Jane Addams was the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize, as the Peace Prize laureate in 1931. She was also a woman who saw herself as married - not just 'as good as' - to another woman. In fact, she wrote as much - clear as day. In 1902.
We are starting off our vintage married lesbians - okay, fine, vintage lesbians who were married/as good as married/should have totally been married - week with two of my favorites: the pretty spectacular Peaches Stevens and Edna Knowles, whose 1970 marriage at Liz's Mark III Lounge gay bar on the south side of Chicago was written up in Jet magazine! The piece describes their celebration, which included happy family and friends on hand to support them, as well as a 'type of marriage license' which was, of course, unofficial.
They're our first featured couple for several reasons. First, the expression on Peaches's face! So. Much. Joy. Second, queer women of color have been integral to the fight for equality, and they do not, unfortunately, receive the recognition they deserve in mass media coverage. Third, since I'm writing as a girl getting married in the near-ish future: I really, really love Edna's dress. And would like a close-up like yesterday. Is that a watteau train? Want.
Most importantly, we chose Peaches and Edna because they were two women who formalized their relationship well before the Dutch in 2001, or the state of Massachusetts in 2004. Despite the lack of legal recognition - after all, it's 45 years later, and we're still waiting on that - Peaches and Edna were married before family and friends who affirmed that commitment. Their wedding was written up in Jet, photo and all.
While the editorial team at Jet stopped shy of full-on celebrating, as other articles have pointed out - although to my editor's eye, the quotes around 'bridegroom' is actually more of a slight than those around 'married,' since the article explains that their marriage is not legally recognized and the word bride, referencing Edna, has no quotes - they still ran a photo and piece about two women getting married. In 1970! And said that they were happy! (For perspective, newspapers running same-sex engagement or marriage announcements is still making the news.)
So, here's one example of a society - a small one, to be sure - prior to the Netherlands in 2001 who not only recognized a same-sex marriage, but celebrated it. There's even a magazine that printed it. And most importantly, here are two beautiful women on their wedding day, making a commitment to each other out of love. Isn't that what all marriages are about?
The line of questioning directed to Mary Bonauto in last Tuesday's oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the right to marry curiously focused on one point: the 'millennia' during which the definition of marriage excluded homosexual couples. I didn't find this idea of 'millennia' to be particularly persuasive, and neither did Bonauto, who did an excellent job refuting it. But it got me thinking: is it really so that there was no 'gay marriage' prior to the Netherlands in 2001? In this instance, in reply to this complex issue, the answer is a nuanced 'no.' It is true that legal marriage was not extended to gay couples prior to 2001, but to say that gay couples prior to 2001 did not seek marriage, did not live in marriage-like relationships, were not accepted by their communities as 'married' is simply not true. There were many couples who were 'as good as' married but who couldn't possibly have been recognized as such by the state. As Bonauto insisted yesterday, it took a long time to convince the courts of the basic human dignity of LGBT people. Marriage wasn't on the horizon when the fight was for recognition as people. We see examples of similarly committed gay couples throughout history, but for the sake of argument and time, I'll confine myself to a very brief overview historical American lesbians (and also because the Wikipedia page focuses on gay male couples).
Yesterday, I posted about what marriage equality means to me and Rebecca, also known as Team Iris's fearless (and engaged!!) leadership. First of all, Bex and I would like to thank you for your messages of encouragement and support! I happen to think we're pretty cute, but it means a lot that you guys do, too. I wanted that essay to really communicate how I feel about marriage equality - that it's enmeshed within a larger history of the civil rights struggle - by contextualizing it with my family's story. To my mind, the fight for marriage equality is very much a part of the American dream that brought my great-grandparents here, and it means a lot that their story touched you, too.
It was also important for us to explain why we are passionate about marriage equality because we know, from your blogs and your messages, that you - the general, 14-18 year-old social justice blogging 'you' - frequently lament the movement's focus on marriage equality. You argue that the stories being told in the media are stories of marriage, stories of families talking about how marriage will make their lives better, excluding stories about the enormous difficulties facing LGBT youth. You wonder how someone's wedding could possibly take precedence, in the media and the movement, over issues like LGBT youth homelessness and trans youth suicide. At a time when everyone is talking about marriage, you remind us that the equality movement needs to be about more than marriage.
But you recognize, I'm sure, that the fight for marriage equality is about really serious legal stuff that will impact your lives, too. It's about ensuring that longtime partners have the legal authority to make decisions for each other in cases of medical crisis. It's about providing for widowed partners and children. It's about building a protected family structure for growing families, one that is respected when the family's at home or on vacation. For binational couples like Bex and me, however, marriage equality means being together. Full stop. For us, there is no together without marriage equality.
Yesterday, Bex and I sat in on a live web conference with Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Along with others, the NCLR represents plaintiffs in the Tennessee case. After a brief statement, she took questions from those on the call and was kind enough to answer ours. We asked how she would communicate the importance of marriage equality to young people who have other issues closer to their hearts. She offered two really important points in reply to our question. The first we touched on yesterday - in her words, marriage equality is about building 'the kind of country you want to live in: [one] where people don't have to fear racial profiling, or violence from the police, can get a good job and support their families, go to college...where every couple who wishes to marry and have their relationship protected and secure is able to do that.' That's very much at the heart of what I wrote about yesterday: about my great-grandparents, who had an dream of what life in America was like and risked a lot, at very young ages, in pursuit of that American ideal. Marriage equality is a big step on that path towards that ideal.
Then she said this, which I hope you take to heart:
...[It] is impossible to convince people to examine their own private prejudices if the government is discriminating. So if the government won't let us marry, for many people that provides the end of the discussion. Why should they be open to LGBT equality and acceptance of us if the government won't even let us marry? So you have to get the government out of the playing field, out of being an actor in discrimination before you can then have the conversation about how we're supposed to treat people.
In other words, marriage equality represents a big step on the path towards removing officially-sanctioned discrimination from people's playbooks, because it's used as a get-out-of-jail-free card by people who don't want to have to think about their own beliefs. If you look closely at the language used yesterday, you'll see why this is important. There was a lot of talk about marriage as an institution that has meant one thing in particular for lots of societies for a long, long time. As a result, conservative commentators jumped on it - after all, until Massachusetts in 2004, marriage was a uniquely heterosexual privilege. Many of the conservatives discussing marriage equality after the SCOTUS hearing yesterday seemed not to realize that this is an inherently discriminatory statement. That's what needs to change: this normalized discrimination that prevents good, fruitful, meaningful discussions from taking place. Viewed in that way, marriage equality is the first step towards a better future for everyone under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
We've talked about marriage equality in a few instances on the blog and in Iris. Bina Hammer's poem 'Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA,' which appears in the second issue of Iris, is a great place to start. But we'd love to hear from you, too. Bex and I had discussed how we'd answer your question, as did our resident mom-in-chief. But in the end, we felt it was more important for us to focus on what it means for us - and to give you the floor. I think we've given you food for thought, much as you give us. So, what do you think? What does marriage equality mean to you? (And yes, we'll take comments from the over-18 peanut gallery too!)
Thanks again for your congratulations and support yesterday!
As Executive Director, I'm the primary voice of Creating Iris, and frequently speak on behalf of our whole team. All of our updates - emails, blog posts, tweets, Facebook statuses - are written by me. But today, I'm writing from a personal place for myself and Rebecca, because you, our Iris family, are a big part of our lives.
Rebecca and I had been dating for a little over six months when the historic Windsor v. US decision was announced. We watched together, on Skype, surrounded by family. Prior to that day, a future together was up in the air - not because we were uncertain of the other, but because we didn't know whether the legal protections would be in place to enable us to be together. We're a binational couple, as you know. Edie Windsor's fight for recognition from the federal government gave us our future together. This is the post I wrote that day.
Almost a year to to the day after the Windsor decision, Rebecca and I got engaged at a beautiful park not too far from my home. We stood under an early-20th century gazebo on a day of brilliant sunshine, and said aloud what it seemed like we'd always known, from the moment we met. I love you. I want to spend my life with you. I want to grow with you, to change with you, to walk beside you and to build a life, to build a family, together. Like many of my friends, we announced our relationship on Facebook and received so many beautiful messages of support. My parents treated us to an engagement dinner. I joined WeddingBee and made dozens of Pinterest mood boards. In December, we celebrated with friends at an engagement tea party. When I ordered our invitations, it was the first time - apart from Iris, of course - that I'd seen our names in print beside each other. I opened the box and cried.
Today, the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in an effort to decide whether marriage equality should be a fundamental American civil right. My right to a legally recognized marriage should not be in question. It should be my right as an American, the birthright of people born on this soil and the conferred right of those who seek American citizenship, to be equal in dignity and protection before the law.
On my mother's side, I am third-generation American. My great-grandmother came to this country at sixteen, a poor Italian girl with little command of the English language. At Ellis Island she was almost turned away because of a limp, a lasting reminder of a childhood accident. I am grateful every day that the doctor who examined her took the time to listen to her, to figure out what she was trying to explain in broken English: that she limped because of an accident in New York, on a trip as a little girl to the country she wanted to call home. My great-grandparents came to this country in search of a better life, because they believed that it was here that they could provide for a family and watch it blossom: have children, and see them grow. My great-grandparents believed in this country because it offered them life, a life that would simply not have been possible for them in Italy.
My great-grandfather and grandfather fought for this country because, children of immigrants, they believed wholeheartedly that America is more than a place, more than a political entity, but an idea: a place where all people had a chance at building the life they wanted, that their children deserved access to education, that they had a voice in their government, that they - poor, working-class, Italian immigrants - were just as valued as the man in the White House. They believed, as we all do, that those ideas were worth defending.
That commitment to equality - that ideal that has inspired men and women to fight passionately for this country, in our armed services and in our government halls, on our streets and in our schools, in our stories and our songs - is something that has been continually redefined. That's the beauty of this country: we are a country of change, of progress, of choosing to move forward when it is easier to stay the same. We're a country that makes difficult decisions, even if it sometimes takes us a while to get there. Sometimes, we take steps backwards; sometimes, we dig in our heels against it. And yet, we carry on. We are forever striving towards that ideal of equality.
The debate over marriage is but one front of the movement towards the American ideal that was a beacon to immigrants like my great-grandparents. For Rebecca and I, it means that our relationship will have all the legal protections as everyone else's. That's not a question of religion. It's a question of a fundamental civil right to equality before the law. And affirming that right will be but another step on the staircase carrying us ever closer to our highest ideal.
Next year, like several of my dear friends who were engaged over the same summer as we, Rebecca and I will stand before our families and friends and make the same promises that other couples do. We will have a personal ceremony, one we've written together that reflects who we are and how far we've come, but the vows we take - the words we speak - will be the same. We'll wear white dresses and add a few more diamonds to our left hands. There will be sparkling rose and music from our friends. My dad will make a toast and probably make us cry. My brother will make a toast and make us all laugh. There will be dancing. There will be joy. There will be excitement for the future. There will be life.
For couples like us, the fundamental right to marriage means life.