My friendship with Jackie Cassara began over lunch in 1992, after she announced that she was gay as if it were a warning.
We had spoken over the phone a few times for a story about one of her colleagues. Jackie and I were both working mothers with young children. Our conversations were lively and fun and constantly veering off topic. After my story ran, we agreed to meet in person.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Jackie had only recently started coming out to friends and family. Reactions had been mixed, sometimes painful, and she didn’t want to get hurt by me, too. On the spot, she decided to test my reaction.
“I’m gay,” she said softly.
She caught me mid-bite and off guard. “Ohhh-kaay,” I said slowly, nodding like a bobblehead.
“I wanted to let you know that,” she added, “in case you have a problem with it.”
“Great,” I said. “Fine with me.” Or something equally silly.
I didn’t know what to say. Jackie was a kind and smart woman with great comedic timing. I didn’t really care who she loved. I just wanted her to be my friend.
Twenty-one years later, she’s more like a sister, the bossy kind who’s as hilarious as she is right. We’ve been through so much together: single parenthood, house moves, graduations and children abandoning us — or growing up, however you want to put it.
Jackie and I celebrated each other falling in love, too. Except, in this regard, I was not the friend to Jackie that she was to me.
When I agreed to marry Sherrod in 2004, Jackie helped plan the wedding and reception and taste-tested a dozen cake samples. On my wedding day, she drove me to the church and escorted me to the entrance of the sanctuary, where her partner and my friend, the Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey, officiated.
Here’s what I didn’t do for Jackie: When she and Kate held their commitment ceremony in 1996, I worked instead. I don’t think I bought a gift or even sent a card. Whenever I ask her about this — and I’ve apologized countless times for my thoughtlessness — she refuses to acknowledge that I did anything wrong.
“We were the first commitment ceremony of anyone we knew,” she told me over lunch just this week. “Nobody knew what it was. And you had to work.”
No matter how many times she tells me this, I can’t shake the feeling that I let her down. Worse, I wasn’t the only one.
I’m thinking about all of this now because the U.S. Supreme Court just heard two days of arguments regarding marriage equality. Also, a number of prominent politicians who previously opposed same-sex marriage have recently announced they’ve changed their minds.
Response has been mixed among those who have long supported gay rights. Some welcome every convert and celebrate each change of heart. Others criticize them for taking so long and, in some instances, waiting until they found out a family member is gay.
As a longtime supporter of marriage equality, I am grateful for every footfall in the right direction. As I’ve written many times, you can’t ask people to change and then not give them the chance to.
Still, I’ve had my small moments. “So glad you’re finally with us,” I’ve said to no one as I read about yet another conversion. “How nice, after all these years.”
But memory is a ruthless reality check. Driving home after lunch with Jackie this week, I thought about her impact on our family, particularly my daughter, Cait, who is 25. Once during her middle-school years, Cait screamed that she was running away and ran out into the night. I drove around in a panic, unable to find her. About an hour later, Jackie called.
“Missing someone?” she said. Cait had walked to the nearest payphone and called Jackie. This was the same daughter who, two years earlier, came home upset over how her classmates hurled the word “gay” as an insult.
“Every time they say that, I think of Jackie,” Cait said, her voice trembling. “Our Jackie.”
The hard truth: As important as she is to me, on the day Jackie exchanged vows with Kate in Cleveland, I was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t that I disapproved. They couldn’t call it a wedding, and so I didn’t see it as one. Our friendship continued to grow, and I comprehended the depth of that injustice.
The Supreme Court will not issue its rulings on marriage equality until June.
Impatiently, I wait. And think of Jackie.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (email@example.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster