I rationalized the lie to myself. My wife had recently died of cancer. I was so sad and lost that I needed a moment of unadulterated kindness, the warmth of her you-poor-thing-you-are-so-brave reassurances. But I immediately regretted my answer. I knew that somewhere up there, my late wife was devastated, and for what? My sweet airport neighbor might not have looked away in judgment and discomfort nor told me that my child was suffering for my sins. I had surely let down the entire LGBTQ community. My son had picked up on my internalized homophobia and would internalize that shame himself. For seven years, I tortured myself with regret every time the memory returned. And then I had an epiphany.
This summer, I was sitting in a little restaurant in a tiny Hudson Valley town. My soon-to-be husband, my now 10-year-old and I were having some silly conversation over huge sandwiches and too many fries. Several patrons were loudly enjoying a baseball game on TV. When our waitress laughed warmly at one of our inside jokes, taking in our cozy family scene, I suddenly experienced a surge of unfamiliar energy and hope. I tried to tease out the essence of this new vitality.
And then it hit me. I felt safe. I had always assumed safety would feel soothing, but I was actually stimulated and inspired.
Of course, this made sense. How enervating risk avoidance is! How depressing it had been as a woman married to a woman when I faced even the least threatening forms of homophobia; the mother of the groom who avoided shaking our hands on the receiving line; the co-worker who groused about gays wanting “special rights”; a prominent feminist who proclaimed that lesbians were ruining it for everyone else.
And then there was the real experience of danger: our New York cabbie who screamed about horrible queers in the middle of a traffic jam, or the Pride protesters who shouted in our faces. We felt trapped and exposed countless times.
Sitting with my male partner in that insular, small-town cafe, the kind of place where I’d always had to be careful, I was now a member of a different, less-threatened class: a middle-aged white lady with a husband and child. We wouldn’t be legally married until later that month, but it didn’t matter because there was no doubt about our right to be together. In fact, just the year before, when I’d gone to the ER with chest pains, the hospital let him into my room without a second thought.
What a contrast with the summer when I was six months pregnant and had joined my partner in the Adirondacks where she was directing a play. I had started cramping and spotting while she was at rehearsal. By the time she got back to our room, I had called my OB/GYN and was told to get to the nearest hospital. Speeding around the barely lit curves of a country road with me in excruciating pain, we were overwhelmed by one huge worry: Would they let her stay with me? We were blessed: I didn’t lose the baby. We were lucky: When I asked at the ER’s front desk if my not-yet wife could be with me during the exam, the woman doing our intake said, “Of course she can! She’s your partner!” I sobbed with relief.
But I shouldn’t have had to depend on that woman’s kindness. By the time my partner and I had the federal right to wed, our son was 3, and my wife would soon receive her fatal diagnosis.
Now that I am married to a man, I am morally compelled to look unflinchingly at my privilege. Heterosexual privilege doesn’t mean I have no problems, but the constant stress of managing the world’s homophobic reactions to my marriage does not compound them. Being honest does not put me in any physical danger.
I still believe I was wrong to pretend I’d lost a male spouse when the nice lady asked me how my husband died. But now, I see my instinctive response that day as an attempt to shield myself and my child from the homophobia that had worn me down for years. The challenge before me is to be an honest bisexual, confronting assumptions, embracing complications and perhaps helping to make the world a wee bit safer for the next lesbian widow in LaGuardia’s Terminal B.