Alison and Sandy, At the March

When the world says, “Give up,”
Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.”


~Author Unknown

Sometimes, we just don’t believe what we hear. The house was quiet just after 7:00 am, when I heard something on the radio. I thought I heard the phrase “struck down”, but was momentarily confused, as I wondered if the announcer meant “hadn’t struck down”—or maybe he said, “didn’t strike down”. After all, the conservative court had, in the words of John Lewis, “struck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act” just the day before. I listened again. The announcer said: “The Supreme Court has struck down DOMA”. ‘Wow…could that really be true?” I thought. I called my partner Sandy, who was already at work. “They struck down DOMA, they struck down DOMA”, I repeated into the phone. She answered, equally amazed—and somehow the sound of her voice made me cry. It wasn’t actually something I had ever expected to see in my lifetime: legal gay marriage, and from a conservative court no less.

Later, I found myself thinking—why hadn’t I expected the Supreme Court to do the right thing? Why was I so unprepared for the right decision to be announced? What had I become so used to?

I still remembered being wildly in love thirty years ago and wanting to let my family and friends know that this relationship was different, that this relationship was “the one” that would be it for me. Sandy felt the same way. We knew a few people who had had “commitment ceremonies”, but we didn’t really know how to go about that. The churches that we had grown up in (for me Presbyterian, for Sandy Methodist) were staunchly and firmly against gay relationships. In the 1980’s, both denominations were kicking out openly gay ministers, and were not conducting “commitment ceremonies” for gay couples. No one even used the word “marriage” when it came to gay relationships in those days. Still—we wanted to make a statement. We felt strongly about it. Sandy had been married in a traditional wedding when she was 21 years old. She was young, and so was he, and the marriage had not worked out. Now that she had found the right person, she wanted to celebrate the relationship and I was with her 100 percent. We were happy. We wanted to cheer from the rooftops.

So, the first time Sandy and I got “married” it was 1985. We created a ceremony that was very meaningful to us, but we shared it in the most muted way possible. We were in our early thirties and had been together for two years. At first we talked about doing something with our families, but we were afraid. We couldn’t imagine how it would work and we worried about feeling embarrassed or ashamed. Our family wasn’t ready: for example, when my mother discovered that I had broken up with the woman I had been with for 8 years, before I met Sandy, she had hoped that I would at last “find the right man.” When she found out that I was moving in with Sandy a few months later, she said, “You mean that punk rocker?”

So, since we just couldn’t imagine putting a ceremony together that our families would respect and not feel ashamed of in some way, we went another route. We planned a trip to Hawaii, backpacked the Napali Coast on the northern edge of Kauai and hiked inland up a steep and muddy path to a waterfall. The location was Edenesque—bright green, a long waterfall down a steep cliff, with a beautiful pool of blue water at the base of the waterfall. We camped by the pool for 3 days and no one else was there. We were alone in our Eden and far away from other people. We had written a ceremony for ourselves, which we were proud of and was meaningful to us. It was based largely on Wiccan practices, which we had little experience with, but we were looking for a spiritual tradition that would embrace us, and the Wiccan tradition was it. We bought special shirts, hiked in with ceramic cups and silver candlesticks and our carefully written vows. We took pictures, held our ceremony completely by ourselves, exchanging vows and rings. The whole experience felt magical to us and we were so excited by our amazing event that after our trip was over we typed up the ceremony, added our pictures and sent it off to our family and close friends. We were trying to share our relationship and say “look at us, we are really here, we are serious”…but looking back, we were hardly comfortable, barely proud, feeling awkward… operating in the shadows of a real wedding.

Nevetheless…we lived our lives and time marched on. The arrival of our two daughters definitely moved us along in cementing our relationship in the eyes of others, and to ourselves as well. The experience of becoming parents gave us a different perspective on our own parents and changed our dialogue with them. My parents came to appreciate Sandy as a mother and then even more, when she helped them care for my very ill sister. The shifts and attachments that come with time were apparent.

By June of 2003, we were approaching our 20th anniversary. I was reading the paper, and it reported that Canada had “Legalized Gay Marriage”. I was surprised, but very quickly said to Sandy, since we had a trip planned for later that summer to visit her family in Buffalo, NY, “Why don’t we get married in Canada this summer, when we go to Buffalo?” Sandy loved the idea and was off and running with it. The idea of actually being legal was terribly exciting to us, even if only in a foreign country. It was also ironic to consider getting married in Canada, because we had once, some years before, had a horrendous experience at the border, when we were crossing over to go to the beach with Sandy’s family on a simple summer vacation to Buffalo. Because we had the girls with us and they were quite young and didn’t “match” us, we were pulled over and then grilled by several Canadian customs officials. Luckily, I had thought to put their adoption papers in my purse before the trip. But the experience had been harrowing, especially for the girls, who were asked if they knew us. They were terrified and clung to our legs. In a way, our push to get married—even in Canada, came from a deep desire for legitimacy, to somehow have the world see us for who we were as a family and always always to protect our children.

We tried contacting a couple of “marriage chapels” at Niagara Falls, Ontario through the Internet, but they declined to work with us. We were very clear that we were a same-sex couple, and they were equally as clear that we should look elsewhere. So then I tried contacting a Unitarian minister named John Mayor from Queenston, a town just north of Niagara Falls along the Niagara River. I politely asked him if he would be willing to marry us. He quickly replied by e-mail that he would enthusiastically marry us and sent us a phone number. It was a complete “cold call” that turned into our big break.

We met John on the other side of the Peace Bridge in Canada (leaving our children in Buffalo with their grandmother!) the morning we arrived from California. He was a man in his sixties: big, bright white hair and kind eyes. We parked our car and got into his. He drove us around to possible locations for a wedding. We looked at churches and parks, and found a small mid-1800’s Methodist church in Queenston, which was owned by the Canadian government and preserved as an historical site. John explained to us how we could reserve the church and also took us to a restaurant in a park overlooking the Niagara River that was beautiful and we were able to arrange to hold a reception there. Later that day, after John left, Sandy and I went to the City Hall to get a marriage license. So far, with the exception of the cold responses from the wedding chapels in Niagara Falls, we had been treated very well by the Canadians. But still, Sandy and I looked at each other and steeled ourselves to go into city hall. We weren’t sure about government bureaucrats. So, it was a wonderful surprise when the woman who handled the marriage licenses in Niagara Falls, Ontario was warm, congratulatory and supportive.

With the marriage license in hand, we put a wedding together in 9 days. My parents flew in for the event; my cousin came down from Rochester with her young daughter and played the organ for us in the old church. Our good friends from Oakland were there with their daughters, who were close friends of our kids. Sandy’s entire family came and we had a real wedding with John Mayor presiding: walking down the aisle, having music, exchanging vows (where we incorporated much of the words we wrote for Hawaii) and exchanging new rings. We had fun. We had a terrific ceremony and then we had a wonderful reception at the restaurant. It was amazing and validating and my parents, who ended up paying for the reception (“because, after all, we have never paid for a wedding for you before”) were also so happy to be there. My mother said, “Wow, this was a wonderful event, and what if we hadn’t come?” as she pondered how they had had to quickly change their plans to come east at the last minute. We would have had the wedding without them of course, and in fact held it without my brothers and my sister, but my parents were genuinely happy that they had made the effort to spontaneously hop on a plane for Buffalo, NY. And it made the whole event more special to have members of both of our families socializing with each other. In all aspects, it actually felt like a real wedding!

So, our wedding in Canada felt real, and it was wonderful for us to be able to include all of Sandy’s family and some of mine so completely in that event. But the marriage license we brought home with us was useless and meant nothing legally. We put it in a frame and put it on the shelf.

And we still had our moments. The following year, I received a phone call from the Benefits Department of OUSD saying that I must have made a mistake during open enrollment, because I couldn’t enroll a woman as a spouse. I was a principal by that time, and called my boss and asked her for help. She called someone down there and told me to show up in person as she had “straightened them out” (so to speak). This was the one time I took along my marriage certificate from Canada, but I also asked my secretary from my high school to go with me for moral support, because I was scared and intimidated by the reaction I might encounter. Things went ok—but the woman at Benefits was clearly uncomfortable and regarded my Canadian marriage license with suspicion.

The following year in February of 2004, Gavin Newsome opened the doors of the San Francisco City Hall to gay marriages. I remember thinking that the U.S. wasn’t ready for this and regarded it all from a distance. My brother asked me why Sandy and I didn’t rush to San Francisco, but I told him that we were already married and that being legally married in Canada wasn’t much different than being illegally married in California. We remained on the sidelines.

Time moved on and four more years passed. It was May of 2008. I started receiving text messages while I was in a meeting to say that the California same-sex marriage ban had been overturned. Sandy and I went out to dinner that evening with our kids who were just home from college. We felt celebratory—but we also knew that there would be a Proposition on the November ballot, which might make the victory short-lived.

Still—we took advantage of an already planned party for our 25th anniversary to contact a friend of ours who was a judge and ask her to marry us that day. We knew we should go ahead and get married again, because this way we would be legal in California, despite the November election, and we could not make our Canadian marriage be legally recognized, no matter how much we had enjoyed our wedding there.

So—once again we found ourselves hosting a marriage and again, this marriage of 2008 was a wonderful event. We didn’t try to make it a traditional ceremony, like we had done in 2003. Instead we saw it as a renewal of our vows, and our friend the judge performed the actual legal ceremony. I made a speech about the historical significance, being ever the history teacher, and my sister Mary and her husband Jack sang the song “This is Us” with words rewritten just for us. This time, my family was in full force, and there was a blessing in that. We had shared our 2003 wedding with all of Sandy’s family. It was wonderful that this time, my entire family was there, including my brother, who was already stricken with cancer. He surprised us by driving up with my parents and his son and I still remember how thrilled I was to see all of them. It was also quite wonderful to have our close friends with us and to celebrate in our own hometown for the first time.

Since our July 2008 marriage here in California, we have actually been legally married despite the passage of Prop. 8 in November of that year. However, for the last five years, our taxes have been a huge headache. We have had to fill out the forms and check the “single” box for the federal forms, and then completely redo them for the state taxes, checking the married box on those. We haven’t been completely sure if we have even done them correctly and the effort has made the point each year that we continue to stand squarely in the “other” category in terms of how the government recognizes our relationship.

Therefore, on the morning of June 26, 2013, I was indeed surprised and amazed to hear that a conservative court had overturned the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”. I had thoroughly expected that I was going to be mad at their decision and have to once again wall those feelings off into some corner of my psyche. But—it does now seem that things are changing when a majority of the Supreme Court (even a slim majority) agrees that the DOMA law ran counter to simple rules of equality.

That morning, almost immediately, the text messages started coming in: one from a close lesbian friend in San Francisco, both our daughters sent happy text messages with little smiley emoticons, my sister sent her congratulations. I heard from random people too: the General Counsel of my school district sent me her heartfelt best wishes and I heard from my brother-in-law’s cousin, Anna. When I responded to her, I said, “Yes—together 30 years, married 3 times and now finally legal.”

Sandy and I had been talking about going to the “Dyke March” on Saturday evening in San Francisco, even before the Supreme Court’s decision. In our 30 years, we had never attended that march—we had either gone to the big Gay Parade on Sunday, or skipped the weekend festivities altogether. But this year, we had talked about going to the Saturday march, because we were looking for reasons to walk in our preparations for getting in better shape for walking the Spanish “Camino” in the spring. After I sent that text to Anna, I read it to Sandy and said, “you know that text would make a good sign”.

So…on Saturday afternoon, lo and behold, I found Sandy busily making a sign with markers, tape, sticks, cardboard: “Together 30 years, married 3 times, finally legal” and off we went to the march.

Dolores Park was a scene—and a scene that made us feel distinctly of another generation. The music was loud, the smell of marijuana was intense, the park was packed with young people: drinking, partying, tattooed, skimpily dressed, being raucous. We met up with a friend, but ended up retreating to an apartment building staircase to sit in the shade, drink ice tea and get away from the booming music. We actually wanted to be a little more sedate as we waited for the march to begin. Still, as we sat on those stairs, something started happening. Groups of young people kept walking by and wanting to take our picture with our sign. At first we thought it might just be some random tourists, but it began happening with person after person: wanting to hug us, wanting to take our picture, asking us if they could put us on Facebook. And then the march began.

As we walked in the middle of hundreds of people, we were celebrated. Never before have I felt like a celebrity—but this was a moment of celebrity. We had our picture taken every few steps by groups of young women and groups of young men and straight couples in between. (The “Dyke March” is no longer a march of just women—but simply the beginning of the Gay Pride partying for anyone interested in walking through the Mission to the Castro). We would be surrounded by a group of black men, then a few steps farther, a group of Latina women. We were offered sips of champagne and beer. We were tossed necklaces from men high up in apartment windows who wanted us to have them. We probably had our picture taken 200 times.

The marchers were overwhelmingly young—though there were other couples like us, and certainly there were couples in the crowd who had been together for a long time. But the sign called us out, and created the conversation with hundreds of strangers. One young woman asked Sandy how we did it, “Don’t you get bored with the same stories over and over?” she asked. Sandy said, “Your love deepens over time, and it becomes more than the stories. You have much more to balance it out.” A young woman asked me how we stayed together. “I had a relationship break up after 10 years, and we really tried”, she said with frustration. She seemed so young to me. I told her she would find her person…she had to keep an open heart. She promised to do that, and gave me a big hug. Another youngster asked me if she could fix my suspenders, one of which had become disconnected as I walked. (I was wearing rainbow suspenders for the occasion) She told me I was “rockin the suspenders!”

The march passed by in a blur of hugs from sweaty strangers—almost all of them in their 20’s and 30’s—from all backgrounds and genders. One young woman clasping the hand of her lover said to Sandy with tears in her eyes, so solemnly, “Thank you for getting married 3 times so we will only have to get married once!”

The whole experience was fun I have to admit. It was validating and exciting: a special moment in time. And, although the future will continue to hold plenty of challenges, the truth is that the younger generation is accepting of gay people unlike any previous generations and these young people are setting a stage for this topic to finally not hold the same charge anymore. I see it in our children’s friends. I see it in our urban high schools. This is also amazing to me. I think that I have enough internalized homophobia to last my entire life, even as I try to constantly counteract it. They say that the mind is hard to change—for example, that a very large person will continue to walk through a doorframe slightly sideways, even after losing all the weight and becoming skinny.
I expect that I will be walking through doorframes slightly sideways for the rest of my life, as regards being gay—but I do have hope that the young people of today will have a very different story to tell about their love life and family when they arrive, many decades from now, at my age. And I thank all of those 200 picture takers at the march a few weeks ago for giving us one of the best celebrations of our lives.

 

©Alison McDonald, 2013

Alison McDonald, BAWP 1994,  was a teacher for 25 years before becoming a high school administrator. She has been an educator for 38 years and has worked for Oakland Unified since 1983. She will soon be retiring and hopes to write more. This is her first submission to Digital Paper, and was obviously provoked by the recent Supreme Court Decision on marriage equality. She lives in Oakland with her partner Sandy, probably too many pets and is proud that one of her daughters is teaching at Castlemont High School in Oakland. (She is proud of her other daughter, too–she isn’t a teacher in Oakland, however). Alison can be reached at alisonlmcdonald@gmail.com.

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One Response to “Together Thirty Years, Married 3 Times, Finally Legal by Alison McDonald”

  1. sjubb Says:

    Thank you for sharing this experience with all of us, Allison. And congratulations to you and Sandy for all three of your marriages! You helped make it possible for other gay couples to get married once.

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