For the past week or so, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, having fallen asleep on the couch, with Les Misérables stuck in my head, on repeat.
The good bit of Les Misérables — the one everyone who has heard the musical or seen the 2012 film knows in her bones — is the bit where Marius Pontmercy and his band of semi-organized revolutionary teenagers try to gather support for their revolt against the French monarchy. While singing, of course. The lyrics go something like this:
Do you hear the people sing? / Singing a song of angry men? / It is the music of a people / Who will not be slaves again
When the beating of your heart / Echoes the beating of the drums / There is a life about to start / When tomorrow comes
If you’ve heard it, you know exactly how to sing along. If you don’t — well, we live in a great big Internet, where music can be heard.
It’s titled “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and it’s a great song, because it strikes the surprisingly consonant chord of hopeful and pissed-off and righteous in your soul. It’s a song that’s very hard not to like.
It’s almost the perfect anthem for the fight for gay rights, which was dealt one of its biggest blows by the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The relevant part is Section 3, which states that the word “marriage” in federal law refers only to a legal union between one man and one woman.
What Section 3 does is to simply negate the legal effects of same-sex marriages at the federal level. Perhaps your foreign-born spouse would like to live with you in the United States? No, sir. Would you prefer that your family to receive military benefits? No can do. Are you a widower who would appreciate not having to pay an estate tax after your spouse’s death? Sorry about that.
Since then, we — and by “we” here I am going to refer to myself and all of the other same-sex-loving people in America — have fought battles in every state to get our relationships recognized.
Not all of these battlefields are in the court of law, though.
The most startling post that I ever read on the now-defunct lesbian geek TechnoDyke forums read as follows:
I really hope that the Washington Supreme Court doesn’t strike down the Washington Defense of Marriage Act, because that’ll make it harder for me to sleep with girls without commitment.
“That’s a bullshit post,” I said to Nik, over coffee. Nik was a friend I’d made while posting on the Seattle section of the forums; we’d met up in Capitol Hill and hit it off well enough to hang out.
“Yes, of course it’s bullshit. But some girls are just like that,” she said, in her typically blunt way.
“Mmm,” I said dismissively, eager to move onto other topics. “I don’t know. I hate girls who don’t commit.”
I didn’t realize it, but I was just like that, too.
As a born-and-raised Catholic who’s been in Catholic schools all her life, I wrestled a lot with the implications of my own sexuality through high school in the early 2000s. Once I made it to college in Seattle and finally faced — and accepted — my lady-loving tendencies, the next step I took was also accepting that I simply would not be able to share in the same kinds of relationships that real actual straight people did.
It was already uncomfortable enough whenever I would visit home and my old friends and I would have dinner and catch up.
“So I heard you’re going to hell!” they’d say.
Marriage had always been the ultimate form of commitment for me, and letting go of that made me feel like I had to let go of commitment, too. It was hard not to feel that I was operating in strange waters, and had to discover alternative kinds of relationships to have — relationships that didn’t have marriage involved. I’d internalized so greatly the feeling of difference that I felt the need to invent new names for whatever it was that I was having, that didn’t have a trajectory towards a wedding dress.
A non-committed committed relationship, whatever the heck that was called.
The next few relationships that I pursued were built on this fairy dust. Once we called ourselves “romantic best friends.” The next girl termed our relationship “friends in love.” I agreed with another that we were “girlfriends (who will never get married),” which is pronounced with a silent parenthetical.
We made excuses, each of us, to explain away the impermanent foundation of our relationships.
I convinced myself: I didn’t really want to get married, ever.
Eventually, I became dimly aware that there existed this mythical principality called “Massachusetts,” wherein people of the same sex could marry and manna fell from heaven. But this rumored faraway land probably wasn’t even real, anyway.
But then, the dominoes fell and the drums got louder, and with them, my feelings changed. As the ability for people of the same sex to marry became legal in state after state, my imagined future began to adopt this tenuous new landscape.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking that we were so different than straight people. And what I realized was that I had internalized so greatly what society had told me about myself that I had been willing to settle for a lesser future.
Maybe, I thought, this whole marriage thing isn’t so bad.
I began to dream new dreams.
As I’m writing this, it’s June 29, 2013, and it’s been four days since DOMA was struck down. 202 days ago, the first gay marriages were conducted in my adopted state of Washington.
Conducted is such a clinical word, isn’t it? Let’s pick a different one: celebrated.
After the Supreme Court lawblocked us on Tuesday by deferring their verdict on DOMA to the next day, I spent way too much time that evening on Twitter reading commentary and feeling incredibly stupid because I was crying so much about what tomorrow might bring.
I woke up on Wednesday morning on a tear-soaked pillow to the sounds of birds chirping outside, Twitter messages on my phone, and the inaudible strains of Les Misérables in my head.
We’d won, and the world was different.
I keep being told that gratefulness is the wrong feeling to have about a right that we should have never had kept from us, but I can’t help feeling it anyway. For me, DOMA’s end didn’t immediately affect me in a tangible way, but it marked the end of a revolt in my heart — one that dredged up my long-forgotten feeling that love is the thing we share that makes us human.
What I want to believe is that I’m on the cusp of being one of the last people who have had to feel as I did.
What I want to say to you is: Let us share our dreams.
Will you join in our crusade? / Who will be strong and stand with me? / Somewhere beyond the barricade / Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? / Say, do you hear the distant drums? / It is the future that we bring / When tomorrow comes