public gay rights event, the huge 1993 gay pride march in Washington. Walking through streets filled with thousands of gays and lesbians, they felt moved but very afraid: of being attacked, of being cursed at, of winding up in a television frame that could affect their jobs and friendships. That was the last gay pride event they went to.
A decade later, when images of gay couples getting married in California and Massachusetts started appearing on television, Barbara and Tibby say they felt pride but not envy; they had no desire to get married. When other gay people in Fredericksburg started applying for marriage licenses on Valentine’s Day as a protest, Barbara and Tibby didn’t join them. They view marriage as primarily a religiously sanctioned institution and harbor painful memories about their experiences with what they call a theocracy in Utah. It’s unlikely they would have paid much attention to Virginia’s Affirmation of Marriage Act if they hadn’t been so worried that it could keep them apart during a medical emergency. The law infuriated them. “The way Virginia is treating us, what they are saying to us, I feel like it’s being in an abusive house,” Tibby says.
“I’m saying, let’s get out of this house.”
From the basement office of her home in Sterling, Patricia Phillips will spend the next few months pushing for the very law that Tibby and Barbara find so offensive. Only this time, she and other supporters of the Affirmation of Marriage Act want to amend the Virginia constitution with wording similar to the law, so that it can’t be struck down.
Phillips, a 48-year-old consultant to the food industry, is part of a burgeoning national movement to protect the traditional institution of marriage. She volunteers on behalf of Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian advocacy group at the forefront of efforts to limit marriage and its legal benefits to heterosexual couples. As the group’s state director, Phillips will send letters and make calls to state legislators when the General Assembly convenes next month. The constitutional amendment passed the legislature last year, but it must be approved a second time before being put to a statewide referendum, probably next fall. Phillips
doesn’t think it will be difficult to persuade other Virginians to join the lobbying effort. “When you talk about marriage between a man and a woman, it’s just really, really basic, and it’s not a hard sell,” says Phillips, who grew up in McLean and has been married to her high school sweetheart for 25 years. “It just resonates with people that this is right.”
It was the birth of her daughter 17 years ago that transformed Phillips from dinner-table social critic into an activist, she says. She focused for years on issues such as sexually explicit materials in school libraries and suggestive dancing at school events. It was only with the advancement of gay marriage in Massachusetts that she started thinking hard about the institution, and what she sees as a growing societal “disrespect” for marriage and sexual fidelity.
She knows how important stable marriages are. Her own parents divorced when she was 2, though she pauses when asked how her untraditional childhood affected her. She visited her father, who lived a few hours away, every month and says she has a good relationship with him. “I actually felt, I guess, not negatively impacted as I was growing up,” she says after a long silence.
In recent years, Phillips has been working to promote state- and church-sponsored marital counseling and a new concept meant to counter “no fault” divorce called “mutual consent” divorce, which means both parties would have to agree to separate, except in cases such as abuse. She says she considered the Affirmation of Marriage Act so uncontroversial that she didn’t even focus on lobbying for it last year. Its logic seems obvious to her: Virginia was simply affirming that it does not recognize same-sex marriage, whether that takes the form of a “civil union” or some contract purporting to mirror that.
The Affirmation of Marriage Act isn’t a hate law, she says, and it isn’t meant to invalidate documents such as wills and medical directives. Phillips doesn’t know Barbara and Tibby, and says she’s not trying to deny the depth and success of their relationship, any more than she is denying the success of her own mother, who raised two daughters on her own. But those situations, she argues, are the exception, and you can’t make public policy on the basis of isolated success stories.
“People can say, ‘I’ve been married 25 years and my marriage is fine, what do I care if John and Joe get married across the street?’” Phillips says. “But it does have an impact.”
Gay marriage, she argues, separates the institution from its original purpose: having children. And in doing so, it further weakens the traditional family unit, which she believes is so fundamental to the country’s social and economic fabric.
“Women are economically disadvantaged when they are single mothers,” Phillips says. “Men don’t live as long when they are divorced. There are tremendous repercussions. Marriage isn’t just a recognition of personal affection, it’s a lot more than that . . . it impacts the whole social structure.”
In September, Tibby and Barbara started telling friends they were moving to Maryland. Fredericksburg artist Suzanne Moe learned they were leaving when she opened an e-mail addressed to her and her partner, blues musician Gaye Adegbalola. Moe knew Barbara from the downtown art scene. It was Tibby who had persuaded Moe to start going to church.
The new law, Barbara wrote, “has driven us to leave the state of Virginia. Our emotions are all over the place. We know we’ll never be able to replace the community in Md. that we have here, and that is a great sadness.”
Moe was so jarred by the e-mail that she printed it out and carried it in her pocket for three days. “We’re losing friends and neighbors because of this law,” she says, “and I realized a lot of people had no idea.” The tearing apart of a community is something that should be documented, Moe decided. She asked Tibby and Barbara if she could interview them for an hour while a camera rolled. In the 38-minute documentary, Barbara and Tibby sit side by side in their rocking chairs, telling their story.
Moe decided to show the film at the Unitarian church just before last Christmas. She invited some friends, but didn’t advertise it. Two hundred people turned up, sitting on radiators, standing on tables in the back. Barbara and Tibby say they were barely able to find a seat. As the film rolled, they could hear the audience laughing and sniffling. And when the screen went blank, everyone in the room stood up, turned toward Barbara and Tibby, and applauded.
The film prompted a small-scale revolt in Fredericksburg. A group of Barbara and Tibby’s friends caravanned to Richmond to lobby legislators against passing the constitutional amendment. Others wrote letters of protest to the local newspaper, the Free Lance-Star, after it published a story about the women’s decision to leave.
“My hope is that Virginia will eventually recover from the abyss into which it seems to have fallen,” wrote one woman.
“Our lives will be diminished by the loss of this loving, generous and caring couple,” wrote another.
But not everyone in town rallied to the defense of two lesbians. State Sen. R. Edward Houck, a Democrat who has represented the Fredericksburg area for 21 years, says he felt conflicted about the votes he’d cast for the law and the constitutional amendment, but felt obliged to represent his 175,000 constituents. Most of them, he believes, support restrictions on gay marriage and gay rights. “I can’t always just vote my conscience and my convictions,” he says. Houck also insists that Barbara and Tibby, whom he doesn’t know, don’t have to leave Fredericksburg, that the law refers not to wills and medical directives, but “the rights and responsibilities of marriage.” But what are those? “I can’t answer that,” he says. “I don’t know all these things.”
Fran Farmer lives in that gray area, too. She’s Barbara and Tibby’s favorite clerk at Union Bank & Trust. Farmer hugged them when she heard they were moving and urged them to keep an apartment here. The women are a part of her daily life, she says, and she felt “very, very sorry it’s come to this.” But she wasn’t sure she opposed the new law.
“I can’t get into the rules and regulations, and I’d rather not comment on that. It’s very complex,” says Farmer, 58, who grew up in Fredericksburg. Asked how she balances her affection for the women with her feelings about gay marriage, she says: “I don’t know how to answer that. I just know I didn’t want them to move. I don’t like change much.”
Tibby and Barbara decided to move to Maryland primarily because Holly, now 42 and a technical services manager, lives in Germantown with Tibby’s 5-year-old granddaughter. The women had already consulted with a Maryland lawyer about their legal documents, which they’d spent thousands of dollars on over the years. While Maryland law defines marriage as between a man and a woman, Tibby and Barbara thought the state wasn’t likely to write discrimination against gay couples into its laws the way Virginia had.
They looked at dozens of homes in the Frederick area before settling on the gray colonial. They like Frederick because it reminds them of Fredericksburg. It has a college, a Unitarian church and a charming, walkable old downtown. They didn’t look at places with more established gay communities, such as Bethesda or Baltimore, because those weren’t the places they necessarily felt at home. “Most of our friends are straight,” Barbara says. “We never get on some Web site and figure out where the gays are and go there; maybe we should, but we’re just not like that.”
Initially, Holly and James worried that their mother and Barbara were making too drastic a move, giving up too much. Despite her outrage over the new Virginia law, Holly says she thinks it’s unlikely a hospital would keep the women apart in a medical emergency. But she also knows how much bigotry and cruelty Tibby and Barbara have endured, and she understands their fears. “They know that this Big Brother element does exist,” Holly says. “They have been through it enough to know that bad things do happen.”
One Tuesday at sunset, Tibby hustles into the Falmouth Volunteer Firehouse in Fredericksburg, where she’s been calling Friday night bingo games for the past three years. After retiring from teaching in 1993, she plunged into volunteerism and especially fundraising, “one of my real loves,” she says. She came up with the idea of holding bingo games to raise money to build a new church. Now she’s training her replacement, Gary Barnes, who will be calling the bingo games once she and Barbara move.
She tells Barnes to be at the firehouse by 4 p.m. on Fridays so he can set up the tables, equipment and refreshments.
Otherwise, it will be hard to get started on time at 6:45 p.m. “People take bingo very seriously,” she explains. “So when people talk, other people get upset, and you have to shush them.”
“How do you do that?” Barnes asks.
“You find ways to do it so you keep the good feeling going. Something like, ‘Oh folks, I know it’s been an exciting night, but some people are having trouble hearing.’” She smiles sweetly to show how it’s done.
While Barnes practices using the machine that whips up the numbered balls, Tibby talks about how much she will miss spending Friday nights here, her voice resigned in the empty firehall. She recently had what she describes as an “amazing” experience at bingo. She was scheduled to call the game just after the article in the local paper had come out, and she was nervous about what people would say. After all, she says, it is a pretty conservative crowd.
She walked through the rows before the game, as usual, and even announced over the loudspeaker at the end that she would be leaving, and said how much she had enjoyed calling bingo. A few of the 100 people clapped, and a few came up afterward and said they were sorry she was moving. Most said and did nothing. Basically, the crowd treated her the way it usually did, which is just what she had hoped for. She was so excited by the lack of overt disapproval that she ran out to her car in the parking lot and called Barbara from her cell phone. “People were just wonderful,” she beams.
Tibby’s most painful farewell is at her last National Organization for Women chapter meeting, where she is surrounded by women she’s known for two decades. They take turns bemoaning her departure.
“Tib, your leaving puts such a damper on all of this,” says Judith McMoran, the group’s treasurer. The room is oddly quiet.
“Virginia must be the most backward state in the union,” Becky Reed practically whispers. Reed, a Stafford County lawyer and longtime friend, had written the women’s first attempt to create a legal relationship -- a deed in the late 1970s that put their home in both their names.
The next day, Tibby’s voice has a hollow sound to it. “It just hit me now in a way it hadn’t before, that these things, this place is going to go on without me. People are talking about events and the future, and it isn’t going to include us,” Tibby says, sitting on the couch with Barbara, surrounded by moving boxes.
“This is like waiting to die. We need to be out of here,” adds Barbara, who had her last haircut at Creative Clippers, where her hairdresser never blinked at her idiosyncrasies. Barbara always brought her own smock and asked to have her hair cut dry instead of wet. “Make me look like Martha Stewart,” Barbara told her stylist that final day, and they laughed.
But Barbara is just as distraught as Tibby is about leaving Fredericksburg. She’s agonized over how to tell her clients. She’s tried to remain all-business, creating detailed plans that lay out how each might move forward without the therapist he or she has seen for years. But the barrage comes, as she knew it would: “Who will be in my corner now?” “Mom died, and now I’m losing you.” “How dare you?” Many clients cry, but Barbara doesn’t.
One day in March, Barbara pours out all her pain in her journal, mourning the loss of everything from her neighbors to the evening shadows on the Rappahannock. “Goodbye to our beloved church family,” she writes. “Goodbye to friends of 30 years . . . Goodbye to all that is familiar and known and fits so well.”
Barbara and Tibby pull into the parking lot of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, a white lofty building that sits on a country road with a view of the Catoctin Mountains. With its cathedral ceilings, the new church is more majestic than their old one in Fredericksburg, but it’s filled with strangers. The women head to a small chapel in the back, where church members are gathering to discuss whether they should become a “welcoming congregation,” as Tibby and Barbara’s Fredericksburg congregation was. For Unitarians, this involves a step-by-step process, including a series of educational workshops and a church-wide vote, to affirm that non-heterosexuals are fully welcome. Barbara isn’t all that eager to be here on a glorious Saturday morning in September. “Joining isn’t my style, and I hate meetings,” she says. But she recognizes the importance of the label “welcoming.” And Tibby had sort of dragged her.
“Let’s have everyone go around and say why you are here,” the Rev. Roberta Finkelstein says, once the 17 people set their chairs in a circle.
Tibby and Barbara speak first. “We just came up from Virginia because of Virginia’s hate laws, and we are so thankful you are here,” Tibby says, smiling and gesturing to Barbara. “I’m her other person for almost 40 years,” Barbara says, using vague wording, even in this gay-friendly environment.
Next is a woman with silver hair and a son who died of AIDS. Then a lesbian couple in their forties who just moved to Maryland from Michigan. The first woman says the church needs to visibly welcome gay people because otherwise doubts can linger, which feels all wrong for a place of worship. A man in his sixties with a tattoo on his face speaks about wrestling with questions about his sexuality. A male couple, together 21 years and new to the area, hold their infant son as they introduce themselves. A woman with a little girl on her lap announces that she is celebrating her 22nd anniversary this day with her lesbian partner.
Finkelstein lays out what the congregation will have to do to label itself welcoming. She urges everyone in the circle to bring at least one other person to the first workshop in a few weeks.
“We don’t know anyone,” Barbara whispers to Tibby.
They’ve been living in Maryland for five months now, long enough to unpack all their boxes, map out several walking routes, get library cards and find a doctor. They’ve been back to Fredericksburg only once. It’s too depressing and too difficult to make the 100-mile drive. Besides, they live in Frederick now, though they still get lost when they try to find their way around the city, still depend on sleeping pills to get a decent night’s rest in their unfamiliar house and still haven’t made any real friends. They did meet a woman in line at Costco not long ago who seems like she could be a potential pal. Tibby sounds like a giddy teenager as she recounts this development.
Now the women listen as people around the circle talk about potential issues that could come up. Some worry the church could get vandalized, or fear hearing that fellow congregants won’t accept them when push comes to shove. “There are people here who are uncomfortable with gay people holding hands,” warns one of the women from Michigan.
But Finkelstein wants to push forward anyway. “Now is the time,” for gay people in Maryland to demand recognition and basic protections, she says. She notes that Maryland’s 1973 ban on gay marriage is being challenged in court by a group of gays and lesbians, who argue that it violates the state constitution.
Barbara and Tibby aren’t holding their breath for the ban to be overturned. Maryland isn’t Massachusetts. After they moved to Frederick, Gov. Robert Ehrlich vetoed a health care bill of rights for gay partners that had been approved just weeks earlier by the General Assembly. Even so, Tibby and Barbara think Maryland feels much more open to gay people than Virginia does.
Finkelstein closes the meeting by asking everyone to say something they feel positive about and something they are hopeful for.
“I’m so happy just to have some faces I’ll now know,” Tibby says with a soft smile.
People in the circle smile back at her. Then she explains what she is hopeful for: acceptance and support from the entire congregation. “It always just breaks my heart,” she adds, “when straight people stand up and say, ‘No, this [discrimination] isn’t right.’” Her voice breaks a tiny bit.
Soon everyone is folding up their chairs and stacking them in the corner. Barbara and Tibby thank Finkelstein. Tibby touches the minister’s arm as she says goodbye; Barbara smiles and nods. They head out into the autumn sunshine.
Nov. 15, 2009: Whatever Happened To ... Barbara Kenny and Tibby Middleton