Jessica Wicks and Robin Manhart were a number. A lesbian number. They wanted to tie the knot so they went to the county building for a marriage license. No problem: A clerk filled out forms and two dykes were free to wed each other. This did not happen in Massachusetts or Hawaii. It happened in San Antonio a half decade ago.
Yes maÃ¢â‚¬â„¢am, in certain parts of this state, gay marriage has been legal for five years.
Well, sort ofÃ¢â‚¬”just like most progressive sex-political situations in Texas are rife with Ã¢â‚¬Å“sort ofÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s.Ã¢â‚¬ But thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s one reason theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re fascinating. The other is that their implications sometimes jump the state line and reverberate nationally. This has been true at least since Roe v. Wade, which originated in Dallas. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d think The Texas Observer during its 50 years wouldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve grabbed on to this juicy, important stuff. It seldom has.
But with all deliberate speed, TO should turn over a new leaf. The Ã¢â‚¬Å“moral valuesÃ¢â‚¬ component of the latest Bush victory is mostly code for anxieties about things like abortion and gay marriage. In turn, those anxieties code worries about changing gender roles, which all the evangelicals in the world canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t halt because these transformations are advanced, advancing, and unstoppable. In the next four years (and who knows how many more), weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll confront a phalanx of reactionary courts, repressive laws, and other political efforts to keep female libido, queer libido, and libido in general in the closet.
At times, the door will shut neatly and the latch will seem locked. But from the other side there will be shaking, rattling, and often, Houdini-like escapes. Listening to the noise and describing the mayhem will give us the words we need to challenge fundamentalism and speak eros to fear. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not a language we imagine coming out of Texas.
But we need, desperately, to imagine anyway.
Take the story of WicksÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ and ManhartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s marriage license, which never appeared in TO but was briefly reported in the Houston and San Antonio press, then in gay media throughout the country. The two look and live like women, but Wicks was born male. Later he had sex-change surgery, became a she, and fell for Manhart, a born female whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d stayed that way. A nice, lesbian pair. They hooked up in Houston.
Meanwhile, a couple in San Antonio was making news. In the late 1990s, Christie Lee Littleton sued a doctor there for malpractice in the death of her husband, Jonathan. Christie was a man-to-woman transsexual who appeared quite femme and had married Jonathan, a lifelong male. Their union looked utterly heterosexual, but lawyers for the doctor argued that Christie couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t sue since the marriage was a sham. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s because ChristieÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s chromosomes are immutably male, and under Texas law, the lawyers said, chromosomal males canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t marry each other. Ditto for chromosomal females. The 4th Court of Appeals, out of San Antonio, agreed: You can surgically alter your breasts and genitals till the cows come home, said the judges, but DNA rules when it comes to matrimony. In Texas, marriage is strictly an XY + XX thing.
At first glance there was nothing remarkable about this reactionary decision, but Houston lawyer Phyllis Frye looked further. Frye is a feisty, male-to-female transsexual who got HoustonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ban against cross-dressing rescinded in 1980. Now she did some creative algebra with WicksÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ and ManhartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s DNA. Wicks = female but born male = XY. Manhart = always female = XX. Perfect for wedlock in San Antonio! So the two lesbians went there with their birth certificates to get a marriage license, and the county clerk obliged. Frye called for more queer couples with a trannie member to get hitched near the Alamo or in some three dozen other Texas counties under the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Nationwide, analysts of gay politics looked at Christie LittletonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s case and the sexual identity issues it raised. Some predicted it would speed up the legalization of same-sex marriage among people with like DNA.
Bluebonnets, armadillos, puffy tacos, gay matrimony. WhoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d have thought Texas could promote such a concept, much less export it?
An even more dramatic gay rights scenario was Lawrence v. Texas. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the case that started in Houston after cops in 1998 barged in on John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Gardner having sex in their bedroom and busted them under a law forbidding consensual sodomy. Though 50 years ago every state had such a criminal statute, by the end of the 20th century only 13 did. But those archaic vestiges provided legal justification for anti-gay policy in the military, government reluctance to let gays adopt children, andÃ¢â‚¬”of courseÃ¢â‚¬”the virtual prohibition of same-sex unions nationwide.
Lawrence and Gardner felt shafted, so they sued and their case went to the top. As a result, the U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned TexasÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ anti-sodomy law and, by extension, those of other states. The implications are momentousÃ¢â‚¬”a fact remarked upon by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who, dissenting from majority opinion, denounced his fellow justices for having Ã¢â‚¬Å“taken sides in the culture war.Ã¢â‚¬
Pundits pooh-poohed Scalia as an old crank. But he was right.
The Lawrence v. Texas ruling essentially apologized for a 1986 Supreme Court decision upholding laws against sodomy on grounds that Ã¢â‚¬Å“prescriptions against that conduct have ancient roots.Ã¢â‚¬ Balderdash, said the judges in Lawrence. They cited contemporary historians of queerdomÃ¢â‚¬”people working in the Frenchy deconstructionist vein of, say Jacques DerridaÃ¢â‚¬”and their finding that same-sex sex was not traditionally outlawed in England or America. The real bugaboo was sex that was clearly non-procreative, including blow jobs between husband and wife. Such prohibitions are now passÃƒÂ©, said the Supremes. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Later generations,Ã¢â‚¬ they wrote in Lawrence, Ã¢â‚¬Å“can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom.Ã¢â‚¬
This isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the old, public-hygiene rhetoric of Roe v. Wade. That case, too, was a grand assault on the dictatorship of sex for procreation. But Roe talk was about privacy, the threat of death through back-alley abortion, pregnancy being risky to oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s health, and making Ã¢â‚¬Å“every child a wanted child.Ã¢â‚¬ Lawrence v. Texas, on the other hand, is straight up about fucking. Fucking just for fun! Plus, it topples a final juridical obstacle to the legalization of gay marriage. How much more culture wars can you get? How much more acknowledgment of irrevocable social change? And from Texas already. YeehawÃ¢â‚¬”cool story! The day after Lawrence was decided, Lone Star gays must have been partying down, including not a few writers.
But the Observer ran nothing about Lawrence. Nothing about San Antonian Christie Lee LittletonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s exciting case, either. In fact, unless itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s about how unremittingly awful and repressive things are, a TO article about sex in Texas is as scarce as a county with an abortion clinic.
Homosexuality was a serious crime. Some men scarcely disguised their distaste for homosexuality. But no one complained to the authorities. What could one say: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I was playing with my cock in the park when I was grossly offended to witness a faggot go down on a young soldierÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s meatÃ¢â‚¬? No. That would not do. It was a conspiracy of cock. Whatever you saw, whoever did it, whether you approved or not, what happened in the park was every virile manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s secret.
ButÃ¢â‚¬”and though Eighner (who now lives in San Antonio) did write fine pieces for the Observer in the 1990s about political repression of gay communities in places like AustinÃ¢â‚¬”Ã¢â‚¬Å“he never pitched anything else,Ã¢â‚¬ says Dubose.
I wonder if he would have if heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d been askedÃ¢â‚¬”or been offered decent money. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a bright spot, though. Earlier this year, TO ran a nice piece by P.A. Humphrey about Joanne Webb, a woman from the Fort Worth suburbs who was busted for selling housewives dildos and explaining how to use them in order to come. It seems that selling ersatz penises in Texas is legal only as long as you hawk them as party gags. If you let on that theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re for orgasms, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s off to the pokey with you. (YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re also in trouble if you personally own more than five dildos.)
Saleslady Webb, of Burleson, was selling spicy oils and other sexual stimulants, including the dildos, when a bunch of nasty, fundamentalist Christian Republicans who run the town decided to get her busted. Burleson is tightly in the political grasp of arch-rightwing state legislator Arlene Wohlgemuth. The point of the piece: Christian fundie Wohlgemuth is one (bemoan, begroan) dangerous bitch (although she may have exceeded her reach; during the latest elections to the U.S. House of Representatives, she was defeated by her Democratic opponent).
Author Humphrey noted that defendant WebbÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lawyer, BeAnn Sisemore, of Fort Worth, has vowed to challenge the stateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s anti-dildo law up to the Supreme Court, using Fourteenth Amendment logic. (If men can use ribbed rubbers for pleasure, why canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t women use dildos?) Humphrey also briefly mentioned that Webb herself is an evangelical. But she didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hold that thought, didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t underscore the amazingness of a Bible-thumping Christian lady selling dildos and challenging an anti-dildo law. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a piece in there: about how womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s demand for sexual pleasure has even entered the thinking of Beverly LaHaye and James Dobson. But is a woman who makes friends with her clitoris a woman whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll call her God-fearing husband her masterÃ¢â‚¬”if heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a selfish, boorish lay? Will she buy those dildos even if she voted last month for Ã¢â‚¬Å“moral valuesÃ¢â‚¬? And by the way, how many of the moral-values folks marked their ballots for Lupe ValdezÃ¢â‚¬”an out lesbian (and a Democrat no less!) who just got elected sheriff of Dallas County?
Tune in later for answers, maybe in the Texas Observer. At the very least, we need in these pages to see the questions. TO populism has done great work exposing the Plutocracy. But itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s made almost no inquiry into the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Uranus-ocracyÃ¢â‚¬Ã¢â‚¬”into how sex works in modern political culture, against people, but for them, too. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the Ã¢â‚¬Å“forÃ¢â‚¬ which can never be taken away, no matter how bad things get. If we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see, write, and read about this fact, we suffer. If we do, we have irony, fantasy, hope.
Contributing writer Debbie Nathan is a fifth-generation Texan. She was born in Houston, lived and wrote about El Paso for many years and now lives in New York. She is the author of Women and Other Aliens and co-author of SatanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of A Modern American Witch Hunt.