By Stephanie Rudolph
A week before the big Supreme Court decision officially legalizing gay marriage, my 89-year-old grandmother left me the following message on my cell phone:
“Steffi, dear, I just returned from one of the most exciting workshops I have ever attended. It was about sexuality. And there was one section there that was quite meaningful about lesbians. And I don’t mean to intrude on your personal life but …this man was incredible. If you want me to share with you what I’ve learned, we could schedule something private at my house… He made some very stunning distinctions, and sexuality is not just intercourse! There’s a whole range of qualities involved in such a relationship that might interest you.”
Let’s leave aside the fact that a man conducted the most exciting workshop of my grandmother’s long career on the topic of lesbianism. (And rest assured that my grandmother, a Freudian psychotherapist, has attended her fair share of workshops). What bothered me most was that it has apparently only just dawned on Grandma that my sexual orientation might not only be about some primal urge to rub myself up against another woman. Remarkably, my grandmother has spent the better part of a decade believing that I haven’t yet made the “stunning distinction” between sex and love in “such” a relationship. I could see why she urgently felt a private session at her home in New Jersey might be in order.
Seriously, though, one of the toughest parts about coming out—especially to people in older generations—is the focus on sex. For men, the notion that our little Johnny likes butt sex can prove particularly humiliating. For me, as a cis woman, coming out involved avoiding awkward glances or dealing with bizarre questions related to what exactly two women do together.
Unable to picture two women doing anything scandalous, even mildly homophobic or conservative parents seemed unfazed by my presence in their home. Where boyfriends were once relegated to the guest room over the holidays, twin beds were pushed together so that my partner and I could have some private “girl time.”
Presciently and sadly, Grandma’s voice message anticipated something that the rest of the nation was also on the brink of discovering: Identifying oneself as queer does not solely constitute an admission that you like a certain kind of sex. Gay people, like everyone else, fall in love. And some of them want to marry. It’s a simple concept, but it has taken a long time for popular culture to digest it.
As rainbow-painted faces popped up all over Facebook feeds in the days and weeks following the marriage decision, it seemed the world had become obsessed with gay love. Acquaintances who had always a struck me as uncomfortable with queerness busted out in full rainbow attire, marched proudly in Pride, and enthusiastically tagged articles and photos with #lovewins.
But while the world celebrated gay love, I found myself fighting depression, selfishly focusing on open wounds from my last breakup. Despite having been single for more than six months, Pride triggered insecurities about my inability to find my one true love. In the absence of gay love (and lamentably, reliable gay sex), I still felt just as queer. But this Pride, I also felt isolated. Without love, what kind of gay was I?
Each year, Pride is a celebration of queerness in all its forms. It’s Dykes on Bikes. It’s couples. It’s transfolks. It’s kids and families. It’s poly relationships. It’s being single and loving it. It’s gender non-conformity. It’s cross-dressing. It’s guys in leather. It’s dance parties.
As cheesy as it might sound, for the month of June, the queer community creates a space for me where queerness is not only tolerated but celebrated. But this Pride, I didn’t swell with pride. I just kept asking myself: are we prepared to celebrate queerness outside of love? Can people like my grandmother only embrace queerness if it fits neatly into a hetero-normative institution like marriage?
I should pause my diatribe for a moment and say that I am profoundly moved by the decision. I have shed tears watching images of gay couples in the deep South take advantage of the opportunity to share in the dignities (and indignities) of marriage. When traveling, I had always avoided developing relationships with other gay people, knowing I could never seek a fiancé visa for a prospective non-resident partner. And, when I lived with a woman some years ago in a state without gay marriage, she added me to her health insurance, only to find that the state and the federal government considered my coverage imputed income and penalized us to the point where I had to seek my own coverage. For both substantive and symbolic reasons, this decision represents a beautiful development, worthy of excitement, praise, and, of course, pride.
But people still find queerness outside of love a threatening notion. Most jurisdictions confer few protections on queer or trans workers. And even in states or cities that nominally protect queer and trans individuals from discrimination, in practice we face discrimination on a daily basis.
A few months ago, while shopping in an upscale store near Union Square in New York City shortly after buzzing my head, a man followed me around demanding to know whether I was a boy or a girl. But I wouldn’t be surprised if my harrasser jumped on the bandwagon by posting a rainbow-overlaid photo of himself on Facebook.
It makes sense that the world is excited about gay marriage. Who doesn’t love a big gay wedding? This pride though, I kept feeling like the world could only share in my “pride” in the context of a certain form of relationship. I kept watching the news, and obsessively refreshing Facebook seeking reassurance that even if I never march down the aisle of some Secular Humanist Church in a dapper white tux, the world would still swell with pride for me. This year, I didn’t get that assurance.