02/14/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I, Too, Am America

I have always known the beauty of the United States of America has been rooted in more than our amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. What is truly remarkable about our nation is the intricate patchwork of citizens of different ethnicities, religions and upbringings. You name it, we've got it living side by side. The narrative of this nation can only be told by a chorus of myriad voices. What follows is the story of but one.

I was reared in a household of black women headed by our matriarch, my grandmother, who we affectionately called "Big Mama." She was born in rural Mississippi into a family of sharecroppers in the "Roaring Twenties." Though, to hear her tell it, there wasn't much to roar about. Her life was a lot of hard work, very little education, and no lack of want. This is a tale many know well.

When she was old enough (hardly by modern day standards) she high-tailed it out of those cotton fields and Mississippi, eventually finding her way to California, like many in the Great Migration. There, she crafted a life for herself with her bare hands, working in a laundry. She married, bought a home, raised a family, all without being able to read -- a fact she never told me in my whole life. She made a way.

She never sugarcoated the life she'd fled. The feelings of insecurity she'd brought with her from the back of Mississippi buses, and "colored only" bathrooms. She knew the sting of inequality too well, and it stuck with her throughout her life. It was not a fairy tale, but it was life. She struggled constantly to reconcile what it meant to be a part of and excluded from the world simultaneously.

Big Mama was our touchstone. Every accomplishment we made we did in homage. Every struggle we endured could be, and would be, overcome. Because if she did it with nothing, then surely we could do it with something. She saw my sister become the first college graduate in our family, and then go on to get her doctoral degree specializing in literature, of all things. Not long after, she saw me get a master's degree in creative writing. Those words on the page that had eluded her for so long were now the hallmark of our family. She had done well for herself. And in perhaps the most shocking turn of events for her, not long before she became mortally ill, she saw the first black/bi-racial president elected to office. When she said she never thought she would see the day, she meant it. Life is truly miraculous. How incredibly proud it made all of us that she could share in that before her passing. It meant that it had not all been for naught, that our country was, in deed, moving toward the dreams of Dr. King. She had borne witness as it came to fruition, and what a marvelous thing to behold. She died knowing that we would never have to endure the angst that she did.

We know that story. It doesn't belong to me, but in the collective cultural consciousness of our nation. Yet, her story lives on. Not in the pieces we pull from for strength to get through the toughest of times, but the deep hurt of not belonging, inequality and unfairness. How it would have saddened her to know that I face the same obstacles that she believed we had already fought and won.

Let me tell you another story.

After the devastation of 9/11 a young woman decided to heed the call of her nation to protect and serve. She joined the United States Army and shortly thereafter deployed to Iraq. She was an exemplary soldier, doing whatever she was called upon to do, including serving as a 249 gunner. She was counted among the first groups of women referred to as "lionesses" in combat jobs. She put her life on the line, so that we might all be a little safer at home.

That soldier is my wife. It's a little strange to write that, being newlyweds. Not to mention, I must say frankly that I never thought I would be an Army wife. All of that moving, and waiting, and worrying. But, who among us can control love?

We courted, our first date over sushi. We fell in love. We committed our lives to each other with a wedding ceremony in June of 2012. Like many couples, we look forward to date nights, having babies, and seeing the world together. We are downright ordinary, and I don't feel a bit of compunction about saying it. I suppose others might find it noteworthy that she is a woman, though.

Yes, we are two wives. And that is where our stand-out characteristics end. When my heterosexual friends call me to commiserate about their spouses we finish each other's sentences about who's folding laundry and what movie one is dragging the other to go and see. We are more alike than we are different. We share the most important quality: We love another person so completely that we have thrown our lot in with theirs, and are happy to do so. Love is love is love is love. It cannot be qualified. It is equal, and there is no thing in the whole of the universe that can change that. Every day another citizen of this nation comes to realize that fact.

We are fortunate to have found each other on the tail-end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. What a complicated first few months of dating that was! How my heart goes out to those who lived for years under that pressure. How lucky we are to live in a time when we witnessed the first U.S. President come out in support of same-sex marriage. It was a truly magnificent day. It was confirmation to the world that we exist, we belong and we have allies.

Yet, we need more than confirmation. We need action. We need change.

Some nights I lie awake at night wondering what it would be like for our nation's highest officials to have their partners go unrecognized. What if our noble president, the nation's highest service member had to worry about his wife receiving healthcare and benefits in addition to the difficult work that he must do each day? I can only imagine the long nights and difficult decisions that office is fraught with on a daily basis, and what it means for him to have his partner. If his life is anything like our life, then it is a challenging road and traveling it together is the only means for sanity some days. Leaning on one another, lifting each other up, giving it to each other straight when needed. That is the essence of partnership and marriage.

That is why it is an endless source of anguish for me that spouses and partners of our nation's service members are not treated with the respect and recognition that is deserved. We put in the same long hours, the same sleepless nights, the same dinners on the table, with none of the benefits.

The Defense of Marriage Act is a thorn in the side of our nation. I am confident that it will fall, and soon. However, in the mean time there are benefits that could be extended to our families to ease the burden of inequality. For instance, we could be granted identification cards that would allow us to access some of the benefits that exist on bases across the nation. The Army's anti-discrimination policies have not been updated since 2008, well before the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." This could be remedied immediately. Why aren't our families, the same ones that put their lives on the line abroad, included as a protected class against discrimination at home? We cannot extol the virtues of liberty in distant lands, but ask our most dedicated citizens to accept that their life is not valued, protected, or recognized at home. That is hypocrisy, and we are better than that.

The delay in extending the rights that are permissible under current regulations is baffling to me. Separate is never equal. Never. Big Mama knew it, the Supreme Court knew it, and we know it today. It is a perfect truth, unmitigated by circumstance. Separate is not, will not, and can never be, equal.

Which begs the question -- why are our families being singled out and denied rights that we have earned? Our soldiers, airmen, seamen, marines, etc. put in the same hours, do the same work, with none of the benefits for their families. In my book, that makes them even more dedicated than their heterosexual counterparts.

Shortly after marrying, my wife received permanent change of station orders to move from California to Virginia. We've been here six months now. It's a slow process, but I'm adjusting. But, how much easier would our lives be if I had a DOD identification card and could go on base to go grocery shopping without her, if I had healthcare, if we received BAH for a soldier with a dependent rather than "single" (she is very much married, I assure you). We are not asking for special treatment. We are asking for equal treatment.

The civil rights movement and the gay rights movement are one in the same. They are nuanced, of course, but they are centered on the notion that our differences cannot be cause for rejection, persecution and restrictions.

I sat in Big Mama's kitchen as she would talk of days long past, but the pain in her eyes, the catching in her throat, was ever present. As a woman I can call it by name, because I have felt it, and I have seen it in my own life. She would be ashamed that I had come to know the pain of exclusion, the longing for change, and the denial of my due. But, she would be proud to know that there is no quit in me, and there is no quit in us. We will fight on, and we will triumph as our forebearers have done. We will work together to make this nation stronger. We are citizens of this nation. But, I believe Langston Hughes said it best: "I, too, am America."


Genevieve and her wife Stacey

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