The long road to my pandemic wedding
By Debbie Millman
During college at the State University of New York at Albany, I dreamed about writing for the Albany Student Press. Back then, in the early 1980s, it was considered one of the best student newspapers in the country. Publishing twice a week, the paper was opinionated, political and provocative. There was coverage of edgy European films and, because Albany was the state capital, smart reporting about the local government. I was fascinated by the myriad voices of the writers and eagerly waited for each issue to be dropped in front of the campus center.
I had chosen SUNY Albany for two reasons: I could only afford a state school, and my best friend Tammy was already attending. These criteria were not vetted by my parents, who provided little to no guidance. They had divorced when I was 10 years old; my mother remarried within a year, and her new husband regularly brutalized me physically, emotionally and sexually. By the time I graduated from high school, I was grateful to be alive, relieved to be moving away and, despite the deep-seated suspicion that I was irrevocably damaged, genuinely hopeful that I might fit in to this new and unfamiliar college environment.
My first year, I tried to write for the paper — going so far as to walk to the office and introduce myself to the editor in chief — but because he asked for samples of my work, I was too intimidated to follow up. I had clips, but they were from high school: The senior class literary magazine was positively littered with my poetry, but I didn’t dare show my writing to a college newspaper editor.
It took me three years to work up the courage to go back to the newsroom. By then, there was a new editor, and it turned out the paper needed reporters for a special issue they were putting together on “Homosexuality on Campus.” I was assigned to interview a lesbian former student who had to be renamed Lisa for the article so she wouldn’t be harassed.
“Lisa” explained how, as I would later summarize it in my profile of her, she had acquired “a growing sensitivity to the nurturing, supportive energies of a lesbian consciousness” and had “come to grasp what she feels now ‘was always inside.’ ” As I listened to her and took notes, a lump began to grow in my throat. Lisa was being completely candid. In the face of constant discrimination and bullying, she wasn’t afraid to be who she was. In fact, she was adamant about her sense of self. In comparison, I had no idea who I was, and I was afraid of everything.
‘They still don’t accept’
Photos by Mary Gelman
During the lockdown, Russian photographer Mary Gelman and her partner, Leo, both came out to their parents as a queer couple. “They still don’t accept our relationship,” she says. “Sometimes we laugh, as they sound like a broken record. But sometimes it’s difficult to communicate because of the generation gap. They judge us obviously because homosexual relationships are not acceptable in Russia. We have different values and views on ‘normality.’ ”
“There were lots of posts about breakups and divorces after quarantine restrictions were implemented. But we, on the contrary, enjoyed spending time together.” — Mary Gelman
Photos by Oded Wagenstein
Many LGBTQ+ individuals have experienced social isolation during the past 18 months, but for elder members of the community the pandemic has posed particular difficulties — especially in a country like Israel where religious conservatism is powerful. Photographer Oded Wagenstein wanted to share “stories of longing and dreams, shame and fears.” These photos were taken in 2019, but the subjects were interviewed in May 2021 about their experiences during the pandemic.
Photos by DeLovie
Ugandan photographer DeLovie hoped to raise awareness of the violence that many in the LGBTQ+ community encounter in relationships — violence that, for some, increased with the lockdown. All of those pictured here were forced to spend more time with abusive partners during the pandemic.
Photos by Hao Nguyen
Photographer Hao Nguyen highlighted the experience of queer rap artist Sydanie, who prioritized self-care during the pandemic. “I focused a lot on surviving, regularly attending counseling sessions, and taking the best care of my mind and body that I could,” Sydanie says.
It was nearly dusk when we parted ways, and over the course of our long afternoon together I felt something almost imperceptible shift inside me. Somehow, in hearing her describe how she identified as a lesbian, I understood. Her words felt like home. But as I walked back to my own home that evening, I pushed it away. I couldn’t bear to feel any more “other” than I already did. Unlike Lisa, I had no tolerance for not fitting in, and no experience standing up for myself.
I graduated in 1983, moved to Manhattan and, like all good new New Yorkers at the time, immediately subscribed to the Village Voice. It was there I learned about Ann Bannon’s lesbian pulp fiction and saw my first photograph of a woman wearing a strap-on. I surreptitiously frequented the Brentano’s bookstore in Greenwich Village, bought the Bannon books, hid them in a suitcase in my closet and read them at night, under the covers with a flashlight lest my roommates discover my deviant behavior. I cut out the strap-on photograph and hid it in one of the books. Though I had never even kissed a woman, I bought a copy of “The Joy of Lesbian Sex” and stashed it with Bannon’s books, copies of the radical lesbian magazine Off Our Backs, and books of essays by Kate Millett and Andrea Dworkin.
All through those years — and the subsequent two decades — I dated men. I even married two of them: one in my 20s, one in my 30s. Every once in a while, when I couldn’t take the heartbreak of so many failed relationships, I sneaked into lesbian bars like Henrietta’s or the Cubbyhole and sat by myself until a woman came up to talk to me. I’d be enraptured by whoever approached me, and sometimes we’d even make out. I told no one about these trysts and pretended they hadn’t happened in my “real” life.
But they had. And though I could imagine a different kind of life with a different sense of self, I was too fearful of being condemned and ostracized to live any other way.
It wasn’t until I simultaneously found myself at the end of another dysfunctional, sexless relationship with a man and being dramatically wooed by a smart, successful woman that I began to wonder if I could summon the courage to heed my heart. I had never been so passionately pursued, and it felt heady and exciting. While I knew my parents wouldn’t approve, the world was being kinder to the LGBTQIA community, and I hoped I wouldn’t be so harshly judged by everyone else. At 50 years old, I entered my first relationship with a woman.
In the following months, I came out to almost everyone I knew. Believing my father wouldn’t approve, I chose not to tell him. He died a few years later, never knowing the direction his daughter’s life had taken. I believe it was more my own inner homophobia rather than the fear of his rejection that kept me from telling him. I’ll never know how he would have reacted, but I’d like to think his response would have been similar to my brother’s. When I finally gathered the courage to tell him and his family, my brother instantly turned to his wife, opened his arms wide to the sky and gleefully shouted, “I TOLD YOU!”
I’ve now been out for a decade. That first relationship with a woman ended after several years, but in keeping with good lesbian etiquette, we’ve remained dear friends. After we broke up, I did something I hadn’t done since college: I chose to stay single. For the first time in many years, I was not attached to anyone. I was beholden only to myself. I figured out what I liked and didn’t like and learned how to be alone. It was only then that I realized I’d been running my love life like a New York cabdriver. I’d drive around for a short time with my light on waiting for someone to hail me and get in. When they wanted out, they’d exit the taxi. Then I’d drive around again until someone new hailed me and got in. I had liked my relationships like this. I had very little agency in choosing anyone or feeling vulnerable in any way.
Challenges and silver linings
Photos by Pétala Lopes
For Alessandra and Aline, a lesbian couple with twins living in a suburb of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the pandemic had its challenges and silver linings. “The pandemic hurt us in terms of our support network,” says Aline. Some of their friends lived far away and lost their jobs in the pandemic, preventing them from visiting to lend a hand. Yet the couple also managed to get financial and material help from strangers online.
Photographer Pétala Lopes wanted to show this couple’s daily struggles. “The lives of Black lesbian mothers are poorly represented visually,” she says. “I believe photography can serve as a facilitator in changing social stereotypes. And showing their lives was a way I found to represent a little of the affections and complexities of two young mothers.”
“I got pregnant as soon as the pandemic broke out. It was the 8th of March that it confirmed, the day we had an ultrasound to be sure of it. And 15 days later, the total madness of social isolation began.” — Alessandra
The importance of nightlife
Photos by Ugo Woatzi
French photographer Ugo Woatzi notes that the pandemic has upended LGBTQ+ nightlife. Historically, as Woatzi captures in these portraits of friends, queer nightlife had been “a place of freedom, love and experimentation.” With the coronavirus, those spaces shut down. “We understood more than ever that those spaces are essential and vital,” Woatzi says.
Darkness and limitations
Photos by Sumi Anjuman
There’s a magical darkness to these photographs by Sumi Anjuman, which explore the life-altering limitations that the pandemic has forced upon members of Bangladesh’s queer community.
“In Bangladesh, where homosexuality is still outlawed, the implacable covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated social prejudices for LGBTQ+ individuals, who already experienced marginalization, exclusion and countless guises of violence and discrimination,” Anjuman says. “Lockdown and social distancing has left some LGBTQ+ individuals stuck in their home with parents and relatives who are not always benevolent and at times openly hostile and violent towards gender and sexual expressions and identities.” Anjuman chose to show that vulnerability, isolation and “psychic annihilation” by creating a series of images where the night’s darkness reigns.
‘I was forced to be still’
Photos by J Houston
For many, the pandemic was a period of self-reflection. “For the first time ever, I was forced to be still,” says Justice, a member of the trans and gender nonconforming community in New York who asked to use only their first name — and was photographed by J Houston. “I’ve been able to experience love in my own identities in ways I never knew were possible.”
For Parker, another member of the community photographed by Houston, the introspective contemplation has been healing: “It helped me to take a step back from who I think I should be or what I should look like.”
All of that changed in 2018 when I met Roxane Gay. I think I fell in love with Roxane while reading her memoir, “Hunger.” Her words resonated in a way that convinced me she had somehow found my journals and read them. She spoke of her own scars as if she had run her fingers over mine. And then there were the silly little coincidences. She seemed as competitive about Scrabble as I was. She had seen every episode of “Law & Order: SVU” at least twice; I owned DVDs of the complete series and worked with Mariska Hargitay, the longtime star of the show, at the Joyful Heart Foundation.
My pursuit of Roxane started with inviting her to be a guest on my long-running podcast, “Design Matters,” ostensibly to talk about “Hunger.” Initially, she replied, “Sure” (and that’s it); then she changed her mind and declined. That didn’t dissuade me. Over the next two years, I kept writing her. Occasionally she would respond, albeit monosyllabically. I didn’t care; I was just happy to see her name in my inbox.
By some wondrous coincidence, I met a close friend of Roxane’s at an event where we were both performing. Ashley C. Ford was witty and engaging, and, when she told me about her friendship with Roxane, I blurted out that I had a crush on her. Ashley raised an eyebrow, and in a curious, velvety voice responded: “Really.” It was more a statement than a question, and it fueled enough bravado for me to ask her if she could put in a good word for me. Mercifully, she did, and after four more months of correspondence (all initiated by me) Roxane and I went on our first date. That was nearly three years ago, and despite living on different coasts, we’ve been together ever since.
Having been married twice, I wasn’t expecting to get married again. But Roxane hadn’t ever been married. She wanted the fantasy. She wanted to wear a fancy tux and she wanted to see me in a pretty dress and she wanted her father to walk her down an aisle. She wanted a band and elaborate hors d’oeuvres and lots of dancing. I wanted to make her happy, so we hired a wedding planner and set a date — 10/10/20 — which delighted Roxane for obvious reasons. Chip Kidd designed us an engagement logo, we made an invitation list and we picked a venue. We asked Gloria Steinem to marry us and she said yes. This was happening!
And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. Thinking the pandemic couldn’t possibly last too long, I flew to Roxane’s home in Los Angeles with enough clothes for two weeks. Two weeks turned to two months, then four, then six. Friends kept nervously asking us how things were, assuming that our constant proximity might derail our untested relationship. After all, we’d never lived together! Surely a 24/7 quarantine relationship would be different from our twice-a-month visits filled with film premieres and Broadway openings and fancy restaurants. We were barraged by lurid journalism about how covid was wreaking havoc upon even the strongest partnerships.
Strange as it may sound, quarantining together actually solidified our relationship. Don’t get me wrong: We know how lucky we are that we remained healthy. But I don’t think we realized just how fortunate we were to be so content in our isolation until a few months in. By then we had come to understand the ease of our daily rhythms, the depth of our compatibility, the joys we took in the same small things and, frankly, just how much we liked each other.
So when Roxane casually looked over at me on the morning of June 6, 2020, and asked if I wanted to get married that afternoon, I responded, “Sure” (and that’s it). She had mischievously invited my cousins over for the weekend and confirmed that my best friend was free. Donning masks and gloves, we all piled into the second-floor offices at Instant Marriage in Encino, Calif., and — standing next to a plastic flower chuppah — Roxane and I declared our makeshift vows. I wept throughout, and when the lovely Russian woman officiating the ceremony pronounced us wife and wife, I leaped into Roxane’s arms with sheer joy.
Covid-19 was kind to me and Roxane. As we burrowed into our isolation, we were presented with an opportunity we might not otherwise have had. We spent over a year utterly focused on each other. We watched the world from our living room, sometimes grief-stricken, often horrified, but always together. The subjects featured in the photos on the following pages reflect a range of experiences in the queer community during the pandemic — from confronting familial hostility because of their orientation to taking significant steps in declaring who they are in their bodies.
As for us, maybe someday we’ll have Roxane’s fantasy wedding. Or maybe not. As I approach my 60th birthday, I’ve decided I’d rather live my fantasy life. Ten years ago, I worried about how much I might lose by coming out and showing the world who I really am. What I didn’t realize was how much I’d gain in the process. Sometimes I feel guilty that I didn’t have the courage to come out sooner; coming out when I did wasn’t that much of a risk. I wasn’t ostracized from my community. I wasn’t bullied or discriminated against. I didn’t lose my job or my clients. What I did lose was my shame, and the sense of wrongness I had carried for most of my life. In its place, I’ve found the sense of home I glimpsed so many decades ago talking to Lisa, and — for the first time in my life — I’ve figured out how to live in that sense of home, openly, loudly, proudly.
Debbie Millman is host of the podcast “Design Matters” and chair of the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts. Her book “Why Design Matters” will be published this fall.
How to present yourself
Photos by Anne Vetter
Anne Vetter used to feel pressure to present herself “as more legibly queer.” But during the lockdown, she spent more time with family and her partner — photographing their daily lives — and concluded that she had to answer to no one but herself.
“I see queerness in the possibility to respond fluidly to the people and spaces around us without predisposed beliefs about who should and can do what. Queerness exists in potential, the ability to drift and change.” — Anne Vetter, at left with her partner, Dario
‘My quiet resistance’
Photos by Mengwen Cao
For Chinese photographer Mengwen Cao, who is based in New York, the pandemic was an opportunity to step away from the racism, homophobia and xenophobia they had experienced: “Turning the lens inward” — as Cao did for this self-portrait series, featuring their inner dialogues and cultural influences — “in the period of pandemic is my quiet resistance against violence and discrimination.”
Nothing would stop him from becoming himself
Photos by Jacob Moscovitch
As a queer photographer, Jacob Moscovitch aims to depict “the beauty and love within the LGBTQ+ community because my experience is not often reflected within photojournalism or the canon of photography.” That was the impetus behind his desire to document Sasha Koch’s nuanced emotions as he prepared to undergo top surgery.
When he checked in for his surgery, Sasha was misgendered 13 times. Each time the word “she” slipped from the nurse’s mouth, his eyes squeezed tighter and his body flinched. “He is a man,” Koch’s boyfriend Noah Doolady cried. Still, the nurse continued. “I anticipate being misgendered everywhere I go, but no matter how much I expect it and prepare for it, it’s a jolt every time,” Koch said.
Koch, 25, hadn’t slept in days. Over the previous six months, the pandemic had created more and more complications for the operation that would remove his breasts. But on what he called one of the most important days of his life, nothing would stop the procedure. “I’m so ready,” Koch said. “I’m ready to be me.”
“I’ve always been Sasha, but I didn’t always know what that meant.” — Sasha Koch