BY STEWART VAN CLEVE
Former assistant curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies at the University of Minnesota
The Boston Spirit, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) magazine, recently examined the aftermath of the first same-sex marriage victory in the United States. In late 2003, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex marriages were protected by the State Constitution, Governor Mitt Romney found himself unwittingly poised to be governor of the first state to pass marriage equality. Romney promptly announced his support for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit same-sex marriages in order to circumvent the court’s ruling.
Romney’s reaction angered local LGBT couples who made several attempts to schedule a meeting. Finally, the couples met with their governor and told him about a vast absence of legal protections that married opposite-sex couples enjoy. They were met with a wooden expression and clear indifference. In fact, Romney’s guests elicited a few reactions that can only be described as callous.
“I didn’t know you had families,” he remarked during their appeal. The ignorant slight later became an insult. As the group left the office, a woman looked Romney in his eyes. “Governor Romney,” she asked, “tell me — what would you suggest I say to my 8 year-old daughter about why her mommy and her ma can’t get married because you, the governor of her state, are going to block our marriage?”
“I don’t really care what you tell your adopted daughter,” he replied. “Why don’t you just tell her the same thing you’ve been telling her the last eight years.” The woman left and subsequently burst into tears. To the unsettled group’s surprise, the governor promptly invited the media into his office and called the meeting “pleasant.”
Nine years later and here in Minnesota, where ten electoral votes have gone to Democratic presidential contenders since 1976, the local limelight has seemingly dimmed on the race between Romney and President Obama. Instead, it has focused on the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage—which as of recently has been called a “tossup.” Even if the presidential race is not as heated here, it is revealing key differences in the candidates’ awareness of what a family is, or what it could be, which will be critically influential in the outcome of the proposed marriage amendment.
Denying the existence—or even the mere possibility—of LGBT families is nothing new. In fact, it was once prevalent, and eerily shared among the LGBT community and the antigay countermovement. While writing my book Land of 10,000 Loves, I interviewed Toni McNaron, professor emerita of English at the University of Minnesota and a central figure in the local lesbian feminist movement. We came to the topic of LGBT families in the 1970s and 1980s.
“When I was coming up,” she recalled, “it was very clear that you either were a lesbian or a gay man, or you could have a family. You didn’t do both. I can remember the first time I heard here about some lesbian couple doing something and having a baby. I thought ‘What, what is that? You can’t do both of those things!’ Because that is what we had all been taught.”
At the time, LGBT activists struggled to obtain basic protections against discrimination in housing and employment; if apartments and jobs were luxuries, then marriage and children were out of the question for all but the bravest activists. Indeed, lesbians who had children from previous marriages often risked losing custody to their ex-husbands simply because they were in relationships with women.
McNaron noted that the struggle to win child custody battles paved the way to other victories for LGBT activists. “The terrified heterosexist world lost on that one, and within a few months, they will have lost ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ But what they’ve got left is marriage. And I think with any dying gasp situation, they’re going to hang onto it for dear life. It’s the last piece of difference.”
In Minnesota, that difference rests in the idea that LGBT people are contemporary aberrations of a pristine, “traditional” family model. This idea complements a belief that LGBT families simply do not exist. Many LGBT or queer-identified people, their partners, and their children find that this belief is a poor interpretation of reality. Many straight members of their families, including their siblings, parents, step-parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, happen to agree with them.
This November, perhaps to no one’s surprise, I will be voting “no” on the proposed amendment that would enshrine a ban on same-sex marriage in the Minnesota Constitution. Perhaps to the surprise of Mitt Romney, I, like other queer people, do indeed have a family. Mine happens to be one of the oldest European American families in the region, and it will be voting “no” alongside me.
Stewart Van Cleve is a former assistant curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is author of Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota.
“Stewart Van Cleve has gone into the musty archives and brought them to vivid life. His comprehensive and entertaining overview of queer Minnesota history is a total page-turner. This feat is all the more impressive given that he’s writing about people who, for a long time, were trying hard to keep their lives hidden. This important work of regional history is also a kind of family history—documenting our recent past with equal parts painstaking accuracy and unabashed love.”
—Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip DTWOF and former Dyke Heights resident