I 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.
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.