Lesbian Activist Recalls Her Fight For Marriage Equality.

by Cathy Marino-Thomas

Lesbian Activist Recalls Her Fight For Marriage Equality.

1970s: Meeting First Girlfriend And Discovering Lesbianism. “She Really Helped Me Start On That Road.”

When I was about 17, so that’s in the seventies, I had this friend Jerry who lived in my neighborhood. We’re very close, the families. He had a couple of brothers, too. We all grew up together. He had a very young girlfriend. She couldn’t go out at night after a certain time. She was a lovely girl and he was very committed to her. So I used to go out with him. She was very comfortable with that because we were good friends from when we were children and she thought better he should be hanging out with me. So it was great.

We used to go – it was, you know, during disco time and stuff so there’s a lot of clubs in queens. So one night, he says to me, you know, “My brother owns a club.”

And I’m like, “Well, why didn’t you say that before?”

He goes, “Well, because it’s not a it’s not a regular club.”

And I was like, “What’s not regular?” What’re you talking about, basically.

And he said, “It’s a gay club.”

I’m like, “Really?” I was very intrigued. I’d never been to a gay club before.

I said, “Yeah, I want to go. Let’s check it out!” So we did. We went and we got treated like royalty and, you know, because his brother owned the club and we went in and the drinks were free and, you know, it was really a nice place. Fine, we went there one night. It became a regular thing after that night, once he knew I was okay with going there. We would go to a couple other places. We’d always wind up there. I began to really enjoy going there and now I was meeting people there and I was making friends and people would remember me and I’d come in and they’d say hello and it was lovely.

One night, Jerry couldn’t go out. I found myself going there anyway. This night this woman that I knew from high school was there. She used to date a guy I knew and she wound up marrying him and having a little – a daughter with him. They got separated and he used to come and pick up his daughter on the weekends, which meant that Alice had her whole house to herself without a child. This was very appealing to the crowd we were beginning to hang out with. Long story short, I was going there regularly now without my friend. I was creating new friends there.

Alice was what in the seventies and early eighties, we used to call a faghag. A straight woman who preferred to hang out with gay people. I said, oh great I’m going to be a faghag, too! I love it. So great. So we started hanging out every weekend and we would go back to Alice’s house to sleep. The crowd of people doing this with us got so big that if you wanted to sleep in a bed, you had to go home early because otherwise they’d be no room. You have to sleep on the floor, in a chair, whatever. I actually caught her sleeping in her daughter’s crib one time.

I woke up one day and there was a very interesting looking woman sleeping next to me. I never met her before.

I went, “Good morning, good morning.” She turned around.

And she was like, “Oh, you’re awake. I came and slept over here because I wanted to meet you.”

I was like, “Really?” We talked.

“Did you ever go out on a date with a woman?” I said I haven’t.

“Well, are you interested in that?”

And I said, “I never really gave it much thought.” And then I remember that we got up and we left Alice’s house we went out for something to eat. It was like we spent the whole day together and then I didn’t see her for a couple of days. We made a date for the weekend and it became pretty regular after that, that we would go out on a date. She would bring me home kind of chivalry, in the chivalrous manner and give me a little peck on the cheek at night. I thought it was very cute for a person who really hadn’t been a virgin for awhile already. But she treated me as such so it was kind of sweet.

We became steadily regular and then before we knew it, we were together. She was a lovely person to have as a first girlfriend because she wanted to teach me that being gay was more than sex, that living a lesbian life would change me in ways that I had not thought about before. She helped me to see that the sexual part of a lesbian relationship was the smallest actually. The smallest part. She helped me to see that people would view us differently. I wasn’t ready for that. I’m a cis white woman. I think that that gave me certain privileges that I was only going to start becoming aware of at that moment. When started talking to me about the judgment of people and the way that we have to interact with one another in front of people – because I was all giddy and in love with my new situation and I was all holding hands and, you know, wanting to be on her.

And she was like, “You need to learn that in public, we don’t do that in the seventies” I would say that Marlene represented to me, at the beginning, of what would become who I am today. She opened my eyes to a world that maybe wouldn’t accept me. In my family, I am the only daughter, two brothers. On my mother’s side, I’m the only granddaughter, seven grandsons. I had a very protected and privileged upbringing. Meeting Marlene and discovering my lesbianism, my own personal road, she really helped me to start on that road and she really opened my eyes to what that road could become.

1994: Lesbian Goes From Laughing at the Idea of Same-Sex Marriage to Becoming President of Marriage Equality USA.

So it’s maybe 1994. I’ve been living with Sheila, this woman Sheila, for about a year at this point. And we were sitting on the couch one evening watching – it was a big wedding of some kind. She seemed kind of down.

I was like, “Sheila, what’s the matter?”

She goes, “Ah, you know, I always had this dream about getting married and it just will never happen and I’m kind of depressed about the fact that when it will never happen.”

I’m like, “Well, if you could get married, what would it look like? What would you do?” And she said, you know, she liked the idea of that lifelong commitment and she wanted a house and the picket fence and children and this and that. And I actually laughed at her because it seems so outrageous to me that we would want to conform in this way. But she was really serious and I think she was actually quite offended that I found it so comical.

A couple days went by and I approach the subject with her again. I was like, “Did you really mean what you said about getting married? Because, you know, if having a wedding really meant something to you, we could have a wedding. I mean, it wouldn’t have any legal significance but we could have a wedding.”

And she was like, “Really? You would do that?

And I’m like, “Yeah, we’ll do it, but you know we’re not gonna have any more the day after it than we had the day before. But if you -”

“But I would really love to have that public commitment,” she said.

“Okay. Let’s have a wedding.” I’ve been an activist for a long time and something happens to me when I feel an issue coming on that I need to work on and I get like this burning thought process going. And after a couple days, I really couldn’t think about anything else about why it was that we couldn’t get legally married. And it just played on my mind and played on my mind played on my – so I went back to her and now she’s planning our wedding. She’s having a wedding. She’s very happy that I have agreed to go along with this.

And I said to her, “Well, what if we went a step further and we found some other people that believe this is a possibility?” Called the LGBT center in Manhattan. No marriage. Called, you know, called some of the activists that I knew. “Come on, that’s ridiculous!” was the response I was getting. You gotta remember it was 1994. Really – the only people I found that believed this was a right was MCC church. Because Reverend Troy Perry, who was the founder of MCC, lives in California had already filed for a marriage license through them.

I did find a small group of activists here in New York that believe that marriage was a possibility. So we met with them. And as they say, the rest is kind of history because I worked on that issue for almost 20 years. I was the Board President of Marriage Equality USA for maybe 10 of the 17 years that I worked on the issue. I’ve spoken all over the country on the issue of marriage. I’ve spoken in front of the Supreme Court for both cases.

We did have our wedding in 1995 with no legal significance but we are still together. We have honored those wedding vows, legal or not, since 1995. And Sheila, my wife now – and my legal wife now, by the way – got what she wanted. She got her wedding. She got her child. Our daughter is 19 now, just left for college. The only thing I didn’t get her was the picket fence because that was a little too corny for me. So we skipped the picket fence. But we made a dream come true.

People that know me and know the amount of marriage work I did would probably find it unreasonable that I was the one that took it comically in the beginning. Because I wound up speaking all over the country about the right to marry. There are over 1,300 things you can only have with a marriage license and once I found that little fact out, I had a burning desire to continue that. So we are still married. It doesn’t only take a legal license to make a commitment. I know that now. And now it’s all turned out well so…

Late 1990s: Lesbian Couple Faces Multiple Challenges In Having a Child. “The Most Joyful Things In Life Are Really Hard To Obtain.”

So Sheila, my wife, and I were married a couple of years – or committed to each other for a couple of years because marriage was not legal yet in this country. And we started talking about being parents. I was 37. Maybe just about 37. And she was 35.

At first we were thinking about adoption and the reason we were thinking about adoption is because it was kind of a flat decision. Neither one of us would have to be the birth mom. You know, it would be kind of even, even though in hindsight another that doesn’t really matter. It’s even if you – if it’s even.

And we went to a couple of adoption agencies and we found a really homophobic situation there. One adoption agency told us that it was a pipe dream to think that any adoption agency would allow to women to adopt a child. If I was 37, it was 1997, so maybe in 1997 that was true. We went to another one that wanted – that offered us an open adoption, which I never thought was really stable for a child. I think a child is better off having the parents that they have and focusing on life with those parents. Just a personal feeling of mine, so I wasn’t too interested in an open adoption situation. And then I went to – we went to a lovely adoption agency, they were beautiful there, and they were working with us.

And then the woman, the social worker said to me, “You know, I’m listening to the two of you talk and I think that you two really want to be pregnant.”

I was like, “Really?” Because I didn’t really give it too much conscious thought at this time.

And she said. “I think you should explore that a little bit. I’m happy to work with you if you decide that is what you want, but you should explore it.” In the end, she was right. Now I never thought about it in that context, but then when I went home and we talked about it and yeah, we wanted the whole thing. We wanted a pregnancy, we want all of that.

Okay, so once we decided that, it was well who’s going to have the baby? We decided it would be me because she was extremely needle-phobic. Show her a syringe even on TV and she she wants the pass out, so if you’re going to inseminate and if you’re going to have a baby, there’s a lot of needles involved. So I was going to do it.

Where do we go? Who knows? So we tried to go to a couple of, you know, these group sessions, you know, gay parents, that kind of thing. Finally, we found a woman in the New York City LGBT center who was working on a program called Center Kids and we talked to her about options for insemination and she gave us the name of a doctor who was doing this kind of work with lesbian families.

So we went to visit her and she talked to us about inseminating. We had to go to a cryobank in all of this stuff. And I was thinking, you know, this is going to be nothing, this is going to be easy, no problem. I’m a healthy woman. I had all the tests. Everything came back positive. It was a go. I had no endometriosis and all the other things that they check for. All good.

It ain’t easy. Two and a half years of inseminating monthly. Let me tell you what a life-invading process that is, because you have to act like you’re pregnant always because you never know if you are until the cycle completes, you find out if you are not.

We finally had Sheila genetically typed because we just couldn’t decide, so they sent us only donors that was similar to her family background in medical and, you know, height, weight, color, that kind of thing. We pick three. Inseminate… nothing. Inseminate… nothing. Two and a half years.

Finally, this one month, I was so over it. I had to – I wound up having to take fertility drugs because insemination is only about 25 to 30 percent effective even in the healthiest of women, we found out in the middle of this process. This one month, one of Sheila’s friends with having a big party this weekend. And I wanted to go to the party and not worry about my insemination issues.

I said, “I’m gonna take my pregnancy test.”

She said, “You’re supposed to wait two more days.”

I said, “If I wait two more days, I’ll be sitting at that party with a Coke and I’m done. I’m not doing that.”

“Fine.” Next morning, I got up about 5:30 in the morning. I go in the bathroom, I take the test. It’s positive.

I come running out of the bathroom. I’m like, “Get up! Get up right now! Get up!”

She’s like, “What? What? What?”

“We’re having a baby!”

“Oh, that’s nice, dear. We’re what?!?” I made a couple phone calls that morning. I called my boss. And his response was, “You gotta be eff-ing kidding me.” And then my mom, of course, who was very excited.

We went to the hospital. We got an actual, you know, what they call “the rabbit test” even though they no longer use rabbits for those tests and found out that we were, in fact, pregnant. Very exciting time. The pregnancy was beautiful and that child has just left for college. I didn’t have a beer at that party but it didn’t seem to matter anymore.

It was so joyous for us to become parents but that didn’t mean that the road wasn’t hard. So I think I would say that sometimes the most joyful things in life are really hard to obtain. I know it sounds kind of corny, but this story really proves that you have to keep your eye on the prize because on several occasions wanted to give up.

2006: Children’s Sleepover Conversation About Family Diversity Surprises Mom: “It Was Beautiful And Amazing.”

Right so, I guess it was maybe 2006. My daughter was a first grader. So we lived on Long Island. We had a house there. We had an apartment also in the city but mostly we lived in our house what we sent her to school in the West Village.

So we used to make a exceptional plans to do play dates and that stuff because she couldn’t do the after school playing time with the kids generally. For this one weekend, we had all her little girlfriends come and sleep over and she was very excited and we had, you know, air mattresses everywhere and all these crazy foods that they like to eat. We made them smoothie margaritas in plastic glasses with sugar on the sides and they were all very excited, having cocktails with each other and all of that stuff. It was very lovely.

We get to the house. We walk in and her friend Sophie proceeds to take off her clothes off. So I call her father. And I told him, what was going on? And I just thought, I told them I don’t have an issue with it but I think that you should know Sophie has done this.

So he said, “Well, you know, try to ask her why.” But he thought – and he would up to be right – that it was because she lives with all men. She had two dads and she had a little brother.

So I asked Sophie and she says, “I’m here with all girls and I feel so free! So I just want to be free!”

I’m like, “Well, you go, girl. You be free.” She spent the – most of the time without her clothes on.

So they start this conversation about religion and I have to remind myself that it is a table full of 6, some are 7 year olds, because the conversation was pretty adult for this age group of kids. And this one is Jewish and that one doesn’t believe in anything and this one was Christian and Jackie didn’t know what to – my daughter Jackie didn’t know who to answer, what to answer because we’re somewhat Christian but, you know, we’re not extremely religious and everything.

Okay, so they got over that and they laughed about how different the table was, full of different kinds of religions and one of the little girls, Juliet I think it was, she goes, “What about parents? What kind of parents do you have? I was adopted I have a mommy and a daddy.”

And Jackie’s friend, Sophie, the naked girl: “I have 2 dads.”

Jackie: “I have 2 moms.”

The – so the little girl at the table says, “My parents are divorced. I only live with my mom.” And so on and so forth around the table. I was amazed at this conversation. It proved to me that if you give children the bandwidth to explore themselves and you don’t restrict them with all these rules around who you’re supposed to be that the options are limitless. The conversation went on to discuss whether or not they felt one way or another because they didn’t have whatever was in their family’s dynamic that they were missing. And the outcome was at the girls came to this conclusion – again 7,8 year olds – that as long as they have love it doesn’t matter. I – first of all I cried, of course, but second of all, I was just so taken with the idea that these kids were so free.

So the girls get ready to leave and we take everybody home, because of course because we live on Long Island, we drive everybody back into the city. Most of them lived in the West Village area.

So after we drop them off, we were on our way home and Jackie, our daughter, says to me, “Mom, I have a question for you.”

I was like, “Alright, sweetheart. I can do my best to answer whatever.”

She says, “Mom, Sophie has two daddies and Clara’s parents are divorced and I have two mommies. And I understand Sophie had a surrogate mom and I know what that is,” – which was pretty amazing to me considering her age – “but how did Cousin Larry get here?”

And I was like, “What do you mean?”

“Well, he has a mom and a dad who are not divorced, so how did he -” I was like, oh, boy! And it’s our first story about the stork! So I explained to her very clinical terms how, you know, “natural” we’ll call it, conception happens.

And she looked at me and says, “Mommy, that’s disgusting. I’m never going to do that.”

So after I got over the initial laugh, I told her, “Come back when it’s not disgusting anymore we’ll talk about it all over again.” And she has since then of course.

When I look back on the story, I really see how well all the parents of all these kids did in giving their children diversity and the idea that what most of society considers the norm was no more important than the other different types of families. To me, it was beautiful and amazing and I wish that all families can be that way.

2008: Marriage Equality Activist Faces Down Opponent–And Wins.

I have doing marriage equality work for a little while. I was Board President, I was speaking. Maybe it was 2008 or so. I had been traveling around the country and trying to convince our own community of the need for marriage, mostly. But we were beginning now to reach out to ours straight opponents and try to negotiate debates.

Hofstra University called me. They were trying to set up a debate with Maggie Gallagher. At the time, Maggie Gallagher was the executive director of the National Organization for Marriage. So anyone that doesn’t know who that is, that is the direct opposite of Marriage Equalities’ initiatives. They contacted me, Hofstra did, because of my role as board president, so they wanted to get somebody comparable in the hierarchy, I guess, to Maggie Gallagher.

So I immediately said yes, didn’t think about it again, didn’t care what the date was, I said, yes, I’ll do it. Hung up and said, oh my god, I’m going to debate Maggie Gallagher. And immediately started thinking how I was going to approach this. I knew certain things that she would say. I went online, I watched some of her speeches. I visited their website. I wanted to make sure I was familiar with their rhetoric and the things that they would be saying. And I sat for a really long time thinking, thinking, thinking about how it was that – what angle was I gonna take with her? Because there are a few angles around marriage equality.

You could just simply say, “It’s my right. It’s not related to religion. It’s part of the government. The government has to protect my family.” And that’s all well and good but that wasn’t Maggie’s rhetoric. Maggie’s rhetoric was that it was morally wrong for us to be married, okay, that our children would suffer and all that kind of stuff.

So the day comes and I have a friend who is a videographer and he used to come to a lot of my stuff. He actually made a documentary about our work in the end and part of it has this debate in it. He came to pick me up and I came out of my house and I had two shopping bags with me

And he’s like, “What is that?”

I said. “These are all the studies that prove that a child raised by a gay family is no more or less competent than a child raised by straight family.”

He’s like, “You’re kidding, right?”

I’m like, “Some of them are repeats. Don’t worry. It’s about volume.” I’ve done a lot of public speaking. I’m not generally nervous when I do that, but this was really big for our movement and I think that on some level, at the moment, I felt like I was the only one in the room who realized how big it actually was. But the audience was mostly in favor of my side of the issue, progressives and that sort of thing. But I was afraid she would say something they would believe basically. She didn’t.

They showed that awful commercial that her organization put together the gathering storm. It was this ad about this horrible results of allowing gay people to marry and when it ended, I said the thing that my friend has enjoyed using over and over in many of his little videos and things that he does and that is, “You know, I have a lot to say about this and none of it’s good.”

The more confidence I built, the bigger my sighs were, and the more obnoxious my response. Like in a very short way, pretty much telling her that her statement is ridiculous. And I shut her up! I was so impressed with myself. I have to tell you she had nothing to say. At the end of the debate she shook my hand and she said the way I talk about marriage and the way I talk about my wife, I must have such a happy life, that she got divorced because her marriage wasn’t happy.

And I turned around. I told her, “Maybe you’re a lesbian.” And that’s how the debate ended.

At the end of it – I had started out with such apprehension and such nerves, I was afraid I wouldn’t even be able to speak and I wound up feeling so triumphant. I was – I could still feel that feeling right now telling the story about how exuberant I felt that I shut her up. Oh my god, it was amazing. It was an amazing – it was an amazing moment.

We won and nobody thought we ever would. And mostly nerves are what was keeping us from winning and once we, as a group of activists, did the research and realized there’s really no reason for them to say no, gave us power. I think that telling my feelings about that debate shows that, number one, I was not always as confident as people think I am, and two, when you’re right, you’re right, pretty much.

Sharing your story can change someone's life. Interested in learning more?