I have lived around Lake Merritt in Oakland for years. The bird sanctuary here is the country’s oldest wildlife refuge, I have read somewhere. I used to run the Lake regularly, and years ago I often noticed a pelican and swan, always together. They were beautiful. And you could tell they were companions, not just accidentally hanging out in the same place like so many other birds there are wont to do.
One day I ran into one of the ornithologists at the Lake, and I asked her what their story was. This is what she told me:
Helen was the pelican, and earlier that year her life-long mate of more than 28 years, Hector had been strangled in some fishing nets in the lake. Helen was beside herself with grief. The folks who work at the bird sanctuary buried Hector’s body out of Helen’s sight, purposefully, so that she would more easily be able to move on from her grief. However, she found his grave, and stayed there for days, refusing to leave her beloved.
Before Hector died, a swan named Lancelot had been hanging out with the other large birds of Lake Merritt. He was there on and off. One day when he was at the Lake, he started hanging around Helen at Hector’s grave, and this offered her some comfort. Before long, Helen was persuaded to leave Hector’s burial site, and she and Lancelot were constant companions after that.
Helen died the winter of 1999, and Lancelot hasn’t been seen since they buried her.
This is a tale of love, grief and companionship, and a true Oakland love story.
South Africa recently legalized same-sex marriage and declared the same inheritance rights of heterosexual married couples. Mexico just passed legislation supporting same-sex civil unions. In 2005, Spain gave same-sex couples the right to marry.
I didn’t used to care about marriage. I didn’t used to want to be like dysfunctional straight people. I didn’t want to emulate a relationship that was not natural to me.
I didn’t want to be married. Until I met Gillian.
Now I understand why I need the right to marry Gillian, and that this is really a civil rights battle. For me, marriage is not about fitting in or changing the paradigm of marriage. Plain and simple, for me marriage is about love, family, and home. We don’t want to redefine marriage, we just want to build a life together, and we want to make sure that we can take care of each other. There are people who would like to make that impossible, or very difficult at the very least. Gay rights is not all about being able to get married, but I do think that raising the visibility of this issue could be a way for the straight world to see us as more human and less “other.”
I live in a part of the world where Gillian and I are accepted as a couple. No one here questions who we are to each other. We have never had to fight or risk anything because people, even when they are homophobic to some degree, respect our relationship. Our family loves us and support us and celebrated with us when we got married. We are privileged in many ways that others are not, so Gillian and I feel a responsibility to fight for the rights of others who live in more dangerous places and truly need the protections we are fighting for.
We recently watched the documentary Dangerous Living, which is about people coming out in the Third World, and its really terrifying and inspirational. The film focuses on the 52 Egyptian men who were arrested in 2001 for being gay and out, as well as following the stories of gay men and lesbians, all activists from other countries, their decision to come out, and the danger they face as a consequence.
I remember hearing about the Cairo 52 on the news when it was happening, and feeling really distant from it, thinking “gosh, that really sucks, but what can I do about it.” It is so easy to do nothing when something terrible like that doesn’t impact you directly, or at least doesn’t seem to. Seeing those interviews made me see the human face of this terrible injustice. These were people just like me and my friends and family, trying to create a vibrant and loving community and being persecuted for it. Some are just trying to survive, which in some places is revolutionary in and of itself.
I really hope that most people, regardless of what they think about being queer, would agree that no one deserves to be imprisoned or beaten or terrorized or killed for being different. Is it such a revolutionary idea that all people, regardless of their differences, should be treated with respect?
We are gaining civil rights all over the world. I am thrilled and hopeful, and so happy that South Africans and Mexicans will now have the right to marry whomever they choose. I am also frustrated and enraged that this backwards culture that I live in won’t recognize our families or our love. We’re on the right side of history, as my friend Rebecca says, and that gives me the courage to persevere.