Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer

Are Our Politics Born of Immutable Principles?

Filed By Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer | March 02, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: domestic partnership, LGBT families, love, marriage, monogamy, relationships

Since we plan to move in together, C, being more traditional than I am about these things, yellow-tulips-1.jpgtook me home to meet his family. Besides his mom and dad, his brother, his sister and her husband and baby were there. And his great aunt and her two adult children with their spouses and, between them, four teenagers. For a Super Bowl party. C's father is a retired Air Force pilot, taciturn but obviously thrilled that his whole family had come to watch his beloved Green Bay Packers win.

To recap, I went to North Carolina for the weekend for a Super Bowl party with a military family who are for all practical purposes now my in-laws. Can we count the words in that last sentence that blow my mind?

I don't know how it came up, but Saturday night someone mentioned C's dad's "Kringle," a pastry he's famous for, made, I believe, from his mother's recipe. I took an interest, so he decided to make it for Sunday breakfast. It's basically a rustic tart filled with canned pie filling. That night, he mixed up dough for two crusts and put it in the fridge to rest overnight. When I got up the next morning, he had rolled out one crust but was waiting for me to get out of bed so he could roll out the second one and fill them while I watched. He reminded me of my own father, the way he warms up when he has something to show you.

(He sent us home with four quarts of home-canned tomatoes from his back yard garden. Today, the apartment smells like fennel and sweet tomatoes. I have a cold so I stayed home from work, but I walked down to the Italian butcher, bought sausage, came home, and made a big pot of tomato sauce. Feed a cold.)

The week before our trip, C texted me at work to say that the trip was off, he'd just had a fight with his mom over sleeping arrangements. The married siblings and cousins would be sharing beds in various rooms, but C and I, along with C's single brother, would be sleeping on air mattresses on the basement floor.

He asked his mom why his sister and her husband would be sharing a bed and not us. She said, "They're married." Yes, she understood that her argument was weak because we don't have the option of being married, but "You've only known each other for two months. You're just dating." "So when can we share a bed?" "A year?"

I told C I didn't think we should make a big deal of it. I didn't want my first encounter with his family to be a showdown. (And C had taken one of my CDs with him for a Christmas visit and his mom told him that I sounded like James Taylor "but better," so I was inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.) Maybe this was not homophobia. It looked to me more like the old "not under my roof" argument that must have appeared at least once a month in Dear Abby in the late sixties/early seventies when "shacking up" was the frontline of the culture war.

The weekend was chaotic, wonderful, exhausting. I think I made a good impression. I think they trust me with C's heart. I hope they believe that I will try my best to make him happy. We arrived at 3 a.m. on Friday, got to sleep at 4:30 and were awoken at 9 when the second batch of cousins arrived. I am not a morning person. Meeting new people, any new people, is for me stressful and draining, but all those parents and siblings and cousins and kids and everyone sizing me up because they adore C and he's never brought anyone home before, at times it felt like an initiation ordeal, a rite of passage.

Shortly before the game started, a friend of C's mother arrived with her husband and C's mother was introducing her to the crowd packed into the basement den (where C's brother had hooked up two very big TVs over a table crowded with snacks and a big pot of chili): "...and you remember C, and this is his boyfriend Steven." "So nice to meet you, Steven...."

At that moment, I suddenly realized how unequipped I was to understand this world. Like most military families, C's parents are Republicans. "This is C's boyfriend, Steven." No special emphasis, no slight lowering of volume like when my grandmother used to say "colored." Just boyfriend, like it's just what you'd expect. Whereas I practically choked. I must carry such a deep, rarely-conscious shame about my sexuality, such a wincing fear that a world where C and I would be folded naturally into this family doesn't compute.

I have railed here and elsewhere about the danger of assimilation. And, yes, I believe that saying "we are all the same, we are only asking to be treated equally" ignores, thwarts, distorts what is essentially different about our queer lives and creates just another kind of closet, with all the pain and danger of the old closet. Yet, there I was watching the Super Bowl in North Carolina with Republicans and on the verge of tears just to be welcome.

I am proudly and adamantly queer, radical, and, most importantly, critical of a status quo that creates so much unfairness and injustice, a status quo that privileges certain people and leaves certain people out. And my unwillingness to conform, to compromise, is based on core principles. Like freedom (no one should have the right or the power to dictate how I express my sexuality) and fairness (access to housing and employment and health care should not depend on one's wealth, class, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity), etc.

But can we acknowledge that, to some extent, the passion with which we fight assimilation is also about our own pain? That we are wounded creatures lashing out? That we want no part of the status quo because it has abused and rejected us? And, knowing that, knowing that not just our emotional lives but our political convictions have been shaped in response to that abuse and rejection, what do we do now, when the world that has hurt us begins slowly, fitfully, to extend a remorseful hand?

I wonder if we, as a community, are capable of such profound forgiveness. I wonder if I'm capable of it myself, personally.

C and I this morning took the A train down to City Hall and registered our domestic partnership. This status will give us access to a few benefits from New York City as well as some benefits offered by the firm he works for. After we had shown our IDs to the guard and been given a number, we walked by a newsstand on the way to the clerk's window and C bought me a bouquet of six yellow roses.

You think you know for certain what you believe. And then life happens.

Almost every time I criticize the gay marriage campaign, someone responds with, "If you don't want to get married, don't get married, but some of us want to, so leave us alone." The most frustrating thing, the saddest thing, about that response is that it sets me up as someone who is against love, against the possibility of a deep, permanent commitment based on love.

I have had deep, lasting relationships with men as lovers, partners, friends. Two, in particular, lasted several years each - both were men I thought I'd grow old with - but eventually ended when, in different ways and for different reasons, the partnership was no longer fulfilling. Neither relationship carried a promise of sexual exclusivity.

I wonder if all the qualifying language - "we're emotionally monogamous, but not sexually monogamous," etc. - is just an attempt to preclude disappointment. If fidelity is not what he promised, then maybe I won't be devastated when he's unfaithful. But is it the looseness of the commitment which lets it unravel?

Until this relationship, I did not think that self-actualization could be possible in a monogamous relationship. Monogamy was all about limitations, about narrowing possibilities, about shutting down desire. But now I see that not only is it possible but that an exclusive relationship might even be the cause of becoming my best, fullest self. Rather than expressing over and over with many men a tiny part, a small aspect, a glimpse of who I am, I feel myself unfolding with this man. Letting him completely in. Letting him see more and more of me every day and, in so doing, discovering those aspects of myself.

C and I have talked about marriage. He appreciates my oppositional view, but he's more conservative than I am. He supports the campaign for same-sex marriage, seeing it as a crucial move toward the legitimizing of same-sex relationships and the equality of gay people. But he's not sure he wants to get married until, and unless, same-sex marriage is widely accepted and equal to opposite-sex marriage. He doesn't want his wedding to be a political performance.

I've always had a distaste for weddings which now I'm compelled to try to make sense of. As a feminist, I'm suspicious of marriage because it has, historically, not been great for women. But that objection doesn't hold up to the many ways in which marriage has been reformed in the last 40 years to make it more equitable. As an environmentalist, I'm put off by the extravagance of weddings, the orgy of consumption, the money spent on clothes and jewelry and flowers, but certainly one doesn't have to have that kind of wedding, any more than one has to have a certain kind of house or car. And the cynic in me distrusts the whole naive fairy tale which, let's face it, usually ends badly.

So. Maybe I'll get married. Maybe I won't. I know if I do I'll take some flack for it - "Yeah, you're all counter-culture anti-marriage until you fall in love, then everything changes..." - but my own marital status will have no effect on my criticism of the role of marriage in our society and the priority of the marriage campaign in the gay rights movement, except possibly to strengthen my critique.

Eight months ago, I was living in Austin, Texas. I had been looking for work for months but couldn't find a job. A brief, intense relationship had ended and I was heartbroken. An old friend invited me to come back to New York and stay with him until I got on my feet.

Two months later, I met a man in the neighborhood who happened to need a roommate. A week after I moved in, I placed an ad for sex on Craigslist, something I've only done maybe five or six times. My roommate's friend who lives in the same building happened to answer the ad. I was hesitant, not wanting to create drama in my new home, but horniness prevailed and I went across the hall to meet C. We immediately found a sexual compatibility, then a musical affinity, and a similar sense of humor.

As we've gotten to know each other over the last three months, we've discovered similarities in our ethics, our taste, and our attitude toward life and friends and family. He lets me cry about silly things and then reassures but does not coddle me. He laughs at my neuroses in a way that doesn't hurt but lets me laugh about them too. He loves my cooking. He is unwaveringly considerate, direct, honest, clear. He perfects me. I have not had a moment of uncertainty of him.

The breathtaking unlikeliness of this ever having happened renews my conviction that essential benefits like access to affordable health care should not be dependent on something as miraculous and rare as finding someone you want to, and are able to, spend the rest of your life with in an intimate and domestic relationship and that, because it is something available to such a small percentage of us, we should put our energy and money into reforms that affect more of the community, like fact-based sex education and ending employment and housing discrimination.


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Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | March 2, 2011 4:14 PM

"As we've gotten to know each other over the last three months, we've discovered similarities in our ethics, our taste, and our attitude toward life and friends and family. He lets me cry about silly things and then reassures but does not coddle me. He laughs at my neuroses in a way that doesn't hurt but lets me laugh about them too. He loves my cooking. He is unwaveringly considerate, direct, honest, clear. He perfects me. I have not had a moment of uncertainty of him."

Not that you won't perhaps, even if you remain together for many, many times the last three months. You've captured the essence of what those of us who think there's value in having a "significant other", "soul mate", "partner", "spouse", or whatever. May you experience nothing but the best in this regard.

"Almost every time I criticize the gay marriage campaign, someone responds with, "If you don't want to get married, don't get married, but some of us want to, so leave us alone." The most frustrating thing, the saddest thing, about that response is that it sets me up as someone who is against love, against the possibility of a deep, permanent commitment based on love."

But I don't think that's what they're saying. It sounds more like, "you celebrate/express your love how you want to and we'll do it the way we want to. We want options. (and I say that as someone who has often said Marriage Equality has no business being the front of the line when it comes to queer/trans issues).

I'm happy for you that you've found someone wonderful. Sounds like you made a very positive impact on his family and maybe mom will bend the 'one-year' rule. ;)

Brad Bailey | March 2, 2011 6:18 PM

What a wonderful article. Honest, well-written and from the heart. Thank you!

Steve,

I'm happy if you're happy. And I'm glad to hear that your radical critiques will not end (and did not doubt it), and especially appreciate the final paragraph (which many will doubtless ignore in their haste to read this as an unvarnished paean to gay marriage or monogamy).

But as to this:
"But can we acknowledge that, to some extent, the passion with which we fight assimilation is also about our own pain? That we are wounded creatures lashing out?"

Well, yes, often, but is that irreconcilable with an awareness of how that assimilation works in a *systemic* fashion to brutalise and snuff out lives that will not conform? Or the awareness that assimilation is not simply about conformity but about an economic system - let's call it, oh, capitalism - that seeks to make us forget our exploitation precisely by persuading us that our our only problem with assimilation is about personal lifestyles?

In my critiques of gay marriage, I've consistently emphasised that my and Against Equality's critiques are less about the terror of assimilation and more about how gay marriage persuades us that it's okay to let the family/coupledom take the burden of basic benefits like health care. Which is to say, yes, we express our pain at what assimilation has wrought, but my concern is that your bit here overly personalises the issues. I realise you're actually writing about a personal moment and I see your qualifier, but I do want to pop up and say it's not all personal for many of us and it's not all about assimilation.

I blame queer theory for the over-emphasis on assimilation, but that's another story...

Yes, I totally agree! Thanks for the perspective. The last couple months have been a time of intense and deep thinking about my politics in light of this new relationship. It took me weeks to finish this blog post because I had a hard time really nailing down my thoughts. Never before have these issues been so muddy yet so salient in my life and mind. Talk about the personal being political!

I cross-posted this on my personal blog and a good friend (and committed lefty) commented:

"for a while I've felt that monogamy has been trapped in a reactionary place by progressives--not unlike your description of marriage now and marriage then. That monogamy has been so discredited that it somehow falls off the right side of the "continuum of possible healthy relationships" instead of being just one more option that can succeeds or fail statistically as often as all the others. And that possibly to a much larger degree, the success or failure of any type of intimacy is determined more by what the people involved think is the best or right-most choice for them at the time they make it, and by how much they're willing to participate together in maintaining it (along with change and luck and time, etc. of course).

What's always fantastic, and what feminism, queer theory and anti-racism have done so well, is to expand our options. It's amazing how frequently, once expanded, we can manage to re-narrow those definitions in often reactionary terms.

So totally happy for you."

That's an interesting comment from your friend, though I'd still caution about not forgetting that monomgamy, while it's also often just the way some people function, is also the best way to channel capitalism, which is why the state and Obama love it so much. But I also see his point.

We do tend to forget that there are specific institutional reasons why some types of relationships become more prevalent than others. Non-monogamy and single/poly parenthood, for instance, can be hard to sustain when the state will not recognise you as worthy of health care or support in the form of day care etc. or when the state steps in to enforce marital counselling on poor, single mothers (I believe that is now quietly ending, but I'm not absolutely sure). Our options are being expanded, but not always supported.

And kudos to you for being so committed to being so thoughtful and sharp in the midst of your happiness - proof that you don't have to give up your brains for any kind of relationships, even the most intense kind ;-)

Chitown Kev | March 3, 2011 10:05 AM

Very very thoughtful essay and comments.