Maggie’s melancholy marriage crusade, and me

Ahem. A little mood music, maestro:

Ah, that sets the tone brilliantly for what I’m about to say…

This morning, this Salon link popped up in my Facebook feed. Maggie Gallagher is a frequent wanker on my weekly list, and it’s not hard to see why. She’s said so many stupid things about same-sex marriage that I sometimes think I should just give her an entry to herself.

So imagine my shock when I found out the real reason for Maggie’s antipathy to same-sex marriage, which turns out NOT to be plain old homophobia like you’d expect. It’s something much murkier, and sadder, and it almost makes me sympathetic toward her at times. Not Maggie the professional homophobe, but Maggie the sad and lonely woman who got dumped:

As a freshman, Gallagher joined the Party of the Right, a debating society affiliated with the Yale Political Union. The YPU is a very large campus organization, with hundreds of members, whose main activity is to bring speakers to campus several times a month. But it is organized into “parties,” smaller clubs that meet for meals, pub nights and informal debates. Each party has its own flavor, political and cultural. The Tory Party is right-of-center and high Anglophile (the men wear tweed, the women plan to take their future husbands’ last names); the Liberal Party is left-of-center, earnest and wonkish. The Party of the Right has the deepest culture of the half-dozen or so parties. Its membership is diverse, comprising libertarians and monarchists, Catholic traditionalists and Objectivists, monetarists and distributivists. But they share a passionate, if often pretentious, reverence for the life of the mind. Members of the Party of the Right often major in philosophy, and they prefer debating questions about God or the Good to mundane matters of policy.

The party’s intentional eccentricity — when I was at Yale, in the 1990s, several Party of the Right men affected hats and trench coats — helps explain its reputation for cultishness. For many members, the party becomes their entire social world, and so it is not surprising that party romances are common. As a senior, Gallagher began seeing a fellow party member, a sophomore who wrote conservative editorials for a campus magazine and dreamed of being a doctor.

Today, they have different memories of the relationship — how long they had been dating, how close they were — but on one fact they agree: 30 years ago this spring, months before she was supposed to graduate, Gallagher discovered she was pregnant. Then, as now, Yale students did not get pregnant — or if they did, no baby came of it. But Gallagher knew she would have this baby. At first, she planned to give the baby up for adoption, but she soon changed her mind. The father, however, was not interested in being a father. Or so she says.

On a mild November day, Gallagher and I are upstairs at City Bakery, near Union Square in Manhattan, where after months of requests she has agreed to meet me. As Gallagher tells it, she and the baby’s father were close; they had been together “on the order of one year,” she says, so he might have been expected to stand by her. “My son’s father was my boyfriend at Yale,” is how she describes their relationship. But when she told him she was pregnant, right before spring break in 1982, he vanished on her. “I was in his room and he had to go do something, and I was going to fly out in a couple of hours, had to get to the airport. And the last thing he said to me was, ‘I’ll be back in 30 minutes.’ And then he wasn’t.”

He just left her sitting in his room. And that was the end of them. When summer came, Gallagher moved home to Oregon and took some classes to finish her degree. In the fall, she gave birth to a baby boy, Patrick.

The next year, Gallagher says, she and the father reconciled and moved in together. He was still in school, and they shared a house by the Connecticut shore with some other undergraduates. “It was one of those things that you have to be pretty young and stupid to think is going to work, because it was a very collegiate environment and, you know, basically my parents were supporting me. And so, you know, we, we broke up. I moved into a separate apartment, and he came by occasionally.” He graduated, and soon they were living near one another — she was commuting from Jersey City to Manhattan, to work at National Review, the conservative magazine, and he was in Harlem. He occasionally baby-sat for Patrick, until one day, after staying with his son while she attended a conference, he decided he wanted out. “He called me up the next day, or the next, and said that he couldn’t do it anymore, and that he didn’t really want to have anything to do with either of us,” Gallagher says. “And that was it.”

And that’s it. That’s the root, right there, of Maggie’s obsession with saving marriage. It has nothing to do with the queers at all. It has nothing to do with her two OTHER pet hates, liberalism and feminism, either. It has everything to do with the fact that her college boyfriend — a right-winger, just like herself — would not marry her, as she had hoped, when she revealed to him that she was pregnant with his child.

Now, I said I could sympathize with Maggie up to a point, and here’s why:

I too fell in love at university. It happened right in my first year. He was just what I wanted in a guy: smart, cute, funny, kind. He was so wonderfully different from all the other guys, although I couldn’t put my finger on why. He just was. And for a while there, I honestly believed he loved me too.

And he did love me…but.

In second year we were housemates (along with four engineering students), and that’s when our relationship took off. Or so I hoped. It was strangely chaste even for two 20-year-old virgins, which we were. We kissed rarely. He wouldn’t look at me when he touched me. He did remark, once, that I had “the most amazing skin”. I didn’t ask him what he meant by that. He had the strangest far-away look in his eyes when he said it, and I thought how odd it was that he could look so troubled when paying me such a sweet compliment.

What was the matter? Why wasn’t he happy, like me? And then came the awful question that girls ask themselves when a guy is acting all weird on them: What am I doing wrong?

And then it was over. And he was seeing another girl, and then another.

I lost my shit and confronted him after several weeks of this torture, which had made living in the same house with him all but impossible for me. I asked the self-blaming question and several others just as pointed, accusing him of treating me atrociously. Which indeed he was, although not for the reasons most guys jerk their girlfriends around. He was keeping something from me, I just knew it, and his evasive answers weren’t cutting it. I was too clingy, he said. That was a lie. I was hiding from him most of the time, often leaving a room as soon as he entered it, because I couldn’t bear the sight of him anymore. It just hurt too much. I began to spend a lot of time alone in my room, sulking and moping and trying not to cry.

And I was not the only bewildered female he’d left in his wake. By then he’d dumped the two girls who came after me, and while we couldn’t talk to each other for jealousy (or rather, I couldn’t talk to them), I sensed that they were just as confused by his mercurial behavior as I was. And he didn’t seem the fickle type; if he were, I’d never have let him get as close to me as he did. If he could dump not only me, but two other nice, bright girls, something had to be up.

So I stepped up the confrontation. That was uncharacteristic of me; like all introverts, I prefer to avoid conflict until it becomes inevitable. At last I exploded. It was like I’d become a whole different person, and I was: angry, distraught, constantly demanding answers he did not want to give. Only now, I wasn’t asking what I had done wrong, because if it was me, it must have been the other two girls as well, and we were all so different from one another. So I finally demanded: What was the matter with him?

And he looked at me very grimly and told me that he could tell me in two words what it was. But he didn’t say those two words. So I blurted out the most ridiculous thing I could think of, which was: “What — are you trying to tell me you’re gay, or something?”

He didn’t say a word, just looked at me with that horrible, unreadable expression. And then he turned away.

And that was his big coming-out moment, although I remained in denial for weeks after. Even when he shoved my nose in it, bringing around one prospective boyfriend after another, I couldn’t accept it, couldn’t bring myself to believe it. Until finally I had to.

And then I crashed.

For the first time in my life, I seriously contemplated suicide. I took long walks on the grey Kingston waterfront all that winter, wishing for a cliff to throw myself from. There was none. There was not a single elevated, isolated spot where I could quietly do away with myself and cease to trouble this world with my unwanted presence. So I sat on a park bench staring morosely out at Wolfe Island and wishing I knew how to just die. I sat there so long that an elderly gentleman passing by asked me if anything was wrong. I shook my head and went home, biting back tears all the way.

I climbed out of my depression gradually, in what would later become a pattern for me: by avoiding him, and immersing myself desperately in other pursuits, no matter how little pleasure I could eke out of them. I took photos with the Zeiss camera and telephoto lens that I’d gotten for Christmas, of the ice breaking up along the shore. They turned out badly: dark and bleak with a distant pinprick sun, and none of the cool crystalline beauty I was hoping to capture. An omen? It sure felt like it.

I also wrote a novella that I didn’t really know how to finish. And no wonder: The events that sparked that burst of cathartic creativity were far from over. I tentatively titled it The Breaking, which was a transparent view of my own state of mind. It was a first-person narrative from the viewpoint of a second-year university girl dying of cancer. It was my death wish, pure and simple. When I read it aloud at the local writers’ group meeting, my voice trembled and would not stop. It felt like confession, not fiction. One of the older ladies remarked that my hero, a nursing student who ended up looking after his sick friend because she couldn’t or wouldn’t care for herself, seemed too good to be true. “He sounds almost like a homosexual, dear!”

I thought I would die of shame, but it never happened. To my utter disgust, I lived.

Eventually my grief ran out of steam. By then I was living in a new place, a two-bedroom basement apartment on a quiet side street. I put the melodramatic manuscript away; I think I lost it. If it is still among my papers, I am not going to dig it out, unless I’m really starving for something to laugh at. I came to grips with the fact that my friend would always be my friend, never my boyfriend. I resumed my on-again-off-again long-distance relationship with another guy I’d been tentatively seeing, and whom I would finally and definitively dump four years later, after numerous infidelities, most of them on his part. I found myself crushing harmlessly on various other unavailable guys in my classes. And I got over the homophobia I hadn’t known I had until my buddy rubbed my nose in it.

In short: I got over myself, and him, and the gay. And what saved me were the very things that Maggie Gallagher has taken it upon herself to eradicate: left-wing politics, feminism, and homophilia.

I could so easily have become a Maggie Gallagher myself, making a lucrative cottage industry of my own unhealed wound. But I chose to go a more constructive way. Today, I’m a happily unmarried woman who still dares to hope for a sweet, smart, sensitive Mr. Right, but who obviously isn’t in any rush. I don’t have any abstract, immutable ideals of Marriage-with-a-capital-M, only realistic (and gender-inclusive) concepts of small-m marriage. And I’m certainly NOT about to force any gay guys onto that Procrustean bed. I have no desire to be any man’s beard, and I do not believe that our society is being destroyed by the forces of progress and social change. In fact, I’m working among those forces to make it better, even if that means that the Maggies of this world can’t accept it. I can, and so can a growing number of others. Just as I accepted my friend’s orientation and my own solitude, eventually embracing both, so I have become a very different, and much happier, woman.

Meanwhile, my buddy found the love of his life. He and his partner had a Holy Union ceremony, the first (unofficial) gay wedding ever performed by the Queen’s University chaplain. And when I danced with my best friend’s dad at the reception, the father-of-the-groom murmured sadly to me: “I wish it was YOU he was marrying.”

I didn’t say a word. I just smiled back at him a little ruefully and thought: Yeah, me too. But we can’t always get what we wish for, can we?

2 Comments

  1. Ben G says:

    And I’m proud to count you, ‘Bina, as my best friend. You inspire me every day.

  2. toma says:

    Best thing I read on the internet today. If a bit harrowing. Glad you managed to de-Maggie your future, even if a National Review writer’s salary would make for a comfortable living. Still, there are perks to being able to live with yourself.

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