Last weekend I attended the Elton John Final Curtain concert at Boise’s Taco Bell Arena. During one of his songs, a picture of a wedding cake with two men on top flashed on the big screen bringing a huge shout out from the 12,000 fans. This response to gay marriage in Idaho, absolutely amazing! One year ago this week, Idaho allowed gay and lesbian marriage. Our Governor and legislature fought this action every step of the way in the courts. Idaho taxes paid $457,000 for this staunch opposition. This week on public radio there was an interview with the one of the lesbian couples in the legal challenge. Asked how their lives were different, they said they were able to return to normalcy without stress of one court action after another. As a married couple, they now have legal benefits such as medical insurance, ownership of a home and being named on their child’s birth certificate.
This discussion led me back to the summer of 1974, a summer memorable because of Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation in August. The summer of 1974 is memorable to me because it was the first time I confronted gay and lesbian rights. I spent the summer on Casper Mountain as a camp counselor at a Girl Scout Horseback Camp. In my first year of graduate school, I was lead counselor for a large number of girls and several other counselors. The camp was over enrolled. Leaders were responsible for planning one meal a day outside. We were in tents up a mountain side with wooden floors. I remember spending many evenings out in the rain, wrapped in a green plastic tarp with a shovel dredging around the wood floor to keep sheets of water out of the tent. Or trying to get a campfire going to feed hungry girls as the rain slogged down. We were on horseback, the main activity of the camp, rain or shine, every day. We spent two weeks up the mountain, a weekend off and then 2 weeks on all summer long. I would visit my aunt in Casper on my weekends off, where she would soak my muddy socks in bleach and I would luxuriate in a bath and understand the lavishness of having a bed with clean sheets. Otherwise, we were isolated up a mountain with only women and girls 24- 7.
About 4 weeks in, the counselors were called to an all staff meeting where it was announced that two of the counselors were sleeping together. Gay issues were definitely in the closet in Wyoming in the seventies. As a graduate student at Arizona State University in sociology, a huge campus in a liberal discipline, I wasn’t totally naïve about sexuality. But it took me a minute to wrap my mind around the dialogue. There were two counselors in every tent and all the girls, so of course, we were all sleeping together. Since lesbianism wasn’t openly discussed, I didn’t immediately grasp that we were talking about two camp counselors having an affair. I remember general outrage among other counselors. The final outcome was that two women couldn’t share a tent or see each other socially during the camp because those of us with boyfriends weren’t able to see our ‘men” while on duty up the mountain. Looking back on that discussion now, I am amazed that we discussed it openly, resolved it based on the issue of equity and went back to slinging real mud out of tents precariously perched on rough terrain.
Since then, I have reflected on my Aunts Florance (Florrie), a giant red-haired woman and Lillian, petite sparrow-like creature. As kids in the fifities, we would go to South Carolina, visit my dad’s family including his mother, brothers and these two spinster aunts who lived together. I would wonder on the vast differences in their appearance and was never sure of Lillian’s relationship to us. Florrie clearly looked and acted like my dad’s side of the family. Now I recognize that Florrie and Lillian were probably lovers living under the cover of spinster aunts. I am sure that in the small southern community of Lancaster, South Carolina the relationship was known and accepted if not necessarily endorsed.
In the sixties in Cheyenne, Wyoming, we had two teachers who lived together; Miss Kepner, the PE teacher and Miss Shubert, the choir director. They were known for their great teaching skills, their hard-nosed grading and for being peculiar. A few summers ago, I was back in Wyoming visiting friends. I saw Miss Kepner helping an extremely frail Miss Shubert to a park bench. They sat down and Miss Shubert leaned her head on Miss Kepner shoulder. Such a small jester, but a clear image of intimacy, I actually felt like a voyeur.
In 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same sex married. At that time, CNN noted, 60% of Americans opposed gay married. Between 2003 and 2015, the percentage of Americans supporting gay marriage rose to 55% (Pew Research Center). In 1974 on Casper Mountain, young women helping educate America’s future leaders decided that same sex dating was not a problem but an issue of fairness. Swamped with mud and focused on getting through the day, we were too busy to judge people and their private lives, but we wanted everyone treated the same. Between 1974 and 2014, most Americans came to the same conclusion: Fairness demands that we be able to protect the rights of those we love through marriage.