I know. I'm amazed, too - still! - to write that sentence.
We don't have much time together this evening, so I'm going to do something I rarely do. I'm going to recycle something. I wrote the following piece nine years ago.
A friend found it a few months ago and sent it to me. I held on to it for today. It's part of a presentation I made at a Unitarian Church in Montclair, NJ during their church service when I was Canon Missioner to The Oasis and did lots of that sort of thing.
The truth of the story still resonates deeply, almost a decade later. I hope you enjoy it. Me? I'm going to raise a glass of wine to the woman who has been my companion and partner and best friend these past thirty-three years. I think she deserves it.
February 13, 2000
I am honored and delighted to be here with you this morning. As I was preparing to come here, it occurred to me that, in less than two years it has been my privilege to have preached at the Unitarian Fellowship in Wilmington, Delaware, The Old Stone Unitarian Fellowship in Baptistown, NJ, the Princeton Unitarian Fellowship and, last October, I preached at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship.
If you have been counting, that means that my visit here marks the fifth Unitarian Fellowship I’ve visited in the past two years. I sense the presence of danger here. Either YOU are in danger of becoming Episcopalian, or I’m in danger of becoming a Unitarian. Perhaps we’re BOTH in danger of becoming "Episco-tarians". Better yet, perhaps that’s "Uni-palians."
No matter. I am honored to be here to share with your congregational family a bit of my family story. For what it’s worth, I’ll also offer some insight gained from the lessons I’ve learned on the journey about the dangerous dream of being family.
Twenty-four years ago, when my beloved and I began this journey, I never could have imagined standing before you this morning. Keeping secrets, hiding our identity and protecting our safety were uppermost in our minds. One thing we learned: while fear often quickens the senses, it also freezes the imagination.
It’s hard to dream when your heart is always afraid.
It’s been a long, hard struggle. Many members of the lesbian and gay community, as well as our families and friends, have fought very hard for our human rights.
The battle for our civil rights continues to be waged from Maine and Vermont to Hawaii, in City Halls and state legislatures, and in churches and synagogues and temples. We know there is a place for us, because we have begun to create it ourselves (and, by the way, we have simultaneously increased property values and improved the real estate market!).
Last year, in June of 1999, we celebrated 30 Years after the Stonewall Riots in New York City. For some of us, beginning a third decade of the liberation movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is nothing short of absolutely amazing! We are beginning to see the coming of age of the Second Generation of Liberation.
It is not surprising, then, that some of us are now choosing to start families of our own. Those whom Freud abandoned as "narcissistic" and "self-centered" are creating loving families through every means possible: adoption, alternative insemination, surrogacy and foster care. We have proven that we know all about ‘family values’ and the value of families. We are achieving a dream we couldn’t have even begun to imagine 30 years ago.
Even now, a new dream is beginning to take its place in the deepest corners of our hearts. Today, our wildest dream is that we can be valued for the families we create.
Twenty-four years ago, I could not have imagined anyone considering anything about my life having anything of any value.
On October 13, 1976, Barbara Conroy and I made promises to each other that we didn’t know how we were going to keep. But, we made them anyway, in faith. We had a dream of being family together, of her kids and my kids growing up together, and of us growing old together.
It was a wild dream - something we didn’t know could be done, much less had ever been done before. For all we knew, we were the only two women on the face of the earth who ever felt this way about each other - and about family. We certainly didn’t know anyone else who was in a similar situation - male or female.
Clearly, we had never known any women who loved each other and wanted to be family together. There were no role models. No positive images. No one on TV named Ellen or Will and Grace and "Just Jack!". Chastity Bono was a cute blond child who, while her family was undeniably weird, was most definitely part of a heterosexual unit. Who could have ever imagined she’d grow into a lesbian spokesperson for gay rights?
All we had was love. That was very real. And, we had our dreams. They were always before us, the vision and the goal which called us to move beyond our fear. Our love for each other and the dreams of our hearts became the fuel which moved us forward in faith.
Then again, that’s not so different from what drives anyone to accomplish what others might call "an act of courage". Love and dreams are always equal parts of courage. They are also the stuff of miracles. Which is why they are so dangerous.
Twenty-four years ago, Barbara and I were acutely aware of the danger of our love. We had been married at a very early age - Barbara at age 19 and me at age 20. We had two children each, Barbara a son and a daughter who were ages 7 and 5 at that time, and my two daughters were 6 and 3 and a half. We were both registered nurses, working on the Obstetrical Unit of the same community hospital. Our families had been friends for three years, taking vacations and weekend trips together, celebrating each other’s children’s birthdays and anniversaries.
Everybody always seemed to comment that we were "such good friends". I saw the look in their eyes when they said that. For a long time, I was able to convince myself that they were just envious. I guess it is true: Gay and Lesbian people are the last ones to know about our sexuality.
Our respective marriages were in deep trouble, there was no doubt. But, as long as there were opportunities for Barbara and me to be together, life was tolerable. Somehow, when the children were playing in the yard, the "husbands" were off doing . . . whatever it is husbands do on weekend afternoons.
I honestly can’t remember whether they were watching a sports event or fixing the car, because I honestly didn’t care. All I cared about was that Barbara and I could have long talks over hot cups of tea at my kitchen table; that we were able to talk about things that were really important; that I could say anything to her and she seemed to understand; that, in this relationship, for the first time in my life, there was real respect, real honesty, real equality, real friendship.
And, real emotion. That was what I seemed to hunger for more than anything else. I could laugh my deepest laugh, share my deepest fears, fight my strongest demon, and weep my most bitter tears, and, lo!, it was safe. I wasn’t judged or berated. I wasn’t scoffed or dismissed. No one laughed at me. No one cut me off in mid-sentence. I was not only listened to, I was heard. I was understood. Finally! I could speak and look into the eyes of this amazing person and see enough love and acceptance to finally begin to love and accept myself. Her eyes, mischievous Irish eyes that they are, became a mirror for me, reflecting myself to my self and my soul.
I began to see myself in and though her eyes, and was amazed to discover that I was not what I had been carefully taught to believe about myself: that I would never be good enough, that I would never be smart enough, that my only identity in life could only come by being somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother.
It was inevitable that our relationship grew into something neither one of us could avoid any longer. It cried out to be named and claimed. Together, we discovered what countless throngs of lovers had learned over the centuries: The only language for the love which dares not speak its name is body language.
Some things can only be expressed in the midst of awkward silences and eyes which weep the tears of the joy which finally embraces the truth, laced with the fear which now knows the truth. Some things can only be known in the doing, understood in the experience, comprehended in the union of body, mind and spirit. And, once that happens, there can be no turning back.
Without fully understanding what had been set in motion, we were granted a few delicious days of the fullness of the present. We couldn’t think beyond today. This hour. This minute. I only knew that I had never known such happiness. And, that, surrendering to my deepest fears, I had surrendered to my deepest desire and ardent longing. I had found the love of my life and I was not about to surrender it to the mediocrity of the expectations of my culture or society.
Within a two-month period of time, we knew what needed to be done. Together, we found the courage to do what should have been done years ago: we would talk with our respective husbands, telling them as much information as we could without giving them the details. We knew that if we were to have any hope of a future together, we had to go somewhere else to start our life together. We began to make our plan.
We decided to move to Bar Harbor, Maine. We had taken out a map and tried to pin-point the communities which were at least an eight-hour car ride away. We decided that an eight hour car ride would mean that a family member would have to at least call before "stopping by to visit", giving us ample opportunity to "straighten up the house", so to speak. We were hoping to buy some time - to give ourselves time to get settled in our relationship - to let the truth of our relationship sink in slowly - to give our husbands and my parents the opportunity to adjust.
While we had planned our trip very carefully, there were things we just couldn’t have foreseen. Like, my parent’s homosexual panic. Like, my husband’s blind fury. Like the unlikely collusion of them both to kidnap the children and bring them all to live in my parent’s home.
Like, being the first open lesbian custody case in Bristol County, Massachusetts. Like, losing custody of my children, despite the advice of the court appointed guardian ad litum. Like, being told by our attorney that we were very, very lucky to have received a most generous settlement of visitation every other week end and the entire months of June, July and August, because a nice Italian judge in Beverly, Mass had just that week decreed that a lesbian mother not only lose custody, but that she NEVER be allowed to see her children EVER again.
Even after twenty-four years, I still can’t speak or write fully about that experience. A part of me died then. Clearly, it was a part which needed to die so that the real part of me could finally come to life. There is a difference, however, in letting old parts of you die as opposed to having them brutally murdered.
For the next five years, we battled the family court system to regain custody of our children. To our surprise, we met lots of other lesbian mothers and gay fathers.
We joined or started support groups so that, even though we had to be in the closet at work and with our children, we didn’t have to be alone in there. We gave talks and presentations. We were involved in educational seminars and rallies. And, we spent thousands of dollars on legal fees.
After four and a half years of fighting, Barbara and I had come to a crossroads. We decided that we were probably never going to get our children back. And, we decided that we knew ourselves to be mothers and providers and members of a community of our own making. We knew that this is the one access to power that women have had historically.
We may not have been able to shape public policy, but, as mothers, we have shaped the minds and the hearts of those who do. If the future were going to be any better for lesbian and gay people, it was our children who were going to make the difference. That, we thought, was were we wanted to put our energies.
By the end of our fifth year together, our eleven-room house was filled with ten kids. We had become foster care parents, we had adopted a 4 and a half-year-old Downs Syndrome child, and we had a newborn daughter. My daughters came for the summer and announced that they weren’t going back to live with their father, and the court, in reluctant agreement with their father, granted us joint custody (full custody would come two years later). And, after a family crisis, my sister sent her two sons to live with us.
The moral of that story is found in an old expression: "Be very careful about what you pray for, because you just might get it, and THEN what will you do?"
As I stand before you today, all these many years later, I am amazed to report that our little nest is rapidly growing empty. All but our youngest child are now all grown and college educated and (praise God) are living on their own. One is married. All but one are heterosexual.
Normal Rockwell would probably have never painted a portrait of our family for the Thanksgiving edition of the Saturday Evening Post, but I am here to tell you that we are the very model of the very modern American family. I’m told that at the last Lambda Family weekend in Provincetown, over 200 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families celebrated together.
I stand before you this morning because I have learned that my invisibility is part of the problem. The more of us who are able to stand up and make ourselves visible and known make it easier for the next lesbian or gay family. The road to liberation has always been built on the backs of our sisters and brothers who go before the rest.
The poet Audre Lourde reminds us, "Your silence will not protect you." Our families are an important vehicle for the voice of justice and truth. Our families say to the world that violence is not an option in the human family. Our families say to the world that we can create our own realities and constellations of families which are authentic and have value. Our families say to the world that love is stronger than hate, that life is more valuable than death, and that once hopes and dreams are shared, they can never die.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and all those who love us and support us, are dangerous dreamers in a world of harsh reality. We have traveled very far on this journey, but we have a very long way to go.
We need to keep each other company as we travel, for if we don’t, if we do not stand in solidarity with each other, then fear will become our constant companion, and that will present an even greater danger. Fear will invite ignorance. And, ignorance will invite bigotry. And soon, the love which has called us together will grow weak. Our imaginations will die. We will not be able to sustain our dreams, our hopes, our joy.
In the past 24 years of living and loving, I have come to know these three things to be true:
- You can not give away what you do not have. If you do not love yourself, you can not love others.
- When you give away what you have, you get back more than what you had when you began. The more love you give, the more love you get.
- That which we reject, we become. If we do not learn to love our enemies, we run the risk of becoming just like them.
May God grant us the strength and the courage to keep the dream alive - for us and for future generations to come!
© Rev. Canon Elizabeth Kaeton