When we think about love in the summer of 2010, the Chelsea Clinton-Marc Mezvinsky nuptials will come to most people's minds. But close on their heels is another couple: the lesbians Nic and Jules (played respectively by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) in the popular summer movie The Kids Are All Right.
I know: One couple is real and the other is a screenwriter's creation. But the two became linked in my mind at a dinner party conversation in a lovely New Jersey garden a few weeks ago.
It was the evening of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding. My husband and I were dining with two other couples on a beautiful, balmy night, and I offered a toast to Clinton and Mezvinsky, who were being married at that very moment. Everyone responded with gusto, raising their wine glasses, sending them best wishes for a long, happy, healthy, and loving life together.
With lovers on my mind, I asked my friends whether they had seen The Kids. I was the only one who had seen it, but I was glad I brought it up, since it led to a conversation about gays and lesbians that none of us might have had.I asked the guests how they first became aware of gays and lesbians. I offered that my family had never ever spoken to me when I was an adolescent about sexual orientation. I said that I had gone to an all-girls school where all the teachers were female. I realized years after I had graduated that there were whispers among students about one teacher-couple, the Latin teacher and the Greek teacher, who seemed pretty inseparable. They were superb teachers, and I never even thought about how, if they were a couple, they expressed their sexuality. I certainly never asked my parents such a probing question about sexual behavior.
But no adult in my life back then spoke openly about sexual orientation, and when I got to an all-women's college with male and female faculty, everything again was relentlessly heterosexual. My female classmates were focused on trying to find a boyfriend. I don't remember any conversations with my friends about those who might be attracted to the same gender. I hope other classmates were more astute and sensitive than I had been.
My friends at the table were considerably younger than me – most in their mid-60s – but we had very similar learning experiences about same-sex relationships. Only one had been a close friend of a gay man. She attended a special high school for intellectually gifted students in New York City, and her Shakespeare teacher was a gay man who did not hide his sexual orientation. He and his partner soon became family friends.
After her father died, my friend said her mother and the teacher became even closer: He was her "soul mate," she told us. "They were inseparable." But even with their closeness, her mother was still uncomfortable about the way the two men expressed their lovemaking. When she was a young adult, her mother told her that she and the two men had gone on an excursion to the country, and her motel room and theirs was separated only by a thin wall.
"Suddenly," she told her daughter, "I became uncomfortable at the thought that only this thin wall separated me from the two men's love-making."
Close as they were, she couldn't shake her discomfort.
Next, a male guest recounted a more current story. Some months ago, he and his wife were invited to dinner at a local restaurant that he heard was frequented by gays and lesbians. He didn't think his friend knew this. What he'd heard was confirmed when he and his wife saw two men kissing warmly in the restaurant parking lot as they pulled in. They were soon escorted by the maitre d'hôtel to a corner at the back of the restaurant. There he saw only opposite-sex couples. The main portion of the restaurant was reserved for only same-sex ones.
I asked him how this treatment had affected him. On the one hand, he thought that the restaurant's policy was to make heterosexual diners feel more comfortable. He said that in some ways it was very thoughtful, but on the other hand, he felt marginalized. He said that the "segregation" policy sensitized his group and made them more aware of what it's like to be put in a box according to your sexual orientation.
Then someone asked me what I thought about The Kids Are All Right. Perhaps it was the wine, the moonlight, or the fact that we were trying to be honest, but I told them that the sex scene between Nic and Jules made me uncomfortable. I hadn't seen a sex scene between two women recently. Graphic sex scenes – gay or straight – aren't really my cup of tea, although the scene was definitely within the bounds of an R-rated movie. But somehow, I was unprepared for it, and my discomfort lingered.
I said that my feelings faded in a couple of days. I realized that there were a couple of pretty graphic scenes of heterosexual sex in the movie and that these may have made gays and lesbians as uncomfortable as the same-sex scenes had made me uncomfortable.
All is fair play.
What's more, the movie's take-away message was deeper and more important than how gay or heterosexual couples have sex: Same-sex couples get caught up in messy family dramas just like heterosexual ones do. We're alike in so many ways, and our problems are so similar that it's unwise to make distinctions.
My friends and I had our conversation before Federal District Court Judge Vaughn R. Walker made his historic decision striking down Proposition 8 in California. He ruled that there is no distinction between opposite- and same-sex marriages. In his historic, reasoned decision, he wrote that "same-sex couples are not as good as opposite-sex couples ... is not a proper basis on which to legislate. The Constitution cannot control private biases, but neither can it tolerate them."
All of us that night, I believe, would have agreed with Judge Vaughn and wondered if he had seen The Kids while contemplating his decision!
Over dessert, I told my friends that the best line in the movie was spoken by Jules when she apologized to Nic and their two children for committing adultery with their sperm donor.
"Marriage is a marathon," she said.
After 53 years of marriage, I think it's more likely to be two.