Manual TypewriterEssays, Reviews, and Commentaries

By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev


Posted By on June 30, 2009

By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev
In 1969, on the eve of the Stonewall Rebellion, while the streets of Greenwich Village filled with dykes and faggots demanding their liberation, Linda and I hung out in the attic of her parent’s home in Brooklyn, listening to the Jackson Five on a transistor radio, smoking cigarettes, and making passionate love.

I didn’t know anything about Stonewall for probably another decade, but I suspected there was something very queer about my sexual desire. I found the book Lesbian/Woman at the local library, and snuck it home, concealed in a bag of books. I don’t think I understood much about the book except that getting caught with it would be very dangerous. Linda and I did not say the word "lesbian" out loud, but formed an "L" with a thumb and forefinger, our secret password.

Nearly 40 years ago, my shame about being queer was overshadowed only by an even fiercer passion to behave in very queer ways, which kept me coming back, dodging shadows in the city streets. Gay love was not a public thing in those days, and the need to hide my feelings was a near-full time job. As Judy Grahn said, coming out decades before me, "I am a pervert, therefore I’ve learned to keep my hands to myself in public."

I look at the famous picture of Barbara Gittings, who just pass away last month, at the first March on Washington with her sign "Homosexuals Should Be Judged as Individuals." None of us could’ve imagined in those days that Judy Grahn’s poem would be read in "Gay and Lesbian Poetry" classes in Universities, and that a gay marriage debate would be one of the top issues in a national election. Certainly, I couldn’t imagine having children who have two women’s names on their birth certificates. I have witnessed an amazing revolution in my own lifetime.

The process of transforming my girlhood shame into an adult pride was formed over decades living on lesbian land and marching in gay pride parades. The first time I took a woman’s hand while walking down the streets, or took out a lease on a one-bedroom apartment with another woman sporting a crew-cut and hiking boots, were acts of enormous courage. And each act of courage made me stronger.

Today I see a post-Stonewall generation that is gender-bent and confident in themselves and their rights, comfortable in their bodies in a way I could not have imagined. I don’t just mean "gay" youth either, I mean a whole generation of people that are so comfortable with all kinds of queerness; I mean "whatever."

I am playing the board game Life with my 7 year old son. You get to pick either blue or pink pieces to move around the board, and then you can marry by choosing another blue or pink piece. I, being a good feminist mom, do not refer to them as "boy" and "girl" pieces, and say, "Do you want a blue or pink one?" when it is his turn to marry. My son, evil twinkle in his eye, says, "Hmmmm, should I be gay or not?" I dutifully remind him, he can be whatever he wants to be, and of course, I mean it; but the really heavy part is that he believes it.

I asked my older son (again!) the other day, if he is ever bothered in school because his moms are lesbians. He (again!) rolled his eyes, and said, "No, mom, honest." I, of course, don’t really believe him. Sometimes he can be sort of oblivious to things, and perhaps it is a well-honed survival strategy, but I can’t imagine, even in his independent Montessori school, that no one ever, teases him. I push again, "Really?" He says, "Everyone thinks it’s really cool, Mom, honest."

Last week our family had two very proud experiences. The first was when my older son, the one with the cool parents, was the lead in the Shakespearian production of Macbeth. I don’t know when my little boy became one of the "big kids" in his school, but there was his picture on the huge poster display, and on stage theatrically saying, "Is this a dagger I hold before me, The handle toward my hand?" The amazing thing to me is he was hardly nervous walking out on stage, dressed in an old pair of my pants (that made great short pantaloons for him), and dramatically playing the role, transforming his young innocent self into a guilty, tormented man.

The second proud moment was my own. I was asked to keynote the social work graduation of the University where I graduated 20 years ago, and where I have taught on the adjunct faculty for the past 18 years. As a student at the school, I mercilessly confronted homophobia, a kind of one-woman band, disrupting classes and challenging liberal heterosexism <bang> <smash> <boom>. Everyone was shocked when I was hired to teach there, and my queer activism was a source of continuously discomfort, for me battling the shame and confusion of being an out lesbian professor, and for them, perhaps hoping I might finally lose the battle.

Over the years, my family therapy practice specializing in LGBT therapy has grown ("What does the T mean?" one professor asked me); I have published books and articles, which, of course, in academia where one publishes or dies, means I am fast becoming immortal. It has been a long process making a place for LGBT therapy within the hallowed halls of academe. It was an honor for me to be asked to speak at graduation, and quite a moment of pride to hear the Dean introduce me by identifying my pioneering work with sexual minority clients, and mentioning my partner and my children as "part of the extended family of our school." It’s not quite tenure, but it felt like my queer self just won some kind of Stonewall Award.