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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Second-Hand Rose" (on the marriage of Douglas Messerli and Howard Fox)

second-hand rose

Howard Fox and Douglas Messerli were married at the Beverly Hills Courthouse on November 22, 2013.

Father has a business strictly second hand
Everything from toothpicks to a baby-grand
Stuff in our apartment came from father’s store
Even things I’m wearing someone wore before
It’s no wonder that I feel abused
I never get a thing that ain’t been used

I’m wearing second hand hats
Second hand clothes
That's why they call me
Second hand rose

Even our piano in the parlor
Father bought for ten cents on the dollar
Second hand pearls
I’m sick of second hand curls
I never get a single think that's new
Even Jake, the plumber, he's a man I adore
Had the nerve to tell me he's been married before!

Everyone knows that I’m just
Second hand rose
From second avenue!
From second avenue! nu!

Lyrics by Grant Clarke

After just a couple of months short of 44 years of being together, Howard Fox and I were married at the Beverly Hills Courthouse this past Friday—thanks to the Supreme Court ruling to dismiss the challenge to a California court ruling and the higher court’s abolition of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. Since we had missed out on the brief period some years ago when we night have married in California, I had argued that if the Supreme Court decision did again allow it in our state, we should finally marry—if for no other reason than declare publicly our love, even though we had privately made that clear for so many decades. The overturning of DOMA, moreover, now meant that married couples might receive each others' social security and other benefits after death. While we were able for the past two years to file joint Federal Income Tax as California Domestic Partners, we now could do so only if were to be married. So our desire to announce our long-time love also nicely dove-tailed with further protections and benefits that had previously been denied us.

      We had been proud of our relationship, however, for all these years, pleased that we had stuck out are sometimes difficult times, despite the fact that we could not legally reiterate it. Indeed, it had almost become a badge of honor that we had remained so close despite the fact that we could not legally marry. That we had achieved a social marriage that many of our heterosexual friends had not been able to maintain created, in some respects, an even deeper bond between us, a bond that didn’t need the social institutions of church and state, or even the support of friends—although most of our friends had, in fact, supported us, and we had experienced very little if any prejudice or disparagement (at least to our faces). Yes, my and mother and father, when we first told them back in 1970 that we were gay and in a permanent relationship, had stood up at the dinner table in Washington, D.C., collected their luggage and drove immediately back to Iowa in disdain. Yet, even then, they had eventually come round, accepting Howard as someone they loved because I loved him. More recently, my mother had expressed her reservations again by suggesting that I need not tell any of her friends in her assisted living home that I was planning to marry another man—to which I laughed, assuring her that I had no intentions of telling her friends anything, while reiterating to her that I was entirely proud of the upcoming event. But these were perhaps the only negative reactions we have ever witnessed. In the Capitol city we were invited and attended a dinner at Vice President’s Mondale’s home and a party at Jimmy Carter’s White House. When we moved from Washington to Los Angeles, the Washington Post announced that Howard would be leaving the Hirshhorn Museum with his companion, me—which I believe was the first time that august paper had referred to a gay relationship in such a matter-of-fact manner. In short, we had long perceived ourselves in a situation such as what the New York Times today described :

                        Marriage as an institution lost much of its power over our lives,
                        but marriage as a relationship became more powerful than ever.
                        (Stephanie Coontz)

      Yet, for years we had naively made no plans for what might happen after one of our deaths. We had several joint bank accounts, and many things, such as the car, were in both our names, so we felt protected. When we did consult a lawyer to discuss our wills we were startled to be told just how vulnerable we had been. Without a will and several other documents we might not have visiting rights if one of us were to be hospitalized; certainly we would have no power to make decisions for the other concerning health care and artificial extension of life. If one of us had died, money and possessions could be claimed by each others' family members, leaving the survivor without anything. Dutifully we corrected those issues, writing a will, establishing decision-making rights for hospital care, etc. We also were among the first to sign with the State of California as domestic partners. So, except for spousal benefits, we were, after all, not in a situation very different from legally married heterosexuals.
      Or were we? As more and more states--and the gay, lesbian, and the transgender citizens within them-- began to change their marriage laws, I felt, surely much like Mary Chaney must feel about her Republican sister, Liz, who, in running for the Senate in Wyoming, opposes same-sex marriage: how can someone whom supposedly loves you stand against your equal rights (Mary wrote: “You’re just wrong, and on the wrong side of history.”) If marriage is the important institution that many claim it to be—reiterating the couple’s love, solidifying their goals, and allowing them to raise a family—why should we, same-sex American citizens, not have the opportunity to share that rite?
     If Christ proclaimed that the greatest  commandment is love, why did others, speaking in his name, keep people like Howard and me from expressing that commitment? Granted that Jesus was not speaking necessarily of “eros” (sexual love) but “agape” or “philia”; yet throughout the Old Testament love is used much more widely to mean both love between the sexes and love of God or of God’s love for his people. And how can you truly separate these forms of love, when words expressing love are used throughout both Testaments as metaphors for one another?  
     To express it more colloquially, why are people like us often treated as “second-hand” beings, permanent outsiders to one of the most basic joys of life? We were, so I suddenly contemplated, a kind of "second-hand Rose."
      Increasingly, I discovered, I was growing angry with people, who I now perceived as outright bigots, for their opposition to something which so many other countries (even countries where Catholicism still matters very much, such as Spain and France) had accepted and even blessed. Why were Americans continuing their love of guns and hating married homosexuals? I believe that, inevitably the whole US will have to come to the conclusion—as they have had to concerning so many other issues—that equality is the only choice. But why are those others so intent on delaying or ending that choice?        

    Accordingly, Howard and I both became increasingly determined after the Supreme Court decisions to act, and in the last week of October we drove to the nearest courthouse, in Beverly Hills, to apply for our marriage license. Even that act brought some joy to both of us. Certainly, we knew nothing in our lives would outwardly change; we’d already been through “better and worse,” we’d strongly survived all the difficulties marriage can present, except perhaps for the indignities of old age. Yet we did begin to feel somewhat differently, with Howard, in particular, growing increasingly pleased with the upcoming event. We called our friends, Diana Daves (my former editor at Sun and Moon and Green Integer) and her husband, John McLaughlin, to see if they might serve as our witnesses, to which they readily agreed. On a trip to Minneapolis I bought two $1.00 rings at the Walker Art Gallery shop, since neither of us wear jewelry. We might have deleted the exchange of rings from our ceremony, but I liked the symbolism of the act. Two days before the wedding, our cleaning woman and friend, Ana-MarĂ­a Abraham, a devout Catholic, arrived with pink roses to celebrate the upcoming event.
      Another of my former editors, Perla Karney and her husband Ami, sent us a beautiful succulent arrangement on the day of the wedding. At the courthouse we met up with Diana and John, and then entered, after several other weddings, the room devoted to marriages, where a wonderful Black woman judge earnestly and quote meaningfully married us, imploring us to put one another before ourselves while not giving up ourselves and our differences. Our mention that we had already shared nearly 44 years together, greatly impressed her. We then joined our witnesses at a wonderful lunch at a nearby French restaurant, Buchon.
      That afternoon we sent out Facebook and e-mail notifications:

                                    JUST MARRIED—AFTER 44 YEARS
                           DOUGLAS MESSERLI AND HOWARD FOX
                         at the Beverly Hills Courthouse, November 22, 2013

     Over the next few days we received over 500 responses from friends with mazel tovs and congratulations. Some teased us about waiting so long. Others were surprised that we planned no honeymoon. A few asked us if we now felt—after all these years—any different. Surprisingly, we both did feel somewhat changed. We felt the joy, if nothing else, of finally being able to express our solidarity with our friends, family, and the generations who had been able to choose to momentarily express their specialness as a couple, to demonstrate, if only for a day or two, that they were part of the entire community of individuals instead of being perceived as slightly inferior beings living a “second-hand” life.

Los Angeles, November 26, 2013

1 comment:

Peter Frank said...

Indeed, my response to the news had been "What took you so long?" -- my initial response, that is, immediately tempered by the fact I already knew the answer. I'm glad you're a statistic, especially because to me -- us, your friends and colleagues -- the formalization of your bond is so so so much more than a statistic. How does the song go?
It's a dream come true,
not just for you...
Love, Peter (Frank)