Sunday, March 29, 2015

Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, a Journalist and the Politics of Gay Love in America by Terry Mutchler

"A jolt of electricity passed
through me"

When journalist, Terry Mutchler, then AP Statehouse Bureau Chief in Illinois saw Penny Severns, an Illinois State Senator, for the first time in 1993, “a jolt of electricity passed through me”.

Captivated from the first, she didn’t even know what the woman’s name was: “It didn't make sense for me to be so captivated. Yet this unknown woman held my attention. I could not, and still can’t explain it but when I saw her, I felt something inside me shift.”

From the beginning their relationship was both circumspect and circumscribed. Both were dealing with a gay relationship in the political landscape of the America of the 1990s – not so far away, but yet a million years away in attitude perceptions, as we look back. And in addition, Mutchler’s profession as a journalist meant that she supposed to be neutral and objective. Dating a senator, let alone becoming involved with her, was dangerous stuff.

Their first date included five people, including themselves – an intimate dinner that simply expanded. Mutchler was to learn that the demands of a politician’s life were beyond what she could have imagined. A politician truly belongs to the people who elect him or her, and Severns was committed to her job of serving her constituency. The relationship had to remain secret – and so, the five-year relationship did, but at huge cost and hardship to both. The consequences of “loving in secret” are spelled out here in a way that is almost unbelievable to read about. Of sneaking out of each others’ homes at some ungodly hour of the morning so as not to be seen, parking a far distance away overnight – these are the physical, every day difficulties. But there was also the fact that their families never really knew what role they played in each others’ lives. There never seemed to be the “right” time to talk. Both also grappled with their religious sensitivities – concerned that what they were doing was against their religion and God.

Author Terry Mutchler
When they bought a home together, and lived in it together, with Mutchler being described as her “press secretary”, only Severns’ name was on the bond, out of necessity. To add both names to the bond – which could be accessed by publically – meant possible discovery. So in this as so much else, Mutchler’s role and part was secret. Only when travelling overseas could they be freer in their relationship. And yet although their bond was strong and powerful – and the jolt of electricity lasted throughout their coupling, “the best years of our life were written in invisible ink”. 

When Severns was diagnosed with cancer, neither knew the end was coming. A cancer that not so slowly made its way through her body. Severns died in February 1998. Not only did Mutchler have to announce her death on TV, but also had to contend with hiding her grief from so many, both publically and privately. In addition Severns’ family  cut her out of the inner circle, denying her not only recognition, but her share in anything she had contributed towards with Severns.  

"Sad too, to see the effect of prejudice and stigma on the lives of just one couple living in secret."

It all happened so long ago in terms of attitudes and yet we’re only looking at the 1990s from a distance of two decades. Same sex unions were stigmatised, and same sex marriages a seemingly long way into the future. When more and more high profile people are coming out, and it’s increasingly accepted in our more “permissive” society, it’s mind-boggling to believe that a same sex relationship could spell the end of a career. There’s a sadness in reading this account because of this. Mutchler and Severns seemed to share that rare love – and the fact that it was cut short by cancer, and so sadly hidden – is cause for sadness. And sad too, to see the effect of prejudice and stigma on the lives of just one couple living in secret.

Mutchler writes the story of their love, and her subsequent unravelling after Severns died, with a fresh immediacy that brings the past alive vividly and compellingly. The pain is there, but never threatens to overwhelm the telling of the story. The story is told is beautiful, although sad; and also illuminates and reminds us how far we have come in the past few decades. The story ends full circle, as it were – with same sex marriages being signed into law in the state of Illinois. A remarkable, hauntingly told story. 

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