There are plenty of people who object to marriage equality. But there are plenty moreLGBT and straightfor whom marriage equality provides a public recognition of something they've known all along: That same-sex people form stable, lasting unions at just about the same rate that heterosexual people do. Arranging ourselves in pairs seems to be something that we homo ... sapiens like doing.
As people of Illinois debate marriage equality, I've thought about F.O.
Matthiessen and the cost of keep same-sex marriage in the shadows. Matthiessen was a well-regarded American literature scholar at Harvard. His work is mostly lost to history now, except in scholarly circles, but again and again, he promoted fairer and more just communities in his writings and progressive political activism. Born to privilege, Matthiessen grew up in Illinois, where his grandfather was head of the company that made Big Ben alarm clocks and a three-time mayor of LaSalle. Matthiessen State Park in Oglesby about two hours west of Chicago, is named in honor of the family patriarch.
What is less known today is that beginning in 1924, the younger Matthiessen became involved with an American Impressionist painter, Russell Cheney, in a relationship that lasted more than 20 years and looked a whole lot like a same-sex marriage. Against the odds, the law, convenience, tradition and social expectations, Matthiessen and Cheney were determined to share their lives with one another, and in many instances they found some measure of implicit acceptance in private from family, friends, and neighbors, despite their twenty year age difference. (Cheney was the elder.) Broader public recognition of homosexuality, let alone same-sex relationships, was unthinkable at the time, but Matthiessen and Cheney found some degree of accommodation in private.
Very soon into their relationship Matthiessen even used the word marriage in a letter to Cheney to describe their relationship: "Marriage! What a strange word to be applied to two men! Can't you hear the hell-hounds of society baying in full pursuit behind us?" In 1930, the two men bought a house together in Maine, which remained their home base until Cheney's death. Two men setting up house together no doubt raised a Yankee eyebrow or two. But by 1936, Matthiessen and Cheney were established well enough as a couple in their hometown that a profile of Cheney in connection with one of his exhibitions in Boston, the local paper came right up to the boundary of public acknowledgement by describing the two men as "partners."
But Matthiessen and Cheney could not cross over the sharp line between private acceptance in select circles and broader community-wide declaration. Despite their pioneering spirit, life did not end happily for Matthiessen and Cheney. Cheney died of thrombosis in 1945. Matthiessen had lost the most important relationship of his life, a relationship that profoundly influenced who he was as a person, a writer, and a thinker, but in the days before marriage equality, publicly and professionally, Matthiessen had to
hide his grief, or at least dissemble over its depth. Many of Matthiessen's friends, students, and colleagues knew the truth, but to the larger world Matthiessen had simply lost his good "friend" and housemate.
Many spouses who have lost partners and survived say that the grief nearly killed them, but having to hide one's grief will almost certainly kill a person. In Matthiessen's case, it did just that. Matthiessen held on long as he could. He wrote a several more books, including a monograph on Cheney's painting. The review of the book in The New York Times described Matthiessen as Cheney's "companion"another bold statement to make in 1947. Then in 1950, suffering from a profoundly deep depression; aggravated by accusations of being a Communist sympathizer, Matthiessen leapt to his death from a 12th story hotel window, near North Station in Boston. His colleagues, friends, and studentsnearly all of whom were straightwere devastated, and quickly published a memorial volume in Matthiessen's honor.
Matthiessen's tragic end makes plain that denying recognition of intimate personal relationships between consenting adults carries an enormous cost for everyone. We benefit when other people recognize publicly how much a loved one means to us, and they benefit, too. For a lot of people, it's a relief to affirm something in public that they've known in private all along. So who knows? Maybe Matthiessen's home state will become the latest to support marriage equality.
Scott Bane is a freelance writer in New York City at work on a book about Matthiessen and Cheney.