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A Conversation on Lesbian Marriage with Renate Stendhal and Kim Chernin

Book Launch for Lesbian MarriageKim Chernin & Renate Stendhal are the authors of the new book, Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Forever Kit. In addition to being seasoned authors and relationship consultants, they have also experienced the walk of a long-term lesbian relationship and marriage first-hand.

After 28 years together, Kim and Renate celebrated their legal marriage in the fall of 2013 and remain passionately thoughtful and engaged in questions of ‘coming out,’ falling in love, and helping couples move from the first blush, butterflies and excitement of a new relationship to the mutual respect, understanding and intimacy that grows after years of togetherness. It all comes together, they believe, if you build from honest and brave places.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of a dynamic Q and A with Kim and Renate to learn more about their path, and their trailblazing experience in the feminist movement. Here’s what they had to say:

Kathryn: Kim & Renate, thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me and our readers about your lives, your love and your new book.

Renate: Kathryn, thank you. We are delighted to be here with you.

The pleasure is all mine. I am incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to speak with you both about your new book and, hopefully, a few general musings about love, relationships and coming out.

We spoke prior to this interview about how much things have changed for the LGBTQ community in the past 50 years. I, myself, came out almost 25 years ago and can’t believe how much things have changed. Tell us a bit about what you’ve experienced.

Renate: I was very lucky coming out when I was 25, living in Paris and it was the seventies, when the Women’s Movement had just started. I had been in a bohemian marriage that was a total failure, and I had always been in love with women. So it felt like a complete homecoming when I finally met the first lesbian of my life and we fell for each other. In the big hub of the Movement, loving women was the greatest high, a perpetual celebration. The personal was political then in a similar way I feel about it now: gay weddings feel like a most welcome wave of a new movement of liberation.

Ironic, though, don’t you think, Renate, that our community’s embracing of marriage — and traditionally so in many cases — is an about-face from much of what the larger LGBT community stood for as outsiders in the earliest days of the movement?

Renate: Yes, it is such an irony. We’ve come along way, baby! When we started throwing pebbles into the big lake of social change, we knew we were making waves, big waves, but we had no idea how theses waves would alter the shore over time… and that some of them will greatly surprise us. I do not remember that I or my revolutionary European sisters, who openly declared our love for each other and stormed the patriarchal citadel, thought of marriage. Marriage was a patriarchal institution — the worst instrument of oppression for women throughout history. Women were owned by men in marriage like cattle or slaves, and the strongest impulse of our revolution was to break those chains that kept us dependent on men and what we used to call the “marriage cage.” We wanted to create new forms of love, new kinds of relationships between equals. We did not predict that our empowerment, egalitarian independence and woman-loving would one day come to be fully recognized by society in a way that would allow us to see marriage in such a different light.

And, Kim, what about you? How have you experienced the evolution of acceptance of the LGBTQ community?

Renate Stendhal & Kim Chernin

Photo Credit: Louise Kollenbaum

Kim: Until 1978, I believed that loving women was an illness. I was in psychoanalysis to get “cured” from it. During most of that time homosexuality was listed as an illness by the American Psychological Association, so it wasn’t really far-fetched that I thought this way. I don’t know how the “cure” was supposed to work. I guess by analyzing my childhood circumstances I would discover why I loved women more than men. It didn’t work, I never stopped loving women and, by the late seventies, I managed not to think of it as a sign that I was mentally ill. It was the feminist movement, and especially the women’s spirituality movement, that helped me leave my second marriage and recognize myself as an exuberant, spiritually inclined lesbian.

Kim, that’s amazing. What a difficult path you’ve walked toward self-acceptance! Incredible to think that you’ve walked through the days of the bleakness described in The Well of Loneliness to exuberant crowds celebrating marriage equality and Edie Windsor’s court victory. How do you see the marriage movement impacting the experience that today’s young LGBTQ people are having as they grow up?

Kim: I am trying to imagine what that must be like. To have the often deepest part of your identity be welcomed in society, to have the shame and conflict about it erased. What indeed must that be like? I’ve recently reviewed a report that found that the children of “planned” lesbian households are better adjusted and more accomplished than their peers from conventional families. Were these lesbian families in which a whole lot of hypocrisy and denial and hiding were much less prevalent than in the culture generally? Does it feel good to know that one is a pioneer? Is it a source of self-esteem? That possibility is simply mind-boggling: that this identity about which I myself felt so much shame and conflict may have become for others who carry it a source of self-esteem.

Renate: This shame and conflict Kim and so many other gay and lesbian people felt is something I never knew. It seems I was born, so to speak, with gay pride! At 14, I read Jean Genet’s extremist gay novels and fell in love with this world, instantly becoming a vocal advocate for homosexuality. I sensed that gay relationships were between equals, free from hetero-normative dictates and pressures. They seemed the most natural expression of free love to me. I didn’t know yet that women could be part of this longed-for world or that women could be lesbians, but, at 16, my dreams revealed it to me. When I finally began living my dream I felt exalted — and even more so because I knew I was an outsider and pioneer!

Renate, it’s amazing to hear you speak of your strong core understanding of yourself… and the pride! This is something special, and something that might not even be experienced in the same way for today’s young people who are much more likely to be accepted if they come out as LGBTQ. It is truly a gift for any young person to trust in their internal voice with such confidence and that’s certainly what my wife and I hope to teach our son.

It really sounds to me that the two of you both bring complementary strengths to your relationship and that it is, in fact, your differences — perhaps more than you have in common — that makes your relationship so special. You talk a bit about your personal journey as life-long partners in your book, Lesbian Marriage. Can you tell us a bit more about how your professional backgrounds and personal love story informed this “how to” book? Is this the same book you might have written for lesbian couples, say, fifteen years ago, in advance of marriage equality?

Renate: Good question, Kathryn! Fifteen years ago, we were just past the biggest crisis of our relationship — the challenge of an affair. We go into that in a chapter in our book, “The Other Woman,” and share how deep understanding and honesty got us past the hurt and wounding. We would have said already then: every long-term relationship meets hurdles and profound challenges, and they usually arise from profound differences between even extremely compatible partners. That they can be weathered and worked through (instead of being swished under the rug) has always given us hope and confidence. By now we know our differences of temperament and inclination so well that we can joke about them. We come up with funny names for our nutty sides, making them characters, like “Martha Nuttree” and laugh about Martha’s antics. There are many ways to tame the “monsters” we sometimes are, no matter our best intentions! I hope Kim will say more about the compatibilities that inspired us from the start, and still do…

Book: Lesbian MarriageThis reminds me of that saying: that which does not break us, makes us stronger. What do you think, Kim?

Kim: I’ve always believed in rough times in any relationship. To get through them, all you need is to have both parties willing to hang in there and talk or fight until the crisis is resolved. I say this repeatedly to my clients as well, when we run into a difficulty. Just stay put, don’t leave, we’ll manage this. If you storm out of the room, just come back in.

In my experience, everyone agrees that once we get through these crises we’re closer and understand each other and ourselves better. I think a relationship that doesn’t go through crises is missing an important opportunity for growth. I thought this fifteen years ago, as well. The problem arises when one of the parties to the crises leaves the relationship, as many people do. Renate never has and neither have I. In this way we are very much alike.

I think of our relationship as taking place on two dimensions. In one, we are practically a Romeo and Juliet in our different backgrounds and the qualities that derive from them. Renate from a conventional German family, I from an extremely left-wing Jewish family. Renate more reserved, I more expansive; Renate attentive to fine detail, I overlooking them in favor of the bigger picture. I always want more, Renate is inclined to say, ‘enough already.’

But at the deeper, soul level, we meet as kin, in our love for music, our shared spiritual orientation, our fanatical interest in culture, our fascination with psychology. And of course, we are both writers and consultants, editors and translators. People see us as very different; I am more inclined to see us as very much alike with our differences storming about on the surface.

Clearly, you know each other well and trust each other deeply. And, after reading your book, it’s clear that you pull from your professional and personal experience to offer a bit of wisdom to navigating the road after the wedding is over and the marriage has begun. What audience do you think might most benefit from Lesbian Marriage and, I can’t help but add, do you think this is the book you would have written on the topic had you approached it twenty years ago?

Kim: We couldn’t have written this book twenty years ago. We hadn’t yet developed our sense of humor about ourselves, or about most other things in life. We had no idea if a relationship could last for a long time, or continue to be full of life and sex and enthusiasm. The book we’ve written, light-hearted though it often is, bears traces of the hard struggles we’ve passed through; I attribute to these hard struggles whatever wisdom we’ve managed to gain. And I also attribute our sense of humor to these struggles. There’s a wonderful alchemy in the work of transforming suffering into laughter; we have learned how to do it and are often able to teach it to other people. Renate and I laugh so often it’s as if we’re living in a comedy; we are happy to let it be known that the fools we laugh at are ourselves.

And how do you see your book as different from, say, the book that could be written on ‘Gay Marriage’ by your gay male cohorts? Or on ‘Straight Marriage’? Is a niche book needed or could this book be appreciated by any couple, LGBTQ or otherwise?

Renate: It’s funny, Kathryn, about half of the 30-some readers comments we received on Amazon say, This book is for every marriage, gay or straight! Some are written by men, some by gay men, and some by straight women! I think long-term committed relationships demand similar qualities, efforts and compromises from everyone involved. Many of the challenges we address are universal: for example the gradual cooling of sexual passion over time. What comedian Kate Clinton has humorously called “Lesbian bed death” is of course really “Everyone’s bed death,” but not everyone is able to joke about it. However, there are also differences. Gender division has long shadows in our culture and society. Even in our post-feminist time, straight marriage still has to contend with the general imbalance of power between men and women that permeates everything and creates specific problems for both bride and groom. In a gay marriage guide, more focus would of course be on testosterone-driven sex and affairs.

Male readers may find more challenge in what we discuss at length in Lesbian Marriage, the capacity to evolve from the first “Hot Burn” of passion to the erotic, sensual “Slow Burn” of all-over-the-body love making. We talk a lot about lesbian women’s capacity of redefining and refining sex — even after menopause — so, yes, there are topics that are both universal and women-together-specific.

I hate to bring this conversation to an end, but I’m afraid it’s time. I’d love to close with a thought on the following question from each of you. What do you think is the biggest challenge and/or the biggest opportunity ahead for the LGBTQ community?

Renate: I think the answer to both is: recreate marriage, LGBTQ marriage, in our own image, make marriage fit our visions like a splendid gown or tux or anything in between! When I say “In our own image,” I know you and we have been addressing precisely this vision and ideal in our work, in our books and community outreach. And in our own marriages as well, of course. We are on the way! Thank you, Kathryn, for your amazing inspiration.

Kim: We’re so excited by all the individual possibilities in this moment; yesterday, for the first time, at the doctor’s office, filling in the form for new patient, I got to check MARRIED. I could have spent the rest of the day telling everyone about this excitement (and in fact I did) and might have missed the really enormous social and political meaning of that simple act. Our challenge? Let’s not lose sight of the way we are making history every time we do the smallest thing that has to do with our public declaration of being LGBTQ and married. Oh, one more thing: the form had a box for Male, Female and Transgender. How about that?

Even if it’s ridiculously dated and ironic to say this, the old Virginia Slims slogan “You’ve (we’ve!) come a long way, baby!” seems fitting. Congratulations to you both! On your marriage, your years together, your book. And, of course, for that small act of opting in to a new classification on a tiny little box on a big, long form. I am grateful to you both, Renate and Kim, for taking a few minutes to chat with me about your lives, your love and your new book. I wish you the very best of luck and look forward to our next conversation!

Wedding innovator Kathryn Hamm (@madebykathryn) is co-author of The New Art of Capturing Love: The Essential Guide to Lesbian & Gay Wedding Photography (Amphoto Books, 2014), an Education Expert for WeddingWire and Publisher of GayWeddings.com