Pantsuit Nation—Meet Karen

by Libby Chamberlain

June 1, 2017

When our Founding Fathers authored the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as part of the United States Declaration of Independence, they spoke on behalf of all Americans. Karen’s sexual identity should not exclude her from the basic inalienable rights that most people in our country take for granted.

Karen, Michigan

Photo by Rainbow

Photo by Rainbow Bells

Trudy and I would have been married three years today.

We spent nearly fifteen years together. Trudy used to say, “We’re married, we’re just not churched.” That makes me smile, even now. In the end, we didn’t get churched at all, though I’d argue that God was certainly present—we were married in a small civil ceremony in Lewiston, New York.

We were married for seven months. Cancer took that away from us.

Cancer had, in fact, been the impetus for our marriage. It became, in so many ways, more urgent for us to make it official—emotionally certainly, and practically—my employer had (at long last) stepped up and expanded the definition of spouse to the broadest possible application, allowing for Trudy to be on my medical plan.

I will ever be grateful for that action. I am grateful, too, for the actions of the Obama administration in setting the country on a course toward marriage equality. I am perhaps less grateful for the fractious set of barriers that came later; married in one state that embraced marriage equality, residing in another state that did not; recognized as married federally, not recognized at the state level; filing taxes federally as married; refiling as single for state taxes. It seems a needlessly complex system.

And then, Trudy died. My heart broke and my sense of self forever changed at that exact moment and no words can satisfactorily define the experience so I shall not try—but it was, if you’ll forgive me for putting it this way, an interesting time (in our nation’s history) to die, especially for a married lesbian.

I am ever grateful that we had the presence of mind and the forethought to put all of our documents in order—our will, our powers of attorney—we even had a partnership agreement in place in the event, as Trudy liked to say, “I ever left her for a younger woman.” (smile)

But it was not easy. Death never is. But in my case, confusion was rampant. No one knew what to do. Really.

I was blessed with a few happy accidents that made my life much easier in that difficult time. In the hours or days following Trudy’s death, I had insisted that I be listed as spouse on the death certificate. At the time, it was an emotional priority for me and an outrage to be described as anything less. I became almost rabidly fixated on the issue. And at that specific point in history, it was unclear to everyone what my actual status was. Mercifully, and with the stroke of a pen, the county coroner’s office noted me as such.

I was a widow. It was a sleight of hand that made my life easier to bear in the transactions that followed. Though for all intents and purposes it was, perhaps arguably, not true. Recall—we were not recognized as married in Michigan, the state that we called home and the state where Trudy died.

But that status became like a badge of honor to me. One I certainly never wanted, but nonetheless, I wore it like a crown. On more than one occasion I know that I benefited from someone on the other side of the counter making the decision not to challenge the term. A sympathetic look and knowing nod, so many small kindnesses and courtesies shown to me that I am so grateful for.

And then, in June 2015, the Supreme Court took the action that Trudy and I had only dreamed of, validating our marriage across the nation. She wasn’t here to celebrate with me but I celebrated. And I certainly cried.

It is astonishing the amount of stress or weight that is lifted from you at such a moment in time. I can only liken it to having dropped a heavy coat that you were not even aware that you had on; walking a little taller in your own shoes, head up, eyes on the horizon—feeling like you counted, daring the world, almost, to call you anything less than their equal. And breathing, deeply . . . almost as if for the first time.

I have walked in those shoes every day since that ruling. I have taken those deep breaths, dropping behind me holdover remnants of the heavy burden carried for too long. It is validating. Invigorating. It is peaceful.

And so now, this.

On this day—my third wedding anniversary.


This campaign, this election, and these seemingly endless tirades of hatred and divisiveness. All of this has brought into sharpened focus for me, the journey of my past three years—of a lifetime, really.

The cup of equality is a good cup. Once tasted, it is hard to resist.

It is what is at stake here.

Of course, I have no concrete proof yet of this new president’s actions versus his intentions—of what he says he’ll do versus what he will (actually) do.

I have only fear. And exhaustion. And anger.

Fear of what may happen. And let’s be honest, anyone paying attention to the people being put into positions of power fears what may happen.

And I’m tired. So tired.

And after a fashion, a version of my story is why we, the people of my community, are all so tired. We have fought for everything—even when we didn’t know that we were fighting—we were fighting. For each simple step, in countless ways throughout our lives. We had only just begun to believe, to breathe, and now this.

It is unconscionable. And of course, it is why I am so angry.

Let me be clear. I am not angry that people I know (and don’t know) voted for a candidate that I did not support. I am not angry that a party I did not support won the election.

I am angry that in so doing, a very large portion of America is holding up that heavy coat for me (and people like me) to slip back into again.

And I just will not do it. I will not.

I will fight again. We all will.

For every single step.

And fair warning, I have a pretty fierce guardian angel on my shoulder for this fight.

And any of you who knew Trudy know that that is true.

* * *

Check back tomorrow for Brianna’s and Jia’s stories!

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Libby Chamberlain is the founder of Pantsuit Nation. She lives in coastal Maine with her husband and two young children.