On the morning Max died, sun flooded the apartment I grew up in. The front door had been unlocked for days to ease the ins and outs of hospice nurses, and of my uncle, who had come to be with us. I let myself in and found my father in the room that had once been mine. His salt and pepper hair was un‐done and his tan winter bathrobe was tied loosely over white pajamas. He sat with his head tilted back and peered through eyeglasses at the computer screen in front of him. Each plastic key was smaller than the tips of his broad fingers and he used only his pointers as he typed. My father wept. And he did not notice I’d come in until I was close enough to touch him. Then he stopped, stood, and held me. Quiet. Max’s body still lay in the bed they had shared.
Explaining who Max is has never been simple. After nearly three decades, current language still fails to describe my family. I have called him my stepfather but he was never married to my mother. I have called him my father’s long‐term lover, partner or companion, but these terms keep him in relation to my father alone and speak nothing of the relationship he had to me. For this, there is still no word. And so my brother and I are left approximating, scrambling to describe a family which current terminology hasn’t caught up to yet. Once, when my brother was little, he drew an accurate picture of us all: two grown men standing beside each other, next to a woman and two kids. When the teacher asked him who the extra man was, family lore has my young brother looking at her and saying simply: that’s my Max, as if everybody had one.
My parents divorced in 1982 when I was five years old. In February 1983, a freak snowstorm hit D.C. and shut the airport down. My father was supposed to be on his way to London that night but his flight was canceled and he wound up at a dinner where he met Max. There’s a picture of my dad reading a newspaper in winter sunshine on a dark blue sofa. He’s wearing a striped polo shirt with the collar turned up and khaki pants. Tan worker boots hang with the laces untied from the foot of his crossed legs. He looks butch and handsome. The hint of a smile plays at the corner of his mouth, as if he knows he’s being photographed. Max took that picture the morning after they’d met and two months later, they decided to make a life together. In July, they closed on the apartment on Columbia road and we all moved in that October. If Max had lived six weeks longer to the day, he would have celebrated his 27th anniversary with his love, my father. Instead, this February 11th, my dad will board a plane to Peru and bring Max, in ashes only, back to the family from which he came.
To say that the odds were stacked against two gay men who wanted to share custody of two small children with a single woman and raise a family in Washington D.C. in 1983 is a paltry description of what they faced. Max, my father and my mother worked tirelessly to make our anomalous family function. My brother and I shuttled between two households, spending half our time with my mom and the other half with Max and my dad. That my mother was committed to not only allowing but also supporting my father’s role in our lives is something I remain awed by. The way things were in 1982, she probably could have walked into any courtroom in the country, outed my father as a gay man with a ferocious temper, and had even his most basic parental rights revoked. Without ever being told this, my brother and I understood it viscerally. Certain people came to the apartment and knew about our lives and to everybody else, we only told half the story.
My father and Max lived between two worlds. During the day, they donned suits and went to work. In the evening, they walked home together—hands only ever holding their own briefcases—to the apartment they shared and to the children they shared the work of raising. They didn’t fit into straight culture that often teemed with open homophobia, nor did they really fit within the burgeoning gay subculture that hadn’t yet begun to imagine what a “gay family” might look like. Slowly, they gathered around them a group of people, each of whom, in distinctive ways, seemed to shimmer from similar existences in between. On the nights when Max and my dad hosted dinner parties, I remember falling asleep to the sound of men and women laughing loudly, gossiping in foreign tongues, as English was rarely the only language at our dinner table.
As I grew older, guests who had frequented our dining room didn’t come to dinner anymore. As AIDS began to claim the grim numbers that it did, the community Max and my father had painstakingly knit around us thinned out mercilessly. The gulf between the world of our apartment and the world outside opened up in a silent sensibility for which I had no words at the time. What I knew was that in the straight worlds I moved through, not even the adults were seeing what my brother and I saw: the transformation that took hold of a body, the fight that remained in the eyes, love that poured forth in hushed conversations as people came to say their goodbyes, and the absolute goneness, the hollow, they left behind. These days, a different abyss has opened itself inside my experience and I feel it as a slowly widening space inside my heart. It is not so stark as when I was younger but is perhaps the more worrisome for being harder to see. This time, however, I am old enough to put it into words.
Some months before Max died I called to find he and my father having lunch together in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Although Max’s body was already ravaged by the cancer that would eventually take him, they were out celebrating together. After 26 years the city of Washington had finally recognized them as “domestic partners,” affording them the same rights and privileges the city affords to straight couples that are married. Through the telephone, I could hear from their voices that the moment was bittersweet. Max had always been a deeply religious man. Cultural legitimacy was important to him. Though he brought his most fearsome fighting self to the battle against his illness, he knew already he would not win it. On that day in August, he knew that this was as close as he would ever come to having the love of his life, the work of this lifetime, acknowledged in the eyes of the law. For my father, his lover’s body crumbling beside him, and already embroiled in the legalities that would ensue upon Max’s death—precisely because the federal government affords their partnership no rights whatsoever regardless of what DC or any of the states decide to do—the day simply offered too little, too late.
If you are straight, you may never have considered the silent, seemingly invisible, and nonetheless ubiquitous, privileges that you enjoy. You may not have even noticed them. You may never have openly held your lover’s hand on a subway and feared getting beaten up. You may have kissed your lovers on street corners when you parted and never noticed people staring at you, or cursing. You may have responded easily to people’s questions about your life without worrying that you might slam up against a wall of bigoted silence. And you might have known, perhaps without ever so much as giving it a second thought, that if you should one day decide to marry, you would of course have the right to do so. Along with all the subtle forms of cultural belonging you enjoy, the law protects your marriage from certain hardships and confers upon it certain rights. Entirely aside from the fray of state legislation, the way it stands today at the federal level: if you are in love with someone whose sex is the same as your own, your bond affords you nothing.
Alongside the subtle experiences of discrimination and illegibility that pervade your everyday life, if you love someone of the same sex, the federal government legally refuses you rights and protections that it grants your friends and relatives on the basis of who you love. If your partner is foreign, your bond does not earn them the right to be here. If your lover dies, your bond does not earn you the right to grieve their loss free from legalities and taxes. If you have worked all your life as a federal employee, your bond does not get your companion your benefits, nor does it entitle them to your pension when you pass. Under the guise of the marriage issue, the federal government has been dabbling in the business of determining which relationships are worthy of such benefits and which relationships are not. This is not a question of what marriage is: it is a question of a legal double standard, a form of discrimination that is both unjust and legal.
When the debate that has swept this nation enters into the merits of same versus opposite sex couples or the nature of marriage itself, we swerve radically off topic. Marriage may well come to be defined as being between a man and a woman but if this turns out to be the case, then the government has no business being the body to confer or recognize it. As long as there are couples that do not fit that description, as long as people like Max and my father are raising their children and maintaining their households, the government violates its own codes by bestowing a status upon some that it refuses to others. If the answer is not granting gays the federal right to marry, then it must be to refuse straight people the same. Lest we repeat the injurious lessons that we toiled through to learn that separate can not be equal, if the answer is to bestow upon gays “domestic partnership” or “civil union” but not “marriage,” then straight people should be forced to accept the same.
Marriage is not the endpoint of civil rights, nor is it the culmination of human relationships. There are plenty who see it as a bastion of convention designed to limit our capacity to love, and plenty more will increasingly take issue with who even qualifies as “man” or “woman.” This debate need not entangle itself in the wonders and hardships of human love. It is at once simpler and more pressing. If Max and my father had been federally granted the right to marry, that wouldn’t have freed them from being the objects of ignorant, arbitrary hatred. Marriage equality will not eradicate the insidious forms of inequity gays face every day. But it will release us all from the yoke of a law that is smeared with injustice. The sad fact is that if you are straight and decide to take advantage of the right afforded you by the government when you sanction your partnership in marriage, you are participating in an institution that has lamentably come to be defined by whom it can deny.
Up until some years ago, I wore the blinders of straight privilege upon my own eyes, trying to believe that Max and my father’s problem wasn’t mine. Today I find myself in love with someone who shares my sex and the chasm between the straight worlds I move through and the world of my apartment is wide again. I am stunned sometimes at the ability of straight couples to so unconsciously enjoy privileges that Max and my father—that perhaps I too—will suffer without. And I wonder often at what it will take for us to understand that we are in this together: that an injustice suffered by one of us is an injury to us all. There were many things I never asked Max. As with many children and their parents, much went unspoken between us and now it is too late. There is a book that describes death as leaving a hole in the universe the size of the person who is gone: a Max‐sized hole in the universe. And there is another book, an older one, that acknowledges that we will one day have to repent not only for the hateful words of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good.
LITIA PERTA is a writer and teacher living in Los Angeles and teaching at the University of California, Irvine. She is interested in transformation, and in collaborating with others to develop innovative ways (pedagogical, linguistic, theoretical, economic, spiritual, poetic) to support the transformations we came here to live through.