The streets of New Orleans are bent with the memory of water.
If you know anything about us at all, you know that ten years ago the city suffered the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. When you drive through the streets today, you can see the dents left by the water and the turmoil. Potholes and sink holes are still cropping up across town, and in some areas when new rain falls, it collects in the center of the streets, which appear to have nearly bent in half under the weight of all the water they carried.
I wasn’t here during The Storm. I was away in California, where fires sometimes consume the mountains, but things are rebuilt and life goes on.
But I do know what it means to be bent under a weight, to carry memories that change the shape of your foundation.
If you’ve read my posts here regularly, you may have noticed that I write a lot about violence against women. Specifically, I write extensively about the moment of violence, and the way it changes a person. I’ve grown used to telling those stories, to putting on the mantle of “survivor” and accepting the accolades that come from being willing to “speak out,” to tell my story, and to live. Sometimes, people tell me that repeating those stories is brave, that I am strong for giving words to something that happens to so many women.
The truth is, though, that I am not as strong as my stories make me out to be. Like the roads in my city, I am permanently bent under the weight of my past. My shape has been changed, and there are times when that warp at my center makes it easier for me to be flooded again – to let fetid, filthy waters stay stagnant too long, and take over. And, like those roads, the damage has made my edges more jagged, more difficult to traverse.
I know what it means when the cracks left behind after a storm ready themselves to hold water again.
So when I told Mo that I would write about family this week, I realized it was my chance to pay homage to the people who have helped me along the way, who have given me the space to be brave, held me up when I wasn’t strong, and taken the risk of sinking in the deep waters of my sometimes difficult history.
This month, we are approaching the 1-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made gay marriage legally binding throughout the United States. A scant few months after that decision came down, my girlfriend proposed to me. She asked me to be her family.
In some ways, our decision to marry was the most normal, mainstream, conservative choice possible. In fact, at the time we became engaged, plenty of U.S. writers were penning essays about the patriarchal foundations of marriage, and the necessity of realizing that maybe gay marriage wasn’t all that revolutionary. And there was a time when I might have agreed with them. When I first drove away from my abusive ex in the dark of night, I promised myself that I would never be dependent on another person. I surmised that some of the fault lay with me for having attached my future to someone else, given in to the structures that insist that the “right” way to do things – to use Biblical language – is to cleave to another in partnership. As a Victorianist, I had studied the ways that the British and American governments encouraged marriage as a means of solidifying and controlling the middle classes during the Industrial Revolution. The progressive in me wanted so badly to hate marriage.
But then I met Stacey, and I wanted all the traditional things I had attempted to eschew. I wanted a long term legal partnership. I wanted a wedding. I wanted to stand in front of our friends and say “I will love you forever, stand by you and give all that I have to you.” I wanted the dreaded Traditional Marriage.
But more than that, I realize now that I wanted the word family. Because until I met her, the only people I was willing to trust were my parents. In all the turmoil of my past, they were supportive and strong. My mother drove to California when someone had hurt me badly, helped me pick up my pieces and move home. My father sat in my room and cried with frustration at being unable to help me when I was hurting most – at having no true path to justice, no time machine that would allow him to go back and scoop me out of harm’s way. They stood by me and gave me someone to trust. They did not sink, and so neither did I.
I thought I would never see that level of trust in someone outside my little family. And so when Stacey came along and made herself my partner, I wanted to honor her. I wanted her to be family – not a different tier, but someone with the same rights and benefits as those closest to me.
Just last night, when I was suffering from a bout of fear and anxiety, she reassured me by saying “There is nothing I would ever do to hurt our little family.” And that word burrowed deep into my heart, because I know what family means.
I understand why some in the Queer community debate the validity and progressiveness of marriage. But I also know that when I marry Stacey in September, we will stand as a small, quiet testament to the new meaning of an old term – as something defined not by traditional patriarchal standards, but by the determination of two people to stand up for one another, and never falter.
We will know that, no matter what, we are family.