Opinion

Op-ed: What Wednesday, June 26, meant to me

My moms, Audrey and Dawn, on their wedding day in 2008.
My moms, Audrey and Dawn, on their wedding day in 2008, wearing pink Post-It notes with their names on them so that the marriage officiant stopped confusing their names. Photo: Julia Hannafin

I woke up Wednesday, June 26, like it was any other day. I slid out of bed and felt the bluntly edged pain of a migraine cutting into my temples so I decided to stay home from work. My mama Audrey called me, concern in her voice, and asked me about my symptoms. Before hanging up, she said, “Have you seen the news?”

I clicked on the TV and let the news wash over me in an assault of joyous television clips. After years of appeals, Proposition 8, the piece of legislation preventing same-sex couples in California from marrying, had been repealed. In addition, the Supreme Court had struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, declaring that married same-sex couples deserve equal rights to the benefits under federal law that go to all other married couples. It was a pair of rulings that affected thousands of families across the country, and it held a heavy weight in my own heart. Why? I was raised by two moms. I was part of one of those families.

I was raised in Berkeley by two incredible women by the names of Dawn and Audrey. After 20 years together, they moved from Massachusetts to California to start a family and, shortly after, I was born. A few years later, around the time I was finishing kindergarten, my sister Olivia was born. Dawn had me. Audrey had Olivia. They chose to use the same sperm donor so Olivia and I would be related by blood. I was raised in a house full of women; I was a product of constant maternal energy, communication and love. My mothers rarely fought. They wove a life of love, community and acceptance around us.

Berkeley was the perfect place for a family like ours. While I was often asked questions like, “How does that work?” “Do you miss having a Dad?” “But come on, which one is the Dad of the relationship?” and “If you are raised by lesbians, does that mean you’re gonna be one too?”, they were usually asked with benevolent curiosity. I was always ready to answer questions and explain how my family was different. In my kindergarten class at Oakland’s Park Day School, there were two other girls who had two moms. Berkeley was a diverse, liberal and accepting melting pot of a city.

At that point, “marriage” was a meaningless word to me. For most couples, marriage means taking the next step in a relationship; it means deciding to have a life together and committing to one another for the rest of their lives. Simply put, my moms had already done that. Because of their sexual orientation, society had angled them out of that linear progression of commitment, so they crafted their own timeline and their own milestones. But a wedding held great symbolic meaning to them, especially Dawn.

So when same-sex marriage became briefly legal in 2008 (before Proposition 8 was passed), my moms were one of the first five couples in Alameda County to get married. While they had been unofficially married for much longer than I had been on the earth, getting married then presented the opportunity to celebrate their love in the way they perhaps would have years ago.

I still remember that day at the court house, the entire building bustling with happy, excited and emotional couples. Audrey was happy, but Dawn was so overjoyed she was glowing and radiating energy. The smile didn’t come off her face for days. The ceremony was in a small room in the Alameda Court House, and the man who was marrying my moms could not stop confusing their names.

To solve the problem, Audrey wrote both of their names on pink Post-it notes, and stuck them to their chests. My sister and I stood back, alternating between laughing and tearing up. It didn’t matter what the man said or what names he accidentally called them. It only mattered that they were allowed this moment, and we were all able to share it. It finally felt as if my family was not the other that I had explained to heterosexual families. No longer was there a societal institution that pushed our family out to the edge. I have only attended one other wedding in my life (a heterosexual one) — and I can say that my moms’ celebration was very different. It was not just two individuals embarking on a singular life together. Instead, it was two women sharing a moment that was long overdue.

Perhaps no one would ask me if I missed having a Dad anymore because they would understand that having two moms was not like having a mutated family with the proper branch missing. They would understand I had two equal adults who loved each other, me, and my sister more than I could ever explain in words and I was luckier than most to have that. Perhaps I didn’t have to be an example of how, miraculously, some queer spawn turned out — against the odds — to be a just fine adult.

My family in Calistoga in 2010.
My family in Calistoga in 2010.

Just a few months later, the right to be treated as a real family was taken away from the rest of California’s same-sex couples. The misleadingly phrased Proposition 8 is a piece of legislation that aimed to “preserve marriage” but in actuality stripped fundamental rights away from gay people. My dreams of how same-sex marriage would affect the country’s understanding of my family stuttered and faded.

In March 2011, my mom Dawn was diagnosed with breast cancer. Our family collapsed and then realigned around her diagnosis like planets around the sun. After aggressive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation over the course of a year, we thought she had beat it. It was December and curls of soft grey hair began to cup the sides of ears. Just a month later, in January 2012, the cancer spread to her brain. She fought it fiercely, undergoing additional rounds of radiation, until the doctors told us that the cancer had suddenly spread to a part of her brain that could not be treated. There was nothing left to be done. She was the center of our family, our beating heart that kept everything else going. She passed away Oct. 26, 2012.

Everyone deals with loss in different ways. For me, it was a constant mix of emotions. I tried to stay positive. I was lost and depressed. I was angry at the world for continuing without my mom. I tried to keep it together for my family. I couldn’t even begin to process what had happened. One of the hardest parts for me at first was that world kept going without her: my chest kept rising and falling with its breath, people walked down the streets of my hometown with purpose and smiles, my friends moved on, extended family moved back to their homes, car engines did not stall but sputtered and roared to life, the sky stayed clear…

So when I learned that same-sex marriage would once again be legal in California I didn’t know how to feel. I was overwhelmingly happy that all the families like mine would no longer have to explain themselves; maybe one day they wouldn’t be made to feel different. I imagined a future where all of America treats its families equally.

But the one person in my world to whom it would have meant the most was no longer here. Audrey said to me later that she was happy to hear the rulings, of course, but that it was bittersweet to her, too. This news hit much differently than when same-sex marriage was briefly legalized in 2008. It was 2013 and her love had been taken away from her; she was no longer part of a same-sex couple.

While we still have a long way to go, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s a step that would have moved my mom Dawn to tears. While the fight transitions into a state-by-state battle, more families are allowed the celebration, the federal benefits, and the equal treatment of the right to marry. While it breaks my heart that our now three-pronged family is no longer affected by the rulings, it gives me hope that other families like the one I was raised in can move forward towards a brighter future.

Correction: An early version of this article had the wrong date for when the two rulings on same-sex marriage were announced. It was June 26, not June 29.

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Julia Hannafin is a summer intern at Berkeleyside and a student at Columbia University studying creative writing and American studies. She writes for the music blog "The Metropolitan Jolt."