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“Whatever Happens, This Is”: Lesbians Engaging Marriage
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In February 2004, when Mayor Gavin Newsom married lesbian and gay couples in San Francisco, I was swept up in the excitement. I told my beloved, “Let’ s cash in our miles, fly to San Francisco for the weekend, and get married.” She looked at me and said, “Are you crazy? This is a legal quagmire. I’m not getting gay married until we can be gay divorced.” Her dispassionate, legalistic opinion devastated me. In retrospect, I was overwhelmed by the public emotion of Newsom’s stand. I have maintained since fourteen that I am not “the marrying kind;” although, for many years, I described my beloved as my wife. At one time, when one woman describes another as her wife, it was disarming. Until 2000, everyone knew two women couldn’t marry. Declaring another woman my wife was transgressive. In the past decade, however, our world and our language changed (Sarasohn 2009). These declarations are no longer subversive; they are perfectly ordinary, as more and more states surrender heterosexual notions of marriage to gender neutrality. What has become transgressive are my own tangled feelings about marriage, which range from sappy desires for marital bliss to intellectual derision for the institution; I reside restively in the realm of ambivalence. As much as I want to marry, I do not want to have to organize my sexual, social, emotional, economic, and spiritual life in the structures of a monogamous dyad—and I do not want to live in a society where marriage is the norm to which all are compelled to conform.

Examining an archive of activist lesbians reveals that my feelings about marriage are historically iterative. Marriage did not emerge as an issue in the new millennium; lesbians—and gay men—engage the idea of marriage periodically and repetitively, but queer engagements with marriage do not necessarily invoke marriage as homonormative, “as a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions” (Duggan 2003, 50). A deeper examination of lesbians’ engagements with marriage demonstrates marriage as complex and nuanced, resisting reductive frameworks.

Three disparate archives demonstrate marriage as a vibrant site of political and social contestation: the Ladder, the queer story of Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski, and my experiences at the gay and lesbian community center in southeastern Michigan during the 1990s. Reading the Ladder, I examine how lesbians used marriage to understand their relationships between 1957 and 1968. The Kowalski-Thompson story, generally recounted as a homonormative object lesson, is actually a queer narrative that challenges dyadic hegemony in marriage narratives. My own story demonstrates personal and political ambivalences about marriage during the 1990s, ambivalences that continue today. By putting these different archives in dialogue, I animate history to think critically about a present, seemingly dominated by marriage equality, and strategically about a future, beyond marriage equality. These stories demonstrate that lesbian lives, lesbian relationships, and lesbians’ representations are contested sites. Our lives, our stories, and our relationships change; most important, representations of them depend on our voices and our public engagement.

Reading About Marriage in the Ladder

The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) published the Ladder from October 1956 until 1972. Within the DOB, the Ladder served a variety of functions, among them being an organizational newsletter and a forum for members. Scholars interested in the lives of midcentury lesbians, across a range of disciplines, like Cutler (2003), Gallo (2006), Esterberg (1994), Soares (1998), and Whitt (2001), use the Ladder as a crucial primary source. The Ladder reveals how lesbians who belonged to the DOB thought about marriage and their own relationships. Six articles referencing marriage appeared in the Ladder between July 1957 and November 1968. Discussions of marriage in these articles demonstrate that marriage was an important part of lesbian imagination. Revisiting these discussions illuminates marriage as an ongoing site of lesbian engagement.

In June 1957, the DOB held a meeting in San Francisco featuring psychotherapist Dr. Basil Vaerlen; the Ladder printed a report. Dr. Vaerlen addressed whether or not two women are able to have, from a psychological perspective, a marriage. The valence of the question is not about legal access or societal recognition for lesbian couples but about whether two women can make a...

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