EDGE WISE: Are Lesbians Gay? Signposts on road to citizenship
Women have been able to use the prefix “Ms,” instead of the married-or-not-married designators “Mrs” or “Miss,” for more than twenty years. Yet lesbians are still being described using the male designator “gay.” Folks, I can assure you that I am not now, and have never been, a gay man. Ask my wife of twenty-four years — she’ll verify that for you. I realize that some members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, not-into-labels, none-of-your-business-and-why-are-you-asking community are against any designations of gender, but I like being called a lesbian. “Lesbian” sounds so cool, so special, and so different that I choose it for myself. Because I am different, and because words matter.
Words matter very much. They shape our brain development, our perceptions, how we interact with the world, and how the world interacts with us. In my world, I have the privileges of white skin, of a middle class education and vocabulary, of good healthcare and plenty of food to eat — and of believing in myself, which my privileges helped to create. I also have the privilege of being able to deny that I am a lesbian and a Jew if I choose to do so, because these attributes are not physically evident. Usually I choose to be out as all of myself, because I value all of who I am. But there have been times in my life when I did not feel safe being out as a Jew or a lesbian, so I was silent and hoped that nobody would perceive me as such and hurt me for being so — as if being born female didn’t erase real safety from my life. But a childhood spent in comfort, surrounded by art and learning, gave me a partially false sense of security. Membership does have some privileges. Thank you, mom and dad — I will always love you for those gifts, and for the confidence and curiosity they created and still feed.
Yet this lesbian was, for once, very gay (meaning joyful) when most of the Defense Of Marriage Act [DOMA] was struck down. Because that meant my wife and I finally got the same right to tax refunds as heterosexual married couples. Being a poet whose annual income last year was $68, this is great because it means we’re getting back some big chunks of money that are taken out of my wife’s paycheck all year long. Now we can plan a nice vacation and a bank deposit when The Refund Comes In. Since all lesbians [as per lesbian law] must drive old Subarus, this money will also be critical to the care and feeding of our old Subaru. And frankly, if the government has a little less of our money to spend on bombs and guns, we are cool with that, too.
I truly respect every individual’s right to exclude me from their religion and their place of worship, but legalizing gay and lesbian marriage has nothing to do with religion. Legal marriage is a civil contract. And that makes it a civil right every consenting adult should have. Once you have paid taxes — sales tax, license tax, real estate tax, gas tax, any tax — then you should have the same rights as every other tax payer. No matter what. That’s what “no taxation without representation” means. One paid tax, one vote, one right to marry, and one right to be here.
I believe that former felons who have served their time and immigrants who are here working have the same rights, too — because they earn those rights every time they pay any taxes. That is what a democracy, our democracy, is supposed to be. That is what Emma Lazarus’s beautiful poem on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor means:
“…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”*
No exceptions, and remembering that unless we are Native Americans, we are all immigrants, here to make a better life with whatever opportunities we can find, with the freedom to be who we really are. There are other things we celebrate too, post-DOMA. In the past when my wife went to the hospital, I was terrified that a homophobic doctor or nurse would deny me access to making sure she was treated well. For a woman with anxiety [me] and a diabetic [her], I cannot say enough on how deeply reassuring it is to know that I no longer have to worry about being allowed to care for my wife, and she for me.
Post-DOMA, we are now full and equal citizens within our own country. Almost — that female thing is still an issue. Less pay for equal work, sexual and domestic violence, jobs we never get hired to do, leadership roles we are not allowed to take in more than tokenistic numbers — that kind of female thing. But progress is being made, just as progress against racism and other kinds of bigotry are being made.
One day I hope the words “a woman’s work is never done” will be hooey — or that women will be fairly paid for all the labor we do taking care of everyone else’s needs. I hope that every woman (and every other person) will enjoy the privileges of safety, of respect, of credibility, of free choice and of freedom to be herself — whoever and wherever she is, doing whatever she loves to do, without having to fight for it. That would make this lesbian really gay!
*From “The New Colossus;” note that the word “tost” is verbatim from that poem.
Trina Porte has been reading her poetry, writing, and exhibiting her artwork for more than thirty years. A few favorite venues include Cornelia Street Café, Bluestocking Books, and Brecht Forum in New York, Patrick’s Cabaret in Minneapolis, Bet Gavriel Arts Center in Israel, and many public libraries. She lives in the woods with her wife and makes a fine génoise.
The weekly EDGE WISE column is curated by Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D., associate professor of comparative literature, gender studies and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the Founding Director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Women writers interested in publishing in EDGE WISE can find writers’ guidelines on the Festival website, or may submit queries or columns to Jennifer@berkshirewomenwriters.org.