Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Personal Side of the Gay Marriage Debate

Her name was Sandy and every time I think of her, I feel heartbroken.

Sandy was a patient of mine more than a decade ago and I was fascinated the moment I met her. She was Native American and worked for the telephone company, climbing telephone poles, repairing lines. She had worked for the company for more than 30 years.

And she had been with her partner Corine for 22 years. She dreamed of marrying the woman she had loved so long and yearned for the time when gay marriage would be legal. Sandy and Corine had been through so much together: with Corine's growing disability from MS and the challenges of being a family in a world that largely considered them aberrant. But they were a loving family. Together, they had raised a daughter -- from Corine's brief marriage -- who grew up to be a successful businesswoman and a traditional suburban wife and mother of three young children.

Life was good until management changed and Sandy's new boss arrived. He was a righteous man who called himself a Christian. But he tormented Sandy about her masculine appearance, about being gay, and about being Native American. Nearing retirement, Sandy was reluctant to challenge her boss and kept her pain private. She began to suffer from stress and developed a rare stress-linked autoimmune disease that caused her body's mucous membranes to swell and blister. She was often in agony and put in her application to retire. After some opposition from management, her retirement was approved and the agreed upon date was set.

The last time I saw her, Sandy was ebullient. She talked of plans to move with Corine back to their native Arizona, to live on the reservation, close to the land, and in their Native American culture, in a close-knit community that welcomed them with love and with joy. She dreamed that someday she would be able to marry Corine legally and "we will throw a big party with friends and music and we will dance together at last as married partners!"

Sandy loved to dance -- expressing joy with a graceful little waltz across the floor of the therapy room. And, even as she danced her joy that day, she told me of her serious plans. She was going to take her retirement pension as a lump sum and transfer it to an IRA at her bank, making Corine the beneficiary. A look of pain crossed her face and she stopped dancing. "Would you believe the company won't recognize my partner of 22 years as a beneficiary if I leave it for them to administer?" she asked. "If anything were to happen to me, Corine couldn't get my pension -- like married heterosexuals can. That's why I'm taking a lump sum. So she'll be taken care of if the worst happens."

But the worst case scenario was quickly forgotten in the joy of the moment. In four days, Sandy would be officially retired. She danced out of the office and through the waiting room, greeting my next patient -- a sweet young preschool teacher and mother of two -- with excitement. "Michelle! It's happening! I'm going to retire next week!" Beaming, Michelle jumped up to give her a congratulatory hug and Sandy swept her into a graceful waltz around the waiting room.

It was the last time I saw her alive. Two days later, Sandy woke up choking, the mucous membranes in her throat swelling. She dashed to use the bathroom and dress quickly for a trip to the emergency room. Then Corine heard a crash. She found Sandy on the bathroom floor, struggling to breathe. She called 911 but the paramedics could do little. Sandy was dead on arrival at the hospital.

And Corine, as well as being devastated at the loss of her partner, never saw a dime of her pension or Social Security -- because she was not, after all, Sandy's legal spouse.

And Sandy and Corine's story is made more heartbreaking by the fact that there are so many similar stories. One of the gay people bringing a case now before the Supreme Court had lost her spouse of many years -- whom she had legally married in Canada -- and because the federal government and the IRS did not recognize gay marriage as legal, she was socked with a six-figure tax bill on her partner's estate. If she had been the wife of a man with similar assets, she would never have paid a dime.

As debate and controversy swirls around the pros and cons of gay marriage, I'm puzzled by the opposition to it. Yes, I know that many deeply religious people feel that homosexuality is a an aberrant choice, an abomination. And I respect their right to feel that way. But should it mean that a significant segment of the population should be denied equal rights?

It isn't that most of these people choose to be gay. They simply are gay. Some studies in genetics and neurology indicate that homosexual men and women may have subtle physiological differences linked to their sexual orientation. Should they be penalized for an inborn trait?

My husband suffers from epilepsy -- and there was a time when our marriage would have been impossible because epileptics were barred from marriage. We were lucky geographically when we married in 1977. As late as 1980, some states in the U.S. forbade epileptics to marry.

And there was a time  -- also not that long ago -- when interracial marriage was viewed with equal horror and far too many loving, committed couples were condemned to live in the shadows or, because of societal scorn or family pressures, to walk away from a treasured loved one. It wasn't until 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in this country.

And, in the meantime, it has been perfectly legal for serial killers like Ted Bundy to marry and even father children while on Death Row.

It has been suggested that the dramatically changing public opinion on gay marriage -- with some 60% of Americans favoring equal marriage rights -- may be due to more gay men and lesbians coming out of the closet and more of us realizing that they are our friends and neighbors and family members. It's harder to stereotype and marginalize people we know and love.

It was a revelation, many years ago, when I held a man I loved and we both wept because we knew that being gay was not a choice for him. He was deeply religious and had wanted to marry and have a family, but was coming to the painful realization that his future would be quite different. And long before he celebrated who he was, he wept for the person he could never be.

It was a revelation, sometime later, as I got to know more and more gay and lesbian couples at work, in my suburban community and among circles of treasured friends and realized that their lives, their strengths and challenges as couples were not so different from our own.

It was a revelation when a former neighbor and dear friend who is gay and in a relationship spanning nearly 50 years called me to report that he had been besieged by a distant relative -- one of his few blood relatives still alive -- with whom he has never been close. She demanded that she be put on the title of his house and told him this made sense because "I'm your closest relative and your primary heir." She dismissed his partner of five decades as "your silly boyfriend." And he told me he was filled with hurt and anger and fear that this relative might compound the grief of his loss for the man he loved with outrageous claims on their shared fortune.

It was a revelation when my dear friend Tim greeted the news of his own son Stephen's coming out as gay with "I just hope he finds someone wonderful to love." And when Stephen and Devin, his partner of some years, married last year in New York, Tim was there to toast them. The picture of his tearful and loving tribute to his son and son-in-law, whom he calls simply "my son", is one of my all-time favorites.

And it was a revelation, as a psychotherapist, to see so many heterosexual marriages so quickly abandoned at the first signs of strain and, at the same time, so many loving and committed gay couples who weathered so much societal and familial disapproval through their years together and were still so stedfast in their love and devotion for each other. Among these special couples, Sandy and Corine stand out in my memory.

When one sees the reality of loving, committed relationships between same sex couples that could be an example to many heterosexual couples, judgments and reinforcing the status quo of marriage inequality just don't make sense.

For people who fear that allowing equal marriage rights for gays would somehow damage and undermine marriage, how about the 50% or so of heterosexual marriages that end in divorce? What about the impulsive or sham marriages of celebrities like Brittney Spears and her infamous 24 hour marriage to a childhood friend or Kim Kardashian and her million-dollar wedding and marriage that almost immediately hit the rocks? How about Bridezillas who focus relentlessly on the wedding and not at all on what it really means to be a partner? All of these could learn a great deal from some gay couples who have been stedfast in their love and devotion without the legal protections and privileges afforded the rest of us -- and too often abused.

For those who think that childless marriages would take us down an impossibly slippery slope, what about those of us who are heterosexual and childless -- by choice or because of infertility? Are our marriages less valid? And not all gay marriages are childless. Here in Arizona, two gay men are foster and adoptive parents to a dozen special needs children whom no one else wanted. They have been honored widely as exemplary parents. Many gay parents choose to have children with the help of sperm banks or surrogates. And some, like Sandy and Corine, raise children that one or both have had in previous heterosexual relationships. By all reports so far, children raised by gay parents are just as normal in all ways as children raised in traditional families.

Perhaps instead of worrying that someone else's choice of a mate will undermine the institution of marriage, we need to look within ourselves and our own relationships and ask what we can do to keep our own marriages strong and loving, setting an example for our children and grandchildren.

Marriage equality isn't some gracious gift we might -- or might not -- bestow on gay couples. It's something they should have had all along -- equal protection under the law, equal rights as citizens and taxpayers.

The issue is, nevertheless, highly controversial and emotional with strong feelings on both sides that need to be heard and respected. But one can only hope that the Supreme Court will make a decision that is wise and fair.

And when I dream this dream, I imagine Sandy somewhere dancing with joy that other gay couples might have the rights and protections that she and Corine did not live to enjoy.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Haunted By Memories -- So Long Ago

"Can I ask you a serious question?"

It was the voice of  Pennie, a high school classmate, busy organizing our upcoming 50th class reunion and calling long distance to give me a report on the attendance list.

And she told me that, in her calls to our classmates, she had heard some impassioned negative reactions from several of my fellow day students (we were a distinct minority at our high school, which was primarily for boarding students from all over the world). She said that they were still haunted by memories of sexual harassment from Sister X, who was our senior class advisor and principal during our last two years of school. She said that these classmates had told her -- independently -- that Sister X used to come into the room where day students changed for gym and stare intently at the girls, deriving sexual pleasure that seemed obvious to some of them and, in some instances, tried to find excuses to touch them.

Pennie asked if I remembered anything like that happening in the gym changing room. For a moment, I was speechless.

I have no memory of such a scenario.

Of course, I was in the gym changing room as rarely as possible.  I loathed volleyball and basketball and was always the last one chosen for an unlucky team. But I did become something of a legend -- for my gym excuses. I think I reported having my period (a valid gym excuse back then) for three years straight and then, my senior year, I got out of gym with conflicting drama practice and work on the school newspaper and yearbook. So I wasn't often in that gym changing room.

But sadly, I don't discount their memories. Sister X always seemed more than a little sexually obsessed. She used to see double meanings in the most innocent comments. And she brought a sex crimes folder, filled with lurid crime clippings, to our Adult Living portion of religion class, reading a sex crime of the day and telling us that men could be dangerous.

So while I have no memory of Sister's sexual intrusiveness, it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. She was unlike so many of the rest of the nuns, who were so kind and generous with loving support, encouragement and praise -- and were never inappropriate in their affection toward us.

What also doesn't surprise me -- as it did Pennie when she heard their stories all these years later -- is that not one of these girls told a parent. It might have meant being whisked out of school in the middle of senior year and not being able to graduate with their friends. It might have meant their accusations getting a very public hearing to her impassioned denials -- and embarrassment or banishment to the victims. It was easier to keep quiet.

That has been true of many victims of sexual transgressions by clergy and by other trusted adults.

But, oh, the cost of that silence. I'm sad that the pain still lingers for them after all these years. So many years after Sister X was suddenly transferred away from the school two years after we graduated. So many years after her death from complications of Alzheimer's. So many years since they felt so young and powerless.

I feel sad that their anger and pain makes them not want to see peers who were once childhood friends, that they want to close off all contact and reminders of an era that had its share of pain as well as pleasure for all of us. There are so many moments in our vulnerable younger years that we all remember with pain -- perhaps being excluded or ridiculed or criticized -- and with quiet thanks that our lives have moved on.

But sexual harassment and abuse is different. Feeling young and powerless and threatened is a horror that can overshadow adolescent friendships, kindness, fun and the extravagant dreams that flourish in those final months of high school.

I do understand. But those empty spaces, those missing faces, as our class reunites to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our graduation and receive golden diplomas in a special ceremony at our old high school, will make me sad. I can only imagine how that long silence, that simmering anger, those painful memories may have impinged on the rest of their lives -- and I quietly and fervently hope that moments of peace and happiness in their lives have far outweighed the haunting memories that linger still.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Talk Story

There was a story in the newspaper recently about a group of Harvard students volunteering to spend time with elderly people with Alzheimers to listen to their stories of life long ago. This chance to share their unique stories with others has a positive impact on both the elderly and the young participants -- as the older people reach back into the long-term still accessible parts of their memories and the students learn about some fascinating lives rich with history and courage.

This reminded me of the Hawaiian concept of talking story -- which can mean telling the stories of oral history or one's life or simply one's day to a group or even to just one other friend  -- and the therapeutic value of sharing with each other.

My friend Kim and I have started a tradition of talking story every now and then at our local McDonald's where we sip iced tea for hours -- always in the lull between lunch and dinner -- and catch up -- with fun and touching stories from our past and our present.  We cover a lot of territory. Kim even brought a hastily scrawled agenda on a post-it note so she wouldn't forget what she most wanted to tell me at our "talk story" session last week. We laughed a lot. And we both headed home -- three hours later -- feeling somehow lighter and more cheerful and hopeful.

Whether we "talk story" with friends or family or even with relative strangers, it feels good to share a bit of ourselves, to be known and accepted by another. Agreement isn't a given nor is similarity of life stories. Often another point of view, another life path taken only enriches the exchange.

Kim and I are different in many ways. She's from New England and spent most of her adult life in Minnesota and the Dakotas. She married her college sweetheart and, due to the demands and frequent moves his corporate career required, she never had a sustained career outside the home, though she has enjoyed stints of writing for a newspaper and teaching aerobics and fitness classes, the latter something she still does here. She has two adult daughters and four grandchildren she adores.

I'm from Los Angeles, childless and worked outside the home for 42 years at several different careers -- as a writer, psychotherapist, college admissions representative and actress -- and didn't meet and marry Bob until I was in my thirties.

But yet, there are similarities that bring us together. We have both vowed to eschew panty hose and dressing up for the rest of our lives. We rarely wear makeup and enjoy the freedom to look our ages and to be ourselves. We hate shopping and both of us order our clothing online, strongly favoring Lands End. We were both religious early in life, tend toward agnosticism now with a pull toward spirituality and wanting to do good things for others. So we talk and dish and laugh. And it feels wonderful.

Talking story can be an important, bonding element of friendship. Talking story can turn strangers into friends....and friends into family.

My husband Bob and neighbor Wally enjoy getting together and talking most Wednesdays. (Wednesday with Wally does have a ring to it!). I walked in toward the end of their four hour talkfest the other day just as Wally was describing a wonderful Latino man about his age whom he has befriended in the waiting area of the local kidney dialysis center where both their wives are being treated three times a week. Wally was marveling at this man's amazing life story -- how he built a successful business and thriving ranch, starting with little except others' belief in him and their emotional support and adding a large measure of his own hard work and motivation to succeed. Wally talked about the joy of getting to know -- and learn some life lessons from -- someone he might otherwise never have met.

When I left them, Bob and Wally were reminiscing about their carefree, often unsupervised boyhoods -- Bob in L.A., Wally in Detroit -- and how much fun it was to dig holes, build forts and explore with their childhood friends -- and how different these long-ago days were from those of today's over-scheduled, helicopter-parent supervised youth.  And as those two older men sat talking story, I caught a brief glimpse of the boys they once were.

By listening to others' stories, we can begin to understand who they are and why they make the choices they do.

By listening to others' stories, we find sadness to share, experiences in common, humor in life's ups and downs, reassurance that we're not alone in our struggles and triumphs and challenges.

By sharing with others, we take the risk of being known -- and of being close.

A co-worker once told me that she was a very private person -- to the extent of not letting those she worked with know whether she was married or not -- because she didn't want to be known too well. I joked with her that we were cut from the same cloth -- her with her jealously guarded privacy and me with my ongoing office tales of life as I saw it and adventures with my cats. "We're both dealing with the same delusion," I told her. "We're both assuming that anyone around here gives a damn about your private life or my cats."

 Unlike my very private co-worker,  I was always willing to take the risk of being known as a crazy cat lady or worse just to share who I was -- and discover, with greater depth, the characters, life challenges and dreams of some of my co-workers.

However, thanks to this private and cautious co-worker, I learned to be more selective about talking story and more respectful of those who chose to share little if any of their private lives away from work. But sharing stories with co-workers or friends, those whose life stories were similar as well as those who come from other countries, other cultures, other points of view often has been rewarding in so many ways.

The secret, of course, is balance: knowing what to share and what not to share and with whom; listening as well as talking, and talking as well as listening as you experience the joy of knowing another and being known with mutual acceptance and appreciation.

It doesn't get much better than that.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Under-the-Weather Friends

              My migraine buddies: Gus, Hammie, Sweet Pea and Maggie

For those days when a migraine hits or the flu afflicts or a day seems dark, they are there.

We're blessed in many ways -- with friends who listen and care, with spouses who are present with love and concern -- but sometimes a furry friend is the best medicine, a sweet presence with no time urgency, no conflicting obligations.

As I struggled with a migraine this afternoon, all four cats hung in there with me. Gus snuggled the closest and purred non-stop during the hours I iced my right eye and moaned. Hammie stretched out purring, leaning against my leg. SweetPea and Maggie curled up nearby, never moving during the hours it took for the pain to go away.

Animals are born healers. My friend Phyllis rejoices in her wonderful dogs Daisy and Gizmo, close companions as she deals with the pain and discomfort that have come with her three-times-a-week kidney dialysis. My friends Mary and John find great comfort in their canine companions Aloha (Alfie) and Mahalo (Mahley) as they face John's physical challenges. And my blogging friend June (Aging Gratefully) has her new rescue cat Peep to help her heal from the recent loss of another beloved pet.

Whatever ails us, our animal companions are there to keep us warm, to comfort us.

And even in the midst of pain, we can't help but feel immensely blessed.