It is so much better to live as a lesbian now, in 2016, than it was in 1952.
That’s what I’ve been thinking ever since I immersed myself in the beautiful new lesbian film Carol last month. Carol (2015), that gorgeous film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, portrays the blossoming love between two women in 1952. To live honestly as a woman who loves women, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) must risk the custody of her beloved little daughter and the status of her moral reputation in society. When Carol and Thereze Belivet (Rooney Mara) walk in public or sit at a restaurant, they cannot touch or gaze at each other too long. They can only express their love in the stolen privacy of rented motel rooms.
As I watched Carol, I felt an immense gratitude that I live and love in this time, in this region of this country. I sat in a Denver movie theater with my fiancee Meredith’s fingers securely intertwined with mine, and all around us sat other lesbian couples openly expressing affection. Because we live in Colorado, a state with a workplace nondiscrimination law that covers sexual orientation, both Meredith and I are confidently out as lesbians in our jobs. Because the culture of Denver is generally supportive of same-sex families, we are also out at our daughter’s school, where the third graders chanted, “Hello, Mitike’s moms!” when we walked into the room to help celebrate Mitike’s birthday in January. We feel safe here. In our neighborhood, we sit on the front step of our house on summer evenings with our arms intimately around each other’s waists, watching our daughter jump rope on the driveway.
In 1952, in Carol’s time, we couldn’t have hoped to live so openly or to marry each other legally, or to adopt a child together legally. We couldn’t have dreamed it.
And yet. In 2016, now, I watch the high school students in my classroom. They live post-DOMA, in a state that supported gay marriage before the Supreme Court did, in a nation with high-profile gay celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper. And yet. Their classmates use “That’s so gay!” as an insult; the media shows them primarily heterosexual love; their parents (and in many cases, their religions and their cultures) expect them to enter traditional marriages.
It’s only a little better than it was in 1952.
It’s true that I can hold Meredith’s hand in a movie theater and tell our daughter’s teacher that Mitike has two moms, and it’s true that I can brave being out at the high school where I teach. It’s true that the Supreme Court supports our right to marry each other legally. But it’s still not easy to be out, and often, it’s not even safe. According to the ACLU, only twenty-two states protect GLBTQ+ people from discrimination in the workplace. Almost half of U.S. states fail to include gender and sexual orientation in their hate crime statutes. In Mississippi, gay and lesbian couples are still barred from adopting children. Conservative politicians like Republican candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) still speak about us as if we are diseased or criminal, against God and morality; in August, Cruz called the fight for gay rights a “jihad” that GLBT people are waging against Christians. Another Republican candidate, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), said at the beginning of January, “I do not believe there is a U.S. Constitutional right to same-sex marriage,” and added that he believes children should only be raised by heterosexual parents: a father and a mother. Politics aside, many families still refuse to demonstrate acceptance. On America’s streets, over 40 percent of homeless youth identify as GLBTQ+.
Outside the United States, the situation for us is often literally dangerous. Over seventy-five countries in the world still criminalize homosexuality, and in many of them the punishment is death. That means that lesbian Americans like us have to carefully vet where we travel. Lesbians who live in those countries have to either hide who they are or risk death. Both options are unconscionable.
On this Valentine’s Day in 2016, Meredith and I will go out for a date at a restaurant in Denver, as thousands of other couples in the city will do. But unlike what Senator Cruz terms “traditional couples,” we will have to be cautious about when and how we show each other affection. We might kiss across the table, but only quickly, painfully aware that someone could yell an ugly epithet at us, or threaten worse. We will hold hands, our matching silver engagement rings glimmering in the candlelight, but, unlike those “traditional couples,” we will have to contemplate, alongside our love, the fragility of last June’s Supreme Court decision when candidates like Cruz or Rubio move nearer the White House. We will discuss our lovely daughter, but in the shadows, we will shudder to remember that some would tell us we hurt our daughter by giving her two mothers. And we will talk about our planned honeymoon to Costa Rica, which we have chosen because it’s beautiful and warm, but primarily because it’s known to be one of the safest and most open countries for gay and lesbian couples to visit. They’ll accept us there.
It is better for us today than it was for lesbians in 1952. And so on this Valentine’s Day in 2016, I will step outside that restaurant with Meredith, my legal fiancee, and I will kiss her full on the lips. And maybe someone who sees that kiss will change his mind about gay rights, or maybe someone will realize her God is love, and love is what she sees between us. Or maybe, horribly, some bigoted person will yell across the street that we are sick, wrong, against God, that we are the problem with America. But I will kiss Meredith anyway. And then we’ll drive home to our cozy little house, pay the babysitter, kiss our sleeping daughter, and crawl into our bed. Our bed. We may not yet live in a completely safe and accepting world, but right here, in each other’s arms, our fears fall away.
Right here, we just love each other. And that is exactly right.