One of our very own Supergays, writer and poet Cheryl Dumesnil contributed this article to Out & Around. Cheryl’s also shared with us The C Word. We look forward to more of her writing exploring the crossroads of parenthood, lesbians and suburbia.
I am not the best storyteller. So I’m not sure why, when the executive director of my hometown’s library association asked me to speak at the one-year anniversary of our local live storytelling series, I said yes. Well, okay, maybe I do know why: I am nothing if not a middle child—I like microphones; I like audiences; I like attention. But usually when I stand up to speak, I have a poem or an essay or an outline in my hand. This off-book, live storytelling business is totally foreign to me and, frankly, quite intimidating.
To counteract my fear, I decided to attend one of these storytelling nights as an audience member, to check out the scene and maybe pick up a few pointers. So I headed to the upstairs event room of my suburban town’s current hot spot bar (and renowned hetero pick-up joint), where I found my friend, the aforementioned executive director, along with about forty other folks gearing up for the show. Live storytelling attracts this kind of audience? I thought. Cool.
In front of the room a mic stand and amplifier established the stage. On our table, next to the mood-setting candle, a half-sheet of paper announced the night’s topic, “Celebrations.” It also listed the line-up of storytellers, including a timeslot for audience members to tell impromptu, five-minute stories, the best of which would win twenty-five bucks.
Open mic? Audience stories? Money? The attention-hungry middle-child in me sat up like a hunting dog on point. Pipe down, girl, I told her. This is not your night. We’re here to listen.
And so we listened. To a guy with a long history of messing up his wife’s birthday celebrations, who knew he had finally gotten it right when she bestowed upon him an unsolicited round of thank you fellatio. (More than I needed to know.) To a forty-plus-year-old woman, often asked if she’s gay because she’s never been married, who threw herself a twenty-five-thousand-dollar birthday party in lieu of the someday-wedding she’d finally given up on planning. To a self-proclaimed metrosexual man who assured us that he thinks homophobia is uncool, then regaled us with stories that revealed his discomfort with gay men, reminding me how very complicated homophobia can be. To a woman who, after a Thunder Down Under show, bedded one of the performers and seemed surprised by this feat, not only because he looked like a Greek god, but also because she had been certain that all male strippers are gay.
Huh. Maybe it’s just me, but I hadn’t expected stories by straight people to include so many guest appearances by “gayness.” Apparently the event host also noticed the lavender trend, because before she sent us off to intermission, she said, “We need an actual gay person to speak up in here—that would be awesome.”
Awesome. So there we were: that now-empty stage, the host’s words echoing in the silence, and my inner-middle-child waving her hand, screaming ME! ME! ME! PICK ME!
As the host distributed notecards, instructing the audience members who wanted to speak to write their names on the cards and stick them in the hat she was holding, I became exceedingly aware of audience demographics. If the one-in-ten queer statistics were in force that night, I should have had three rainbow family members in that room. Either those elusive three were, like me, homos who blend in, or I was the lone lezzie.
Now I’m not usually on the hunt for queers like this, not only because there aren’t many to be found where I live, but also because, generally speaking, I’m okay chillin’ with the straights. I mean, some of my best friends are heterosexual. (For real.) As a gay-married, work-at-home mom of two, I have a lot in common with Middle America. But remember that Sesame Street song, “one of these things is not like the others”? Well, having just been peppered by stories that presumed both a shared heterosexuality and a rigid gender binary (you know: men are from Pep Boys Auto, women are from the Lancôme counter), I had a whole chorus singing that song in my head. Suddenly, I was hyperaware of my invisible otherness. This is both the superpower and the downfall of being a lesbo who blends in—the moment I flash my homo card, I bust stereotypes (superpower); until I do so, I am invisible (downfall).
My middle-child-self does not tolerate invisibility well. So I end up outing myself on a regular basis, dropping the “wife” bomb into conversations at the grocery store, mentioning my sons’ “other mom” in park-side chats. But this perpetual coming out serves a purpose larger than feeding my birth-order-derived desire to be seen. In a culture that assumes heterosexual-until-proven-otherwise, I want to remind people that we queer folk are, indeed, everywhere. When it comes to sexuality, most spaces in our society are already integrated, but they are not yet inclusive—the heterosexual presumption, the gender binary still reign supreme. But the more we speak our stories into the public record, the more nuanced our culture’s understanding of queer experience becomes. Maybe, eventually, telling our stories will help eradicate those heterosexist assumptions and gender expectations. Yeah, okay, that sounds a little overly-optimistic to me too, but a girl’s gotta have a goal, right? And I honestly believe it works. Person by person, story by story, when we speak our truths we are helping create a more inclusive, queer-friendly society.
So ultimately, it wasn’t my spotlight-grabbing inner-middle-child who signed my name on that index card and dropped it in the hat. It was my always-on-call inner activist. You realize don’t you, she intoned, that this is one of “those” moments. Yes, I did. What stood before me was a marriage equality advocate’s dream: an open microphone, a room full of people ready to listen, a call for a queer voice to speak on the topic of celebrations. So I stepped up.
“I’ve been married three times,” I said into the mic. Then I paused long enough for the audience’s assumptions about me to fall into place: divorced, straight, serial monogamist. Go: “To the same woman.” Smiles appeared on the few faces I could see through the lights glaring in my eyes.
“That’s kind of how it goes in the gay community these days.” People laughed.
“Now, there’s this notion in our culture that every wedding—no matter the genders of the newlyweds—is going to have its ‘memorable moment,’” I continued. “I know this is true because I saw it on an episode of The Office.” More laughter.
Then I told the story of the most memorable moment from my third wedding day, which took place during California’s Proposition 8 campaign. Driving to our local county clerk’s office to get married that morning, along the road that runs from the freeway to downtown Martinez, my family and I saw a woman standing in the median strip, hammering Yes on 8 campaign signs into the dirt. “No one should have to see signs protesting their wedding on the way to their wedding,” I said, hoping the audience would think about how that would feel: folks protesting the relationship they hold most dear on a day reserved for pure celebration.
I described how I pulled over to the side of the road, rolled down my window, and introduced my family to that woman—my wife Tracie, our two-year-old son Kian, our four-year-old son Brennan—because I wanted to give her a visual representation of the kinds of families she was hurting. “We’re on our way to our wedding,” I called to her, “and I want to tell you that I hope you change your mind someday.” If I were to be perfectly honest, I would have told her, “I hope you look back on this moment and feel shame.” But that was just the anger talking, and anger doesn’t usually get me where I want to go.
Then I told the audience about driving up to the clerk’s office, how we had to take the No on 8 sign out of our car window because we were parking within one hundred feet of a polling place. As we walked into the lobby, we found two queues: line up to the left if you’re here to vote, line up to the right if you’re here to get married while it’s still legal to do so.
I told them about the grandmothers who were marrying each other that day with their grandchildren as witnesses, about the marriage commissioner who made her unwavering support for our family perfectly clear, about how sweet it was to have our two boys there with my parents and several friends, watching Tracie and me recite our vows for the third—and finally legal—time.
And then I told them how, on the drive home, despite the cold rain, my vintage organza dress, my bare legs, and my platform sandals, I pulled over to the side of the road, got out of my car, ran across the street to the median strip, and yanked every one of that woman’s Yes on 8 signs out of the ground.
Stashing the signs in the trunk of our car, I heard our oldest son ask Tracie, “Mama, what is Mommy doing?”
Tracie replied, “She’s moving some signs.”
“Why?” he persisted.
My quick-thinking wife answered, “Because someone put them in the wrong place.” Again, the laughs.
“I suppose some would say that what I was doing was stealing,” I told the audience, “but I couldn’t let another loving couple drive past those signs on the way to their wedding. Besides, my tax dollars pay for the maintenance of that public property, and those signs were a blight on the beauty of the landscape. I wasn’t stealing; I was cleaning up the trash someone else had left behind.”
From the laughter, compassionate smiles, and nodding heads, I assume same-sex marriage had many supporters in the audience that night. I don’t know that I necessarily changed any minds with my story, but I hope I opened some eyes and gave our straight allies a few more anecdotes to help them help others see the need for equality.
Also, I won twenty-five bucks. For telling a five-minute, off-the-cuff story. If I’m figuring the math right, that means I got paid at a rate of three hundred dollars an hour—lawyer’s wages. A live mic, an audience, and money? I’m thinking maybe I’ll stick with this storytelling thing.