Would You Walk a Mile in These Shoes?

This week’s blog post is scheduled to focus on a current event. A good many events have caught my interest, and anyone reading this who knows me likely knows I have opinions on many of the topics that come to mind.

I’m going to focus on the Respect for Marriage Act, the piece of legislation that was passed by the U.S. Congress to protect same-sex and interracial marriages from being nullified in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court reverses their Obergefell decision.

While those who read my blog might think I write about LGBTQIA+ issues a lot, they might be surprised to know that I have actually written about the issue far less often than I sometimes might like. That has partly been because I’d rather my blog not become a one-trick pony. But, it has also been because I haven’t wanted to alienate potential readers or upset relatives who might decide to read my posts.

Perhaps I’m tired of pulling my punches. Perhaps it’s the passing of both my mother and father that finally make it feel like I can be more forthright in this blog. Or perhaps now that I’ve “hit the half-century mark” (as my older sister called it) I’ve decided that I’m not going to skirt difficult topics as often as I once did.

I would imagine anyone reading this far into my blog post knows a bit about me and Jen, but I don’t think I’ve told much of our early experiences to many. I’d like to give my readers a quick sketch of our earliest days as a couple to perhaps provide some perspective on why this week’s legislation is both immensely important to me but also does not go nearly far enough.

Jen and I had known one another casually because we had lived in the same dorm in college. In the fall of what was my junior year and her senior year, many of the friends we each had made in the dorm had either moved off campus or graduated. Many of the new faces were incoming freshmen, so I think it was natural that Jen and I started chatting a bit more often when passing in the hallway or on campus.

Just before classes started that fall term, Jen mentioned to some of us in the dorm that she was going to take a general-ed class in fencing. The class still had openings, and there was some concern that they might not have enough students to hold the class.

I had always loved old movies with sword fights and was a first generation Star Wars fan, so the idea of taking a class and learning to fence was an easy sell. Jen and I enrolled in the class together, and it happened to be scheduled for just before lunch twice a week. As it turned out, neither of us had a class after it, so we soon fell into a pattern of attending that class and then getting lunch together.

As we chatted over lunch, we soon found that we had a love of old movies in common as well as similar tastes in music. We both had been tomboys, more likely to ask for Star Wars action figures or Hot Wheels cars than Barbies as gifts.

I was a horse nut from way back, while Jen was a sports fan who studied baseball and football stats the way some people study religious texts. She played trumpet, and I had been in chorus and drama club, so we had those performance experiences to share as well.

Eventually, we decided that we’d room together in the spring term. Our growing closeness was noticed by some of our dorm-mates, but we were still denying the attraction we both felt.

Just before the spring term started, we both made our way back to campus from our holiday break. Jen had returned home to Washington State, and I had spent that Christmas in Nevada working at the mine where my father was employed.

On our first day back in the dorm, Jen and I went to lunch with my former step-brother, who was driving. A dumb kid out joyriding in his older brother’s car lost control, jumped a median, and plowed into us. Jen received a broken collarbone and four broken ribs from her seat belt.

My knees slammed into the dash and I cut my head on the rearview mirror. That cut needed two stitches. Years later, I would learn that my collarbone had also been fractured but the hospital missed it. My step-brother had, so far as I know, bruises and some cuts from broken glass but no broken bones.

The kid who hit us had no license and no insurance. He and his buddy were able to climb out of their wrecked Trans Am to comment, “Dude, I trashed your car. I’m sorry.” But, the fire department had to cut the Geo Metro we were in open to get Jen out of its rear seat.

The accident forced the two of us to finally have a heart-to-heart discussion about what had happened and how we felt about one another. It also left us with injuries that made attending classes difficult. And, with a new romance blossoming but our fears of being “outed” making us unsure of nearly everything, our grades tanked.

We moved out of the dorm at the end of the term and got an apartment together in Tucson. Since the driver who hit us was uninsured, our medical bill payments came from my step-brother’s uninsured motorist coverage. That helped pay some bills, but neither of us got the kind of ongoing physical therapy care we probably needed.

We were still trying to attend school full-time while also working enough to pay living expenses. Jen’s parents were helping her with tuition and some school expenses. But, I didn’t spend that summer in Nevada with my dad, which had been the biggest source of my funds for paying my educational and living expenses.

Long before I made it into high school, I had known that if I wanted a college degree, I had to pay for it myself. My mother and step-father made it clear that they wouldn’t support me once I graduated high school. And in my senior year of high school, my dad pro-rated the last child support check he wrote to my older sister, only paying for the few days between the end of the previous month and my 18th birthday.

It’s probably not surprising that two young women in their early twenties–just starting a new lesbian relationship in the early 1990s in Arizona–failed to make the smartest of decisions with either their limited funds or their education. We lived in constant fear of being harassed, and that fear was well-founded. We both recall taking public transit into downtown Tucson and being followed down the street by a man who screamed homophobic slurs at us and threatened us.

It’s also not surprising that ongoing pain from our injuries, coupled with a traumatic event like a car accident, clouded our judgement at the time. On the university campus, many students could easily access credit card applications because the various card companies either had a flyer in every classroom or regularly hosted a table on the mall where students could apply for a credit card.

These cards were almost always approved because the credit card companies assumed that the college students’ parents would pick up the slack if the kids struggled. In many cases, they were right. Jen and I each took out a card to help pay for expenses that we were accumulating because of living off campus and on limited incomes.

We eventually dropped out of school and were attempting to find full-time employment with the hopes of taking care of ourselves. When the insurance settlements came in, they covered less than we had hoped. The attorney took his cut, and we paid off those credit cards we’d been relying on to buy groceries. But, we didn’t have much left after that. Without steady, full-time employment, we were soon racking up credit card debt again for things like groceries and utility bills.

When our lease was up, neither of us was working full-time. And, since we had dropped out of college, the apartment complex wouldn’t renew our lease. I reached out to my older siblings to see if we could stay with them for a few days while we tried to figure out our next steps. They gave me the number for social services.

My mother and step-father either couldn’t or wouldn’t assist me when I asked. My father also rejected my request for help.

At this point, Jen and I were staying in a hotel that was being billed to an emergency card her parents had given her. When it maxed out and the hotel bolted our door, we finally called her parents.

Jen’s parents were–understandably–furious at the financial mess we’d gotten ourselves into. When they first met me, it was a day or two after our accident. I had just come from the bursar’s office and was an emotional wreck. The day of our accident, I was supposed to pick up my financial aid disbursement after our lunch and pay my tuition and dorm bills.

I missed my scheduled pickup time because I was in the ER. The university cancelled my scholarships and classes and was threatening to have me removed from the dorm for non-payment. Plus, I had missed two shifts at my on-campus job and was terminated. I had to get a letter from the hospital to get my classes, scholarships, dorm, and job back. And everyone I encountered in the process acted as though I were deliberately inconveniencing them with a bullshit story about a car accident.

Based on all those issues I was facing when I first met Jen’s parents, I wasn’t at my best. They assumed I was a negative influence on their daughter and had wanted her to return to Washington with them to heal that term. She refused and stayed in Tucson with me.

Despite their dislike of me from our first meeting the previous year, Jen’s parents offered to fly Jen and me to Washington and help us get back on our feet when all doors in Tucson had closed to us. Jen’s parents and her grandma cashed in frequent flyer miles to cover our plane tickets. When we first arrived in Washington, Jen’s grandma was traveling and let us stay at her home. 

When she returned, we stayed at Jen’s parents’ house in their RV. We were able to find full-time work within a few months, and they cosigned on our first lease so we could rent an apartment. They also connected us with a credit counseling service so that we could responsibly pay off our debts and rebuild our credit.

For the first decade of our life together, Jen and I worked through the aftermath of a car accident and a huge amount of financial hardship. We slowly built up to a point where we could think about returning to school to finish our degrees. Jen returned to school first and finished her bachelor’s degree eleven years after starting it in Arizona. I finished mine fourteen years after I had started it.

We were together for a decade before we could have our relationship legally recognized by any government. And, when we could legally marry, we had to go to another country to do it. British Columbia and Ontario were the first two provinces in Canada to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2003. Jen, her parents, her brother, and I went to BC so Jen and I could marry.

During our first decade together, the LGBTQ magazines and newspapers were full of stories of gay or lesbian couples seeing their lives and financial well-being destroyed by bigotry. Often, the stories focused on gay couples who had purchased a condo together but kept it in one name to avoid homophobic reactions from realtors and lenders. But, if that person died, his partner might well be thrown out of their shared home by the homophobic family who inherited the condo on paper, regardless of what the couple had intended.

Or, we’d read about lesbians who were injured in car accidents or who were attacked and died from their injuries while their partners were prevented from making medical decisions or seeing them to say goodbye. We also saw cases of women being stripped of custody of their children just because they were now living with another woman in a committed relationship.

Since we started with nothing, Jen and I always treated anything we had as community property. But we were acutely aware that the legal system wouldn’t agree. We also couldn’t afford to have powers of attorney or wills drawn up for most of that first decade.

I never want these blog posts to get this long. And, the pain, the shame, the uncertainty of those early days together are still quite raw at times, despite all my work with my therapist.

So, I’ll close with this. Those early days for Jen and I as a couple were both traumatic and beautiful in many ways. Because we had so little to start, we’ve always appreciated what we’ve accomplished.

But, we were young, white women. Sure, America doesn’t have much use for women, and less use for lesbians. But Jen was solidly from a middle-class background, and I came from hard-working, blue-collar folks. We had our complexions to pad some of the worst of the blows.

And, we had her parents’ love for her and generosity toward me. That safety net was a lifesaver, and that is no exaggeration.

The Respect for Marriage Act that just passed helps ensure that, regardless of state laws, any couples like us who are legally married under current law will continue to have our marriage recognized, even if the Obergefell decision is reversed and we move to a state that won’t issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Until Obergefell, 35 of the 50 states had some kind of legal prohibition banning same-sex marriage. This new law will help protect us, even if we choose or need to relocate in the future.

The tougher question, though, is if it protects those in the LGBTQIA+ community who are both queer and BIPOC. Far too often, LGBTQIA+ activist groups have focused their attention on the needs of middle-class, white gay men and lesbians.

Not enough is done for our community’s most at-risk populations, like our elders and those who have interesectional identities. And, from what I’ve seen of the analysis of this new Act, it’s also flawed in how it might apply to families most at risk.

For the trans community in particular, legal fees can be a significant burden, preventing them from obtaining government-issued documents that correctly identify them. And, without those documents, many struggle to lease a home, find employment, or marry.

If you’re someone who votes or can donate, I hope you’ll consider learning about local organizations or candidates who are working to protect the most marginalized and at-risk members of the LGBTQIA+ communities in your area and support their efforts.

Thanks for reading this.

Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

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