By Kate Walter
I can’t say I was shocked that Dick Cheney came out in favor of gay marriage.
My 87-year-old traditional Irish Catholic mother has also come a long way since I came out to my parents more than 30 years ago. She too gets what it’s like to have a gay daughter.
Just last summer when I went to the Jersey Shore to spend a few days at the family beach house, my mother got more clues when we took a jaunt together. Whenever I go down the shore, I fit in a trip to my favorite thrift shop in nearby Manasquan, where I score my college teacher wardrobe. I was a frugal person way before the recession started. I discovered this place years ago with my fashion-plate ex, who was a collector into buying and reselling. Now I go there with my elderly mother and later I model my purchases for my clotheshorse 17-year-old niece. Shannon tells me if her Aunt Kate is on the right track. I smile when I get compliments from colleagues, “Nice, very chic,” about my designer pants or shirts that cost five or six dollars.
“When do you want to go to the shop?” Mom asked as soon as I got settled in.
She liked going to this resale place, too, so we made plans for the next morning.
I live in the West Village and don’t own a car, but visiting at the beach was one of the rare occasions when I drove. My mother’s driving scared me and since she encouraged me to “keep my hands on the wheel,” I adjusted the seat and we were off. Soon we were over the bridge and into the next county. The thrift shop parking lot was packed, odd for a Monday.
Turns out it was a special donor day with extra workers. We went to the town lot.
The store is a nonprofit run by friendly volunteers from the Visiting Nurses Association of New Jersey; it’s a long, roomy building, like a big garage. The clothes are neatly organized by size; the place has dressing rooms, even a bathroom. The items are cheaper than the popular Housing Works stores in Manhattan. While browsing here, I was not likely to find a vintage black Eddie Bauer T-shirt (like I did in the city) but this preppy, upscale town was perfect for business casual attire.
After shopping for almost an hour, I had tried on — and rejected — eight pairs of pants, but I scored a pair of mauve Gloria Vanderbilt jeans with a snug and sexy fit. I usually check out with more than one item but every visit is different. My mother was in another aisle and I walked over to see if she was finished. I was almost ready to leave but planned to take one
last sweep through the pants.
When I returned to that rack, I heard one worker say to another, “Did you see Ellen get married on TV? That gave me the creeps. Did you see it?” she repeated, goading her co-workers to resonate with her homophobia, “It was creepy.”
I looked right at her. She had dyed blonde hair and was about my age — in her late 50s.
“So Ellen DeGeneres got married. Well, good for her,” I said in a loud snappish tone. “I think that’s terrific.”
The woman was startled and looked up. I was wearing baggy surfer shorts, sandals and a hoodie; my hair was a mess. She obviously never expected anyone to call her on her prejudiced opinion. It felt as if this volunteer was perfectly comfortable tearing apart my life and the consequences of my not being able to get married in New York or New Jersey. I would have carried on more had my mother not been on the premises, but I decided not to cause a scene. I’d gotten my point across and hopefully she’d think twice before mouthing off like that in public. I was stunned and couldn’t imagine anyone saying something that offensive in my neighborhood. Made me glad I live in the Village.
Her use of the word “creepy” infuriated me. Her personal revulsion at two women being together upset me more than the tired religious or political opposition. What could be creepy about two women in love getting married? Why shouldn’t gays and lesbians have the same rights as every other American citizen? (I would be better off financially if my ex and I had been legally married. New York City’s domestic partnership was a joke.)
On the other hand, I thought it was cool that we had a lesbian with such iconic status that she was recognized by her first name — like Oprah, Madonna or Cher. And it was great that we had gay celebrities making their commitment public. Ellen and Portia had
been married in August in a small ceremony and Ellen waited a few weeks to release a wedding video on her show.
It was scary to wonder what the rest of the country thought if this was the opinion of a charity worker in a blue state with civil unions for queer couples. The town where this exchange took place was only a few miles from Asbury Park, whose real estate renaissance was spearheaded by artists and gays. Monmouth County was known to be gay friendly.
I barely remember paying for the jeans, and when we got back to the car, I was visibly shaken.
“What’s the matter?” said my mother. “You seem upset.”
“Some stupid woman made a nasty remark about Ellen marrying her girlfriend, and I told her off.”
“Oh,” said my mother, who was used to her volatile middle child. “Some people are not ready for that yet.”
“Are you?” I asked as I peeled out of the parking lot.
My mother never answered but I recalled how a few years ago she instantly got the ramifications of my breakup. (“It’s just like getting a divorce,” she said at the time.)
She understood my pain and was totally supportive. My widowed mother became my role model for grieving. If she could survive the death of her husband of 57 years, I could get through my trauma. Her concern changed our relationship, and we got closer. So I knew that if I ever tied the knot, my mother would be there.
“Slow down,” Mom ordered. “We’ll have an accident. You could have ignored that lady.”
“And let her get away with it?” I said as I merged into traffic. “That’s not me.”
My mother was correct — I could have ignored the remark, but I felt compelled to respond. I would have felt worse if I let it slide. This unpleasantry was not how I wanted to start my mini-vacation but I refused to let this incident spoil my beach break.
Since that encounter in the thrift shop, voters in California (who presumably shared that woman’s opinion) overturned gay and lesbian marriage at the ballot box and protests erupted around the nation. I was at City Hall screaming my head off. Last month, the California Supreme Court upheld that ban, and thousands protested at Union Square, decrying that decision and demanding marriage equality in New York State.
When I do meet the next Ms. Right, I expect to have the same options as my straight siblings. Just for the hell of it, I’d like to return to that store and browse for formal attire for my big queer wedding.