One year ago today, I stood on the steps of the Bronx County Courthouse with my spouse, Betty Walker, celebrating our marriage. Filled with pride and wonder, I threw my wedding bouquet to the small party of friends and family gathered below: my nephew, Brad; my comrade in so many gay causes, Tom; a new friend from the Universalist All Souls congregation of NY, Mary Ann; and, a forever friend of Betty’s from her days at Hunter College Junior High School, Linda. To the observer, it looked like one of many joyous wedding celebrations, full of good cheer—a send-off to a delayed honeymoon. We were typical of many couples who come through the doors of this courthouse, except for one thing—we were two women, two women who had waited forty years for this moment when we could marry with all the rights and blessings of New York State.
We were unusual in other respects as well. Each of us had come from very different backgrounds. Betty had grown up in a nearby neighborhood, one of the grittiest areas of the South Bronx, and struggled her way out through education and hard work. I had come from a more comfortable background, growing up in one of the pastel-colored suburbs of Los Angeles, the daughter of Mormon parents, the descendants of Utah Mormon pioneers who had risked their lives to cross the American plains to practice their beliefs free from persecution.
Growing up, I never doubted those beliefs, paying close attention to the lessons of primary teachers, then seminary instructors and finally, those offered by professors at Brigham Young University. The first in my family to attend college, I was expected not only to earn a degree, but to find a husband, marry in a Mormon temple and have a large family. As hard as I tried to meet these expectations—enrolling in religious classes, debating with my philosophy teachers and finally taking a 2,000 mile pilgrimage to the Hill Cumorah pageant, I couldn’t do so. Standing on the hillside in Upper New York State near the site where Joseph Smith had his first vision, I was pelted with rain and doubt. I simply didn’t believe.
So, on a semester break in my senior year, I broke the news to my parents that I was no longer a believer. The meeting was painful, but nothing compared to the one I had a few years later when I told them that I was in love with a woman. They were puzzled and hurt by my defection from the church, but bewildered by my revelation that I was gay. To their great credit, they embraced me as well as Betty, unable to let church doctrine stifle the love in their hearts. No one would ever convince them that their daughter should be shunned or expelled. She was family and now, so was Betty.
With the support of family and friends, Betty and I built a life together, becoming psychologists, professors, social activists on behalf of women and, yes, ourselves as lesbian women. Still, we had never imagined that we might one day marry. When Governor Cuomo signed the NY State Equality bill, we immediately began planning our journey to the Bronx County Courthouse.
Now, one year later, has marriage made a difference? Yes, without equivocation. We have changed and the world has changed around us. Our relationship with one another is even more loving, although sometimes frustrating, but a source of laughter and sustenance. After all, we’ve lived together for more than 40 years, time enough to learn how to navigate the many obstacles to a strong and loving relationship. The real differences are in how we relate to the world beyond ourselves. When we step outside our apartment building in New York City and engage in the everyday interactions with doormen, friends, pubic officials, strangers—we are free and proud. When a storekeeper asks, “Are you sisters?” we can smile and say, “No, spouses,” and allow him to react, initially with surprise, then invariably with acceptance and support. In searching for the site for our wedding reception, we were initially cautious about revealing that we, two women, would be the bride and bride. Not once did we encounter a moment’s hesitation before the Hotel Manager would say, “Hey, that’s great! We’re so happy for you!”
It’s odd, but I’ve found that as I share my love of women, I also share my Mormon past more openly. As my sister and nieces gathered from across the U.S., I realized that the judgment and disapproval I had felt by the church of my childhood caused me to ignore the important ways it has shaped me. Even though I had separated consciously from the theology, I hadn’t meant to disown my history or my family, the legacy of my ancestors who had sacrificed so much for their freedom to practice their religion. Having come out as a lesbian, I could come out as a Mormon, realizing that the two parts of me could integrate into a loving and proud person. Yes, I am the daughter of Mormon pioneers and, yes, I am a lesbian who has reached her own promised land of equality and justice.
A layer of defensiveness has been removed allowing both Betty and me to be more fully who we are. And, by the way, my nephew, Brad, caught the bridal bouquet. I expect he will be a bishop in the Mormon church one day. I hope he’ll tell the story about the day his lesbian aunt married her partner at the Bronx County Courthouse and how proud he was to be there.
As the Mormon hymn says, “Grace shall be as Your Day.”