One night, our friends Jeremy and Allie invited Ron and me over for a movie. It was a Friday and we all ate dinner separately, then Ron and I walked to their place, right down the block. Ron brought a jar of popcorn kernels, which we kept on hand to make our favorite homemade popcorn. You pop the kernels, then add olive oil, salt, garlic powder, a smidge of cayenne, and a generous helping of nutritional yeast. It is the best movie snack I’ve ever eaten.
Ron made an especially good batch that night. In the middle of the movie, at a pause, Jeremy and Allie and Ron were all licking the salt and spices from their fingers. “Ron, that is the best popcorn I’ve ever had!” someone said.
They offered me some, but as usual I declined. No corn of any kind is allowed on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet–as a grain, it’s verboten. Luckily I was still full from dinner, so my cravings weren’t as strong as they might have been. I contented myself with remembering exactly what the popcorn tasted like.
The only trouble was, everyone kept talking about it. “Seriously, Ron. I mean, it’s the best popcorn I’ve ever eaten.” Crunch, crunch, crunch. I could smell the oil, corn, and salt in the air. The more they talked about it, the more my spirits began to fall.
When Jeremy went to get something from the kitchen, Allie turned to me with a dreamy look in her eye. “You know what I’ve really been craving lately? A real ice cream sundae. I’ve looked everywhere, and you can’t find them in Madison!”
“Really?” I said, surprised. “But there’s so much ice cream here.” Wisconsin isn’t called the Dairy State for nothing.
“No, I mean real ice cream. All the places here sell custard, but it’s not the same.”
“You mean like soft serve?”
She described the ice cream she wanted, and the toppings that make a good sundae. I grinned along with her, imagining the taste and the textures, the chocolate sauce dripping over sprinkles, berries, maybe bananas. I’d gotten used to my split mindset these days: one part of me enjoying imagining delicious food, the other part wistfully reminding myself that I may never be able to eat certain things again. Ice cream was one of them.
I allowed that wistful part a single comment now. “Maybe in a few months I’ll be able to at least eat Almond Dream, or Coconut Bliss.” I hoped I sounded brave.
“You can’t eat ice cream?”
I shook my head. “No dairy.”
Allie’s eyes fell. I looked away, still smiling, suddenly uneasy. I sensed her realizing her error.
We changed the subject. Today was a big day in Wisconsin: The state’s gay marriage ban had been overturned. This was, it turned out, even big news for Jeremy and Allie.
“Now we can really get married,” Allie explained. She and Jeremy were getting married in October.
“You guys?” Ron said, confused. He cracked a smile as Jeremy returned to the living room. “Jeremy, is there something you haven’t told me?” We laughed.
They explained that, in solidarity with gay friends who couldn’t be legally married, they had decided to forego legal marriage when they tied the knot. Like a gay couple in Wisconsin, they would hold the ceremony but not sign any legal documents.
Ron and I were floored. “Have you thought about getting married in another state that does allow gay marriage?” I asked. I’d been to the wedding of one straight couple who’d driven to Iowa the day before, getting their license there in protest of Wisconsin’s ban.
“We thought about doing that,” said Jeremy. “But if we were a gay couple, then when we came back to Wisconsin, we still wouldn’t be legally married here. So we decided to just not do it altogether, until the state lets everyone get married.”
I sat back, speechless.
Ron and I had gotten married here almost two years earlier. Our officiant was a Unitarian Universalist minister who happened to be a long-term friend of mine. She and her wife had gotten married in Madison three months before our wedding. Since they couldn’t be legally married under state law, in lieu of a state marriage license they had created their own special certificate to sign. They invited everyone in attendance to sign it too, in witness of their wedding. The certificate was beautiful and colorful, and in certain ways much more meaningful than any official state document. But it would not give them tax breaks. It would not bestow the right to jointly parent a child without thousands of dollars of legal fees, or the right to make life-and-death decisions for each other in the hospital, or countless other rights.
This officiant friend, who had gone to such trouble to create her own meaningful alternative to the state marriage license, was one of the signees on Ron’s and my state marriage license. Another signee was my sister, my Maid of Honor, who also happens to be gay. My sister lived in Oregon, where same-sex marriage was also banned at the time of our wedding.
So of the five signees on Ron’s and my marriage license in 2012, two had been women who could not legally sign their own marriage licenses under state law. And one of those was a minister.
And yet, despite all that painful and infuriating irony, it had never occurred to Ron and me to do what Jeremy and Allie were doing, foregoing the marriage license in solidarity with these special people in our lives. We had felt deep sympathy and anger on their behalf, certainly. We hoped with all our hearts that the bans would be lifted soon. But we had done nothing tangible to make these beloved women feel included, perhaps by excluding ourselves in protest and thus standing with them.
Collecting my thoughts, I said all this to Jeremy and Allie, telling them how much I admired their stance. They laughed off my praise. They joked that now that the ban was lifted, they might “really” get married this year, assuming the ban didn’t return.
Reaching behind Jeremy’s chair to turn a light on, Allie knelt in front of him on one knee. “Jeremy?”
“Will you…” (dramatic pause) “…turn that light on for me?”
We all laughed.
On the walk home, Ron and I talked again of our admiration for Jeremy and Allie. Ron paused. “Hey, sorry about the whole popcorn conversation.”
“Thanks,” I said. I confessed that it had bothered me, once again, to hear people talking about delicious food I couldn’t eat. Normal-diet people are often totally oblivious to the isolation of special-diet people. Until recently, I knew I had been one of those oblivious people.
Ron rubbed my shoulders.
Thinking about it all the next day, I was struck by the juxtaposition and the lesson to be learned. For the last two months, I’d been struggling with isolation from fundamental social activities, like eating, that everyone else seemed to take for granted. It had made me think of others with dietary restrictions, such as my several friends with celiac disease. I doubted it had ever occurred to me, till now, to refrain from talking about bread or beer in front of them, let alone from eating and drinking these things when they were around. Now that I felt left out, myself, I’d been ashamed to realize how little attention I had paid to others in similar plights.
Talking to Jeremy and Allie about marriage reminded me that my empathy could and should extend far beyond others with dietary restrictions. Many people are left out of society in various ways–by not being in the majority, or by active bigotry. My struggles were giving me a heightened awareness of privilege in general, of how it feels to be excluded. That awareness was something meaningful to be gleaned from my own pain.