“Can I ask you something?”
“Uh-huh,” I murmured, hesitant to imagine what might be coming, particularly as he’d previously asked questions about my bowels and repressed anger, and also regularly examined my tongue.
“When you tell someone you’re gay, where do you feel it, in your body?”
I lay there a moment in silence, flummoxed. How did he know? “In my stomach,” I said, quietly. “And the center of my chest.”
A heavy, squeezing, burning sensation. So much less intense than it had been during my adolescence, when people were talking about sins and immorality, and marriage felt like a laughably distant goal. But still, the acupuncturist was right. I felt it, in my body. A familiar flicker of shame.
This past Friday, I got the news via text message from my partner: “We got gay marriage!!!”
Like most of the country, I wasn’t surprised by the Supreme Court ruling. What did catch me off guard was my reaction. It was subtle, but palpable. A lightening in my chest, from inside my bones. The lifting of a weight so familiar I carry it like part of me.
How on earth, I wondered, was there any of that left?
After almost six years of explaining to people that my son has two mothers, rare is the person now who reacts incredulously, or with confusion.
Becoming a parent brought me out of the closet with new consistency and rigor. Gone was the possibility of hiding the truth whenever I didn’t want to face–or to feel–others’ discomfort or disapproval. We couldn’t pass anymore as sisters or friends when a little person was hollering, “Mommy and Mom! Come here!” And we couldn’t ignore a hotel clerk graciously “fixing” the error of us having booked a double bed when there was a child who needed a space to snuggle between us at night.
As a lesbian mom, I found courage that I didn’t know I had, responding to the question, “Who’s the mother?” without missing a beat.
“We both are.”
Rarely was anyone hostile. And over the years, both of us being the mothers ceased to be such a big deal.
As I became more courageous, the world became more accepting. So what took me by surprise on Friday was that I had any shame left to let go.
I’m not particularly excited about the whole business of marriage, with all the drippings of personal property and ownership it conjures. I won’t change my last name. And I have zero interest in trying to reclaim the term wife.
But wanting to get married and being told you’re not allowed to get married are two separate things.
My partner and I got a domestic partnership 10 years ago so that we could both be on my city employee health insurance, and we got married years later while I was pregnant, mostly because we had been led to believe it would make us able to list her name on our son’s birth certificate right away, giving her a legal tie to him.
Yet when we tried to hand in our paperwork before being discharged from the hospital, a nurse made us re-do the form, with my name only.
“We don’t do that here,” she said.
I could have argued that there was legal precedent. Or asked to speak to her supervisor. If I hadn’t been so sore and anemic, I might have stood up and looked out the window, pointed her in the direction of Stonewall, just a couple of blocks away, and said that this was a gay neighborhood, this was the birthplace of the struggle, this hospital was once the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, and I would not stand for her to treat us differently just because we weren’t straight.
It wasn’t just the exhaustion and the pain, though, that held me back. There was also that weight, so familiar, keeping me pressed into the bed. A part of me that still thought maybe I was wrong, perverted, and didn’t deserve the birth certificate I wanted. A part of me that wondered if perhaps I didn’t deserve to be a mother at all, and should try to get out of there with my beautiful baby while they’d still let me.
Max was five weeks old when we all went down to city hall together to request a “correction” on the birth certificate. We waited on line. We filled out forms. Max nursed and slept in our arms.
Weeks later, the new birth certificate arrived. The word father was struck out with a single line. “They still have typewriters?” I remember thinking, looking at the word parent printed above. It was the only change made, though, so a couple of lines below it still read “Father’s place of birth.”
This was what we were supposed to wave around in an out-of-state emergency?
For more legal documents, we spent thousands of dollars on a second-parent adoption, including five hundred to a social worker who came to inspect our home and ask invasive questions about any past experiences with abuse, alcohol, drugs and depression. Just in case. The odds we’d need the adoption certificate were slim, but the stakes unbearably high.
Four years later, when our daughter arrived, the West Village hospital we’d used before was being converted into condominiums. Marriage was legal for us in New York state, and DOMA had been struck down. At another Catholic hospital, we handed in our paperwork without a hitch, and shorty thereafter received a detailed, digitally-produced birth certificate with both of our names listed as parents.
We didn’t bother with the second-parent adoption this time, in part because we didn’t want to endure the home study, in part because being recognized as married meant we wouldn’t recover the adoption expenses on our taxes, and, finally, because we were hopeful that Friday’s ruling was on its way.
After all this progress, how could I have any shame left?
I downplayed, to myself, the sticking power of painful things people said in front of me when I was a child, a teenager, or even an adult, scared and silent. I wanted to believe that I was fierce and independent, that I owned my difference with pride, not caring what other people or the law had to say. And a lot of the time, that was true. But not always.
Those painful moments, though, are becoming few and far between. Friday’s ruling erases yet another layer of them.
My children will never remember a time when their parents weren’t allowed to be married, or to both call themselves mothers. The Supreme Court decision means our documents reflect both the legal reality and our family’s reality, in all 50 states. It means that with all the history I pass down to my children, they will not need to inherit the shame.
Marie Holmes lives in New York City with her family. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in several literary magazines.
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