The following excerpts, from various chapters of “Gay Seattle” describe the quest gay men and lesbians in Seattle launched in the 1970s and 1980s to have their loving relationships recognized as equal to those of heterosexuals. One area of challenge would be marriage, a struggle that would start in 1971 and last for 40 years until — in 2012 — the Washington state legislature would vote to recognize same-sex marriage. The second area would be parenthood — the threat that always hung over lesbian mothers in particular, since courts would often strip them of custody rights if they came out or introduced their children to their partners and “lifestyle.”
In September 1971, John Singer [aka Faygele benMiriam] acted on the idea State Senator Pete Francis had given him at [a Dorian Society] meeting. He and [Paul] Barwick decided to get married. Well, not really. Singer was twenty-six at the time; Barwick, twenty-four. Unlike gays and lesbians in later decades, who would fight for the actual right to marry, neither Singer nor Barwick particularly believed in it. “We would just as soon abolish marriage,” Singer said later. Barwick added, during an interview in 2000, that “in the 1970s, you weren’t couples and lovers. We were collective. We weren’t a pair. We weren’t partners. [But] we were as close as anybody in that [Gay Liberation Front] house.”
They wanted to make a point about having the same rights as heterosexuals. Singer enjoyed pointing out to the clerk at the marriage license office that the state law simply
said that individuals had to be over the age of 18 to marry, making no reference to the two needing to be a man and a woman. That was what he had learned from Francis.
Their friend, Robert Perry, also a GLF member, alerted the media, so that television cameras and newspaper reporters were on the scene when the clerk refused the license. Norm Maleng, a deputy prosecutor for civil cases who would later become the county’s chief prosecutor, had issued an order not to do so. Reporters took the incident lightly; one asked which was the bride. “We don’t believe in role playing” Singer answered. “We’re two people. We happen to be genital males, but two human beings who happen to be in love and want to get married.” Then he launched into an explanation of how both he and Barwick could receive more GI benefits and tax benefits if they were able to marry. Standing alongside, Barwick wore a T-shirt with the word “Gay” printed boldly on it so that, he said, “there wouldn’t be any doubt.”
It was more than just a media stunt. Singer and Barwick pursued the case almost three years, filing a lawsuit finally settled by the Washington state Court of Appeals in 1974,
which ruled that the denial was neither discriminatory on the basis of gender nor unconstitutional. To do so, though, the court had to narrowly interpret the definition of “marriage” as an institution meant primarily to promote procreation.
“If marriage is for procreation,” benMiriam would said later, “if someone is beyond the point of procreation, how can you let them marry? Or if someone doesn’t procreate after 10 years, are you going to annul it?” He felt satisfied that the absurdity of the law’s logic had been demonstrated. “We accomplished a lot of what we wanted to do,” he would say.
Just a few months after Singer’s and Barwick’s attempt to get a marriage license, it was Robert Perry’s turn–his and D. Carl Harder’s, another GLF member. The two set off for Lynnwood, a suburb north of Seattle, aimed for the Rollaway Roller Rink. When the “couples only” skate time began, the two men casually skated onto the rink together, holding hands. Told to stop, they refused. According to news reports in the Advocate, the rink’s management then called the police, who forced them from the floor, handcuffed them and took them away to be booked for disorderly conduct. A judge later released them without bail and eventually the charges were dropped. But a week later, some 20 gay men were back at the rink for another protest. This time, several dressed in drag and joined other men to skate as “mixed” couples, challenging the rink’s management to find a way to prove the “women” were not really women.
The time for discretion had ended.
Read Singer v Hara, Washington State Appeals Court, 1974: singervhara
Read Timeline and Cases for Washington State from Seattle University Law Library
Read an update on Paul Barwick, from the Seattle Times, 2006: “Gay Man Sees Big Changes since 1972”
From Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Cyber-Singapore: An overview of marriage discourses & their history, noting contrasting models of the Victorian “triple supremacy of romantic, heterosexual monogamy” vs. “pacific paradises of the queer triple taboo” : MarriageDiscourse
View Los Angeles Times interactive marriage equality map
The changes that happened for Seattle’s lesbians in the early 1970s were never solely about political ideologies or consciousness-raising. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon had been right about their strategy in organizing the Daughters of Bilitis: Many lesbians had married in the 1950s or 1960s, had created families, and were not about to meet in bars or even CR groups. Although divorces provided many with a new freedom to explore as single women and to challenge the whole notion of nuclear families, others faced the issue of whether coming out meant losing their existing children–or giving up their hopes of ever having them.
“Many people have never heard of a ‘lesbian mother,’” Carol Strong, who had helped establish the Gay Women’s Resource Center, wrote in Pandora in May 1972. Such individuals, she added, “cannot grasp the concept of a lesbian with children.” At a Los Angeles gay women’s conference the previous year, Strong noted, no child care had been provided, prompting the lesbian mothers who attended to angrily form a new union. Seattle got its own in 1972, a Gay Mother’s Union that, like so many other feminist groups, began meeting at the University YWCA. Among the most pressing topics: how to stop courts from punishing openly gay mothers by stripping away their children. The notion that lesbians were automatically mentally sick and immoral, and therefore unfit as mothers without any other proof, had become deeply embedded in the law and was as powerfully frightening a tool as a sodomy prosecution or an involuntary mental commitment…
An article in Pandora commented that the new mother’s group hoped to establish a legal precedent in Washington state that would protect lesbian moms. The chance soon came–but with two women who seemed very far in their beliefs from any of the debates about patriarchy that were occurring among other lesbians.
Sandra Schuster and Madeline Isaacson instead seemed exactly the types of pre-feminist lesbians Martin and Lyon originally had in mind when they started the Ladder. Schuster had studied nursing at Stanford, graduating in 1961, joined the Navy to help pay her college bills and then had married. She and her husband eventually had four children. Isaacson had also married and given birth to two. At first, Schuster lived with her husband north of San Francisco, slowly growing more alienated.
“I knew there was an emptiness in me, but I didn’t know what it was,” she would tell the Advocate in a later interview. For one thing, her husband did not share her fundamentalist Christian religious beliefs. Schuster prayed for guidance. One day, in the shower, she told the Advocate, she thought she heard God say she should move to Seattle to help a friend working in the city as a fundamentalist preacher. At first, she wondered whether she was crazy. A few months later, her husband was transferred to Seattle. Schuster considered it the first miracle.
In April, 1970, Schuster was attending an evening service at the friend’s church when she saw a woman walking down the church aisle with young sons grasping each of her hands. “I swore that I saw a glow around her head,” Schuster said. “I thought, ‘Listen girl, you’re really sick.’” A few days later, one of Schuster’s own sons eagerly dragged her to meet his new Sunday school teacher. It was the same woman–Isaacson. The second miracle.
She, too, had had a strained marriage. She, too, had been praying for help. “I remember when we first shook hands,” Isaacson would say of that first meeting with Schuster. “My knees got weak. I had this funny feeling all over.”
A few camping and prayer-filled months later, Isaacson confessed her feelings. At first, Schuster resisted by quoting Bible passages. When Isaacson–the Sunday school teacher–was unfazed, Schuster began to re-examine and realized that Biblical condemnations of lust were not condemnations of love. Still, she wanted a more personal sign. She told the Advocate, “I said if God will send a prophet, I’ll know it’s right.”
Driving around Lake City one day, the two women stopped on a whim at a Pentecostal church, and found a young man from California preaching. In the middle of his service, he suddenly said he felt a great burden from two people in the room and called Schuster and Isaacson forward. “Everything he told us,” Isaacson said, “was just what we’d prayed for.”
Still, Schuster demanded an even clearer sign before she would agree to act on the feelings that were becoming ever stronger. She told the Advocate that she traveled to California to go to her old church, along the way praying, “Lord, are you really sure you know what I’ve been thinking?” Standing there on the street, by coincidence or design, she found the same young preacher she had met in Seattle. That was finally enough. The third miracle.
Lesbianism through divine revelation. By a patriarchal God sending a sign through a male preacher. That was something the political analyses had certainly not addressed very thoroughly.
Eventually, both women divorced and, in 1972, their ex-husbands filed for custody of the six children, citing as harmful not only the women’s lesbianism but their fundamentalist religious beliefs as well. By then, Schuster and Isaacson had moved into a five-bedroom home in Seattle. Over the dining table for eight hung a wall poster that said, “Hallelujah! Jesus is Lord!” Once their case became known, a Post-Intelligencer story tried to capture what seemed to be the oddity of it all. “Lesbianism, motherhood, and religion–like oil and water, they just don’t seem to mix,” it said. A social worker named Nancy Kaplan and a psychiatrist named S. Harvard Kaufman soon descended on the home.
What they found was a very well adjusted family. Neither woman was attempting to cloak her newly claimed homosexuality. “It’s my understanding,” Kaplan wrote in her report, “that the danger of homosexuality is indicated by feelings of guilt and self-rejection and a tendency to withdraw from society. I see none of these traits in either Mrs. Schuster or Mrs. Isaacson. Actually, they plan to reach out and help others.” The children, all of them under nine, seemed comfortable with their mothers’ relationship. If they had questions about it, Kaplan said, they got frank answers from the moms.
“This is a most happy, well organized, creative family,” Kaplan wrote.
For his part, psychiatrist Kaufman zeroed in on the worry of whether the children would have the proper gender and sexual role models. “The children certainly are getting good physical and emotional care, are being loved and are able to show love in return,” he concluded. “They show no identification problems.”
Despite the glowing reports, the King County Superior Court judge assigned to the case, James Noe, had his own unusual test. Knowing both women were deeply religious, he ordered them to reflect on Chapter One of the Book the Romans “as it relates to their understanding of the Word of God and its effect on their lifestyle and pattern.” The chapter, a letter from the Christian apostle Paul to the early church in Rome, included condemnations of those who “lusted” after the flesh more than after God.
The women already knew the passage, but, as Isaacson would tell the Post-Intelligencer, “we read it over again to see what he meant.” After duly noting all of the letter’s references to those who were lustful fornicators, wicked, coveting, malignant and backbiters of God, Isaacson said she told Schuster, “Sandy, we aren’t any of those things!” Schuster added, “God disapproves of lust between people of the same sex or of the opposite sex. But he doesn’t disapprove of love.”
At least partially content with that response, Judge Noe agreed the women could keep custody of their children. But, he ordered, they would have to break up their new family…..
Copyright 2003 University of Washington Press
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