The power of language and labels in Perry

Helen ZiaHusband. Wife. Marriage.

Much of Perry v. Schwarzenegger is about these words and who has the right to use them.  The parties agree that these are universal terms – understood in every language and culture, but they disagree about whether participants in a gay relationship should use the terms in describing each other.

Interestingly, these terms – husband, wife, marriage – were not the only important words in Perry, which often demonstrated the power of language itself.  Witnesses spoke of the insulting ambiguity in the word “partner.”  Their fear in hearing the word “abomination.”  The moment one of them decided to search his dictionary for the word “homosexual.”  Indeed, to a great extent, Perry is not just about men, women, and marriage but about the effects that all words have on the people who use and hear them.

Some of the most poignant testimony of this kind came from plaintiff witness Helen Zia, an author and former magazine editor.  Zia, 57, pictured above, described the changes that occurred when, one day, she was able to call her love of 17 years her “wife.”

“It was as though we had been … told to sit in the back of the bus and accept this kind of lesser status of domestic partners,” Zia said in January.  But after Zia married, “We experienced a feeling of what equality is. Instead of having to go to the fountain that is just for gay and lesbian people, we could go to the fountain that formerly said, ‘Heterosexuals Only,’ and we tasted the water that was sweeter there.”

Zia recalled previous difficulties using the word “partner” to describe Lia Shigemura, the woman she first married in 2004.  At work engagements, new acquaintances would inevitably ask, “Oh, partner in what business?”  They did not always understand Zia’s stock answer – that she and Shigemura were “partners in life.”  “Life insurance?” came the reply.

Zia praised the simplicity that the words “wife” and “daughter-in-law” later brought to her family.  Her marriage to Shigemura gave everyone access to a timeless vocabulary that allowed her to describe their familial relationships easily and accurately.  This was particularly important to Zia’s family of Chinese immigrants: Many Asian languages do not have a word for “gay,” said Belinda Dronkers-Laureta, director of Asian & Pacific Islander Family Pride.  “There is a word that they use, but it’s a derogatory word and a metaphor: It means a man acting as a woman.”

Thus, Zia’s mother, who prefers to speak in Chinese, had to tread carefully when she spoke with family friends about the woman Zia brought to family gatherings.  “My mother, before we would marry, would struggle and just say, ‘She’s Helen’s friend,’” Zia said, though the word was clearly inadequate.  “She must be a really good friend, because she’s been coming to these events for the last 17 years,” Zia quipped.  After their wedding, things changed.  “My mother would say, ‘This is my daughter-in-law,’ and they would get it,” Zia said.  “Whether they approved or disapproved, it didn’t matter.  They got it.”

Simple access to this language and its cultural significance also changed interactions between members of the two families.  Even though the women have been a couple for 17 years, it was only after they wed that Zia’s brother started to visit Shigemura’s father, who lived a five-minute drive from him in Hawaii.  It is only now that Zia’s brother and Shigemura’s sister, who run in the same Hawaiian social circles, publicly acknowledge that they are “in-laws.”  And it is only because the couple is now married that, when Shigemura’s father died last year, Zia knew that the obituary would include her and that she would bear not only familial responsibilities but also the honor of sitting in the funeral’s front row.  “I wasn’t some partner in business or partner in life,” Zia recalled. “I was her spouse … and there was no ambiguity about it.”

PUTTING A NAME TO IT

Clarity does not only come from words we have always known and are finally able to use.  Perry also reminds us of the power in harnessing a new vocabulary to articulate amorphous intuitions.  For example, Ryan Kendall, a gay man from Colorado Springs, testified that his parents told him when he was a child that homosexuals threatened their family, but Kendall didn’t know what the word “homosexual” meant.  He only knew that it “was a big, long, scary word,” and even though he was aware of his same-sex attractions, he didn’t realize the word described him.  Kendall realized he was “homosexual” when he was 11 or 12 years old and decided to scan the word’s dictionary entry.  “I remember reading the definition – something along the lines of a romantic attraction between members of the same sex, and it slowly dawned on me that that’s what I was,” Kendall said.

Zia’s identification with the word “lesbian” was more delayed.  She was in college before she heard the word and realized it might describe her.  She waited more than 10 years to act on her attractions, though, partly because she was scarred in her mid-20’s by “a lesbian trial.”  For this event, Zia was unsuspectingly called to a meeting of Asian and African-American community organizers, with whom she had been working to end federal discrimination against women and minorities.  The organizers told Zia that they had noticed her working alongside several lesbians and then stressed that they “did not have” homosexuals in their communities.  Finally, the organizers came to the point: “So, Helen. Tell us: Are you a lesbian?”

At first, Zia didn’t know how to answer the question.  She knew the dictionary definition of lesbianism and that she felt sexual attractions to women.  But was that enough?  Zia ticked through other possible requirements: She didn’t have a girlfriend.  “I didn’t have a membership card that said I was a lesbian,” she recalled.  “I didn’t get a toaster oven or a congratulatory message saying, ‘Welcome to lesbian-hood.’” And so, at this meeting, Zia denied her sexuality.  She declared that she was not a lesbian and, shortly thereafter, burned more than a decade’s worth of diaries that she feared might someday out her.

Recently, the meanings of words have been more obvious to Zia.  Dozens of people approached her two years ago, when she was distributing “No on 8” fliers.  With looks of derision, they called her a “dike” and “You f—ing dike.”  Others told her she would “burn in hell.”  And that she was “an abomination.”  And that, “With this, no more people.  No more human race.”  Zia said that she felt these comments “endangered” her.

Another hurtful label arrived not too long ago: “Invalid.”  That’s how the City and County of San Francisco described her 2004 marriage to Shigemura.  The letter containing this news arrived after the California Supreme Court ruled that Mayor Gavin Newsom had overstepped his bounds in allowing same-sex couples to wed in the first place.  “We felt pretty horrible,” Zia said in January.  “We felt that it wasn’t just a statement that our marriages were invalidated: We felt that … we, as human beings, had suddenly become invalidated.”

Several years later, Zia and Shigemura returned to the language of marriage: With the blessings of Newsom and the California Supreme Court, they wed again in 2008.  Afterward, Zia’s niece greeted Shigemura with a hug and demonstrated the power of another word. “Auntie Lia!” she exclaimed.  “Now you’re really my auntie.”

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