Same-sex marriage: A personal history

Mel & Rozz, 2006

Mel & Rozz, 2006

Good news from Maine Wednesday: its legislature passed, & its governor signed, a law making it legal for same-sex couples to marry.  This makes Maine the 5th state in the U.S., after Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, & Iowa, to grant the same civil rights & responsibilities of marriage granted to heterosexual couples, to lesbian & gay couples.  On the same day New Hampshire’s legislature passed a similar bill, which is awaiting its governor’s action.

Good news indeed; so why was it simultaneously making me feel a bit blue? Fact is, I always feel some ambivalence anymore when I heard news about same-sex marriage, regardless of whether it’s good or bad.  Maybe I always will.

(Which isn’t to say I won’t stand up for it.)

But why?  I was feeling enough of the blues on Wednesday, that I decided to write more about it.

More than a decade ago, my friends Jay Brause & Gene Dugan were amongst the first in the nation to challenge the unquestioned custom of refusing marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples.  Exact details elude me — it was a long time ago — but lucky for me: online sources are kind.  Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (incidentally one of the best websites on religion out there) has a great summary of the events (& there’s some other sources below).  Basically, Jay & Gene applied for a marriage license in Alaska in 1994, were denied, & took it to court.  In February 1998, Judge Peter Michalski of Anchorage Superior Court issued a decision in their favor, ordering the State of Alaska to show a compelling reason why heterosexuals should be granted special rights to marry that were denied to gay men & lesbians.  The State of Alaska appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, & meantime the Alaska Legislature acted to prevent same-sex marriage, placing on the November 1998 ballot a measure — Ballot Measure 2 — which would, if passed, amend the state constitution to define marriage as being “between a man and a women.”  Similar stuff was going on in Hawaii at the same time.

Jay Brause, Gene Dugan, Fred Hillman, & Les ? at Alaska Gay & Lesbian Resource Center, 1982

Jay Brause, Gene Dugan, Fred Hillman, & Les Baird at Alaska Gay & Lesbian Resource Center, 1982

Enter the personal history part of the story.

Personal #1 is that I’d known Jay & Gene since first arriving in Alaska in August 1982, in fact shared a house with them & our “landlady” Sami & her three kids, until Sami remarried & we moved to our own separate households.  They were (& are, despite distance) my  my very good friends, & they were also — especially Jay — guys I worked very closely with on the activist front of working for equal rights for lesbians/gays in Alaska. At the time of our meeting, Jay was executive director of the Alaska Gay & Lesbian Resource Center (now known as Identity, Inc.), & he coaxed me (without too much difficulty) to join its board of directors as secretary.  We later worked together, along with a whole lotta other people, on two important studies of Alaska’s lesbian/gay population, One in 10: A Profile of Alaska’s Lesbian & Gay Community (Anchorage, AK: Identity, Inc., 1986) & Green & Brause, Identity Reports: Sexual Orientation Bias in Alaska (Anchorage, AK: Identity, Inc., 1989). Meanwhile, Gene was doing the work that led to the creation of the theatre company Out North, beginning with his bringing to Alaska the play “My Blue Heaven” about two lesbian homesteaders. They worked together for years at Out North, Gene as artistic director & Jay as managing director, until their departure from Alaska in 2006.

Mel & JJ on backpacking trip to Williwaw Lakes, Chugach State Park, 1997

Mel & JJ on backpacking trip to Williwaw Lakes, Chugach State Park, 1997

By the time the marriage stuff rolled around in 1994, we didn’t see quite so much of each other.  This was thanks in part to my general burnout on matters political, organizational, & activist-oriented; in part to my pursuit of an MFA degree at University of Alaska Anchorage; & in part due to Personal #2, which was the relationship I’d formed in 1993 with my partner, Rozz.

The establishment, after many long years of living alone & single, of a relationship & family life became even more a factor after December 1996, which was when Rozz’s nephew JJ (as he was then known) came to live with us: age 9, his life to that date one of abuse, neglect, & a succession of foster & group homes.  He came to us violent, striking out at us preemptively before we could hurt him, as he was sure we would do — after all, everyone else in his life had.

It was a rough time.  I’m talking rough.  This was a boy who had been at the very least witness to sexual abuse of one of his siblings, if not a victim of it himself; & had most definitely been victim of physical & emotional abuse & neglect.  And for many long months in his fear of more of the same, he took it out on us.  I had never lived with abuse before — an abuse that I reckon was not him abusing me, but was his father reaching through him — as JJ used to say, “[My father] is in my head.”  It messed me up so badly, it took months to for me a wordworker to fnd words for it:


the man in the head of the boy
the father of memory
the father who could pitch
his sons into the wall
the man who used their sister
for his “needs”
who sold them back for
four hundred dollars
in an Oklahoma City

the man in the head of the boy
the man in the boy’s fist
in his kicking feet his butting head
his spit on my face his biting teeth
in the bruise yellow and purple and green
on my arm the blood beneath my skin

the hurt that cannot speak

[August 4–November 14, 1997; rev. 11/18/97]

But now jump ahead to 1998.  Judge Michalski has made his ruling in Jay’s & Gene’s case.  The Legislature in reaction has done its thing.  Ballot Measure 2 is on the ballot for November: a measure that will, if passed, enshrine in the very basis of our society, our state constitution, the belief of the body politic that the close intimate relationship & commitment of two women with each other, or two men with each other, isn’t worth a bloody damn thing.

I was barely aware of any of this.  Because in spite of everything — in spite of completing my MFA, in spite of us having successfully gotten through the difficult first year of JJ’s life with us, of JJ giving up his violence & learning to trust us — in spite of all that, Rozz’s & my relationship came apart.

Jesse & his dog Sweetheart, resting up during a backpacking trip up Powerline Pass, June 2004

Jesse & his dog Sweetheart, resting up during a backpacking trip up Powerline Pass, June 2004

I won’t go into all the details of that here.  I’m doing it & have done it elsewhere, much of it in private where it will stay. Suffice it to say that we came back together again a year later, we talked it all out, we came to understand that our breakup or breach came about due to the incredible pressures that came with taking on a very hurt child, we forgave each other, we continued to raise the boy, & the boy, now a young man at 21, is — oh damn, just a very very fine young man, who even as I write is well on his way to an independent life doing just what he wants to do.  (Meantime, I’m taking care of his dog Sweetheart.)

At the time I didn’t know things would turn out that way.  At the time I only knew I felt a deep sense of betrayal because it all came so unexpectedly.  One day we met a new friend — I’ll just call her D — & a month later, Rozz was gone, & JJ with her, & I was just a 160-pounds-or-so mass of confusion, grief, anger, & dumbfoundedness.  (A month or so later: I was a 140-pounds-or-so mass of the same, having lost my appetite on what I dubbed at the time the Official Grief & Dumbfoundedness Weight Loss Program. I’ve got better ways of taking off the excess nowadays, thanks.)

And so my life through most of 1998 from the late spring on was one of trying to make sense of it all, & put my life back together after it had been tossed into the air & scattered like a game of 52-card-pickup.  I felt that all the meanings of my life, of my life together with Rozz, had been summarily & unilaterally flushed down the toilet.  I was scraped down to bedrock, & didn’t have the emotional reserves to give much attention to the Ballot Measure 2 & the battle for marriage equality.

And yet it did come up.  Because, you see, the pain I was feeling was pretty damn illustrative of the whole point. Do you feel that kind of anguish for the loss of a relationship when it means (as our enemies would like to have it) absolutely nothing?  Of course not.

And you know what? The people in my life — not just the lesbians & gay men, not just my family members & friends, but my coworkers too — they knew it. They treated me accordingly.  Just after I voted against Ballot Measure 2 that November, I wrote to some friends:

I’ve gotta say, though, that what indicates to me changes toward the good for lesbians & gays…which will be present regardless of the votes outcome…are present every day in my life, and have especially been present for me this last nasty year, as all my coworkers, family, friends have treated me with the same love & respect & concern in my hard times as they would have treated any nongay person going through the same nasty shit. Just as a matter of course.

Just as a matter of course. No aren’t we so very special for being so knee-jerk-liberal compassionate to this poor sad second-class citizen.  Just simple care & compassion because they knew that I was worth something, & that my relationship was every bit as valuable to me, as their own relationships were to them.

Tell me, Jesus: who has followed your way more closely: my coworkers, who treated me with compassion during a devastating period of my life, or the Alaska Family Coalition, financed mainly by out-of-state interests that worked so hard to make discrimination against people like me part of Alaska’s foundational document — & telling lies in the process?

From an Alaskans for Civil Rights/No on 2  press release dated October 31, 1998:

False and misleading information fills the Alaska Family Coalition display ad published in today’s Anchorage Daily News. The ad claims that the decision of an Alaskan judge found Alaska’s marriage law unconstitutional and would “replace…Alaska’s existing marriage law” and that the NO on 2 campaign’s claims to the contrary are “completely false.”

In fact, it is currently illegal for same-sex couples to be married in Alaska and this will not be changed by the defeat of Ballot Measure 2….

… “Yes on 2” fliers also claim if the measure is defeated, young children will be introduced to homosexual doctrine at an early age and schools will be required to teach that homosexual relationships are “normal” and equal to traditional marriage….

Another lie. Apparently to the Alaska Family Coalition, family values & let’s tell another lie are tantamount to synonyms.

And was it really the Alaska Family Coalition, or was it rather the Coalition of a Few Conservative Alaska Figureheads Funded Mainly by Interests from Out-of-State who Might Have a Sister Living in North Pole or a Nephew Who Served in the Air Force in Alaska for a Couple of Years but Probably Not Even That? The press release goes on to say:

Alaskan Public Offices Commission (APOC) reports filed by both campaigns on October 27 reveal that the Alaska Family Coalition has raised more than $637,000 while the Alaskans for Civil Rights/NO on 2! campaign has received just under $190,000 in donations.

Dan Carter, treasurer of Alaskans for Civil Rights/No on 2, explains further in a letter to Alaska newspapers dated October 30, 1998:

But the amount raised is only part of the story. Who and where it comes from is the real news in this report. While Alaskans for Civil Rights has received $35 from Outside gay/lesbian organizations ($25 from the Philadelphia Task Force and $10 from Pride, Inc. from Macon, GA), the proponents of this unnecessary measure were receiving almost $560,000 from Outside groups trying to rewrite Alaska’s constitution. When you look at how much money each side has raised from INDIVIDUAL ALASKANS, the financial reports are even more revealing. For every dollar raised by the NO on 2 campaign, 89 cents has come from individual Alaskans. On the other hand, for each dollar raised by the so-called Alaska Family Coalition, less than 9 cents has come from individuals living in Alaska. That’s the real issue in this campaign. Why should Outsiders determine if Alaska’s constitution should be amended? What is their agenda?

But that’s just some of the info that arrived in my email inbox.  More personally, as the debate leading up raged on in the media, some of it inevitably showed up on the radio that I listened to at work every day. Probably KSKA, then, Anchorage public radio. There was a call-in program about Ballot Measure 2, & some self-defined Christian brought up an argument about “family orientation.” I couldn’t hold back. As I later described to friends in an email:

I called up and talked about how this boy, JJ (I didn’t name him), had been the product of one of these much-vaunted heterosexual unions, had been severely sexually, emotionally, physically abused and neglected by his heterosexual father and his heterosexual mother…and the only reason he had a chance now was because we, two lesbians, had brought him into our family.

And you know, even with all that has happened since, it’s still true.

So to damnation to all you self-righteous “family values” advocates whose dictionary definition of family is so far from reality.

Jesses graduation, West High, May 2006

Jesse's graduation, West High, May 2006

And you know, even with all that has happened in the ten & a half years since, up until this very day, it’s still true: though I have no legal relationship, & never have had a legal relationship, with the boy once know as JJ who is now the young man Jesse — I am more a mother to him than his heterosexual biological mother is or has ever been, excepting only that she gave birth to him & he carries her (as well as his abusive father’s) genes.  (Though I credit her with caring more for him than his father, & staying in touch with him in ways he’s okay with, whereas his father he outright hates.) And furthermore, it was Rozz & me, two lesbians, whose bond of love & commitment despite its lack of sanction by our fellow citizens made it possible for Jesse to have a life of possibility & love, rather than life that would likely be no more than a repetition of the same cycle of abuse that had brought him to us in the first place.

So much for the superiority of opposite-sex marriage.

Which isn’t to say that opposite-sex marriage is inferior either. I am the child of heterosexual parents, whose love for & commitment to each other & to their family has been just as powerful a foundation for my life, as mine & Rozz’s has been for Jesse’s.  Marriage equality — get it?  Some relationships suck, some are marvelous.  Sexual orientation does not on its own make for one or the other.  It takes the individuals involved, their love, their committment, their elbow grease.

Be that as it may, on November 3, 1998, Ballot Measure passed by a 2 to 1 vote. With the vote half-counted, the Anchorage Daily News reported the following day:

The campaigns working for and against passage of the amendment steered around the thorny question of whether homosexuality is right or wrong.

But some voters saw the question as a referendum on homosexuality itself.

And in an email to friends, I commented:

And the majority rules, so therefore homosexuality is wrong? Of course not. Because us lesbians & gay men, dykes & faggots, queers, lezzies, homos — whatever else we may not know about ourselves, we do know this: Who We Are, from the inside, in regards to our sexuality. The meanings of our lives, from the center of our lives. Not defined, not prescribed or proscribed or whatever by the homophobic jerks or the plain dumb ignoramuses.

But it wasn’t just me or other lesbians & gay men who remained integrally human, regardless of the votes of ignorance or hatred. It was also many, so many, of our nongay families, friends, & coworkers:

Today I still go into work and find Bob, Jan, Nancy, Cassie, Sharon, Krista, Larry, Lisa — people, all of them heterosexual, who know me and who are not influenced in their feelings about me by this so-called “referendum on homosexuality.” They are still the people who watched my love for Rozz blossom & grow, saw the bite marks on my arm when JJ was terrorizing us, saw the results of her betrayal of me, all my pain. I have not changed as a result of this vote, nor have they.

So much for definitions applied externally. So much for the right winger denotation of “homosexuality.”

But you see now, I think, the reason for my ambivalence about same-sex marriage made clear. So much of my response to the events of 1998 arose out of the dilemmas of my own personal situation.  Not matter how much I might philosophize about the difference between enacted law & real reality, a part of me was deeply upset & angry that Ballot Measure 2 passed.  But another part of me was cynical about it all.  How could I help but be cynical, when D, the new girlfriend of Rozz who just scant weeks before had to my knowledge been my lifelong partner, somehow set herself up as some sort of spokesperson for marriage equality, & even finagled Rozz into appearing with her on Herb Shainlin’s radio show to tell Anchorage all about it?  I was self-preserving enough to avoid their radio appearance (I stuck with my normal radio station KSKA instead) — but yeah, of course it disturbed me.  Of course it affected my feelings.

But see, that’s the thing, all over again.  The demand for marriage equality isn’t a demand for people to believe that our (lesbian/gay) relationships are perfect, to require they be free of mistakes, breakups, divorces.  Marriage equality, get it?  The demand is simply to recognize in law the reality that already is fact in the substance of our beings: our relationships count to us, as much as yours do to you.  Yet in our relationships we will struggle just as much as our nongay neighbors with communication, commitment, love, all the stuff that makes up marriage.  When our rights are honored, no doubt we’ll be a good match for heterosexuals in our divorce rates, too. (Though I’d like to hope for better.)

But the law as it stands in Alaska &, at this writing, 43 other states, puts extra obstacles in our way at the outset: discouraging our commitments, treating our care for one another with contempt, destabilizing our families & our ability to take care of our children, making life harder.

How amazing, then, that so many of our relationships last out the years — as indeed with Jay & Gene, who met in 1978 at the Alaska Gay Community Center (as it was then called)  & are still together 31 years later.

The happy family, 2006: Mel, Rozz, Jesse (playing w/ Photobooth)

The happy family, 2006: Mel, Rozz, Jesse (playing w/ Photobooth)

Fast forward again, then, to 2009, the present day. A lot of water under the bridge, both in the continuing fight for marriage & other forms of social equality, & in my personal life.  As already stated, Rozz & I returned to one another (only a year after our separation), talked a lot, worked it out, reestablished our relationship, & saw Jesse through the rest of his childhood, into his early adulthood.  What’s that, you say?  Family values?  Yes.

But as I’ve alluded to elsewhere, our relationship is changing once again, & we can no longer be called partners.  The stresses & pressures now are quite a bit different.  That’s for another post, or many, who knows: the upshot is that my partner Rozz, who I always understood to be a woman & a lesbian, decided last year to finally honor an understanding long in the making: not a she, but a he: an FTM, female-to-male transsexual, a transman.  Which has just a tiny bearing on me, since I’m still… well… a lesbian.  And more on that in later posts, perhaps.  But even more a difficulty for me: that Rozz — or rather, Ptery (pronounced like Terry) — has chosen, at least for now, to live his life off the grid, from the land, out of a backpack & tent, & not in Alaska.

So now Maine, now New Hampshire.  Before that, Vermont, Iowa.  A few months ago, California won, & lost again with Prop. 8. Before that, Massachusetts.  And I look at it all, & I’m of two minds: the one, rejoicing for those like me whose relationships are finally being honored in law as they are in our hearts.  And the other, in sorrow for my own loss.

Mel at Anchorage protest of Californias Prop 8, 15 Nov 2008

Mel at Anchorage protest of California's Prop 8, 15 Nov 2008

But marriage equality, get it?  My loss is special, special to me; but no more special — nor any less — than is the loss experienced by anyone who suffers a breakup or divorce.  It is a private sorrow (though I speak of it publicly), that proceeds out of private lives, private choices.  It is not directly the fault of public institutions like marriage, even if those institutions exclude me. (Though that exclusion might well have been a factor contributing to our difficulties.)

And so despite the ambivalence born of my private sorrow, I will celebrate every advance that leads to the public recognition & honoring of any relationship between two (or even more!) consenting adults.

Go Maine!  Go New Hampshire!

* * *

Marriage is a public institution that grants certain rights & privileges, & also responsibilities, to people who have chosen to bond with one another in private relationships. Jay’s & Gene’s case in Brause v. Bureau of Vital Statistics was based in part on Alaska’s constitutional right to privacy.   And so in his judgment in February 1998, Judge Michalski wrote:

The relevant question is not whether same-sex marriage is so rooted in our traditions that it is a fundamental right, but whether the freedom to choose one’s own life partner is so rooted in our traditions.

Judge Michalski ruled that the Alaska Constitution, as it then stood, upheld our private freedom to choose our own life partners, whether we chose partners of the same or of opposite sex.

Ballot Measure 2 maintained that right for some people, but stripped it away for others.

We claim it still.  Nor are we alone.  From the Anchorage Daily News story on Ballot Measure 2’s passage published November 4, 1998:

Julie Stephens, a married mother of two, said she mulled the question over a lot and discussed it with her husband. In the end, she decided to vote against the amendment.

“People should be allowed to marry who they want to marry,” she said. “Times change.”

And sometimes they don’t.

That little flourish from ADN, more than anything, really riled me up.  And sometimes they don’t?!!!  I commented in email to friends:

And yet, in spite of the vote, they have. The ballot box does not measure the hearts of the people I work with, or my family, or my friends, or the families & friends & acquaintances of innumerable lesbians & gay men, who as the result of us coming out, as the result of their willingness to grapple in their own souls with the meaning of Difference, found themselves capable of still caring about us, of loving us *for* our Difference, even, not just in spite of it.

The changes that have happened have still happened. Regardless of the vote. The meanings are deep underneath, in our lives.

And that’s why ultimately we will achieve our goal of marriage equality, as well as other equal rights under the law.  Not just because of our own efforts, but because of the good hearts of our nongay friends and families, who recognize just as Julie Stephens did that it is indeed our right, everyone’s right, to choose their own life partners.  Who recognize that even with our differences, we are fundamentally the same in our humanity, no matter the propaganda that seeks to dehumanize us as degenerates or (in Wayne Anthony Ross’ 2009 update of his 1993 terminology) lima beans.

Remember that in the next weeks & months & years.  Yeah, we’ve still got a long way to go.  But how far we’ve come. Have heart.

* * *

I know you didn’t ask for it, but thanks all the same to Jay Brause & Gene Dugan for your efforts to establish marriage equality under the law not only for yourselves, but for all gay men & lesbians in Alaska &, ultimately, the U.S.  And also to all those in Alaska & elsewhere who have fought for those rights, & have voted for them.

I know you didn’t ask for it, but thanks all the same to my colleagues & coworkers, past & present, at the Justice Center at University of Alaska Anchorage, who did me & continue to do me the great service of treating me, simply, as a human being, as a friend, as a colleague.  Hey, folks: that’s what it’s all about.  May anyone who reads this blog take a lesson from you.


Mel & Ptery, Spokane, Apr 2009 (my brother Dave in the background)

Mel & Ptery, Spokane, Apr 2009 (my brother Dave in the background)

And Rozz who is now Ptery, you’ll read this at some point, I’m sure.  Sorrow blah blah — we’ve come through so many times together, good & bad, easy & hard, & we are family & love & deep deep friendship to one another regardless of cis/trans, or whether we live in the same place, or however our relationship is shaped.  Thanks for coming to Spokane to see my dad with me, & thanks for being an ever-presence in my life.  I love you.

* * *

Further reading on Brause & Dugan v. Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics and Ballot Measure 2:

Brause v. Bureau of Vital Statistics, No. 3AN-95-6562 CI, 1998 WL 88743 (Alaska Superior Court, Feb. 27, 1998).

The original ruling by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Peter Michalski; ruled that Alaska’s marriage laws violated the state constitutional right to privacy and the fundamental right to marry, and constituted sex discrimination. Also available through the Freedom to Marry website, which also provides a list as of 1998 (I think) of Alaska statutes pertaining to married people in Alaska — i.e., the specific ways in which same-sex couples, not permitted to marry, are discriminated against by the Alaska Constitution as amended by passage of Ballot Measure 2.

Ruskin, Liz. (4 Nov 1998). “Gay marriage ban approved.” Anchorage Daily News.

ADN’s day-after report on passage of the Ballot Measure 2. Rachel D’Oro and Lisa Demer also contributed to the story.  I will attempt to forgive the rhetorical flourishes that pissed me off at the time.

Alaska Constitution, Article I, Section 25 (1998) — “Marriage.”

Ballot Measure 2 passed by a vote of 152,965 in favor, 71,631 against in the election of November 3, 1998. States that: “To be valid or recognized in this State, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman.”

Clarkson, Kevin G.; Coolidge, David Orgon; & Duncan, William C. (Dec 1999). “The Alaska Marriage Amendment: The People’s Choice on the Last Frontier.” 16 Alaska Law Review 213.

Law review article examining the history & constitutionality of the marriage amendment.  Authors were all supporters of the amendment.

Molsberry, Ken. (26 Apr 2009). “1997-1998: Brause & Dugan v. Alaska.” The Freedom to Marry: Rites & Rights. Retrieved 7 May 2009. [Note 9 May 2011: individual article no longer available online.]

Puts Brause v. Bureau of Vital Statistics in the context of the overall history of the fight for marriage equality.

Molsberry, Ken. (26 Apr 2009). “1998-1999: Constitutional amendments.” The Freedom to Marry: Rites & Rights. Retrieved 7 May 2009. [Note 9 May 2011: individual article no longer available online.]

Covers the passage of constitutional amendments in both Alaska & Hawaii, the first states to enshrine discrimination against gay & lesbian couples into their state constitutions.

Robinson, B.A. (10 Sep 2007). “Same-sex marriage in Alaska.” Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Retrieved 7 May 2009.

A basic summary of the events leading to the passage of Ballot Measure 2 and its immediate (legal) aftermath.

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