This Modern Love
I have spent the last six weeks in Reno. There was a point, at some time in my life, when “six weeks in Reno” was something I would eventually do — to atone for some adolescent sins. The sin of believing, as you’re in the thick of massive progress for people like you, that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Growing up queer, I was utterly convinced that I would never, ever, be able to find happiness. That everyone else’s happiness was not for me.
At age five, I dreamed up insane plans. I would go away, somewhere, and then I would tell my family that I was going to marry a woman. I would have a baby without them knowing about it. In what universe, in my sheltered, evangelical Chinese-Christian-Singaporean triple-barreled identity was the life I thought I would have, possible? It was not.
My home life and my brain, my romantic life and my body, led a separate existence on two completely different planes. I found it easy to date, but not easy to find what was most important to me: the ability to move, generally, towards the arc of the idea that in some universe, somewhere, I can have a family.
In 2013, when DOMA was struck down, Edith Windsor managed to get, for the rest of us, the ability to call the same-sex partners we’ve had for decades, our wives and / or our husbands. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were with each other for 40 years: when Thea died, Edith was hit with a $363 000 estate tax that she would not have been hit with had she been in a heterosexual marriage. Don’t fuck with a grieving lesbian, I think, is the first thing to remember when you’re trying to oppose LGBTQ+ rights. She won, and it felt like a victory for five year old me, too.
Somewhere between five and 28, I discovered that I could be quite popular with the women — and I discovered my political bent, much earlier than women discovered me. From the ‘gender studies’ bookshelves of Borders bookstore, Wheelock Place Singapore, I and dozens of other young queer kids camped out, daily, devouring all of the books we could not afford; reading everything about feminism, at first, then what it would take to biologically and legally have a wife and a child.
At that time, the idea of all of that was as alien to me as the content on the scifi shelves: how, in any universe, was this going to be possible? I kept reading, anyway.
So when Edith Windsor won for us the ultimate right, that I did not imagine possible in my lifetime (for, in all of my fantasies and estimates, being able to marry a woman was something I thought I would do in secret, and / or when I was dying, which is kind of the same thing) — I was ecstatic.
That is where my problems begin.
For in 2013, I was a muck. I was, so to speak, in the throes of a great many bad, terrible, awful decisions. My political self was not separate, then, from my personal self — in some ways, it still isn’t. But I had never seen shit. I had, up until that point, had the luxury of only knowing unconditional, selfless, incredible love. My family was intact, and they loved me in spite of my awful decisions. My romantic life, was, hitherto, messy, but largely positive. I thought I knew everything.
I thought, also, that marriage was a political decision; that everything else would follow. How could I have known any differently? The only queer people I knew who had gotten married had gotten married in secret, without ever telling their families, in acts of what seemed like bravery (in hindsight, all of them had extremely religious families), in unions that were never acknowledged by the countries they lived in, the country I call home. I didn’t know any better.
164 weeks later, on a papan in Bali
What are your traumas?
What makes you anxious?
What can I do, when you are anxious or upset, to make you feel better?
Why did you do the thing that you did?
Who do you think you will become?
What drives you?
What are you looking for?
How will we deal with you being in Reno, at some point in the future, to undo the thing that you did back when you had a different perspective on life and love?
A woman, a near stranger to me, asked, never once inserting herself into my story. For the first time, I had answers. For the first time, she wanted to listen, and to be a part of my story, in spite of the deadweight I had shackled myself to.
I had 164 weeks to take a good, hard look at how to be better. In that time, I learned that one should never marry a person who tells you they will hurt themselves and others if you didn’t. I learned that if you were to ever be in a situation where someone pulls out a tool that can kill you and puts it to your throat, you walk the fuck away. I learned that if substances are involved, you run as fast as you can. I learned that even if I care very much about mental illness, it’s not my fucking problem anymore if you try to kill me. I learned that people don’t care about violence if a woman does it. I learned that the police don’t care about violence if your country is so patriarchal they think it’s the same as just two housemates having an argument about a salad. That even when a woman dies, the newspapers are going to call it the murder of a best friend. I learned that as I’m having my life flashing before me, for the first time, that I didn’t want to be the dead best friend.
Thousands of dollars of therapy later, I am here in Reno, Nevada. I spend my days cycling, drinking coffee, cooking. I ran the fastest miles I’ve ever run since I left school today, and in a way it was like running to freedom, like running to a younger, more innocent me. I ran the miles to the courier service at the airport, I ran to pickup the documents I will soon file, I ran away from it feeling freer and light, like I haven’t, in 164 weeks.
On Monday, I will have the luxury of leaving this city with a document with the words, “it has been decreed..” on it. It will be the best piece of paper in my life, more than the college degree I paid a lot of money for. It will be the start of the rest of my life. It will be the erasure of a brief moment in my life where ‘love’ felt like pain, where ‘devotion’ felt like a menial chore, where ‘keeping the person you’re with alive’ felt like a lonely, one way street.
The homophobic among you probably think, oh, all queer relationships are like that — but that would be akin to asking you to imagine yourself married to the sort of person you hear nightmares about at Chinese New Year, then congratulate yourself for not marrying. It’s like that, but worse.
The cynical among you may be tempted to think, oh, that’s what marriage is about — disappointment. But that would be akin to asking you to marry anyone at all, even the best for you, and having you find it a disappointing venture. I don’t need to change your mind, and neither do you.
6 weeks later. I’ve had a crazy, fun time. I’ve met the best people. I’ve met the best dogs. Everyone, from the diner lady to the beer shop I go to to the DHL person is incredibly invested in my freedom. There’s not been a moment in the last 164 weeks where I haven’t thought, what is life? Love? Marriage? Family? And I am incredibly lucky that I have the opportunity to do it all over again, this time — when I know how to ride a bicycle, the bicycle isn’t falling apart and threatening to throw me into a ravine, the tandem rider I’ve got travels at the same speed and doesn’t even mind my farts. And we’ve got the absolute best bicycle that’s ever been built. And the best of pretty much everything. She’s my best friend, too, and there’s no need for air quotes.