Nancy, one of my favorite podcasts, is doing a series on Queer Money Matters, and it’s gotten me thinking about how my queerness has affected my own financial well-being. Like my queerness itself, it’s all tangled up with other issues. Early into my first professional job for a small startup, the owner mentioned casually how he didn’t like gay people. At the time, Connecticut didn’t have a law protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. This and other experiences have caused me to be rather circumspect about my personal life at work, and I’m sure that lack of authenticity has made it difficult to make the kinds of connections that can lead to promotions and networking opportunities. In one of the Nancy episodes, they interviewed someone who spoke about situational paranoia (I’m probably not using the same term), and how that sense of not belonging, that fear about being found out, leads to people quitting jobs, and that over time it can have a substantial cumulative effect on wages.
My first two serious, live-in relationships (aka lesbian marriage in the age before marriage equality) were with women. My gender and sexual orientation, combined with childhood poverty, made me too risk-averse to pursue my literary ambitions. Instead, I subsidized my first girlfriend’s writing job working in office administration. By the time I met Quick, my second long-term girlfriend, I was working in New Media at the height of the dot-com boom and she was an attorney in private practice. On paper, things looked pretty good for us financially. But when the bust came in the early ’00s and I left her, I ended up broke and in debt, my stock options worthless. Because we weren’t married–and because she was much older than me–I left the relationship with less than what I’d come in with. The end of both these relationships also took a pretty severe emotional toll on me. Don’t underestimate the power of words like “ex-wife.” I felt invisible in my grief, unable to share it with most of the world or to have it acknowledged. That led to depression, which exacerbated my chronic illness and directly affected my earning power. I spent a number of years self-employed and unable to afford health insurance, and this lack of access to treatment also affected my earning power. The need for access to affordable, high-quality health care was one of the major factors in my closing up shop and taking a full-time job again.
Ironically, I left Quick just a few months before the Massachusetts SJC ruled in favor of marriage equality. She was a litigator with a vindictive streak, so it’s likely that having to divorce here would have made the breakup even harder than it was. And it was pretty hard. It took me five or six years to rebuild my life.
These experiences made me pretty gun-shy when it came to live-in relationships with anyone, let alone marriage. The fact of my queerness–and an ambivalent relationship with monogamy–also made traditional marriage unattractive to me. When I joined the Nancy Facebook group, they asked me what a “ring of keys” moment is as a test to make sure I was a podcast listener. This refers to a story from a previous episode when a little girl sees a dyke for the first time and realizes that this is someone like her–someone who made it okay for her to be who she is. It was the grown dyke’s ring of keys that fascinated her. And I understand that moment of feeling like you’re not the only one who feels the way that you do. My “ring of keys” moment came while reading Robert Heinlein’s novel Friday. The protagonist of the book is an unapologetic bisexual woman, and at the beginning of the book she’s happily married to about seven people. In a perfect world, this is the kind of domestic arrangement I think would make me the happiest. But when I came of age in the 1990s, there was no support for even monogamous same-sex couples, and polyamory wasn’t even a word. While marriage equality has gained an embattled foothold in American society, no legal structure for group marriage exists and nonmonogamy/polyamory still carries stigma. I’ve seen what happens to women who leave these kinds of arrangements, and the financial and emotional consequences can be severe. Those stories are one of the reasons why my fantasy of a group marriage remains just that: a fantasy.
Eleven years into a domestic partnership, I feel lucky every day to have found a stable, supportive relationship. The fact that my partner is a cisgender white man has also directly affected my financial well-being. I feel uneasy about the privileges we enjoy. Together we have traveled to parts of the country I would have avoided with a female or gender-nonconforming partner. He earns more money than I do, and his military service meant that we qualified for a VA home loan. Yes, women can also serve in the military, but the female veterans I’ve met all have horror stories about their time in the service, and I decided not to pursue military service myself because of military cultural attitudes around gender. Specifically, I didn’t want to be raped, harassed, or dishonorably discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Home ownership has helped propel my partner and me more firmly into the middle class. It’s more than I expected as a single woman.
One of the interviewees on the Nancy podcast who identified as asexual talked about the real financial consequences of single life. Another couple talked about leaving Kansas City for New York out of concern for their personal safety. One member of that couple also mentioned that straight people her age in the Midwest were mostly married homeowners. She stressed that it wasn’t the life that she wanted, but that she was aware that the higher cost of living in New York City meant a very different financial reality for her and her partner. I really identified with their story. I moved to Boston for similar reasons.
Today I enjoy so many things that many other Americans don’t, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. After decades of struggling, I feel grateful to have a stable job, a home of my own, and access to the health care I need to treat a chronic illness. I even have enough energy left over to pursue my literary ambitions as a poet–a vocation that costs most poets more money than they ever earn. My story’s not over yet, and I can’t say that I’m living happily ever after, but I do my best to count my blessings instead of dwelling on what might have been.