Saturday, March 26, 2005

We are not married

Republishing an old journal entry about gay marriage made me want to talk a bit about how the "dyke life" issue of queer love interacts with living on the "wrong side of the tenure tracks." As the countdown begins to the end of what is probably my last semester as an English Professor, I experience sensations of terror on a daily, hourly basis. Mostly this is not about the end of teaching. I look sadly at my perfected course materials for Queer Theory, Modern British Literature, and my great course on Thatcherism and Contemporary Brit Culture. I have stacks of file folders from graduate school, from my dissertation, from my book research, from courses in Women's Studies and Critical Theory, all to go in the trash as I make way for a new life. But this does not fill me with terror. I cruise the job listings, wait for news from law schools, and find, to my delight, that there are actually jobs on the internet for people with writing and teaching skills like mine. It strikes me that maybe I won't have to clerk at Whole Foods after all.

No, the terror comes from lack of support. Not money, but support. For example, domestic partner benefits. My relationship is not recognized by the federal government, my state government, or my domestic partner's employer. When my health insurance runs out in two months, the university she works for will not cover me, nor can I retrain at her school for reduced tuition. We cannot have a child unless she bears it, because only then will there be access to prenatal care, childbirth coverage, and health care for the baby.

Then there are less tangible issues of social support. We are not married. I live with my partner at her pleasure, and she at mine. A mere lease is our only officially shared financial responsibility. If my situation becomes too much for either of us to bear, one of us can simply leave, or kick the other out. Together almost two years, we are seen by our families as girlfriends, not spouses, or affianced, or potentially affianced. Our families are kind; they recognize that we love each other. But we are not married. If we split up, we will not have been divorced.

When I was in graduate school, it took years for my then-girlfriend and I to be recognized as a couple. At least five, I would say. Even so, nobody in either of our families blinked, or expressed worry, or offered support when we were forced to take our first jobs hundreds of miles away from each other. Initially my new department in Florida promised my partner, a director in the writing program at Grad School, a job directing composition studies. My partner quit her job, but then, just before summer, my new department rescinded its promise to her. Word was that some members of the department thought it wasn't fair to treat my girlfriend more preferentially than other faculty wives with Yale PhD's, wives who wouldn't be considered for spousal hires. And yes, it was mostly wives. Even worse, my new school had no domestic partner benefits. Unlike the "wives," she couldn't have babies or go to law school as part of my job perks. When my new department hired someone else to direct composition, my domestic partner of eight years took a one-year job a thousand miles away, and we divided up our stuff in August. I remember watching Princess Diana's funeral while sitting on a beach chair in my empty, roach-besieged apartment in Florida, waiting for the movers to arrive with my half of our things.

That was the beginning of the end of our relationship. I took a job in Big Midwestern City the next year and we moved back in together, but she left academia and eventually moved to Boston to pursue a publishing career. My new university didn't have domestic partner benefits either. We never were a couple in the eyes of my job; if you're gay, it's every man for himself.

These are the kind of things that fill me with terror. My girlfriend took me to Paris last week--a present from her to help me get through the months of uncertainty this spring. Paris was warm, full of history and culture, and unbearably straight. Boys and girls, men and women kissed each other on bridges, in church gardens, in restaurants, in the middle of the street. Sometimes they kissed each other for hours, standing or sitting in the same place. No one cared. My girlfriend and I walked through Paris, afraid even to hold hands, and were still stared at, whispered about, looked at oddly by teenagers, tourists, fellow diners. Once I heard a women say the word "lesbians" to her boyfriend, pointing us out, though more out of curiosity than anything more menacing. We were oddities. Sometimes we were "madamoiselles," though she is thirty-five and I am forty-two years old. While I liked the implication of youth, I sensed more the lack of status in the address to us as unmarried women in a sea of heterosexual couples, all trudging, as Virginia Woolf characterizes them in Orlando, side by side, bound inexorably together.

In the airport a man interrogated us sharply at the ticket counter when we went up together to get our bording passes. "Are you related?" he asked pointedly, in a voice that implied he knew the answer. "No." As if to say, I thought not.

I think maybe we are pilgrims. Like the voyagers in Watteau's "Embarcation to Cythera," we set sail as often as we can to that sunny island where a statue of Aphrodite, garlanded in flowers, presides over all the couples in the grass who have made the effort to come and see her. All of them look happy. They seem reluctant to leave. One suspects, looking at their enchanted smiles and the tender way they touch each other as they prepare to leave their paradise, that none of them are married.

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