Dennis is writing a book about gay marriage and its special significance for him. I myself have never married in real life, but was married on stage in The Sound of Music, when I played Maria in summer stock. Marriage or children was never a personal goal, so it is interesting to hear how much Dennis longed for the experience. I’ve always had trouble wanting what I could have easily.
I always thought I’d marry, but I never met the guy I wanted to spend my life with, even in the moment. I didn’t need the ceremony. I’d been the center of attention many, many times. And I’d worn the gown—even if it was velcro’d rather than buttoned shut—night after night.
Dennis speaks of wanting his mother’s wedding dress. My mother was married in a gorgeous white satin gown, totally classic. She weighed 98 pounds and was still a perfect hourglass, so I’m sure I never would have fit into that dress. I’m thin, but I’m built more like my dad. When I see the pictures I wish she’d saved it. It had belonged to her sister, so in her mind, she was wearing a hand-me-down. When my sister married her first husband, my mother told me that I would be expected to wear her dress when I married. I remember thinking, “then shouldn’t I have a say in it?!” Maybe that was one of the reasons I never married. I didn’t want to wear that dress!
It was a beautiful gown, but my sister is shaped a lot like my mom. I doubt it would have fit ….
Here my conversation with Dennis continues:
D- So, my bride doll book, it starts off with the fantasy of my mother’s wedding dress and wanting to see it. There is the tradition of a mother handing down her wedding dress to her daughter. My father came home on leave from the Korean war for a week. He proposed to my mother. My mother and grandmother only had a week to prepare an entire church wedding. So she didn’t have time to get a white wedding dress.
C- How long had they known each other?
D- They had been dating since she was 14. My mother never dated anyone else.
D- …So that was the dress she came up with (referring to the wedding picture of Dennis’ parents). It wasn’t a white, traditional wedding dress because she didn’t have time to get one. I remember asking my mother, “Where’s your wedding dress?” She said she didn’t know. And I remember being just horrified. I always had this thing growing up about wanting to get married. Yet I wanted to be the BRIDE, not the groom. That is a little bit of the “Stefeny Calvert” thing (Stefeny was Dennisʼ imaginary female personality as a child). Stefeny got to have all the stuff I couldn’t have as a little boy: a wedding and the husband.
C-Which is all so much better in theory than actuality.
D- That is where I end up in the book, through my last relationship with Oscar (Dennisʼ last boyfriend). I don’t need the wedding and the certificate. I am fine being independent. I learned that through Oscar …because he is SO independent. I learned that when we are together, we are together because we want to be. And when we are not, we are not. We don’t need the ceremony. We don’t need it legally validated by the whole world.
C- Enforced 24 hour closeness…
D- Yes. But I still want gay marriage to become legal for everyone else who wants it. Maybe someday, with a different partner, I would want that, too.
C- It gets harder as you get older.
D- Yes. I realized that it gets harder when you get older and I don’t need what I thought I needed when I was in my twenties and thirties. But when I was a child I did all these wacho things, because I had a wacho childhood. I wanted to wear a wedding dress. I wanted the whole experience of being loved and getting married. For Christmas, I had my father order for me as a gift for my mother these white negligees. “Here’s your gift, Mom,” and I would wear the nightgowns and pretend to be the bride in private.
I used to set a pair of my dad’s shoes at the end of the hallway. That was where the groom was standing. And I would walk down the hallway in Mom’s white nightgown and marry my dad’s shoes as Stefeny Calvert. Then I got into the whole doll thing. I was making wedding dresses for my Barbies. I didn’t get into the bride and wedding thing in my first book, SHORN, because it was a distraction from the hair issues. So a lot of the Stefeny Calvert thing was wanting the American Dream. I wanted to get married and have a family and the whole package, but I was gay and never thought I could do any of that stuff, but Stefeny could in my playtime.
C- Yeah… and it is also that very elaborate fantasy life that I know a lot of creative people have.
D- I have a HUGE fantasy life. I went to a lot of trouble. I married Grant Goodeve. I had an elaborate wedding to Brent McMann, who was in SHORN. I remember the wedding to Grant Goodeve was in the living room while my mom was mowing the lawn. I knew as long I could still hear the lawn mower it was safe to continue with the wedding in the living room. But as soon as I heard the lawnmower stop, I knew I had to pack up the wedding and hide it back it my bedroom so I wouldn’t get caught.
C- You know I still have my Barbie dolls.
C- I loved my Barbie dolls!
D- I loved mine, too!
C- They are in such bad shape, though (laughs).
D- But that is a sign that they were loved and they were used!
C- Boy, were they used! I was one of those kids like you—and I think this is very common with performing people—that spent a lot of time by themselves.
C- People think of performers as being extroverts, but I think it is the exact opposite.
D- Exactly. You know, I see that when performers as “on” they are on, but most of the time they are not “on.”
D- You can’t be “on” all the time.
C- Right. And you need a lot of alone time to refuel.
C- …to get your energy back. Even though you love the performing thing, It takes a lot out of you.
D- Yes, it does. And it takes a lot of effort and energy to be backstage; to be involved and to be on the other side. It takes just as much effort, it is just a very different effort.
C- Yes. There is so much going on backstage that people have no idea.
D- I got into the whole bride stuff because I was doing all these shows as a costume designer in college where there were brides as characters in the shows. In a lot of ways I was thinking of Stefeny as the actress playing the character in the play I was designing the wedding dress for. So I was really designing the wedding dress for Stefeny, and ultimately myself, and not the real actress in the play. I talk A LOT about my marriage in this new book. I dug in and really dissected that time of my life. I had forgotten a lot about that period.
C- Because it wasn’t a joyous time?
D- Well, yes and no. I don’t regret anything or getting married and I don’t think my ex-wife would either. Yet it is touchy. My ex-wife and I do not correspond anymore, and certainly not after my book.
C- Even though I don’t think she would be upset by it if she read it.
D- I don’t think she would either, but I don’t think she will ever read either book. She was a very large woman …obese. And you know, my weight had always gone up and down according to my self-esteem. And I just remember having great compassion for her because of her weight. And when I came time for her wedding dress, that was a pivotal moment. She had to have a wedding dress that she felt like a million bucks in. And she was a size 24.
C- mmmm….. And white just doesn’t look great and larger women.
D- ….Yes, but she found one. I mean, it was a big dress and very 80ʼs, but she felt like a princess in this dress.
C- That is wonderful.
D- Then, of course, I had to wear the dress myself as Stefeny.
But things got very complicated. I hadn’t been around gay people and then we moved for me to finish my degree and there were actually real gay people I met for the first time. I got assigned to design costumes for this play called Maid of Honor. About a lesbian who is getting married to man and she asks her former lover to be her Maid of Honor at the wedding. So I had to design a wedding dress for this play. I was still married to Jessica at that time. Here I am: I am gay and I am married to a woman and designing a play about the same thing. The whole theater department was focused on me, the gay man, designing this play. That was such a pivotal moment. I realized that I had to get out of that situation.
C- You were still married at the time?
D- Yes, but we had separated.