This time last year, I published an essay about rereading Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt and watching Todd Haynes’s then-new film adaptation, Carol, as a 44-year-old lesbian mother of a preschool-age son. I’d first read the novel in the early 1990s, the height of my dyke-bar years, tormented by closeted lesbians and straight women eager to sexually experiment. In particular, I was involved with an older woman ready to start a family—not with me, because back then it meant finding a husband. Gay marriage was hardly a twinkle in the queer eye, and the idea of building a family with a same-sex partner was considered radical.
When I pored over the novel’s pages, I was not much older than The Price of Salt’s 19-year-old protagonist, Therese, and I very much shared her tortured state of mind and heart, completely rapt by her intensifying friendship with an older, married woman, Carol. Would they ever consummate their suppressed desire for each other? I wondered. Would they end up together? What I was less interested in, what I barely remembered at all, was Carol’s brutal custody battle over her daughter, and the fact that her jilted soon-to-be-ex-husband was using her sexuality as his H-bomb in making the case for having sole custody. That sort of injustice, I thought, well, it was one of the occupational hazards of being queer.
Diving back into the novel 20 years later, that Faustian bargain Carol made to be with Therese was all I could think about. What I once regarded as a romantic psychological thriller I now saw as a tragic story. And so, it seemed, did Haynes, who was taken to task by some critics and queer filmgoers for turning Highsmith’s story into a moralistic tale by devoting too much attention to Carol’s struggle to have both a life with Therese and with her daughter. I’d even seen a raging argument on a friend’s Facebook thread that the film presented Carol and Therese as being too conventional and heteronormative.
The film was years in the making, though not quite as many as the fight to legalize same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court did just a few short months before Carol hit the big screen. But what once seemed, if not exactly radical, at least unimaginable just 20 years earlier—a federally recognized, legal family, where not only could we get married, but both parents could finally appear on our child’s birth certificate in all 50 states—had struck some as sort of banal. It was certainly not the battle that many activists felt they’d gone to the mat for.
But in the end, every victory is just that, a victory, one to be celebrated. And one just as easily taken away. When you live on the margins, when you have to fight for basic liberties, even in a nation that boasts being the land of the free, banality can be a luxury.
When it comes to civil rights, this country has a sinister tradition: For every battle won, there is a backlash, as we’ve seen even during the Obama administration with the erosion of the Voting Rights Act and the ongoing dismantling of Roe v. Wade. Here we are one year later, and a fascist is about to take office, bringing along with him a Cabinet of deplorables—each one more homophobic than the next. How much longer will we have these rights to a life of domestic conventionality, bland as it may seem? This privilege of so-called banality?
This moment is urgent, more urgent than any I can remember: Most everyone who is not a white, Christian, American-born heterosexual cisgender male is terrified of what will come after Jan. 20. We are already seeing what awaits us, with proposed Cabinet appointments and hate crimes and combative encounters on the streets. It’s only been a year and a half since the Supreme Court ruling when we were rejoicing, a year since we were quibbling over whether Carol was too dry, too conventional, too … too … and now we’re bracing ourselves for a huge brutal backlash, one that may very well irrevocably change our lives in the worst possible way, worse than we’ve ever known, whether or not we’re married or parents. For, just because some of us never thought same-sex marriage would be legal in our lifetimes—I certainly didn’t when I first met my wife, Meredith, 15 years ago—doesn’t mean any of us are less entitled to our right to it. Or to be parents to our children. We’re not playing house. We’re not playing at all. And neither is the PEOTUS or his hateful, homophobic, racist, xenophobic, misogynist Cabinet appointees, whose record of destroying lives is unparalleled. Our lawmakers are already preparing to compromise and make deals—they aren’t going to fight on our behalf.
Once again, we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going to put on our boots and have to get used to taking to the streets, and white-knuckle everything we have—from our very families down to the simple privilege of arguing on social media about whether Carol was too conventional and heteronormative. I’m wistful for those days already.