As a kid, I never dreamed of my wedding day. I wish I could now recall snatches of the wedding dress I'd imagined, envision the kaleidoscope of rose petals tossed before my feet from behind my veil -- a curtain of tulle that made it all dreamlike and gauzy. But I saw none of that -- no dress, no tuxedo, no man, no woman, no vows, not even a celebration that I could conjure in my head.
While other girls in my elementary school played house and dreamed of their far-off marriages, I pretended I was Cornelius from Planet of the Apes or Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. They were wise, compassionate, and capable, and most of all, loved by the women in their lives -- Zira and Dorothy respectively. Growing up in the '70s, I had no images in real life or pop culture to define what it was I desired, so I made it up as I went along.
Decades later and with television leading the way with positive images of queer female characters from the tried-and-true Grey's Anatomy to Supergirl and The Good Fight, I still crave representation. I want to see some version of myself reflected back at me through pop culture. And I can't help but think that never identifying with the images I grew up with somehow landed me in my late 40s, a lifelong serial monogamist, feeling often hopelessly single and definitely not the marrying kind.
There was a moment last week, while I was screening ABC's miniseries When We Rise, the story of the LGBT rights movement told through the experiences of three activists who came up and out in the '70s, that cut me to the core. I was in high school when I first heard about AIDS, and I was still a teen at my first New York Pride parade, where I stood, furious at the Reagan administration as I watched members of ACT UP march down Fifth Avenue past St. Patrick's Cathedral and Trump Tower, many of them literally screaming for their lives. By the late '90s, when marriage became the fight, I had begun writing for my local LGBT publication in Hartford, Conn. I knew the AIDS and the marriage battles that When We Rise touched on. I was cognizant of and a participant in them as a nascent activist, and I found those pieces of the miniseries deeply compelling. But it was a speech delivered by young Roma Guy (played by Emily Skeggs) in the series' second episode that shook me. The sentiment she touched on was so deeply embedded in my psyche that I paused the program so that I could consider it and weep.
In the series, Guy, a tireless activist for women's and LGBT rights and health care in the Bay Area from an early age, approaches her former love, Diane Jones (Fiona Dourif), years later following an epiphany about their relationship.
"We were in love. The kind of love that makes people cross oceans, have babies, and grow old together. And if we were straight we would have designed our whole lives around that," the character of Guy says. "But two women, then. We had no words for it. No paradigm, nothing."
In that moment, I felt at once validated and completely alone. Throughout the week that When We Rise aired I followed Facebook posts of friends who were dismayed, even outraged by the portrayal of lesbian separatists who refused to work together with men and appeared (at least in the series) slow to help their gay brothers at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. While there were aspects of the series that didn't ring true to my experience, I am grateful that it exists, and on network television, no less. If only the history of the LGBT rights movement had been televised on one of the three channels available when I was a 16-year-old in love with a senior girl at my high school, the two of us fumbling headlong into an affair we thought was wrong but couldn't deny.
As far as representation or identification, there were my early television crushes. I was a wide-eyed 7-year-old impossibly smitten with Lindsay Wagner as The Bionic Woman, Valerie Bertinelli as the adorable teen Barbara on One Day at a Time, and Pamela Sue Martin as the titular character in The Nancy Drew Mysteries. There were autonomous tomboys I identified with on some level -- Kristy McNichol on Family, Jodie Foster in everything. But there were no positive images of women in relationships in TV or movies that I was aware of at the time.
When I came out in my late teens, I scoured the shelves of the local video store for titles I'd heard of with lesbian imagery like The Hunger (1983), a vampire flick with a breathtaking sex scene between characters played by Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon that decidedly doesn't end well for them. Then there was The Children's Hour (1961), starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as women accused of something unspoken, something sordid, something so hideous that it compels MacLaine's character to hang herself. A retrospective at the Connecticut Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in the late '80s afforded me the opportunity to screen The Killing of Sister George (1968), a film about a self-hating alcoholic lesbian soap actress who sabotages everything good in her life. While these films confirmed that my desire for other women was no anomaly, I couldn't relate, except perhaps to the sabotage part.
While I eschew self-pity, I must acknowledge my role in sabotaging the best loves of my life in what amounted to some bizarre fear of success. I couldn't envision the walk down the aisle into the arms of a woman I loved, and so I never really tried to succeed. Recklessness and fear ended my relationship with one woman who literally did cross an ocean for me -- an Englishwoman I fell deeply in love with the summer before I turned 30. She gave up her home and family to start a life with me, and after three years of red tape and disappointment in trying to keep her legally in the United States, I torpedoed the relationship. She eventually did marry a woman here in the U.S. Since that relationship ended in 2000 I've sabotaged by entering into a series of affairs with women who weren't right for the long term -- they were too young or too newly out and needing to explore or arrived with battleship-size red flags around them.
During a recent conversation with my 77-year-old mother, who has always been accepting of my being gay but has not been as understanding of my rage against the establishment for the past 35 years, I encouraged her to watch When We Rise in order to understand my anger. It handily encapsulates many of the injustices I grew up with and lived through -- Ronald Reagan and his refusal to acknowledge that people were sick with and dying of AIDS, Bill Clinton and the Defense of Marriage Act, George W. Bush and his push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, and now everything Donald Trump and conversion therapy advocate Mike Pence are raining down upon us.
Beyond When We Rise's fine history lesson in the fight for equality, the series articulated the personal and reminded me that in June 2015, when marriage became our right, I began the day with tears of joy for the equality we'd won and for all of the couples who could seal their love in a new and profound way. Twelve hours later I was still dripping tears, not for the possibility of marriage for myself, but for the child and young woman who never dreamed of it. Despite having had great love in my life, I had no idea I wanted marriage until it became possible. I realized that since 1997, when I began covering the fight for civil unions in Connecticut, through the Prop. 8 protests and the marches for equality, I'd been battling for something I never truly believed I could have.
Even with marriage equality, visibility and validation through through pop culture like TV and film resonate with and matter to me. Last year, the big-screen depiction of female desire I'd waited my entire life to see was released in the form of Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 groundbreaking novel. While Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) could have never married, their abiding, pathos-free love, with an ending that offers the possibility of a lifelong relationship, would have made all the difference to the 18-year-old me, perusing the shelves of the video store in search of a story that resembled something I wanted for my life.
In the face of the Trump administration or perhaps in spite of it, I am hopeful that one day I'll have the wedding that I never saw in my mind's eye or at least that I'll find the kind of lasting love that makes me want to.
TRACY GILCHRIST is the feminism editor for The Advocate. Contact her on Twitter @TracyEGilchrist.