A week before the Supreme Court decision officially legalizing gay marriage in 2015, my 89-year-old psychotherapist grandmother, left me the following message:
“Dear, I just returned from one of the most exciting workshops I have ever attended. It was about sexuality. And there was one section that was quite meaningful about lesbians. And I don’t mean to intrude on your personal life but… this man was incredible. If you want me to share with you what I’ve learned, we could schedule something private at my house. He made some stunning distinctions, and sexuality is not just intercourse! There’s a whole range of qualities involved in such relationships that might interest you?”
Leaving aside the fact that a man conducted the most exciting workshop of my grandmother’s long career on the topic of lesbianism. (And rest assured that my grandmother, a Freudian psychotherapist, had attended her fair share of workshops). What bothered more was that it had apparently only just dawned on Grandma that my sexual orientation might not only be about some primal urge to rub myself up against another woman. Remarkably, my grandmother had spent the better part of a decade believing that I haven’t yet made the “stunning distinction” between sex and love in “such” a relationship. I could see why she urgently felt a private session at her home in New Jersey might be in order.
Back in 2015, as rainbow-painted faces popped up all over Facebook feeds in the days and weeks following the marriage decision, it seemed the world had become obsessed with gay love. Acquaintances who had always a struck me as uncomfortable with queerness busted out in full rainbow attire, marched proudly in Pride, and enthusiastically tagged articles and photos with #lovewins.
That year, Pride was different for me. Normally, Pride is a celebration of queerness in all its forms. It’s Dykes on Bikes. It’s couples. It’s transfolks. It’s families. It’s poly relationships. It’s being single and loving it. It’s gender non-conformity. It’s guys in leather. It’s dance parties. But in 2015, I didn’t swell with pride. I just kept asking myself: are we prepared to celebrate queerness outside of love relationships that parallels that of traditional heterosexual couple? Could people like my grandmother only embrace queerness if it fit neatly into a hetero-normative institution like marriage?
. . .
Grandma, as most women of her generation did, spent most of her life either single or in a dysfunctional monogamous relationship with a cis man.
In her later decades after relationships had ended and partners had died off, Grandma made clear that she still very much desired sex and romance. Placing an ad in the Jewish local paper, she described herself as “semi-retired” and omitted a photo. Men in their 50s often reacted with surprise when a woman nearly four decades their senior sat across from them at the appointed coffee shop.
When Grandma did date in her 80s and 90s, she’d often dismiss potential “gentlemen companions” as boring, uninspired, or worse. She recounted ending a recent courtship because the man in question had never fathered any children and never wanted any. When I tried to break it to her that children probably shouldn’t prove a deal breaker at 91, Grandma turned to me and said, “Dear, children are our future. How could I date someone who doesn’t see that?”
She yet ended another potential relationship at age 90 because the man told her he liked reading magazines but hadn’t really developed a habit of reading books. No books. No relationship.
For the years I wasn’t around, my clues about Grandma’s sexuality derive largely from her recently-published memoir. It’s full of somewhat stilted descriptions of her disappointing relationships with men and gushing accounts of female companionship.
Looking back further to her teen years, Grandma mentioned a few fumbles with male suitors but wrote most passionately about her best friend, Gladys. They talked about boys, tampons, and the deeper meanings of the universe, “why are we here? What’s our purpose? They freaked themselves out that beyond life there might be nothingness.
But Grandma said these deeply intimate moments resolve when: “Together we found the answer to that possible ‘nothingness’. We had each other, our valued friendship, our caring for one another.”
She wrote of these intense talks with Gladys: “Those moments ended with a warm hug and squeeze. After an affection look, the final parting invariably included a small hand waive. ‘See you Tomorrow.’ We rarely missed a day.”
But soon Gladys’ father got transferred to a job across the country in LA and they parted, Grandma gifting her fancy stationary so they could write every day.
The story of Gladys picks up almost a decade later after Grandma had graduated college. Gladys is marrying Marvin and Grandma is engaged to my grandfather. Their constant letters become less frequent, and they can’t even find time to attend each other’s weddings. Grandma quotes from one of Gladys’ latter letters: “Marvin expressed desperation, like a drowning man, if our relationship ever ended.” Grandma and Gladys each have a child. Then, Gladys gets sick, and tragically, their separation becomes eternal.
. . .
On the long-term relationship side: Grandma describes an abusive relationship with my grandfather. Her divorce, at age 45, proved her liberation and that’s when she started a second career as a psychotherapist.
Most of her post-divorce sexual escapades ended with a disparaging remark about her suitor’s personality or his values. Right after her divorce she had an affair with, and I quote: “Ben, a married sexually-starved handsome man just ‘rarin’ to go!’” She described the excitement of that moment: As he came on to me, my slumbering libido awakened to new possibility. This was a bonus of divorce I had never anticipated—a virile suitor courting me… He brought a suitcase of sex toys for my pleasure.”
She ended the relationship somewhat abruptly, at least as it’s written: “I deserve more, much more—a companion sharing similar values in an endearing relationship where we could grow old and wise together.”
After her divorce and a brief but wild dating spree in the 1970s, she had a 22-year relationship with a man I knew almost as a grandfather. From my memories, she mostly ran the show. She’d bark orders or fret while he finished the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time or buried his head in a book. They broke up when I was a teenager, and he vanished from our lives. She wrote of the relationship demise: “Our uneventful relationship moved from tedium to outright boredom.”
. . .
Grandma was fixated on my sexuality, sending underlined articles from magazines, suggesting books, and even taking me to the NYC Museum of Sex when I turned 19
Every year for my birthday, Grandma would take me on an outing to New York City. That experience—whether a show or museum—would serve as a mutual point of interest for us throughout the next year. If we saw a play about wrongful convictions, she’d spend the next year sending newspaper articles underlined and annotated in her impossible cursive handwriting. Before our calls, I’d read the articles like an obedient student to prepare for our discussion.
For my 19th birthday, Grandma proposed a trip a second trip to the Whitney Museum but I finally admitted to her I didn’t harbor a lot of excitement for modern art. Quick to propose alternatives, Grandma began listing other ideas: history museum, ballet, off Broadway show, Broadway show, modern dance performance, or, she casually slipped in, “the Sex Museum.”
Just to see how she’d react, I repeated “sex museum?” Caught off guard, she immediately withdrew the offer. “No, I couldn’t. Your mother would have to approve errr…” But before she could utter another excuse, my mother, listening from the other room gave the green light, “she’s over 18, mom, you can take her wherever you’d like.”
Grandma and I starred each other down like fighters in a ring. “Would you want to go?” she asked. “I’d absolutely want to go, if you’re comfortable,” I bluffed back. “I’m comfortable if you’re comfortable” she tried to one up me. This went back and forth for what seemed like forever until, mutual challenge accepted, we made a date to go to the “Sex Museum.”
As the December date approached, Grandma began to worry about the weather and, the night before our outing, she called to cancel because of the potential of snow. We both breathed a sigh of relief into the receiver. “I’m so disappointed!” she feigned. “Me too!” I lamented back. But, the next morning, Grandma was on the phone early, “looks like the weather is going to be okay. Shall we do go?” And so, we went.
Unfortunately, Grandma had much to say about the Museum of Sex, and none of it was good. Off the bat, she was horrified at the high price of admission—”the Sex museum should be accessible to all!” Her outrage grew as we approached the first exhibit—an exhibit on the history of sex workers (then called “prostitutes”). Never one to keep her feelings to herself, she loudly objected to each display, still taking an agonizingly long time to scrutinize every placard and photo as youthful museum patrons observed the spectacle.
As we proceeded through the exhibits, Grandma told me (quite loudly) that she worried this museum might be sending me the wrong message about the intersection between love and sex. So, I nearly passed out when we got to the second floor exhibit on bondage and pornography. The exhibit included video projections of pornographic films from various eras–1950, 1960s, and 1970s. I basically went into hiding after passing an exhibit that instructed how a domintrix could exact the maximum pain with a whip without drawing blood.
When we finally got to the end, Grandma found a customer satisfaction survey and read her opinions out loud for all nearby museum employees and patrons to hear. Of course, she encouraged me to fill out a card and urged me never to let my voice be silenced.
I thought that once we escaped the confines of the museum, I might feel more comfortable but Grandma didn’t miss a beat even once safely inside of a cab. As if anticipating that the museum would send me all the wrong messages, grandma took out a copy of an article about the intersection between love and sex. She had pre-underlined key parts. The cab driver chuckled as she read her favorite passages out loud to me.
For months after our outing, Grandma sent me articles, underlined and annotated. She asked me questions about my favorite “sex” books and tried her absolute best to start productive conversation about sex. I fear I wasn’t exactly a great conversation partner on the topic, and was relieved to return to the Whitney the following year.
In my early 20s, we took an outing to see Avenue Q on Broadway–a show Grandma expected to embody the wholesome educational values of Sesame Street. When the muppets started fornicating, she nearly walked out in protest. For months, she discussed the angry letter she sent to the producers to which she never received a response.
Grandma also tried to connect to my sister about the topic of sex shortly after she and her boyfriend (now husband) got engaged 12 years into dating.
Shortly after the engagement announcement, we all met a diner in New Jersey where grandma beamed at the notion of attending her granddaughter’s wedding. To commemorate the grand occasion, Grandma handed over a large plastic bag of “lightly used” lingerie for my sister to wear on the wedding night.
. . .
When Grandma passed away last spring, I got dozens of calls from close women friends. One wrote an op-ed in the local paper, somewhat dramatically suggesting that the recent rains were the “heavens crying” for Grandma. A few women asked to see a draft of her obituary before publication, directed me to specific papers, and felt ownership over the smallest details of her life.
Yet another woman offered my family tickets to go to the NYC Ballet—they had planned to go the week she died. I heard from women with whom she had traveled to the Berkshires; another who worked with her on charity events; still another who taught her Chair Yoga, and so many more.
At the end of the memoir, Grandma lamented her search for a man: “If I ever discover a cultured suitor who is socially aware, excited about life, and holds promise for the future, I shall eagerly explore the possibility of a serious relationship. Hopefully, he’ll have a libido to match mine.”
The last time I saw her shorty after her 92nd birthday, Grandma gave a public talk about her secrets to longevity and musing on life: She concluded that she felt fulfilled in all areas of life except she still longed for a “male companion.”
Over the years, I even observed her putter around the kitchen squabbling over cooking jurisdiction with female friends who seemed more like wives. Looking back at her life through the lens of her female community, I often wonder if the intimacy for which she so deeply yearned was right there in front of her all along. Could it be that the message she left for me about how sexuality is not just about intercourse! was one she need to hear more than I did?
I recently flipped through her memoir, and found a photo of Gladys. It’s the 1950s. Gladys is with her husband Marvin, and baby daughter. Her lips are parted in what is clearly intended as a smile but she’s not quite accomplishing it. And, yes, she’s beautiful.