Ms. Ryan isn’t the first lesbian to be named Poet Laureate, but she is the first openly gay woman to be so honored. Ryan and her partner of 30+ years, Carol Adair, pictured here (left to right) during their wedding ceremony at San Francisco’s City Hall in 2004, are both professors at Marin College and, by all accounts, live a fairly idyllic Gertrude & Alice existence in the city by the bay.
When I was in my teens and 20s, I wrote quite a lot of poetry (much of it pretty good, if I say so myself) and entertained conflicting fantasies of being A Famous Singer and (more sensibly, more realistically, I thought) A Great Poet, just like Gertrude Stein, and also like her, with a loyal, loving Alice B. Toklas-type by my side. As it turned out, I didn’t become a great or famous anything and, being sexually ambivalent (along with being ambivalent about everything else), I never did find my Alice, though it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Stein and Toklas have always been very romantic figures to me. I’ve read Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas several times; ditto for James R. Mellow’s great biography, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company. My best friend since high school, the artist Charles Chamot, and I, saw ourselves as very Stein and Picasso-like figures and for years planned a trip to Paris together to pay homage at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Stein and Toklas’ apartment and the site of their famous art soirees (imagine living with walls and walls of original Impressionist paintings by all the up-and-coming artists of that influential movement!).
Because of my own mixed emotions, my admiration of Stein and Toklas, and the fact that I’ve always had close gay friends (both women and men), I’ve always regarded gay love as just as normal as straight love – which, by the way, it is. I’ve always viewed gay rights as a civil rights issue, and am proud to say that I played a meaningful role in the early years of gay rights activism. And in my capacity as an Interfaith minister, I’ve performed only three weddings: one straight, two gay.
Forty years after Stonewall, the battle for gay rights is still being fought on many essential fronts. While there is certainly greater openness and acceptance than back in the day, the passage of Proposition 8 confirms that there is still a lot of resistance out there. Obviously, there are many straight people who dislike and distrust homosexuality. The still-oft-raised objection to gay people raising children continues to be based on the mistaken idea that gay people are child molesters; statistics have long shown that child predators are generally straight. And these people who talk about The Sanctity of Marriage at a time when the divorce rate is at 50% and marital infidelity is a national sport (have you seen those horrible TV commercials for ashleymadison.com, the adultery-dating Web site?), simply refuse to accept the idea that gay love is the moral equal to their own.
Barack Obama was not elected president because racism is over, but in spite of the fact that racism is still very much a part of lopsided American life. Proposition 8 didn’t pass because gays are immoral and undeserving of the legal protection and recognition of marriage, but because sexual fear, hate, ignorance and intolerance are alive and well. Ultimately, Kay Ryan and Carol Adair remind me as much of the many long-term, often lifelong, gay couples I’ve known for decades as they remind me of Gertrude & Alice, who were always recognized as a couple but "discreetly" never said a word about it – and indeed, became ex-patriots in Paris because living openly in America was impossible. Until all love is viewed as legitimate and nothing less, and all prejudice and discrimination become a thing of the past, we will remain an imperfect union no matter who is at the helm.