PART THREE – Wedding Bells
Over the years, I lost my wedding album, but one photo is forever engraved in my memory—the one of Dad walking me down the aisle, both our faces somber, expressions more fit for a funeral than a wedding. I don’t know what Dad’s thoughts were as I held on to his arm, but a few weeks before the wedding he said, “Are you sure, Joanie? It’s not too late. We can call it off.”
As I stepped out of my house in my wedding gown, several neighbors stood along the sidewalk to watch as I climbed into the limo. My gown and headpiece were beautiful, like something out of the film Camelot, but I remember feeling uncomfortable wearing it, as if someone dressed me for a costume party on the wrong day.
Driving the few blocks to the church, a gentle rain splattered the limo’s windshield. When we arrived, someone held an umbrella over my head as I walked into the church. He said, “Don’t worry, rain is lucky on a wedding day, so long as the bride doesn’t get wet.”
The center aisles of St. James Church filled with guests. My two flower girls, Sherri and Donna, were adorable in the same style gowns as my three bridesmaids. Susan was my maid of Honor. My cousin Carol, who by this time had gone back to being straight and was engaged to a man, was one of my bridesmaids, along with my friend Dee, and, God love her, my ex- lover and new sister-in-law, Ellen. They all looked beautiful. I think I just looked scared. Other than my walk down the aisle, I have no memory of the wedding except for this: after Jimmy and I took our vows; the priest hesitated before releasing us. He reached out to me and said, “I want you to know that I am here for you if you ever have a problem or need to talk.” His words didn’t alarm me because I didn’t know they weren’t a common part of a wedding ceremony. Although, afterwards, several people asked what the priest had said to me, and expressed surprise when I told them.
Six weeks later, when meeting with the same priest to inquire about an annulment, I asked him why he voiced concern during the ceremony. He said, “I just felt something was not quite right with Jim. I tried looking into his military records to find something that would raise a red flag, but there was nothing.”
Blaming Jimmy for our failed marriage would be a copout, even though on the outside, it appeared as if the breakup may have been his fault. He physically abused me. It was just the one time. But one time was once too many for me, so I walked out. I admit I was in a bitchy mood that evening, and my bitchiness made him angry enough to throw me across the room.
The comments made to me from the people I told stunned me. Most thought I was too hasty and should give him another chance. The harshest criticism came from my Aunt Lorraine, who, after I told her Jimmy threatened to kill me, said, “So what? You can just as easily walk into the street and get hit by a car.”
The worst reaction, however, was from the Italian divorce attorney who was the uncle of my Aunt Marge’s husband. He thought I had no reason to file for divorce, and said, “My wife knows I expect dinner on the table every night at five o’clock, and if my dinner isn’t ready, I have every right to hit her.”
I believe the biggest mistake I made before getting married was that I had been a virgin. I didn’t have intercourse with Jimmy or any other guy I dated before him. The only sex I had was with women, who are all about foreplay. Jimmy, however, was a graduate of the ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’ school of sexual intimacy. No wonder nothing happened on our wedding night other than me crying and Jimmy apologizing. The next day we left for our honeymoon in the Pocono mountains, which was a success only because I got drunk before every sexual encounter.
Through it all, Ellen and I remained friends, even though her family temporarily shunned her for taking my side. Ellen put up with a lot of shit from me. Not only did I marry her brother, talk her into being my bridesmaid, but I also made her date my brother. When I die, I may have to spend a few hundred years in Purgatory for penance.
After my disastrous attempt to go straight, I once again began dating women, but I was still in the closet with my family and at work. I tried confiding in a work buddy, but once I came out to her, she stopped speaking to me.
Fast forward several years, and many relationships later, I came out of the closet completely. I joined a gay & lesbian chorus, published a lesbian novel, and was out to all of my friends and coworkers.
And in 2011, I married again. This time to a woman. We married in Niagara Falls, Canada, four years before gay marriage became legal in the states. As I look back on that relationship, I know the reason I agreed to get married was because I wanted a “forever”—most likely because my mother abandoned me. Abandonment can fuck a person up. At least it did me.
My first marriage lasted six weeks, my second one, six years. The lengthiest, and best, relationship I ever experienced was the thirteen years I spent with Holly, my West Highland White Terrier. Looking back, I realize I’m much happier living with four-legged roommates.
Many gay men and lesbians have lost jobs, housing, or families, suffered hate crimes, or lost children to divorce. Not one of us emerged from the closet unscathed. We’ve come a long way since the 90s, when I marched in my first Gay Pride Parade in New York City. I never thought, in my lifetime, gay men and lesbians could be open about who they love, legally marry, have children together, and be favorably portrayed in movies and television programs. After everything we’ve been through, being accepted as much as we are today is amazing to me.
I’m not saying things are perfect. There are still people who are homophobic, and others who are ignorant about homosexuality. For example, a while back, I spent a week at a training center in Kentucky, during which I forged a sort of friendship with two very “girly” straight women. The three of us spent a lot of our free time together—lunches, dinners, shopping. We worked for the same corporation and our jobs meant we would need to interact with each other from time to time in the future. Conversations between the two women mainly comprised their favorite brands of eye-shadow, the importance of exfoliating, and which was best for nails—gel or acrylics?
One of the junior trainees in the program was an “out” lesbian—what we would call a baby dyke because she was young and boyish. During one day at lunch, the two women referred to the young woman, saying, “It’s such a shame that lesbians are too unattractive to find a man.”
That comment riled me. I said, “I beg your pardon, but I’m a lesbian, and I’ve never had a problem finding a man. I just don’t want one.” They laughed and said, “Oh, Joanna, you’re so funny.” When they realized I wasn’t joking, they apologized, but also stopped inviting me to join them for lunch the rest of the week.
I hesitate to come out to straight women unless we’ve established a solid friendship first., with good reason. I had become friendly with a Christian woman who lived in the same building as me. We were both recovering alcoholics, and would occasionally go to an A.A. meeting together. She knew I had written a novel, and that my protagonist was also in recovery. When she asked to read the book, I told her that my protagonist is a lesbian. I said, “Just skip the sex scenes if they bother you”.
A week later, as we walked to our cars in the parking lot after an A.A. meeting, she stopped short, turned to me and demanded, “Are you a lesbian?”
My mind raced, struggling to predict the consequence if I told her the truth. A little voice inside my head shouted, “Don’t!”
“No,” I said.
“That’s a relief.” She let out a huge breath and pressed her palm to her heart. “I thought you gave me the book to read because you’re attracted to me.”
“God, no! I’m not attracted to you.” Don’t flatter yourself.
“I thought maybe you were coming on to me.”
“I’m glad,” she said, “because if you were a lesbian, we couldn’t still be friends.”
As you can probably guess, I ended our friendship.
Although I mentioned the woman is a Christian, I don’t believe all Christians are homophobes. In my apartment building, for example, I’m friends with three born-again Christian women who know I’m gay and accept me for who I am, not who they want me to be. I’ve also confided in a few straight male friends who live in my building, and our friendships have become even closer—probably because there’s no sexual tension between us. I’ve since come out to my writers’ group, and I’m out on my website and social media as well.
I no longer engage with people who are homophobes, xenophobes, racists, anti-semites, or chauvinists. And if they don’t want to engage with me, all the better. I had spent way too many years in closets where it’s hard to breathe. The air is much sweeter out here, so I’m planning to stay.