Cheryl Dumesnil’s collection In Praise of Falling won the 2008 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Editor of Hitched! Wedding Stories from San Francisco City Hall and co-editor, medical of Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, she is currently in the final edits of her new book .
A small, Catholic college is not the first place one thinks of when pondering where to take a life-changing sexuality and gender course with an amazing professor, but in 2001 that is where I met Cheryl. I was a senior at Santa Clara University, outside of San Jose, California. Cheryl agreed to instruct an independent study course we dubbed Queer Studies because the university offered no courses on this topic at that time. My assignment: write six essays sequencing my coming out story. During that semester Cheryl taught me how to use writing to find my voice, to declare my identity. She has been my Super Gay Hero ever since.
Jenni and I head out to Walnut Creek to visit Cheryl, her wife Tracie, and their two boys, ages 6 and 4. The lavender painted door, a splash of gay in suburbia, lets us know we have arrived. Inside they have a spacious modern home, surprisingly organized and tidy for mothers of young boys. Their boys bring out their latest Lego project, then challenge us to electric car races, and later ask for pushes on the swings on their jungle gym. After play time, the boys are entertained with an educational video for some uninterrupted interview time.
No longer a student, I now ask Cheryl to describe her coming out story. She humbly says, “It was significantly less dramatic and painful than others I’ve heard.” As a young woman she had dated men exclusively and married her college boyfriend soon after graduation. As an activist couple, they were involved in community organizing, and met lesbians through volunteer work in Upstate New York. It was then that Cheryl started to notice her attraction to women. She says, “Looking at the Kinsey scale, I was not exactly in the middle, nor was I at the far end. My experiences with men were real connections. And yet, something was always missing.” Cheryl and her husband divorced when she was twenty-nine. “Coming out was difficult only in that it meant hurting my ex-husband, who was also my best friend.”
Aside from the broken hearts, Cheryl describes her coming out journey as joyful. “After years of wondering what it would be like to date women, I was finally free to. It was like leaving a job that I realized I had never fully liked.” Two years later she met her life partner, Tracie. In 2001 they committed to one another in an intimate, backyard ceremony attended by family and friends. They wed again three years later at San Francisco City Hall, when Mayor Gavin Newson made history and issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A truly public affair, Carol Migden, a California Senator, performed their ceremony on the steps of the rotunda among news cameras, a visiting school group, a German tour group, and a few good friends. Cheryl describes that time as “euphoric. It was so fun, so exciting, so celebratory. Being in City Hall back then–it was a spiritual experience. You could feel the energy of love in the air.”
Fired up with the contagious spirit of love, Cheryl searched the city and the Internet for gay couples who had gotten married that month. She collected their stories into a book, Hitched! Wedding Stories from San Francisco City Hall. The preface opens with a testimony by Rosie O’Donnell who discusses the meaning of liberty and justice for all. The book includes an essay by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a pioneering couple together for 51 years, chosen to be the first couple to be married in City Hall. The book also highlights the story of Doug Johnson and Bill Weaver who celebrated 50 years together but missed their wedding appointment by six days when the courts interceded and put a halt to the ceremonies.
In 2008 Cheryl and Tracie had their third wedding in the second window of opportunity when same-sex marriages were again legalized in California. This time they decided to get married in their local county clerk office in Martinez to ensure gay families were represented in their county. She explains the mixed emotions of the day, “As we were walking through one door of the building to get married, people were walking through another door to vote on Prop 8,” the anti-gay marriage initiative.
Driving home from their wedding with their two sons in the back seat, they saw a woman standing in the road’s center divider, pitching “Yes on 8” anti-gay marriage signs. “I couldn’t just let that go. I pulled over to the side of the road, rolled down my window, and said, ‘Hello, my name is Cheryl. This is my wife Tracie, and these are our children Brennan and Kian. We just got married. We wanted to let you know that we hope you change your mind someday.’” Cheryl said the woman’s “facial expression looked as if she had just been caught doing something wrong. She looked awkward, embarrassed. Then she gave us a thumbs up.” Clearly the woman did not realize that those impacted by Yes on 8 could look so much like her.
Cheryl said, “The entire Prop 8 campaign was very painful for my family and me. It felt like a personal attack. The debate brought underground homophobia to the surface, which I suppose is a blessing and a curse. If we can see it, we can respond to it. But really, who wants to see it?” She explains, “Do Tracie and I still have a thriving life without full marriage rights? Yes, but with a hitch. We know all those great American ideals about equality and justice do not include people like us. We want full equality, full recognition for our family. When the kids came along we felt far more vulnerable to these anti-gay politics. When I brought our youngest son to his first demonstration he was ten months old and strapped to my chest in a baby carrier. When I spoke to the crowd gathered at the Governor’s San Francisco office, for the first time ever I clenched up with tears while speaking. It really hit me in the moment that this now affects my kids.”
When asked what key factors will propel the gay rights movement forward, Cheryl points to how constructive action has to start with a younger generation. “It’s so important to ask people who work with children to use inclusive language and to question their gender assumptions. If people have the opportunity to know who they are at a young age, they will feel and cause less pain in their lives. They will not break their best friends’ hearts at age twenty-nine, not hurt themselves because they feel something is wrong with them, or beat someone else because of their own discomfort. The more we can help individuals be who they are in the world, the more we will create positive change.”
When we use the phrase Super Gay to describe Cheryl, she shies away from it. “I’m not sure how ‘Super Gay’ I am these days. My life looks more mainstream that it ever has: I live in the suburbs. I have two kids, a dog, a cat, and a house that may as well have a picket fence around it. I spend my days driving small humans to their activities, co-managing a household, and squeezing a few minutes out each evening to make a meaningful connection with my wife. Oh, and juggling all this with my writing career. I mean, sure, everyone out here knows I’m gay–I come out to new people within five minutes of our first hello. And I’ll take any opportunity to stand up for queer folks, big and small. But my days look pretty much like any other work-at-home parents’ days. I’m just an average suburban lesbian housewife, insisting on being fully myself in everything I do.”
Perhaps Cheryl she doesn’t realize the uniqueness of her gay perspective. Her prize winning collection of poetry, In Praise of Falling, displays the beauty of her lens. Her poems, written over the last twenty years, discuss the breakdown of divorce, coming out, and loss. They also detail the resilience and joy of parenthood and partnership. While she sees herself as just sharing words representing her life and experiences, we find her voice to be extraordinary.
After our visit with Cheryl and family, Jenni and I hop back in our two-seater convertible. We talk about how we will need to sell the car before leaving on our trip and plan to purchase a more practical four door car later. We wonder if our kids will turn out half as good as Brennan and Kian. We argue over what to make for dinner, and realize that we can just go out. We zoom back to the city happy to have the freedom of travel ahead of us.