A conversation between Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal, authors of the forthcoming guide book Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit
KIM: It’s curious, isn’t it, that it took us almost three decades before we wanted to get married?
RENATE: It is, although I always had a thing about weddings. As a child, and all through my life really, I thought there was nothing on earth more romantic than this ritual of giving over one’s self to the loved one. A ritual in front of a community of loving spirits, family, friends–if only it could be done between true equals! As a teenager I used to make obsessive drawings of brides and designed a zillion wedding dresses…
KIM: It’s really funny when you come down to it. When I was a teenager I was dreaming of being someone’s mistress while you were designing wedding dresses for yourself.
RENATE: I hankered for the impossible–the bohemian marriage of outsiders who wouldn’t get trapped and caught in the boredom of convention, what I called the “marriage coffin.” When gay marriage became legal I remained skeptical that the institution of marriage would ever be for the two of us. I watched myself changing my mind.
KIM: I know what the change is for me. Since the Supreme Court made marriage between gay people legal in California, something bigger than our personal inclinations is afoot. We don’t imagine marriage will have any influence on the way we love or are intimate. In our liberated social world, no one cares if we are married or are two women living together.
RENATE: So why did we decide to get married?
KIM: Because it has become political. The personal IS political as we’ve been saying for a long time. I have never come across a more telling example. It has also become historical, and I want to be part of one of the most significant legal decisions that has been announced during my lifetime. When I was sixteen I heard about Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that required schools to be integrated.
To me, the Supreme Court recognizing the rights of gay people to be married is as big as that. Or rather, since they haven’t gone all the way yet, recognizing the right of the states to make that decision, as our State of California has.
RENATE: 17 states so far, 15 countries internationally. It’s a brave new world.
KIM: Has it changed us to get married after almost three decades?
RENATE: It hasn’t really changed us, and yet …
KIM: Let’s not forget, we were already “married.” We can’t discount our own ceremony in New Mexico.
RENATE: I remember that I wanted to go back to our inn but you insisted we go on looking for a hot spring. Somehow you persuaded us to climb down this rocky, precarious path to the Colorado River. It was an extraordinary place. The spring was rushing forth a few steps above the river, pooling in several natural basins like little hot tubs. At the lowest level, right next to the riverbed, a larger pool had the perfect temperature. There wasn’t a soul around, only the majestic river rolling past. Swarms of swallows were chasing over the water and up the cliffs on the opposite bank.
KIM: The minute we got into the pool our whole state of mind changed, remember? When we found words, they turned out to be a pledge.
RENATE: We both knew this moment was our wedding.
KIM: When gay marriage was suddenly allowed in San Francisco, in 2004, we knew the State of California was not going to give us anything as magical as that. It was hard to let the state offer us a conventional marriage, as if our own ceremony wasn’t good enough.
RENATE: But we’ve accepted the offer. So wouldn’t you say marriage has changed us?
KIM: I tell you one thing that never changed – our daughter’s sense of humor. Our marriage cracked her up. “What a relief,” she said, “that you are finally not living in sin.”
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D. is a German-born, Paris-educated writer, writing coach and spiritual counselor with a private practice in the San Francisco/ Bay Area. Among her publications are True Secrets of Lesbian Desire: Keeping Sex Alive in Long-Term Relationships and the Lambda Award-winning photobiography Gertrude Stein: In Words and Pictures. Read her Gertrude Stein blog “Why Do Something If It Can Be Done”; and her cultural reviews on Scene4 as well as on her website www.renatestendhal.com. She is preparing a Kindle book on lesbian marriage and a Parisian memoir.