I have written about my marriage and about words periodically in this blog, and yesterday’s ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage by the Iowa Supreme Court is a good occasion to explore both topics simultaneously. I would like to clarify why re-defining marriage is important for same-sex couples, and specifically why the word “marriage” is more sought-after than something else like “civil union.” It is a worthwhile exercise, and you don’t have to be pro-gay-marriage or anti-gay-marriage in order to think through these issues.

If you haven’t read it, you should take a look at the text of the Iowa court decision, and I think they’ve done a remarkably thorough job (and pretty succinct if you skip legal notes and precedents). I have also posted a guide to reading the ruling, if you’d like some help.

What follows is just a linguistic experiment. I haven’t interviewed all my lesbian and gay friends who are in relationships or who have children, and so this think-piece is just my opinion. Let’s look at same-sex marriage and the reasons for it, for starters. It sees to me that there are two, sometimes distinct, and sometimes overlapping, reasons we need to consider.

The first is the social justice angle, sort of a gay-power angle that argues that any separate-but-equal treatment, while perhaps technically legal, de-legitimizes a group of people and they want legitimacy. The second reason is less visible and certainly more mundane, but very practical reason: that tax, insurance, and other benefits afforded to married couples are being withheld from gay parents and couples, and thus the practice is horribly unfair.

The question about the term “marriage” versus “civilly-recognized union” is tricky on one level and easy on another. I think the Iowa court decision makes it crystal clear that church marriage is a religious affair in which the court has no interest, and Iowa civil marriage is a contract in which the court has total interest. I suppose you could call them two different things, which would satisfy the second reason (above) but not the first. You could call them both “marriage” and understand that they’re two different things. You could call religious marriage “marriage” and label civil marriage something like “civil marriage.” You could call civil marriage “marriage” and give religious marriage its own label, like “religious union,” and you’d have the same thing.

However, language creates a large part of reality, and the “neutral” term for something (like marriage) is anything but neutral, as it’s imbued with history, power, and preference, so that “marriage” becomes the natural, normal, and unassailable terminology, with all alternatives almost invisible within such terminology. But add an adjective to make it “gay marriage” or “civil marriage” and you have automatically pointed out its difference from the norm. By calling attention to the “specialness” of gay- or civil- marriage, those in the “special” institution will always be singled out as being abnormal and somewhat illegitimate.

It must, then, come down to the issue of legitimacy, I think, especially if society is prepared to recognize civil unions (for both gay and straight couples). On the criterion of legal protections, above, the distinction between civil unions and marriage can work, but on the other criterion of recognition and legitimacy, as long as long as “marriage” is the neutral (and blessed) terminology, the legitimacy of civil unions will always be in question, as will the human-ness of those in those unions.

The neutrality of the first criterion breaks down if we consider straight civil unions. I would note that fully half of my straight friends were married in civil ceremonies and bypassed church marriages altogether, and they aren’t required to call themselves anything special, and are given all social and legal benefits of “marriage.” In other words, even though a priest did not marry them, the state married them, and they are called “married.”

Unless our society wants to insist that all these marriages are invalid unless blessed by a priest, or if we want to insist that civil unions may not use the word “marriage” to describe their state of matrimonial bliss, I think it’s demonstrably the case that society already understands that marriages are civil, and that religious blessing is icing on the wedding cake: legitimacy and recognition beyond the state, but under the eyes of a congregation, family, and perhaps God. It’s very special if you belong to a religious organization, and we really might consider using an adjective to denote that specialness, so that while the word “marriage” describes all states of matrimony, “religious union” is a special term reserved for those married couples who have gone the extra step to have their civil union sanctioned by their church.

Here are my notes on highlights of the Iowa Supreme Court ruling, along with some relevant quotations. You should read the whole thing yourself, of course, but I thought a cheat-sheet about which sections you could skip and which ones you really must read would be helpful.

7-11 on why marriage is important to everyone

11-16 on the responsibility of the court (very eloquent)

16-18 looking at previous court decisions that the citizenry didn’t like, but were the right thing to do,

28 ending with no-nonsense reasoning for the plaintiffs

Therefore, with respect to the subject and purposes of Iowa’s marriage laws, we find that the plaintiffs are similarly situated compared to heterosexual persons. Plaintiffs are in committed and loving relationships, many raising families, just like heterosexual couples. Moreover, official recognition of their status provides an institutional basis for defining their fundamental relational rights and responsibilities, just as it does for heterosexual couples. Society benefits, for example, from providing samesex couples a stable framework within which to raise their children and the power to make health care and end-of-life decisions for loved ones, just as it does when that framework is provided for opposite-sex couples. In short, for purposes of Iowa’s marriage laws, which are designed to bring a sense of order to the legal relationships of committed couples and their families in myriad ways, plaintiffs are similarly situated in every important respect, but for their sexual orientation.

29-49 background on LGBTQ issues and equal protection considerations (I’d skip it if I were you, unless you’re a lawyer)

49, section H through the end — a point-by-point rebuttal of the government’s argument against same-sex marriage (must read)

a. 52 maintaining traditional marriage (govt’s argument is circular reasoning, and thus invalid)

b. 54 Promotion of optimal environment to raise children.

If the marriage statute was truly focused on optimal parenting, many classifications of people would be excluded, not merely gay and lesbian people.” and “The ban on same-sex civil marriage can only logically be justified as a means to ensure the asserted optimal environment for raising children if fewer children will be raised within same-sex relationships or more children will be raised in dual-gender marriages. Yet, the same-sex-marriage ban will accomplish these outcomes only when people in same-sex relationships choose not to raise children without the benefit of marriage or when children are adopted by dual-gender couples who would have been adopted by same-sex couples but for the same-sex civil marriage ban. We discern no substantial support for this proposition.

c. 59 promotion of procreation.

Conceptually, the promotion of procreation as an objective of marriage is compatible with the inclusion of gays and lesbians within the definition of marriage. Gay and lesbian persons are capable of procreation. Thus, the sole conceivable avenue by which exclusion of gay and lesbian people from civil marriage could promote more procreation is if the unavailability of civil marriage for same-sex partners caused homosexual individuals to “become” heterosexual in order to procreate within the present traditional institution of civil marriage. The briefs, the record, our research, and common sense do not suggest such an outcome.

d. 60 promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships.

While the institution of civil marriage likely encourages stability in opposite-sex relationships, we must evaluate whether excluding gay and lesbian people from civil marriage encourages stability in oppositesex relationships. The County offers no reasons that it does, and we can find none.

e. 60 conservation of resources. (very interesting arguent by the government).

The argument is based on a simple premise: couples who are married enjoy numerous governmental benefits, so the state’s fiscal burden associated with civil marriage is reduced if less people are allowed to marry. In the common sense of the word, then, it is “rational” for the legislature to seek to conserve state resources by limiting the number of couples allowed to form civil marriages.

And yes, marriage reduces tax revenues and costs the state something. But…

Excluding any group from civil marriage—African-Americans, illegitimates, aliens, even red-haired individuals—would conserve state resources in an equally “rational” way. Yet, such classifications so obviously offend our society’s collective sense of equality that courts have not hesitated to provide added protections against such inequalities.

63 Religious Opposition. This is forbidden in the Iowa constitution, but we think it probably was the real reason for the unconstitional law instead of the 5 reasons given above. But religious institutions hold very different opinions about same-sex marriage:

This contrast of opinions in our society largely explains the absence of any religion-based rationale to test the constitutionality of Iowa’s same-sex marriage ban.


The statute at issue in this case does not prescribe a definition of marriage for religious institutions. Instead, the statute declares, “Marriage is a civil contract” and then regulates that civil contract. Iowa Code § 595A.1. Thus, in pursuing our task in this case, we proceed as civil judges, far removed from the theological debate of religious clerics, and focus only on the concept of civil marriage and the state licensing system that identifies a limited class of persons entitled to secular rights and benefits associated with civil marriage.

and the conclusion that religious institutions may define religious marriage any way they want to, but the state treats civil marriage as a contract, and that’s the only marriage the state is considering, page 66:

In the final analysis, we give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage—religious or otherwise—by giving respect to our constitutional principles. These principles require that the state recognize both opposite-sex and same-sex civil marriage. Religious doctrine and views contrary to this principle of law are unaffected, and people can continue to associate with the religion that best reflects their views. A religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi, or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution. The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past. The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.

When it’s over
and the energy has faded, barely lingering like the faint twilight colors on the encroaching black night sky,
and the tears have dried, leaving little dusty trails on the cheeks and wads of tissue discarded in little piles around the house,
and the feelings have become muted — pale, yellowed pages in an old newspaper that someone saved for a now-unknown reason,
and the clutter of the wreckage has been swept into the gutters and ditches of your consciousness,

Then comes a feeling of detachment and otherworldliness
where this house is no longer recognizable as your home, but just some building that someone inhabits,
and these hands belong to someone else, no longer yours,
and these works — some complete and some barely conceived — are as foreign to you as some dusty book on the library shelf,
and these thoughts, once bubbling and unstoppable, seem out of place like the muffled rantings of delusion at a bus stop.

Is it over?

Dim alien dreams overlay a cloudy native history, rendering all unknowable, unrecognizable.
The past is burned away, leaving a stark landscape of black promise.

Being told that I’ve had it relatively easy because of money or power grates against my internal sense of having worked really, really hard on myself in order to survive my transsexual transition and suggests that I’ve been able to buy or bully myself out of trouble. A third term, Luck, completes the trio of dismissive terms, and I would like to explore what’s so wrong about being lucky.

For the ancient Greeks, the concept of luck was embodied in Tykhe:

Tykhe was the goddess or spirit of fortune, chance, providence and fate. She was usually honoured in a more favourable light as Eutykhia, goddess of good fortune, luck, success and prosperity.

Tykhe was represented with different attributes. Holding a rudder, she was conceived as the divinity guiding and conducting the affairs of the world, and in this respect she was called one of the Moirai (Fates); with a ball she represented the varying unsteadiness of fortune — unsteady and capable of rolling in any direction; with Ploutos or the horn of Amalthea, she was the symbol of the plentiful gifts of fortune.

Nemesis (Fair Distribution) was cautiously regarded as the downside of Tykhe, one who provided a check on extravagant favours conferred by fortune.

For Tykhe or Nemesis, the concept of luck is either random or divine and doesn’t have much to do with the deeds, intelligence, or strategy undertaken by someone. No matter her personal qualities, the recipient of luck has no part to play.

Sometimes, when people say, “You’re lucky,” I am left with the impression not unlike the ancient Greek idea, that my hard work, communications, therapy take a back seat to chance. In other words, this transition might have turned out disastrously, regardless of my efforts or qualities.

And maybe that’s true, but I simply don’t think it’s good policy to believe in such things because they remove agency and responsibility from the transitioner, who is tempted to ask, “Why go to therapy — it’s all fate, anyway.”

Why tell a transsexual she’s lucky, in any case? What’s the effect of saying such a thing? True or not, it’s going to feel to the transsexual that she’s being dismissed, that what you’re saying is that their transition is somehow not as hard as it might have been. Pointing to money, power, and luck suggests that a good transsexual transition is almost predestined if you have enough of one, two, or all three things, and conversely, that a transsexual is doomed without them.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having these things, of course. It’s good to be lucky, to have some money, and to be powerful. But if you come to rely on them, then luck, money, and power become paradoxically disempowering because they trump hope, and hope is what’s in short supply when a transsexual finally faces her demons and realizes she must take action. I’ve been there, and let me tell you that no cushy balance in the checkbook, no collected power over others’ lives, and no track record of good luck makes any difference to one facing the daunting task of transsexual transition. Hard work and a belief that such hard work will get us through our transition are the only things that really have an impact on a transsexual transition, as far as I can see.

I have always bristled at such dismissive observations, even those that fall outside of this transition crisis of the past couple of years. When I used to be told, “Of course you did well in college — you always had it easy,” I felt as if my reading and studying and struggling with academic concepts weren’t worth recognizing. These days, comments like “It’s no wonder you’ve had such a good transition — you’re in the protective walls of a university” diminish the struggle that my friends and colleagues and I have had in understanding and accepting my changes. While it is certainly true doing well in college or surviving transsexual transition are facts of my life, I don’t believe in predestination, and I certainly do not believe that having power or working in the right industry will inevitably smooth over all life’s difficulties.

Maybe this essay is just a cry for you to “look at me” and appreciate me. You already know how painful and difficult my past couple of years were, and so I don’t need you to acknowledge it again. But I really want to know how we can ever learn from each other through honest criticism and praise if money, luck, and power obstruct us or cause us to reduce hard work and struggle into predetermined outcomes.

I’ve written elsewhere about finally feeling whole, and I think being whole has a lot to do with integrity, not just in some sort of metaphoric way, but in a literal and linguistic way. When engineers talk about structural integrity, they mean that all the parts work as they should and no parts have been compromised through damage or wear. Being whole in this way means the object is sound and strong, or is at least operating as well as it can.

Integrity is related to mathematics so that we can talk about integers, or whole numbers that are not divided.

Applied to our personalities, integrity means being a whole person, sound in judgment, honest, and trustworthy. If you have integrity, you don’t sneak around and say one thing to one party and something different to another party. You are whole and consistent, just as the machine in the first paragraph.

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.
3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.
c.1450, “wholeness, perfect condition,” from O.Fr. integrité, from L. integritatem (nom. integritas) “soundness, wholeness,” from integer “whole” (see integer). Sense of “uncorrupted virtue” is from 1548.

Integrate (the verb), then, is the action of bringing together disparate parts so that they function as a whole, and I feel integrated in two very important ways, self-integration and social-integration.

When I began my transsexual transition, I felt that my actions might harm me and others, but that I needed to do it to maintain my integrity, or my wholeness with myself. I felt extremely fragmented at the time, and by lying to myself and to others, certainly could not have been said to have integrity. What I have learned is that not only do I feel as if I have personally re-integrated my disparate selves, but that I have also become a more whole member of my community. No longer do I feel as if I’m standing apart of life’s rich feast, but am an integral part of my society.

Who has authority over my life, my body, my choices? I do, of course. In fact, “authority” is a wonderful concept to describe power over our actions. I’m a writer, and you may have noticed that a lot of metaphors I’ve used in this blog involve writing, such as when I talked about living in someone else’s script in “Inner Child,” and about erasing narratives in “Narrative Erasures,” and about the poetic images of loss in “Lost and Found,” to name a couple.

Most people tend to think of the concept of “authority” as something roughly equivalent to “law” or “power,” and that’s obviously a major aspect of the word. However, if you’ll stare at the word for a second, you’ll notice how clearly “author” is the core part of the word. Power and the ability to write are inextricably linked in this word so that just as serenity is the quality of being serene, authority is the quality of being an author, or more simply, “authorship.”

The reason this matters to me and to this blog is that for the longest time, I felt I needed some sort of external authority to heal me: a doctor, a relationship, a therapist, a family member. I didn’t feel I had sufficient authority to face my own demons and to make the change that was so desperately needed. I did not feel that I was authorized, which is to say, I did not feel as if I had the right or the power to be the valid author of my own life.

You can gain authority through academic degrees, self-study, trade guilds, apprenticeships, and a number of other ways that involve receiving power/rights from another party. But you can also self-authorize. Compare what I wrote about legitimacy and authenticity, and you’ll see that authority is a common thread that ties those two concepts together. Legitimacy often comes from others in the form of laws, degrees, certifications, and so on, but authenticity connotes a self-empowerment that doesn’t necessarily require outside influence. In the same way, authority may be conferred upon you and you may also accrue power (authority) to yourself. [See the end of this post for the dictionary definitions.]

When you’ve done this, you are no longer living in someone else’s script written about you, in which you’re a character with externally written motivations and actions. To come back to the first sentence and ask who’s got the authority over your life, you’re asking who is writing your life. You can let someone else write you, inscribing you with nouns that label you, adjectives that describe you, and verbs and adverbs that animate you and allow/constrain you to certain actions. If someone else writes your life, you’re an actor in their movie. It is far too easy to lose control of our own lives and begin to feel inadequate compared to all the normal people living normal lives inscribed by norms all around us. We feel out of control and we look at those norms and say, “that’s the safe route — that’s what society wants. I’ll just follow that script for a while, and then when I’m comfortable, I’ll return to my dreams.”

But when you take responsibility for your life, when you burn the scripts that write you from the outside and begin writing your own actions, you accrue power over your life. Like Adam and the beasts of the fields, you get to name yourself, to define the range of actions that put your character into action. Empowering? Absolutely. Frightening? You bet. Being the author of your life means you need to be willing to erase some bad lines, revise this paragraph because it’s just not working, reorganize your structure, consult the dictionary, do some research, and generally animate the process of creating your life-text.

That’s hard and trying business, but so is allowing someone else to write your life, the costs of which include the loss of autonomy, the feeling of helplessness, the fatalistic surrender to the script.

Should we throw away all the ready-made scripts inscribing us? Not necessarily. This essay isn’t a call to anarchy (in the form of self-creative-writing), but rather a call to re-vision — to re-view and re-see your life. Maybe you don’t need to rip whole pages from the script, preferring to scribble in the margins or add a sentence here, delete a paragraph there, to ultimately see writing as a process of constant tweaking instead of a firm product.

Having recently laid aside the pen in favor of the pencil, I feel wonderful about this process.

The authorities we see around us are empowered to write laws, to enact scripts that impact us, to determine right from wrong. In fact, take a quick look at the definitions of authority below, and you notice the overlap overlap between power and expertise. Let’s apply this same power and expertise to our own bodies and lives.


1. the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.
2. a power or right delegated or given; authorization: Who has the authority to grant permission?
3. a person or body of persons in whom authority is vested, as a governmental agency.
4. Usually, authorities. persons having the legal power to make and enforce the law; government: They finally persuaded the authorities that they were not involved in espionage.
5. an accepted source of information, advice, etc.
6. a quotation or citation from such a source.
7. an expert on a subject: He is an authority on baseball.
8. persuasive force; conviction: She spoke with authority.
9. a statute, court rule, or judicial decision that establishes a rule or principle of law; a ruling.
10. right to respect or acceptance of one’s word, command, thought, etc.; commanding influence: the authority of a parent; the authority of a great writer.
11. mastery in execution or performance, as of a work of art or literature or a piece of music.
12. a warrant for action; justification.
13. testimony; witness.

Is truth still the truth if no one speaks it?
Does truth transcend power?
What’s the impact of power on truth?

A few days ago, I was talking with Leia, one of my graduate students, about my plans of possibly asking people to write their thoughts on my transition, focusing on how, if at all, this has impacted them. I told her it was a way to tell a transsexual transition story without necessarily getting bogged down with the same old transition details and to focus instead on the social relationships undergoing transition.

Without hesitation, she said, “It’s a bad idea: no one will tell you the truth.”

“Why?” I asked, a bit taken aback.

“Because of your power.”

“Power? Over what?”

“Over their schedules, their lives,” she said. “Your decisions impact graduate student and faculty schedules, their teaching assignments, their grades, their very careers. If you ask them to write about your transition, all they’ll do is tell you what you want to hear. In fact, even today, you never hear the truth about what people think because of your power.”

I honestly don’t think Leia meant to hurt or deflate my excitement. I don’t think it was meant to deflate any more than Betsy and Rachael’s observation that money makes my transition palatable for the hometown folks of Empire Falls. And the question of whether I actually have any of this so-called power is better left to debate some other day.

But her argument that my power causes people to tell me what I want to hear or to simply hold their tongues also sounds to me like an argument that power makes my hard-fought changes seem easy and almost automatic. It also causes me to doubt the good feeling I’ve felt these past 6 months — if I’m so powerful that people wouldn’t tell me what they think, then it follows that maybe all this acceptance I thought I was feeling is just fear of power.

And it’s not just a feeling that I’ll never really know these things, but Leia’s observation also suggests that all my pain and effort at overcoming all my gender-related shame was wasted energy, since my power would protect me from others’ judgment and snarky comments.

It feels very deflating and dismissing to me.

I know, I know — I tell my kids, “No one can MAKE you feel anything,” but in this case, I can’t help it. I am mindful of my emotions, even as they are awakened by innocent words. Believe me, I know deflation and dismissal when I feel it, and Leia’s observation deflates and dismisses.

Maybe this whining is just another sort of cry for you to “look at me” and appreciate me. You already know how painful and difficult my past couple of years were, and so I don’t need you to acknowledge it again. But I really want to know how we can ever learn from each other, offering each other honest criticism and praise, if money and power obstruct us and build up walls that stymie such worthy efforts.

See also “Luck