It started via email, a modern epistolary romance. It wasn’t intended to be that kind of relationship, but when friendship blossomed into more, the written word formed our foundation. Words matter to us. In the email files, there are quotidian conversations but there are also momentous declarations. When a greater distance than usual separated us, I wrote daily notes for Kathryn to take on the journey. We take time to consider the words we write in cards. A Valentine feels particularly tender and tenuous: how to say something we say all the time but say it with more care?
In Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address, just as in his Inaugural Address, the President showed us how. We say it matter-of-factly, as if we’ve been saying it all along.
“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”
Suddenly the same phrase that got me into trouble last spring in a sermon is totally mainstream.
It was a sermon about love, riffing on one of the never-ending readings from John in the season of Easter.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
“And Jesus loved,” I preached. “My goodness, did he love. He loved us all, broken and difficult as we might be, without regard to where we live or what we eat or how we pray or who we love…or can’t manage to love. He simply loved us.”
I didn’t think it was a particularly shocking allusion. I thought it could be read any number of ways. But because I had just come out to my church, it felt obvious and unsettling. The context mattered. The timing mattered. I suppose it seemed careless.
All through last year, Kathryn and I continued to grapple with words, the ones we wanted to use and the ones we feared others would find distressing. Our political heroine of the fall was newly-elected Senator Tammy Baldwin, the first out gay person elected to the U.S. Senate. This quote circulated from her days in the House of Representatives:
NEVER DOUBT that America will one day realize that her gay, bisexual, and transgendered sons and daughters want nothing more — and nothing less — than the rights accorded every other citizen.
BUT WE MUST MAKE IT SO — by daring to dream of a world in which we are free. So, if you dream of a world in which you can put your partner’s picture on your desk, then put his picture on your desk… and you will live in such a world.
And if you dream of a world in which you can walk down the street holding your partner’s hand, then hold her hand… and you will live in such a world.
If you dream of a world in which there are more openly gay elected officials, then run for office… and you will live in such a world.
And if you dream of a world in which you can take your partner to the office party, even if your office is the U.S. House of Representatives, then take her to the party. I do, and now I live in such a world.
Fine, we thought, but that’s politics. That’s civic life. How about the neighborhood? What about the church community? Could Kathryn really put our picture on her desk? Our Facebook profiles say “Married to,” and there has been at least one inquiry made in an attempt to cause denominational trouble for her. Do we lead with our words or proceed cautiously, the way we walk the dogs when it’s snowing just before their bedtime?
It’s not my congregation, so I take care. I am very careful in choosing my words, trying to guess what works for people. Some are clearly supportive, like the older lady who stopped me after a congregational meeting. “Congratulations,” she said, and I murmured something about the outcome of the meeting. She stopped me, “No. Congratulations on your marriage.”
Others remain a question mark. When I introduce myself and can see people might be searching for who I am, I’ve said with a smile, “I belong to Kathryn.” But I fear that sort of twee phrase makes me sound like I live in a bottle.
What kind of world do we want to make with our words? The words we say about each other, both quotidian and momentous, are personal, but they are also political and, perhaps even more potently, theological. We speak them as not particularly hip lesbians in a not very progressive community in South Central Pennsylvania. How shall we speak them?
On Valentine’s Eve, we went to my (choose-your-word-carefully)’s church for the Ash Wednesday service. She sat in front and I, still searching for the place where the pastor’s (choose-your-word-carefully) should sit, ended up right behind her in the second pew. At the end of the service, she leaned over and told me that members of her last church were in attendance, and she was excited to introduce me.
I must admit to feeling nervous about it. Our current town and church are magnificently progressive by comparison. So I stood a bit apart while she exchanged greetings with her former parishioners, leaving her space to make a different choice.
I couldn’t have asked for a more carefully wrought Valentine.
Martha Spong is a Contributing Editor to There is Power in the Blog for the First Person Politics series. She lives in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where she is learning what it’s like to be the minister’s wife. You can read more of her thoughts on life, political and otherwise, at Reflectionary.