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Don't Call Me Mrs. Martinac

Paula Martinac | September 17, 2003

Paula Martinac After many years of living in Manhattan, my partner and I recently moved to a much smaller and less expensive city so that she could accept a new academic job. The reaction of one of my best friends, who has been passionately involved in the New York gay activist scene for almost 20 years, was fear that I would be "lost" to the gay movement, no longer playing a role in LGBT politics even though I had, in his view, "so much to offer." But what I've learned in just a few weeks is something that's often not understood by big-city queers: that much of the day-to-day living of out lesbian and gay couples in smaller cities and suburbs is a vital form of activism.

When you reside in a large urban area with a heavy concentration of LGBT people, it's easy to forget that those of us in other places have a totally different living experience. Indeed, the 2000 census - in which, for the first time, same-sex couples could identify themselves - showed that we live in virtually every county in the United States. Not surprisingly, gay male twosomes often make opposite decisions from lesbian couples about where to live. According to a 2002 study in Population Today, pricey cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have large numbers of same-sex male couples, who tend to earn more than their lesbian counterparts; female couples gravitate to moderately priced towns like Santa Fe, N.M. and Portland, Me.

Similarly, my partner and I based our decision to leave New York in large part on economics - we wanted a house, but were forced by the outrageously priced New York real estate market to live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Now, inhabiting a three-bedroom house in an urban neighborhood, we find ourselves having to think about things we never considered as Manhattan apartment dwellers. A question likely to face me today isn't "Should I go to the forum on antigay violence at the lesbian and gay community center?" but "Should I take the seminar at Home Depot on how to install a ceiling fan?" And that, my activist friend would say, is why I am already "lost" to the movement.

But at the same time, I now find myself intricately involved in a totally different kind of gay activism, one that I knew about from interviewing same-sex couples several years ago for a book about lesbian and gay relationships and families across the country. So many couples, particularly those with children, told me that because they lived in cities and neighborhoods with relatively small concentrations of gay people, they were constantly coming out - to everyone from their neighbors to their school officials to the appliance-repair guy. While some said they had encountered outright homophobia, more often they faced heterosexism.

Hearing this in interviews, though, is different from actually living it. Recently, a home-security saleswoman with whom I had made an appointment on the phone asked for my husband's name. I replied that I didn't have a husband, but my partner's name was Katie Hogan and we owned the house together. She hesitated, but then wrote it down and moved on to the next question. And our plumber stopped calling me "Mrs. Martinac" when it was clear that Katie and I shared the decision-making on the work to be done on our pipes.

That's not exactly "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!" - or is it? In a way, whenever gay people make the choice to be out within their mostly straight neighborhoods and cities, they are saying "get used to it." And in doing so, they take on an important kind of activism that backs up the more visible work of the larger gay-rights movement.

For example, same-sex marriage rights, the hottest issue on our national movement's plate right now, will never be achieved through court cases alone. Within weeks of the landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision, when many gay activists were proclaiming that marriage rights were just around the corner, a national poll indicated that support among Americans for same-sex relationships had dropped precipitously. Politicians from both major parties rushed to oppose gay marriage.

This example suggests that much of the nitty-gritty work on behalf of marriage rights will be accomplished in smaller cities, towns, and suburbs by lesbian and gay couples who in the course of their daily lives just keep coming out to their fellow Americans. They do this by going to straight religious services or PTA meetings together; buying a home that's not in a gay ghetto and putting both partners' names on the title; correcting the handyman who thinks they're "sisters." And although such efforts go largely unnoticed by gay activists in Washington, New York, and San Francisco, they make an invaluable contribution to our movement.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books and editor in chief of Q Syndicate.

Previous editions
Why a gay high school is a bad idea
Why I Don't Care About Gephardt's Lesbian Daughter
Is it wise for gay Americans to get married in Canada?


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