Thursday, May 3, 2012

George Gershwin and N.C. Amendment One

George Gershwin and N.C. Amendment One

When I was about ten years old, I fell madly in love with George Gershwin.  It didn’t matter that he was many years dead. 

He was my ideal man: massively talented, urban, tall-dark-and- (to me at the time) handsome – someone who spanned classical and popular styles and had an exceedingly sweet smile.  Not to mention a man who’d composed some of the most flat-out gorgeous and exhilarating music ever.

While my grade-school girlfriends swooned over the equally dead James Dean or the alive throbs-de-jour like Elvis or Frankie Avalon, I honed my pre-teen fantasy life on scenarios of meeting George Gershwin and becoming welded in music and passion, forever.  When I practiced Gershwin’s compositions on the piano, his face beamed from the sheet music and his beautiful long hands tried to guide mine. 

Between futile attempts at stretching my fingers so they could accomplish tenths on the piano, and therefore play Rhapsody in Blue or the Preludes successfully, I read everything I could about him.  This task was challenging given the limited public library to which I had access in Northern Wisconsin, but I finally scored an illustrated biography.  The book included a picture of George Gershwin ‘on a date’ with an actress named Simone Simon.  When I saw this photograph, my heart broke:  George Gershwin had loved someone else.  Could he love me as sweepingly, and exclusively, as he had in my dreams?

I decided that I’d have to fight for him (in some weird revenant space inhabited by George Gershwin, a grown-up me, and unspecified starlets).  I practiced more, and by age eleven could play a passable Rhapsody in Blue, two of the Preludes, and all of the Porgy and Bess score.  Then I found another book.

The new (to me) biography suggested that, despite Simone Simon and other publicized flings, George Gershwin was a homosexual.  I didn’t know exactly what that meant, so I asked my parents.  I recall the discussion pretty well:

            (Me); This book said Gershwin was a homosexual. What’s a homosexual?
            (Mom and Dad): A homosexual is a man who loves other men.
            (Me):  Like Ira?  Of course he loved his brother; and Ira wrote the words for George’s music.
            (Mom and Dad):  Not really.  It’s more like a man who would like to date or marry another man.
            (Me):  [Silence.]

I was devastated.  Even if George Gershwin came back from the dead, he would never love me.  I thought I could beat out random Hollywood sex kittens, but I realized, even then, that I couldn’t triumph over something I didn’t really understand but knew was alien to me. What George Gershwin (if he were indeed gay) wanted and needed in his intimate life was something I could never supply, under any circumstances. 

This was my first conscious encounter with ‘homosexuality.’  Growing up in a small town, when I did, I had no idea about people’s sexual preferences (or that there were such things as sexual preferences.)  Maybe I had relatives and family friends (and my own-age friends) who were gay, but I had not been aware of such possibilities. Such things were not talked about casually.

I continued to work on playing George Gershwin’s music, although my fantasy personal connection with him was severed. It wasn’t that I found his rumored sexual choices repulsive or sinful (and I thank my parents for raising me in a relatively non-judgmental, non-dogmatic household).  Instead, I found them disturbing because they excluded me.  What I had thought as universally normative sexuality (men liked women and vice versa) was obviously not true.

Fast forward:  North Carolina 2012.  Amendment One. For readers who aren’t North Carolina residents, here’s the salient wording:
“Marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”

This proposal is both asinine and redundant.  My state already refuses to recognize gay marriages.  Moreover, the amendment would disallow both gay civil unions (which, according to polls, a majority of this state’s voters support) as well as domestic partnerships between straight people.  It could put at risk children of non-married parents and jeopardize the rights of adults who choose not to marry or who are prohibited from doing so by laws such as North Carolina’s.  (And don’t get me started on the wrongheadedness of subjecting basic human rights to a plebiscite.)

I will proudly vote against this supremely stupid amendment.  But I’m not sure I would have done so ten years ago (I‘m pretty sure I wouldn’t have voted for it, but I’m not confident that I would have made the affirmative effort to vote at all in an otherwise uninteresting May primary election).  It’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to see that initiatives such as Amendment One diminish everyone, not just those in or with very close ties to the LGBT community.

My own journey to what I hope is a fuller understanding of the issues underlying marriage equality began decades ago, with discovering the whispering campaign surrounding George Gershwin.  On the one hand, it was my introduction to the sheer fact that homosexuality exists (although not necessary vis-à-vis Gershwin . . . biographers continue to disagree about his sexual preference or to finesse the question by assuming he was so consumed by his music that he didn’t have the additional emotional resources needed to form an enduring loving alliance with anyone).  On the other hand, my feelings of alienation (as opposed to the feelings of betrayal engendered by Simone Simon) made me realize, even way back then, [1] that I was a heterosexual and that it wasn’t a choice – it was just who I was; and [2] that if I was born ‘that way’ (i.e., straight), other people could just as logically be born ‘another way’ (i.e., gay). 

Obviously, more adult life experiences also play a huge part in how we think about sexuality.  For me, over the years, such experiences have included warm relationships with gay roommates, gay colleagues, gay friends.  Not to mention a cultural shift – not tsunami-like, but not glacial, either – that has made it blessedly possible for people to be who they are, without Simone Simon beards.  That ongoing shift owes an immense amount to people brave enough to challenge received norms, to fight for dignity, and to educate their fellow citizens.

We choose whom we love, but in most cases we don’t choose the ‘pool’ from which we choose whom we love.  And appeals to ‘tradition’ (religious, cultural, historical) ring increasingly hollow. These days, one-man-one-woman marriage has shown severe fractures – with an approximately fifty-percent divorce rate in the United States, who in this country could honestly argue for the civilization-upholding strength of traditional marriage? What about older partners for whom ‘marriage’ might spell economic peril?  (This blog entry is already too long, so I won’t rehash religiously shaky justifications or historically false assertions about the eternal verity of heterosexual monogamy.)

I suspect that some of Amendment One’s support involves economics – for example, employers don’t want to/believe they can’t afford to pay for more benefits for more workers (sexual preferences not really being the primary issue).  Fine.  Let’s treat all family benefits equally.  Restrict benefits if necessary, but restrict them equitably.  Two adults who’ve chosen to blend their lives and incomes and future aspirations are a family, it seems to me. And their children (‘natural,’ in-vitro, adopted) are part of that family. Further, I’m not in the least convinced that North Carolina’s economic big picture is helped by bigoted laws that would make the state less attractive to many relocating or start-up businesses dependent on talented (and educated) young workers. 

So I’ll go to the polls on May 8 with George Gershwin in my heart. 

The man who wrote some of the most enduring American music of the 20th century, who brought Black music ways into the White mainstream, who blended classical and vernacular idioms, and who may have had to conceal his sexual identity . . . my man’s NOT gone now.  George Gershwin – whose whole life was dedicated to creative synthesis – would never have voted for an amendment that divided and disenfranchised people.

Neither will I.  Neither, in my opinion, should you.

Vote against Amendment One.

If you live elsewhere, fight against similar measures that would de-legitimatize, prohibit, or criminalize fundamental human rights.  We inhabit a globally connected world, so we should be invested in securing fairness for women and children, for religious and ethnic minorities, for political and cultural dissidents everywhere.  If we don’t, we put not only our compatriots but also ourselves in grave peril.

In 1926, George and Ira Gershwin collaborated on a wonderful song, “Someone to Watch Over Me.”  George died in 1937, before the horrific consequences of not watching over our fellow men and women became terrifyingly evident (horrifying consequences that probably would have included the extermination of the Russian/Ukranian-Jewish Gershwin family if they had remained in Europe).  We should know, by now, that fighting discrimination and repression . . . and standing in solidarity with more vulnerable populations . . . is an ethical imperative. We always need to watch over each other.  One way to do so is to vote down measures like North Carolina’s Amendment One.


  1. Beautiful post, a good read, and I agree with you wholeheartedly, Deb.

    1. Thank you, Jill. I wish more North Carolinians had agreed with us yesterday.