Finally, Equal Rights for My Lesbian Mother

Helena Andrews and her mother Frances Andrews (Patrick Ryan)

(The Root) — When I heard the news that morning, it whacked me in the chest like the kickback of a sudden and screeching stop.

On Wednesday, June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. No longer would a legally married, same-sex couple be denied federal benefits like Social Security, health insurance and retirement. Not recognizing same-sex unions on the federal level, said five justices, was unconstitutional because it violated the "equal protection" promise of this country's founding document.


I wasn't entirely surprised by my physical reaction to the news. My mother, Frances, has been an out lesbian since before I could spell the word that would come to define both of our lives. At 61, she's continued to march in parades and shout on capitol steps for her rights. Rights that I, as a heterosexual woman, was born with. It's more than a discomfiting feeling — watching your own flesh and blood being discriminated against for most of your life.

So Wednesday morning felt as if, after years of clinging to a plummeting roller coaster, we'd all come to an abrupt stop. But although the ride is far from over — 37 states still don't recognize same-sex marriage — there's been a slight reprieve. It's at times like this you realize that you never knew how fast you'd been going. You've gotten so used to the wind of the conservative right whipping noisily against your cheeks and the stomach doing flips every time someone says, "That's so gay" that when the roller coaster finally pulls into the station, it's hard to get off. Were my legs always this wobbly? My knees always this shaky?

I called my mom immediately. She recently moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to find herself. After more than a year of static-heavy dropped calls and quickie emails laced with her favorite intentional mistakes (like "Mom/me"), I'd just locked down a date to visit in August. Now we had something tangible to celebrate besides the simple joy of seeing one another after so long .

"Ma, DOMA got struck down this morning!" I shouted, too excited to say hello.

"What?" asked my mother, confused. I could hear her mentally squinting through the phone. I could see her doing that "old lady" routine where she holds the receiver to her ear and then pulls it back to analyze cross-eyed and repeat.


"Mother, the Supreme Court of these United States has ruled that denying you your federal benefits is not friggin' OK."

"Well, it's about damn time."

As much as I want to batten down the hatches and get hitched — especially seeing how intermittently difficult and lonely my mother's life is as a single 60-something always flying by the seat of her pants — I admire the fact that absolutely nothing holds my mother back. It's a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, she answers to no one, and on the other, she has no financial or emotional stability aside from me, whom she jokingly calls her "first and last," and her 401k.


I'm sure during our week together we'll grill fish she caught herself, ride horses she's "borrowed" from a friend, walk along tracts of Virgin Island land she'll try to convince me to buy for her and get drunk on margaritas served by a strange man on a boat.

I'll finally get a handle on my mother's new life in St. Croix when I go visit in August. For one week, I'll play my post-30 role as the settled, successful daughter, while my mother will reprise the character of the wild, former flower child who's had more careers than there are bullets to fit a resume, who's never met a new town to which she didn't mind moving or an old girlfriend she couldn't wait to put in her rear view.


That's who Frances my mother is: a woman whose plans don't go further than sundown.

Before I started living with my boyfriend and talking marriage, if a friend wanted to jet off to Brazil for two weeks, I'd start packing. If there was an art exhibit in Paris I wanted to see, I'd go. If there was an interesting job opportunity in Thailand, I'd start learning the language. Now I think in terms of "we." And just as much as my mother has been thrilled by the prospect of me getting anchored, I'm now equally hopeful that she can some day do the same.


Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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