normalizing

pronounsOn June 26, 2015, that historic day when the Supreme Court decided that same-sex marriage would be legal in all fifty of the United States, I sat on a bus stop bench near Macy’s on 34th Street waiting for Bob to come out of Sketchers. We had just finished meeting with the lawyer who was preparing closing documents for the sale of our apartment and Bob wanted to look at tennis shoes.

The mundane character of how we received the news was poignant. I was now granted the unfathomable freedom to marry the love of my life who was shoe shopping as I sat on a bench among the unaware Midtown tourists only a half a mile (but a world away) from the epicenter of the impromptu celebrations popping up outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

A friend who had lived in New York through the decades leading up to that day—through cruising on the Christopher Street piers in the 1970s and the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, Reagan and Bush, The Eagle and Splash, Mapplethorpe and Smith, ActUp and AZT, Kotch and Giuliani, Kramer and Kushner, Ellen, and Will and Grace, and everything in between—also took the news in stride, if not a bit wistfully. He posted on social media a couple days after the landmark ruling that he would “miss being a sexual outlaw.”

I had, not quite the same, but a related feeling that weekend while sitting in Washington Square with Bob watching dozens of young same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand through the park. Just as it had become for Bob and me, for each of them it appeared to be easy. I wondered if they saw Bob and me, and imagined that this was as new to us at it was to them, or maybe even, that we were benefiting from something their generation had gained for us. That they had normalized it for us.

But, when Bob and I first arrived in New York for graduate school at NYU in the Fall of 1989, and soon after started dating, I was still working at a Catholic parish in Chelsea. Bob would reach to take my hand as we walked the streets of the Village and I would startle. It was in part the delightful newness of a big warm masculine hand grasping mine, but also the fear of consequences. I certainly was afraid of what might happen if someone from the church saw me. But also, for as much as the Village was the epicenter of the gay rights movement and liberal thought, “gay bashing” was quite prevalent in the 1980s and ’90s, and every group of Jersey boys and Texas tourists that approached on the street was suspect. And, just ten blocks north or south of the Village it was still an anomaly. Reactions were everything from NYC grande dames who murmured that we were “adorable” in their deep, smokey NYC murmurs, to our own out-of-town guests that felt uncomfortable being seen with us, to heckles and threats from strangers.

But we did it anyway. We did it to normalize two men holding hands—first for ourselves and then for others. We weren’t the expected gay couple. We were Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble in cool shoes. We seemed as settled as a pair of lesbians and their pet menagerie from the moment we met, yet we weren’t the slim, stylish, snappy gay couples one was use to on TV. We drew attention for how normal we were and weren’t. We were “regular guys,” but far from normal. But, the longer we held hands outside the Village (I’m talking years) the more commonplace it became for us and the less we cared what others thought, other than the comfort in knowing that this was becoming a part of more people’s normal.

I take pride in our small participation in the advances gay people made in the ’90s. But, to be honest, when same-sex marriage became the topic of discussion in the 2000s, it took other people to normalize the idea for me. Straight marriage was very much the definition of the perfect relationship in my childhood, which I had so deeply internalized from an early age, along with its inherent barrier to same-sex relationships, that I couldn’t imagine the world allowing it to be any other way. I couldn’t even imagine myself thinking differently. I wrote an editorial at the time saying the idea was frivolous, that marriage was an archaic institution that we didn’t need to emulate, and that we’d be better off working for protections in the work place. Thankfully, I never submitted it anywhere.

So, I owe my own marriage to the people who fought for even the conversation to become normal, who slowly normalized it even for Bob and me, as we held hands and shopped for shoes. I owe it to those that built the legal arguments and fought to say same-sex couples deserved the normal legal rights of any couple if they wanted them. And, once it was here and Bob and I did get married, I faced a new challenge for myself: referring to Bob as “my husband” instead of my “partner” in everyday conversations. The challenge came from so many others around me who were way ahead of me. I’ve taken up this challenge once again to normalize it in myself first, and then do so for others.

This past week during new student orientation, as I crossed the campus where I work, a fellow administrator grabbed a pin-on button from a bowl on a sign-in table, and handed it to me. The button read “My pronouns are: he, him, his.” For those who are not familiar with claiming your pronouns, communities that have recognized their transgender or non-gender-binary members, now encourage all members to claim their preferred pronouns for themselves if they wish: “he/him/his,” “she/her/hers,” or “they/them/theirs.” That way, they are not leaving it up to the other person to assign their gender identity, they are telling us what it is. The hardest part in normalizing this one for myself had nothing to do with binary-gender bias, and everything to do with correct-grammar bias. The tight, schoolmarmish grammarian in me still shutters at the use of the third-person plural pronoun for a third-person singular person, “they” for a single someone. But I understand the need for a neutral personal pronoun that is still personal, that isn’t “other” or “not applicable.” And maybe one day for me, “they” for a single person will seem as normal as “vous” is the formal way of addressing a single French person, or similarly “lei” is for “tu” in Italiano.

The colleague who handed me my button knew that she had selected my preferred pronouns correctly because I already state mine in my email signature. There, under my title and address block in every one of my work emails, I list “Pronouns: he/him/his.” I don’t do this because I see myself as non-binary. On the contrary, just as I enjoy my red-blooded homosexual status at the farthest homosexual point on the Kinsey scale of sexual attraction, I also enjoy my cis-male gender identity on the binary. I know I’m lucky to enjoy it, because for others the traditional male-female gender binary has posed difficulty their whole lives—difficulty in finding their own identity, and in the bias and disapproval they’ve met from others around them. But, even though I don’t have the same experience as they have, I list my pronouns so that they don’t stand out as different. I do it to help normalize it for my non-binary sisters, brothers, and friends, first in myself, and then for others.

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