You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Alter Girl

I gave up the homosexual lifestyle four years ago. That day, my girlfriend and I went from club to club in Moscow, drinking and dancing until we nearly dropped, then walked home at sunrise. The next day, we flew to a court hearing in Kaliningrad, where I was declared the legal mother of a three- year-old boy who had been given up at birth. Then we flew home to Moscow to find that our neighbors, whom we had never met, had decorated our door with balloons. They all came by to say something kind or to bring something for our new child. Then we spent a lot of time drawing, reading, lacing, cutting, kneading Play-Doh, and talking to pediatricians, child psychologists, speech therapists, neurologists, music teachers, and swimming coaches. We made new friends and got closer to old ones with children of the appropriate play-date age. Then I got pregnant and had a baby. Then, one day, someone was asking me about being a lesbian in Moscow, and I felt I had to tell the truth: I knew a lot more about playgrounds and children's theaters than about lesbian bars or bands. Svenya, my girlfriend, agreed. We were no longer lesbians.

I've grown used to not being a lesbian. Even in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I have spent the last year, I am more likely to take joy in a stranger noticing my beautiful daughter than in the thrill of a ten-second street flirtation. In fact, I'm not sure I even know how to cruise a girl anymore. As a lesbian, I have become invisible. Everyone still knows I am gay, of course-- but that's not what the naked eye sees, so dramatically has my social role changed from my days as a queer activist in the 1980s and 1990s. Had someone told me 20 (or even ten) years ago that marriage would bring me back out of my accidental closet, I would have thought that person crazy. But, in June, walking into the town hall in Falmouth, Massachusetts, I felt like I was about to come out--all the more obviously and awkwardly because I didn't just have Svenya by my side: I had two-and-a-half-year-old Yael in my arms (she had refused to stay home). Falmouth, where my father lives, feels small--an utter backwater. "So," I asked the clerk, "are we your first same-sex couple?" She looked at me like I was crazy: It had been three weeks since Massachusetts started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, and Falmouth had issued about two dozen. Another symptom of my terminally post-gay state: I was amazed that there were gay people in Falmouth. Nice visibility action, I thought--the term emerging from my '90s activist vocabulary. But therein lies the reason gay and lesbian lawyers are advising couples like us to resist the temptation of marriage. Svenya is a Russian citizen. The next time she applies for a U.S. visa, she will have to indicate, honestly, that she is married to a U.S. citizen (me). That would likely disqualify her from getting a nonimmigrant visa: It would signal to the consulate that she presents a high risk of wanting to stay in this country. But, unlike the heterosexual spouse of a U.S. citizen, Svenya cannot apply for an immigrant visa either, because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act bans federal agencies from recognizing same-sex unions. Still, we figured, she is likely to be denied a visa in any case--since she was issued her last one, we have gone through so-called "second-parent adoption," making Svenya a legal parent to our children, who are U.S. citizens, which also, of course, marks her as a risk. So we figured we would lose nothing by getting married. But why did we want to do it at all? Years ago, when we first got together, we teased a jealous friend by announcing that we would soon be traveling to the United States to get married. The idea that we would want to seemed even more absurd than the possibility that the United States would legalize such marriages. Three years ago, when we were preparing our son's conversion to Judaism, one of the rabbis proposed performing a commitment ceremony for us. We demurred because the idea struck us as ridiculous: Our son's conversion was a real event that would have real consequences, unlike a commitment ceremony. Our wedding was scheduled for a Tuesday. We were shocked at the expense (fathers of the brides not paying, in our case), exhausted by organizing it, and even tempted to call the whole thing off. But then about 50 people came, and the rabbi kindly walked us through everything we had forgotten to prepare for the ceremony, and then my father, my brother, one of my oldest friends, and one of our newest friends each took one of the four poles holding up the chuppah. We stood under it with both of our kids, and the rabbi explained that the canopy is our temporary home, whose walls are wobbly and need our friends and family to hold them up. I scanned the crowd of friends. At least three of them were crying. The rabbi wrapped us in his prayer shawl and told us to close our eyes to listen to each other's breath. Pressed against my lover, thinking only of her and not of our children or the laundry or whose turn it is to get up, I felt more in love with her than ever. When I opened my eyes, I saw that now almost everyone was either crying or struggling to hold back tears. "Does this mean I now have to call her your wife?" asked my old friend Laurie, one of the most outspoken gay opponents of same-sex marriage. I've always cringed when someone referred to a same-sex partner as a "husband" or "wife." But it seems now I should refer to Svenya that way. I've never liked the sterile partner, preferring, whenever possible, to use the youthful girlfriend, but over the years I've come to appreciate the privacy-protecting lack of clarity inherent in both terms. (Russians are generally more likely to understand girlfriend to mean just a friend, and Europeans often refer to heterosexual mates as partners.) Now it seems like this visibility action will continue for the rest of our lives. Which again raises the question of why we did it. Because we could, and also because this was the first time we made our relationship visible in such a way that other people were moved to tears. And yes, I do think that the visibility, combined with the memory of listening to my wife's breath when we were wrapped in the prayer shawl, will help hold up the walls of our home.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 2004, issue of the magazine.