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Thursday, November 28, 2013

The L Word

I said "girlfriend" recently, as in "my girlfriend." It was full of affection, but I was corrected by a gay man. Surely I didn't mean girlfriend, he said. Implicit in this was the assumption--to me, a straight assumption--that a girlfriend is not a significant other. For that, he wanted the word.

Whereas I like girlfriend. Girlfriend isn't insignificant; it means we're still dating, still having fun! Wow, haven't politics changed.

Twenty-five years ago, Betty Berzon published Permanent Partners. She wrote about the daring and fortitude of gay and lesbian couples who lived in committed relationships for years. They did so, not only without any legal recognition (even “domestic partnerships” were rare then), but often without social recognition. Their families of choice might be supportive, but in the larger world, the relationships were closeted. Even many gay people tended to assume, in those days, that relationships didn’t last, and to ask “Are you and X still together?” when they would not have asked this of a heterosexual wife or husband.

Fast forward to 2013 and a growing number of the United States have same-sex marriage. Gays and lesbians have the option (not the obligation) to commit to the same legal rights and responsibilities as any other couple. Many have embraced an equivalence to heterosexual marriage that was undreamed of in Betty Berzon’s world. Commitment ceremonies, yes, but not weddings. And would a gay or lesbian person ever refer to their “husband” or “wife”?

I don’t miss inequality or persecution. I have as much fun at a wedding as anybody else. Sometimes I even call what we had a “wedding,” because other people do and, well, it’s just easier. They mean well. They are being supportive, saying that my relationship is equal to a traditional marriage. And I love them for that.

But what really lights my fire is the radical, the dissenting voice. The different. The self-determining. And for this, nothing beats lover for me.

Roberts’ Rules of Lesbian Living states: “The word lover is always more than straight people really want to know.” Not apologizing for that is part of being different. Lover means something different to straight people; but it was our word. It is sexual, liberated. Queer.

To some extent, partner works this way in the U.S.A. If an American has a “partner,” that tends to mean a same-sex partner. But this is not true in other countries. You can buy a “Happy birthday to my partner” card in Britain, but it isn’t a gay card. It isn’t there to make us feel included. Most “partners” in this country are long-term heterosexual couples, who just don’t choose to get married.

Betty Berzon thought that partner was an imperfect term, and I agree. I still think it sounds like we opened a dry-cleaning business together. The thing about America, though, is that same-sex marriage is important there because marriage is important there. America is essentially a conservative country, and marriage is a conservative institution.

In the U.S., it still is not typical to have a “partner” if you are of the opposite sex. It somehow is not real enough, committed enough, until you marry that person. No wonder same-sex marriage has become the be-all and end-all of equality in that country.

I believe everyone should have that choice, no doubt about it, but I am troubled by the belief that marriage is what proves we have arrived as equal citizens. Gay and lesbian Americans can still be fired, lose their homes or custody of their children for being who they are. Gays and lesbians who are not in a relationship, or not interested in getting married, are also our community. We can dance at your wedding without ever acquiring a wife.

So hats (and other things) off to lovers, people. I love lover, for the very reason it is too much information for some. It is our word. We chose it. Just as we chose our lovers, and the way we built relationships with them, piece by piece, without the wholesale support of society or law.

Monday, November 25, 2013


This past June The Discreet Traveler was fortunate enough to travel to various parts of Greece and several ancient sites including Efes--the biblical Ephesus--in Turkey. I went along on the lofty pretext of discovering places where the apostle Paul had voyaged, according to the New Testament. Things started off badly, though, in a pub quiz the night before we docked at Piraeus, when the questions were of this "guess what it stands for" type: 39 BOTOT. Imagine my horror when I didn't get this answer--39 Books Of The Old Testament. Some pilgrim I was! 

I was traveling in the company of three companions who have all traveled more widely than I have, been in these parts of the world before, and decades ago. So they have been regaling me, in Italy and Greece, with stories about how much better Europe was in the 1970s, when of course I wasn't there. "You used to be able to walk right up to St. Peter's in Rome," they say, "no lines." "Oh man, I remember when I was first here, you could walk right up and break pieces off the Parthenon! Must be why it's roped off now!" This happened at ruin after ruin, and I could only be grateful that they were roped off, or we'd be in the position of Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, watching his devout companions hack bits off every biblical site they visited. 

I was suitably impressed by the Acropolis, the ancient Agora, Hadrian's Arch, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus; I wish I'd had more time in Athens and would love to use it as a future base for visiting more of mainland Greece. What I couldn't find an answer for was why there were dogs everywhere. I mean everywhere, even portraits of dogs (dressed up in clothes) on the walls of a café. They were as ubiquitous as the cats in the Upper Barraka Gardens of Malta. We were touring Athens on our own, but there was a guide on the bus and I asked her about the dogs. She said not to worry about them, they are the responsibility of the municipality and I should see the cats on the Greek Islands! Or, as it turned out, in Turkey.

Turkey was different, not least because the ruins were just there, for anyone to see and walk through. Unlike the Parthenon, people must not have started breaking chunks off the ruins of Ephesus yet, so it is possible to walk down the Curetes Way, a complete Roman street through an entire ruined city, see the Library of Celsus, and walk into the Great Theatre where Paul preached in the Book of Acts. In other words, it was the way everyone kept telling me Greece and Rome used to be, because the nomadic Turks didn't build over the ancient sites, leaving them there. We also went to Milet (Miletus), where Paul gave his farewell speech, and Magnesia, a ruin so newly dug up we appeared to be doing it a favor by visiting it. 

At Didyma, I stood in the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, magnificently pagan, and listened to the muezzin's call to prayer from the mosque across the street. I cannot say what the rest of Turkey is like, but I would love to go back and see for myself.

The Greek island of Rhodes is closer to Turkey than it is to mainland Greece. Rhodes has had layer upon layer of cultures: the mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, the Church of Our Lady of the Verge, and the new synagogue, rebuilt by survivors, are all within a short distance of each other within the old walled city. The Jewish quarter makes a somber impression, because during wartime occupation, two thousand Jews were deported to Nazi camps; only fifty survived. 

Except for the glorious weather (in Greek mythology, Rodos was the bride of Helios, the sun), there could not have been a greater contrast with the island of Mykonos. We spent a hedonistic day at gay- and family-friendly Elia Beach. It may be possible to get over the blues of the Aegean Sea or the joy of swimming in it, but I wasn't able to. There was a mom--in her 80s--and her five grown daughters along for the trip, and she and one daughter were the very first to whip their tops off and plunge into the cold water. That's what I want to be like when I grow up.

The mark of a good vacation: I wrote in my journal, "I hardly ever think about work, England, or even e-mail, and when I do I don't give a damn."