Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why marriage?

LN Cover

Today, Rev. Justin Schroeder, pastor at my congregation, First Universalist Church, wrote the following in his blog:

"I didn't get married for the rights that marriage brings (although the rights are important). I got married because love opened my heart in the deepest way I've ever known. I got married because I wanted to journey through life with someone who was a true partner, who helps me be the best person I can be (and who I help as well), through thick and thin. I got married because of love, not because of the rights.

I'm curious, if you're married: why did you get married? What caused you to take that leap of faith? Was it love? Was it because your partner felt like a soul mate? Why did you get married? Was it for the rights?"

It's a good question and I do have my own answer to his questions. First, an extremely shortened version of my life story to provide context to what I am saying. I began life with a "M" on my birth certificate. I was gay and transgender and yes that is very confusing. I lived much of the first half of my life on the guy side before transitioning. After transition for reasons I don't fully understand, I remained gay on the "F" side of the equation. That is, instead of men, I found myself attracted to women. It happens sometimes with those of us who make the gender journey, and it definitely did with me. Now perhaps what follows will at least be understood in context of the journey.

My first marriage was a legal heterosexual marriage. I as a gay guy married a lesbian woman. It was I realize now simply a symptom of the times and represented our last great effort at being straight. We cared about each other, but it was not really love, though we certainly did make an effort to conform to what the rest of the world expected. After 3.5 years and one child later, we amicably split up. I set aside for the time any thoughts of long term relationships and went about the job of helping raise our daughter as absentee dad.

Fast forward several years. My daughter is almost grown. I had participated in a program of sobriety, a program that required me to be honest with myself. I began to move away from the insanity of pretending to be one way with one group of people, another way with others. I had a gay life and a allegedly straight life going all at once. It was time to start simply being me and end the charade. The program also made me revisit seriously my gender issues as well. During this time I met Skip. From the moment we met, something magical happened. It was at a Dignity Service (outreach for gay and lesbian Catholics.) He was the greeter at the door. He greeted me, we talked, and never ended the conversation. Quite a sight we were, sitting in church whispering to each other like two excited teenage girls and it was not possible to get too much information about the other. This was a love I had never known before. Within a month people confused us with couples who had been together for years. I could not imagine a life without Skip being a part of it. Even more remarkable, he felt the same about me! He was the first person I talked to about my transgender nature. He still did not run away!

Our life together was amazing. He was brilliant, a teacher of Latin, Greek, English, Music, German, Philosophy, or Theology. He had health issues, living with Rheumatoid Arthritis that grew progressively worse over time. It was however an opportunity for love as I massaged his aching joints, holding him close during the more painful times. We lived in a small apartment in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston and were so happy. The romance never went away either over the years. The love grew only more profound. We had a quiet wedding ceremony at our place. It was blest by a gay priest we knew, and even if not recognized by the State of Texas, our vows were sacred and life long.

Justin mentioned in his blog how we do not marry for the rights, though they are important. Let me explain how important they really are. Skip was on a variety of medicines for his rheumatoid arthritis. One danger of those meds is a compromised immune system. Skip began having problems speaking out loud, and seemed to be getting weaker. It culminated with him collapsing in the bathroom where he was then rushed to the E.R. The diagnosis was viral encephalitis. For a few weeks he lay in a coma, me by his side, and it ultimately killed him. I cannot possibly using mere words describe the loss I felt at the time. I could not imagine a life without my beloved Skip. But here I need to talk about some of those basic marriage rights. Over the last couple of years, Skip's medical costs had risen, and he was no longer able to work. Money was tight for us, and we could not have afforded the expensive legal workarounds on our budget. Lying there in bed was my life partner, yet I could make no medical decisions for him. His sister had to do that. Had she not given permission for me to sit with him, I could have been excluded from his hospital room. We had bought many things together. After he passed away, had his sister wanted to, she could have come and taken much of what we had acquired in our life together and I would have been powerless.

I remember like it was yesterday the day he died. I told him I loved him, and that it was okay to go. I held him to the last moment and then his life departed. It is amazing how you can just know when that spark of life has moved on. I called the nurse. She asked me, "Do you have anyone here for you?"

"His family and the priest are sitting outside."

"No, I asked if there was anyone here for you?"

"No. Maybe later."

She put her arm around me and said, "I'm here for you right now. I'm giving you five minutes to say your goodbyes before I call the others in."

Did I mention she must surely be an angel? So I said my goodbyes, then walked out the door as the family walked in.

Later, his sister called and asked me if I would go with her to the funeral home to make the final arrangements. She didn't have to do that, and she could have banned me from the funeral and from his gravesite. More of those marriage rights and why they are also important. I did not marry him for the rights, because I could not. But each step in the process gave silent affirmation that our relationship was not quite as good as my heterosexual counterparts. Then came the newspaper obituary where I was listed as "close personal companion." Close personal companion? Is that like a lifestyle coach? Damnit he was my husband, and I his wife!

Time passed, and healing took place. I'd been transitioning when Skip passed away, and I met Robin as a woman. In some ways she is completely different from Skip. In another they are similar. Like with Skip, we just started talking and never stopped. After a couple of months she was moving in and our life as a couple began. I feel like the most blessed woman ever. I've found a deeply profound love twice in one lifetime, a love that is returned in kind. As with Skip, though we have many differences, they seem to compliment our relationship rather than detract from us. During one press interview, Robin offered the best metaphor I thought. She said we were like two old sneakers. A comfortable fit and though a bit old and ragged, we just belonged together. That is who we are. Two old sneakers.

So I hatched a plan how we could be legally married. A court case in Texas had ruled in the case of Christie Littleton that though she had her surgery, though she had a legal marriage that had been recognized for years, the marriage to her husband after he passed away was annulled. She was denied rights to insurance settlements, and the family banned her from the grave site of her husband. Yep, those pesky "rights" again. The decision was a lousy one, assuming her chromosomes from her original birth certificate and ruling that while she was legally female in every other sense, she was not female for purposes of marriage. Set aside the scientifically flawed logic of such a decision, I can imagine nothing crueler.

So, I reasoned, if she could not get married, then Robin and I could. Well Houston said no, furthermore stating I could marry no one, male or female. We went to San Antonio where they issued a certificate. Btw, we used the public nature of what was going on to allow Christie to share her story and the unfair treatment she had received. I am glad she was a guest at our wedding. I've written elsewhere on the wedding itself, but the story here is an allegory on the blatant unfairness of what we have today. Since ours is a marriage granted in such unusual circumstances, we still have to do all the expensive work-arounds, like medical directives, wills etc. True marriage equality could change all that. It would resolve a host of legal issues, while allowing people to affirm a relationship that will exist whether legal or not. Our vows were to each other, but also an affirmation to the community in which we live. By not allowing official sanction for some, we deny some full participation in the greater community. That is so very wrong.

Robin and I have been together now for more than 12 years. Our love is stronger than ever before, and we know what a blessing it is. During our fifteen minutes of fame, we repeated one line everywhere we went. "Love is love. Love is all there is." Turns out I found out later we were paraphrasing Emily Dickinson:

"That love is all there is
Is all we know of love."

One of two old sneakers;


Monday, January 16, 2012

Privilege: A Story to Illustrate

Gparents Jimmy&OllieWicks

Jimmy and Ollie Wicks

Today is Dr. King's day. I've been reading a wonderful book that shares some of the stories of millions of black Americans who beginning with WWI began migrating out of the South. I recall Jim Crow, having grown up in a world with separate facilities and a host of "rules" that enforced a caste system as rigid as anywhere on this planet. My grandpa lived in Northeast Texas back when. I remember him telling me how he encountered a group fo "Night Riders" one evening. He hid from them, because when they were riding, sometimes innocent white folk got hurt too. He rushed home and his daddy scolded him even though he had not done anything wrong. One story he shared was of a black man who had been accused locally. He had been locked up in jail. The mob told the sheriff to get out which he did. They then opened fire from all directions, sending bullets all through the jailhouse and killing the man inside.

But one story stands out from my grandpa that illustrates privilege as well as any. Grandpa had been kicked out on his on before he was grown, the act of a stepmom. Needing to survive, he became a sharecropper. His name was Jimmy. He met a woman named Ollie and they married. Now as sharecroppers, they were paid the same as the black workers. In other words, rarely paid at all as the books always seemed to balance for the owner. This one fellow Jimmy worked for told him to be out of his house in one month because he was planning on leveling the shack and planting on that ground. Grandpa had to leave to go find work elsewhere, another sharecropping gig which is all there was to do in those days in his part of the world.

After he left, grandma Ollie hears a knock on the door. It is the crew with their dozer and they are ready to tear down the shack. She tells them the owner said they had a month, but the guy is persistent and says he has his orders and she needs to get out. She tells him to wait while she gathers a few things, went back inside, and walked out with a shotgun leveled on the crew. She then says firmly they need to get off her land and come back at the end of the month as agreed. They could tell she meant business and left.

Imbedded in this story though an example of what the word privilege means. Had Grandma been black, they likely would not have left. Someone would shoot her dead, or set fire to the house with her in it. If she were black, no one would ask questions. But if you did that to a white lady, the rules were very different.

In Tyler, I remember too well the day Dr. King was assassinated. The police set up patrols outside the downtown businesses and set up checkpoints around the black section of town (yes there was a clearly defined section called Tiger Square.) Now when JFK was killed, nobody was restricted in that way. Or any of the other political assassinations. But the fear, a legacy of an oppressor who had held down an entire group of people for so long, ruled over common sense. I mean come on, riots in Tyler, Texas? Are they nuts? (rhetorical, I know the answer to that one.)

So slavery was knocked down and there was Jim Crow. Jim Crow was finally overruled though some are trying to bring it back today. In order to keep the low wage earners locals needed to turn their huge profits, society turned to a "prison" society. Ask anyone about "driving while black." Illegal searches occur regularly and often. Black men particularly are incarcerated at an alarming rate, and comparison after comparison shows their sentences are proportionately worse as well. Prisons now are big business. When they get out, the only jobs available are those low paying jobs. Whether we call it slavery, or Jim Crow, or incarceration, the net result is the same. The gap between the privileged and those who are not is as big as ever, and plugging our ears yelling "I can't hear you!" won't change that. Some people go on about what Black Americans need to fix this. This is not something Black Americans need to fix! This is something White Americans need to fix! We carry the privilege because it is convenient. That's got to change, and to change it, we must change ourselves. Not just our actions, but our hearts, our systems, our souls. Dr. King said that love illuminates the soul. That's a pretty good start I think.

In memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. May it be sooner rather than later.