DOMA and My Childhood

Gay marriageI was just a sophomore in high school when the  Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law, and there are few pieces of legislation as personally significant to me. Politically, DOMA single-handedly fomented my lifelong devotion to marriage equality; psychologically, it did a lot more than that.

My mom had come out three years earlier, when I was twelve. It was a cloudless spring morning in Spokane, and I was preparing for school. Sun streamed in through our beveled-glass window, casting rainbow prisms all over the dining room. I was looking at one of these rainbows when I noticed it lay on a book entitled something like: “How To Tell Your Angsty Preteen Daughter You’re Gay.”

Mom was standing in the kitchen with her back to me, cleaning up after breakfast. “Mom?” I said. “Are you . . . a lesbian?” 

She looked at me, eyes wide. A long pause. I felt my ears getting hot. I couldn’t swallow, like when you accidentally say something terrible and there’s no way to take it back. Mom and I just stared at each other like that for a long time, neither of us knowing what to say, or how to react. Finally I said something like “Well thanks a lot for telling me!” (angsty pre-teen, remember?) and ran to my room.

I don’t begrudge her a thing, of course, but the timing was terrible. It wasn’t that I had anything against homosexuality — I’d grown up in loving liberal enclaves all my life — but I did not know what to do with this revelation. Of course my most pressing concern was: Is it genetic? I was just coming into my own sexuality; I’d had crushes on boys since I was 3, but I was also a tomboy. I liked bikes and climbing trees and playing in the dirt; would I grow to like girls, too?

These were questions I didn’t dare then to ask aloud, of course. Those were different times. 

Back then, the culture-wide depictions of homosexuality were shallow cartoon stereotypes. We didn’t have a Barney Frank, or an Anderson Cooper, or a Rachel Maddow, or an Ellen DeGeneres. This was before Will & Grace, before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, before Glee. 

Gays made cameo appearances as quirky characters in prime-time sitcoms and late-night sketch comedy shows. They were limp-wristed caricatures who opened the door and said “Well isn’t this just thhhhhhuper!”  “Gay” was big-haired drag queens with tiny little dogs. “Gay” was Liberace. “Gay” was excess. Flamboyance. Narcissism.

Lesbians didn’t even exist.

The word “gay” had echoed through my school hallways for years: “Dude, you’re so gay.” And everything I did was gay. Drinking chocolate milk with a straw was gay. Liking Chinese checkers was gay. Watching “The Cutting Edge” on a date (WITH A BOY!) was gay.

And the problem wasn’t just that “gay” was being used as a pejorative; it was that I used the word that way, too. Gay was, to me, just a synonym for “stupid.” I knew it was wrong, but I internalized it: “Gay” meant “less than” or “inferior.”

And my parents were gay. 

So I didn’t talk about my gay moms. 

Every teenager feels a little embarrassed about their parents; my embarrassment just happened to be seated in a bed of deep, toxic, cultural shame.

Then: DOMA.

Fast forward to my junior year in high school, just one year after my own government preemptively denied my parents the right to marry. I’d spent the previous three years taking German, and I was eager to participate in my high school’s biennial German exchange program.

But I didn’t participate. School District 81 denied my application, citing “hosting difficulties.” (Which meant “gay parents.”)

Let me be clear: I’m a well-adjusted, straight, middle-class, college-educated, able-bodied, white American woman. I am not screaming “Oppression!” because this was as bad as it ever got. I grew up and got over it a long time ago.

But God, do I remember that feeling: that burning hurt, tunnel-vision, lump-in-your-throat moment when you realize you’re different, and that’s bad, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

The Defense of Marriage Act meant that the government viewed us — me, my brother, my mom and her partner — as something less than a loving, supportive, committed family. 

And so did everyone else. 

And so did I.

And today, just less than two decades later, government buildings are awash in rainbows. I’m elated, relieved, reassured … beyond words, really.

The repeal of this atrocious piece of legislation marks the beginning of the next way of thinking. My daughter will never know a world where her Gramma Moo and Gramma Boots are culturally inferior to her Gramma June and Grampa Walt. She’ll never live through awkward silences about her grandmothers’ sexuality. She will never know the discrimination that DOMA so shamefully codified. Her childhood will not be marred the way mine was.

But I can’t promise I won’t embarrass the hell out of her, though. Some things really are genetic.

Izarra Varela is an editor, English teacher and financial planner. She lives in Hong Kong with her husband, Kevin, and daughter, Sulidae. Read more at
  • Tina

    This is a great article, Izarra, and thanks so much for letting us see how this affected your childhood. No child should ever feel their parents are less than simply for existing.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    While I sympathize with the feelings of the writer I must say that in 5000 years of recorded history of many different cultures, there has never been “marriage equality”. Surely we must look ahead to the cultural ramifications of expanding marriage to mean something totally different than has ever been done. At its core, marriage is about creating and nurturing children. While it is not possible for every married couple to actually create children because of medical issues, the fact remains that, biologically they are capable of procreation. Once we alter the time-honored legal designation of marriage, at what point do we draw the line? Already, there are people demanding that polygamy, polyamory, underage marriage partners (man/boy, woman/girl) be allowed. I invite you to review the results of many studies that have been done in Holland, where same-sex marriage has been lawful for many years. The biggest problem is that marriage, either same-sex or man/woman, has declined precipitously, leaving children with little long-term stability in the home. This has more detrimental effects on them than feeling uncomfortable about unmarried same-sex parents. I will stop here as I am becoming too wordy but I see dangerous results from expanding marriage to be something that was never intended.

    • Hi Beverly, I am the author and I’d like to respond. Let me start by distilling your points:

      (1) There is no such thing as “marriage equality”.

      (2) Laws that alter the status quo are potentially a trojan horse for future laws that would allow poly marriages, statutory rape, etc.

      (3) the intent of marriage is to solidify a filial commitment ostensibly for the sake of children. Marriage rates are slipping, and that’s bad for kids.

      My responses, in short:

      (1) You put “marriage equality” in quotes, as though the movement to end marriage discrimination is somehow vague in its intent. I’d say it’s pretty straightforward: marriage between same-sex couples should be honored through federal law. That’s pretty much it. And there are plenty of examples, all over the world, where this has been the norm for a long time.

      (2) This is true. This is exactly what they were saying about interracial marriage in the 1960s, and women’s suffrage at the turn of the century. Who can say where these crazy new laws will lead?! Pretty soon DOGS will get to vote!

      “Slippery slope” arguments are easy to make, about any form of public policy. And in most cases they’re just a convenient way to do nothing. In this case, one would seek to deny my family the same rights as yours (ostensibly), because maybe, some day, in a bleak dystopian future, marriage equality for my two moms will allow some guy to marry his cat. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

      (3) This was the point that my essay addressed most directly, so I invite you to read it again. I am a strong proponent not just for marriage equality, but for marriage as an institution. I’m afraid I don’t see how allowing loving couples to commit to each other would have any effect, positive or negative on anyone’s relationship. My family grew closer after my parents were allowed to marry; the stigma of gay relationships was what made family relationships difficult, not the composition of the family itself.

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