The following is the text, verbatim, of the paid death notice for my mom that appeared in the March 31 New York Times:
KURTZ–Lynn. Died at home March 30. A musician and educator, she is survived by her spouse Elli Ross, daughter Eliza Kurtz, son Josh Kurtz, daughter-in-law Caryl Ashrey and granddaughters Haley Beidel, Zoe Kurtz and Genevieve Kurtz.
That’s not a typo in there. Her spouse is not a guy named Eli. It’s a woman named Elli.
Yes, my mom was a lesbian. She and Elli were married in Connecticut last year. It was a beautiful event, at an inn overlooking the Long Island Sound. And so the demise of the gay marriage bill in the Maryland General Assembly is very personal to me.
I never told a lot of people that my mom was gay. It’s not that it was a big secret – it’s just that it was never a big deal. She was my mom, and I loved her. Any issues I had with her through the years were typical conflicts between parent and child – they had 100 percent zero to do with her sexuality.
My mom never really “came out.” That wasn’t her style. She just went about her business and lived her life the way she wanted to.
But Mom and Elli’s love story is an inspiring tale worthy of a novel. They first became lovers in graduate school in the late 1950s. Luckily for my sister and me, and for Elli’s kids, mom and Elli were products of their era who felt intense pressure to marry and have families.
But they never stopped loving each other. Through marriage and divorce, through long-term relationships with other women, they stayed in touch – sometimes regularly and intimately, other times less so.
They finally found their way back to each other permanently in 2007. That they could rekindle a romance that first blossomed half a century earlier, that my mom at age 70 was embarking on a new romantic adventure, made it seem like a fairy tale. On their wedding day last October, Elli recalled how my mom had said to her, 50-odd years earlier, “If you were a man, I’d marry you.”
Most people would probably agree that there are aspects of their parents’ marriages that remain a mystery, whether the marriages were good, bad or indifferent. My marvelous parents stayed married for more than 22 years, and I’ve never been quite sure how or why they sustained it for so long. I can only imagine the turmoil both were going through for so many of those years, and it pains me to think that they were in pain.
Though my sister and I deduced by the mid-1970s that mom was a lesbian, my parents did an incredible job of keeping things together and shielding us from the problems they were having. They were more than civil to each other – they had similar interests and worldviews, and they had a lot of laughs, so we did, too (that point was reinforced exactly four weeks before my mom died, when my folks had a very tender visit in my mom’s hospital room).
With musicians for parents, and growing up in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, we were never going to have the typical Ozzie and Harriet upbringing. But we did all right.
To me, the case for gay marriage always seemed like a no-brainer. Why shouldn’t two people who love each other be able to make a lifetime commitment that’s recognized by the state? Why shouldn’t they enjoy the same rights of community property, and have the same ability to make end-of-life decisions, that straight couples possess? Why should they be considered less than equal in the eyes of the law?
Obviously, some churches preach that homosexuality is a sin, or that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, largely for the purpose of procreation. I’m not going to attempt to argue with teachings that are thousands of years old. If people continue to believe them in this day and age, I suppose they’re entitled. But no one was asking churches that have reviled homosexuality to suddenly start marrying gay couples. What couple would want to be married by a hostile institution?
Through the years, I have watched the national conversation over gay marriage with dismay. It outrages me that conservatives have demagogued the issue for so long – that gay-bashing is an old reliable for Republican strategists, to gin up the base vote. The very title of the Defense of Marriage Act is an insult. What’s there to defend? Many gay couples want to be married – they’re not attacking the institution.
It’s hardly a secret that gay men and lesbians have an image problem in this country. There are well-established stereotypes that the media perpetuate, even as they increasingly celebrate gay culture. You’d think that all gay men are wealthy, limp-wristed white guys who enjoy only the finer things in life. All lesbians are ugly and unfeminine, sporting plaid shirts and crew cuts.
In reality, of course, lesbians and gay men come from all walks of life, and are all races, creeds, economic classes, physical specimens and personality types. But the stereotypes undoubtedly hurt the gay community’s ability to forge political alliances. It’s hard to make the argument that you’re being discriminated against when the perception is you’re all pampered and privileged. Some people argue that gays, unlike racial minorities, who can’t hide who they are, wouldn’t be feared and discriminated against – if only they would stay in the closet and stop making people feel so uncomfortable.
One of the most painful aspects of the recent debate over gay marriage in Maryland was the ambivalence or downright opposition of certain African-American legislators and the pressure some black churches put on them to vote against the legislation. My friend Blair Lee, in a column in The Gazette of Politics and Business, took delight in seeing the discomfort of white liberals on this divide.
But there was no dilemma for this white liberal. Nothing can erase the four centuries of slavery, discrimination and horror that black Americans have endured. No one is naïve enough to think this country’s race problem has been “solved” because Barack Obama is president.
But to me, opposing gay marriage is supporting discrimination, plain and simple, and in my mind, it’s awfully hard for politicians – of any race – to justify that. Minority officeholders, it seems to me, ought to be particularly sensitive to discrimination of any sort. No matter what their churches say, their constituencies also include gay people, and these politicians should be extending a hand of solidarity, not turning away.
I obviously don’t know what it’s like to be a racial minority in this country. I am not going to lecture anybody here. But I believe that minorities who vote against gay marriage are like the successful policymakers who benefited from programs to help the underprivileged and then vote to eliminate them. It happens all the time.
The failure of gay marriage in Maryland this year can’t all be placed at the opposition’s feet. Advocates spent too much time focusing on the state Senate and didn’t do a proper head count in the House of Delegates. They took things for granted. They never adequately made the case. They should have anticipated Tiffany Alston’s freak-out.
Sen. Allan Kittleman (R) was a hero for supporting the measure. The opposition of many moderate and conservative Democrats was a major disappointment. The performance of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) – saying he’d sign the bill if it passed even though he preferred civil unions and then not lifting a finger to help the bill in its hour of need – was bizarre.
A moment has been lost. There’s no guarantee the legislation will be back – or do any better – next year.
When the Senate passed the gay marriage bill, I proudly told my mom about it, and joked that she and Elli should have waited to get married here. When the legislation died its ignoble death in the House, I didn’t know what to say.
During my years covering Maryland, I have prided myself on offering wry, detached – and with luck, insightful — commentary on the issues of the day. I’m not comfortable talking about myself and my family. I apologize to them – and to readers – for doing so.
But you see, gay rights opponents insult my mother. And I will not forget.
Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz: