I wrote a book about courage

Quote

It’s a conventional tale, but has characteristics that make it spicy: after divorce, the middle-age protagonist launches a grand experiment to elevate her desire for sex—unhinged from love, or even monogamy—from the disgrace of sluthood assigned to women; into the respectability of bachelorhood granted to men.

        “What happens when a forty-four year old woman, decides to make sense of a divorce, recalibrate her heart, and sets out to find sexual satisfaction without falling in love?”

IMG_0064 It’s a true story, one that has no doubt been lived many times, by many women. Such a path is not common, but it’s also neither unique nor groundbreaking. Yet, because of the bias that follows women who stretch toward a lifestyle outside of partnership; because of the unequivocal hierarchy that we attach to long-term monogamy; the stories of those women’s lives, and the relationships that are developed, have been at best marginalized, but more often, they are demonized.

        “What would happen if a woman told every man she dated, that she didn’t want a boyfriend; and she didn’t want a husband; and she didn’t even want a one-night stand?”

Those were the questions I wanted answers to. It was not the first time in my life I had strayed from the parameters my culture assigned to female sexuality. I had come out as a lesbian in 1976, when I fell in love with my high school girlfriend. I lived the first fifteen years of my adult life as a lesbian, and I had a married-like partnership for the last ten of those. It was not easy to be a lesbian back in the beginning, but it was possible; with courage and community, women dismantled the proverbial closet board-by-board, and nail-by-nail.

When I was thirty-three, I fell in love with a man. I knew there would be consequences for merging into the mainstream, so I found a new closet to bide my time, until I once again had the guts to own the facts of my life and honor my heart. When I came out, many in my extended family of same-sex activists were horrified by what they understood to be betrayal, just as I had expected. No matter that I had served on the frontlines of gay liberation for years. At best I was tolerated for my transgression; at worst I was ostracized. I was confused by my social identity, but not by my heart; sure I was in love with a man, but did that make me straight?

        “What would happen if a woman could have sex; without lying, without cheating; without shame?”

I wrote a book about courage, but not until I solidified my status as a female bachelor; not until I left a career in business where perceptions always matter; not until age graced me with the wisdom to know that judgments opposed to my lifestyle said more about the jury than they did about me. The book is particular to my life, but the journey described is universal: look fear in the face; over-ride self-doubt; stand above the distraction of critics; and live your passion.

The book goes on sale next month, and from the beginning, I wanted a piece of the profit to benefit young people in pursuit of their passions. Higher education was the category I picked, having had my own life-changing entrance to college funded by the enlightened legislation of the Federal Pell Grant Program. Access to education is political when marginalized groups are left out because of income or discrimination.

Donating funds from the sale of my story to benefit young adults mapping out their own courageous plans was the perfect synergistic match, and so I picked a scholarship fund that was founded more than twenty years ago specifically to compensate for discrimination aimed at lesbian and gay students.

Only, I hit a hurdle with the scholarship fund I chose to receive my donation, and my proposal was respectfully declined. My book on courage speaks too frankly about sex. Sex spells risk. After twenty years, the scholarship administrators are experienced with risk. Sex—partnered with students—will offend some donors, and will also prevent some educational institutions from advertising the opportunity to apply. And with that, this venerable fund that was founded to compensate for discrimination against queer youth, has little choice but to reject public affiliation with a life story that—ironically—describes one woman’s struggle to overcome discrimination.

“Did I want to dance? Of course I wanted to dance and that’s not all.”                                        —Erica Jong, Fear of Flying

Warning: living can be sexy. Warning: Living can be sexy

I wrote a book that describes the self-doubt, the social ostracism, and the balls out courage necessary to stand one’s ground when faced with the facts of a life that cannot be folded neatly into social convention. Written forty years after Erica Jong published Fear of Flying, The Bachelor Chapters is also a story that spotlights social change and social stigma. I did not write this book for my own self-aggrandizement; the story is often unflattering and conflicted because it is so bloody honest. I called upon courage and audacity to write about my life because I recognized that my experiences had a larger purpose: that my obligation is to brighten the path for the young women and men behind me.

When you buy my book next month, you will partner with me, because I’m not abandoning my plan to donate ten percent of the profit. Why would I? There won’t be the publicity I had hoped for, but after this episode, I’m even more convinced that proceeds should benefit the next generation. Together, you and I will fund access to higher education. Thanks for your support. So many young people need us. Now, enough with the bullshit. Let’s dance. And that’s not all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first kiss arrived late

because there was no other option, not even imagination, when it was 1976, and kisses were only for boys.

Our high school graduation came in June, and the keys to our home in September. At eighteen we were best friends and workers—not college kids—but grown folks with full-time jobs and monthly bills in a cash-only economy; those days when stuff still came from working, not from credit cards or support from parents who had saved.

We signed a lease on a two bedroom Craftsmen with hardwood floors and a fireplace, in a neighborhood near Lake Washington called Madrona, for two hundred dollars a month. We moved in boxes of books and clothes, threw a mattress on the dining room floor, and emptied two bags of groceries into the kitchen cupboards, before unrolling our sleeping bags to catch our first dreams under our first adult roof.

Thirty-seven years ago, I moved across a mattress, found the courage and her lips, and spilled my heart into hers with the blind trust of young love. We became lesbians only later, when identity and discrimination and liberation called us out. But that autumn morning, and so many that followed, we only answered the call of love; we only spoke the magic of our happiness; we only knew that our hearts were meant to be linked forever.

Thea and Edith in the 1960’s  Edith and Thea

It was Karen I called when I heard the news, my first adult love, from my computer in Colombia to her cell phone in Seattle. The Defense of Marriage Act had been defeated—DOMA—the federally sanctioned segregation of gay Americans from the moral rights of love and the civil rights of equal access. The Supreme Court had ruled once again to uphold the civil rights of the constitution. I had to call Karen; I had to talk with her first.

She and I remained family after our partnership faded, sisters forever, in that elevation of friendships to blood lines so common for gay Americans. Millions of us compensated for discrimination and banishment, the price paid for daring to follow our hearts, by creating families of choice, by counting on community, by initiating vital, but segregated social institutions.

“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” first uttered in 1990, became an activist cry to breach bigotry, end segregation, and normalize homosexuality. Twenty-three years later, pointing toward the tenth amendment, same-sex marriage leaped to federal recognition by way of a state’s right to define the marriage of its citizens.

But it was before gay liberation—or my first kiss—in the nineteen sixties, when two adult women began what would become a four-decade engagement, until one day in 2007 they crossed a border and became married in Canada. One of those women, Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA decision, told their story before the Supreme Court decision:

“My late wife, Thea Spyer, was, and is, the love of my life. Although we couldn’t live openly for much of our relationship, we became engaged in 1967 with a circular diamond brooch that symbolized the rings we weren’t able to wear on our fingers. And we stayed engaged for the next 40 years, caring for each other, sharing all the joys and sorrows that came our way.

In 1977, Thea was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis, which became debilitating over time. First, she had to use one cane, then two crutches, then a wheelchair. In Thea’s last years, she was quadriplegic. We were lucky that the MS never affected her brilliant mind or her cognition, and that she was able to continue seeing patients as a psychologist until the day that she died.

In 2007, we learned from Thea’s doctors that she had only one year to live. When we realized that we were running out of time, we decided to marry in Canada. That marriage was recognized in our home state of New York. We wanted to be married for the same reason most people want to marry: to publicly and legally express our love and commitment to one another.

When our wedding announcement ran in The New York Times, we heard from hundreds of people from every stage of our lives—playmates and schoolmates, colleagues, friends and relatives—pouring out love and congratulations because we were married. That’s why marriage is different—it’s a magic word recognized by everyone as a demonstration of commitment and love.

When my beautiful Thea died two years later, I was overcome with grief. Over the next month, I was hospitalized with a heart attack, and, in the midst of my grief, I realized that the federal government would not recognize our marriage. DOMA restricts federal marriage benefits and state-to-state recognition of marriages only to unions between a man and a woman. Because of DOMA, I was required to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes that I would not have had to pay had I been married to a man instead of Thea.

This was not only painful, it was wrong. I knew that Thea would want me to stand up for our marriage—and for so many other gay couples and their families who are harmed by this unjust law. I believe that all marriages should be treated equally by the federal government in accordance with the Constitution.”

This is the love story that changed the law of a nation. Marriage is different, and for the love of Thea and Edith, our civil liberties—finally—can honor more hearts.

Subscribe now and never miss a post.