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By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

My Lesbian Husband

Posted By on June 30, 2009

Review by Arlene Istar Lev

My Lesbian Husband

By Barrie Jean Borich

Graywolf Press St. Paul, MN.

What a wonderful title for a book! When I first saw it on the bookshelf, I just knew that I had to read it. The best way to describe this book, the word that keeps running through my mind as I read it, is “lyrical,” which my thesaurus defines as poetic, emotional, romantic, inspired and expressive. I hate using up all my adjectives in the first paragraph – but those words describe exactly the feelings I experienced as a read Borich’s book.

Barrie Jean Borich has written a powerful and intimate story that is both autobiographical and reflective. She is an intimate writer, poetic and romantic, yes, but also full of depth and thick with wisdom. Borich probes the meaning of love and marriage within a queer context, using her own life as a raw material for her research. She seeks an image to contain, her love with Linnea, “a reflection” or “an echo” that honors and sanctions their unique kind of marriage. She pours through pictures of lesbians at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and peers a bit too intently at other couples at parties as she scans the world for mirrors of her and Linnea’s kind of love. It is nice to read a book about home and hearth that does not revolve around children; it is good for this lesbian mom to know that the glue of family sticks when all that hold the partners together is their love.

While the patriarchy argues about our right to marry and the queer communities struggle with whether marriage is really what we want, The Lesbian Husband gives an insiders’ view of lesbian marriage at its best. Not just any marriage though, but a particular kind of queer marriage, one designed in contrasts, self-created by women who are as different from one another as night and day. Borich says, “One might assume by the prefix homo [as in homosexual] — that we’re looking for sameness, not difference” (p. 39). This lesbian marriage is about the attraction of opposites as the author contemplates the meaning of commitment and the value of “forevers.”

Borich is not lost in a sea of romantic idealism. She recognizes that for all the talk about marriage as romantic union, it is also an economic one. She says, “if the state of marriage is determined by property, we may not have enough to qualify” (p 5). She struggles to find solid ground that defines what takes a queer coupling and makes it into a site of holy matrimony.

Borich asks all the right questions that any lesbian-feminist anti-patriarchal dyke would ask. She opens the book questioning the word marriage itself, and moves on to examining the words husband and of course, wife. She ruminates on the word “wife” … She says that Linnea, her lover/partner/wife/husband does not like the word wife; her “jaw muscles stiffen” even when she qualifies it by calling her a “handsome wife.” Borich admits the word wife doesn’t fit Linnea but confesses that when Linnea refers to HER as wife “it is a word filled with all the attention she gives me, plumb with kisses on the neck as my thighs part to her hand.” She continues, “We can only use this word if we steal it. Hidden in our laps it is better” (p. 5).

Linnea’s gender expression is integral to the intimacy of their marriage. Borich says, “I’m suddenly aware that for some time now she has been buying all of her clothes in the men’s department”(p. 121), and I am struck that this information has come upon her slowly. She debates whether clothes are just a “facile presentation of our surfaces” but comes to the conclusion that something “more than surfaces is at stake here” (p. 122). She explains that Linnea is “… a woman who wears men’s clothes, except that they aren’t men’s clothes to her, just her clothes, the clothes she likes” (p. 123). Borich understand the social stigma for women who wear men’s clothes, and understands that something more than just aesthetics urges us to clothe ourselves as we do. She refers to this as “…the choices we are compelled to make” (p. 129), which in it’s simplicity settles the post modern discussion on essentialism versus constructionism for me.

As our lesbian and queer communities mature we are naming and describing more labels that define our identities. The complexity of gender identity for masculine females is becoming more clearly articulated as transmen and FtM’s find their voice. Many of them are telling us that although they had lived as lesbians this was never a term that really defined them. They are saying that they have never really been women. Linnea, however, says clearly, “I don’t know the word … but I am not a man” (p. 5). Borich has done an excellent job describing some of the paradoxes and struggles of living with a partner who is a masculine female, yet not a man or a transman. Linnea is described as a butch WOMAN, ” … not a man, or someone who wants to be a man, or even someone who acts like a man” (p.6), but a masculine female, a lesbian, a butch. Images of masculinity in females is a topic too little discussed and it is important for us to have these conversations. Images of butch women, in addition to images of transmen, add to the diversity of gender expression for masculine females.

Although gender is an intricate web woven into the very fabric of their lives together, it is not the only thread that defines this marriage. Borich contemplates the meaning of long-term commitment and fidelity, especially for lesbians. As she witness the couplings of younger women she says, “I was incapable of imagining, when I was twenty-three, that years of one-on-one intimacy could be another kind of high-wire act (p.79). At twenty-three for me long-term relationships seemed some how easy; it was not getting trapped that seemed so difficult. Borich has learned, as have many of us, that maintaining intimacy over the long haul takes skill and precision and a flare for color. Understanding how very fragile our unions are — to borrow a phrase from Joan Nestle who has taught us so much about butch lovers, if not lesbian husbands — Borich reflects on the breakup of another long-term relationship. She describes her shock over it’s suddenness as a “forest fire where I didn’t even know there were trees” (p. 111).

Borich offers us few solutions to make a marriage work. Mostly she is simply in awe that hers mostly does. She is not judgmental about polyamory but says that “fidelity affords us an unobstructed view” and since “there is still more here than I’m likely to find if I look further … I don’t stray” (p. 80).

Borich engages the reader who witnesses her deep reverie with passion and poetry and humor. She says, “…when you promise to cherish in sickness and health you become each other’s plot of land” (p. 118). Her book is the story of how she and her lesbian husband each till and tend that land through fertile harvest as well as drought. It is a wonderful love story, close enough to my home, that it warms the heart. Unfortunately when reading about others love stories’, it can sometimes go on and on a bit too long. The details of their daily lives that makes this narrative so compelling, occasionally become tedious as the daily tasks often are, more list-like than lyrical.

Borich tells us what I have always suspected –that with, or without, legally sanctioned marriage the joy of being queer is that we live in a liminal place, an in-between place. We get to have the best, as they say, of both worlds — the freedom of just shacking up, with the security of marriage; we get to have (for those of us who want them and some of us lesbians definitely do) husbands who are not men. She says, “I am a woman who casts off the waltz of heterosexual womanhood yet still wears the markings of the female on her back and face. I am in love with another kind of woman who searches for a better word for her sort of womanhood. We love together in our world of distinct and opposite words for this and that, at once both deeply married and not married at all” (p. 145).