“We’ve had a lot of people ask us, ‘How do you guys do it?’” says Amirah, 63, of her twenty-four year relationship with wife Darlene, 48.
“It’s real simple,” says Darlene, chiming in with a timing they’ve perfected over decades. “I like her. I mean I like the person that she is. She’s a phenomenal woman, and I knew that from day one, and I’m blessed and thankful for every second that I’ve had with her.” Amriah, suppresses a smile, looks her right in the eye, and firmly declares that Darlene is telling a bald-faced lie, thus launching the two into a joyous debate on the early days of their relationship that has been happening over and over again since they met over a quarter century ago.
In their time together, Amirah and Darlene have been many things to one another: verbal sparring partners, caretakers, friends, lovers, confidants, and wives. They’ve raised two children, had three commitment ceremonies, weathered a string of increasingly difficult health challenges, and enjoyed countless meals together, some of which they talk about to this very day. In fact, Darlene has such a love of Amirah’s food, she once, unbeknownst to her wife, went so far as to dress as a vagrant, paper bagged whiskey bottle and all, to crash a men’s shelter where Amirah was preparing a catfish fry just for a taste of the forbidden morsels.
These days, the two live in a small apartment on the Northwest side of Chicago while Amirah attends seminary and Darlene spends her days caring for their first grandchild and looking after Amirah’s health needs. They’ve had many struggles over the years, but the ease of their smiles, the quickness of their banter, and the effortless comfort they take in one another’s presence, despite anything that may come their way, confirms the strength of their love to anyone who meets them.
The Tale of the Lost Vegetarian Platter
In May of 1948, Amirah was born in Jackson, Mississippi to the first African American accountant for Helena Rubenstein, and a hard-working Caucasian mother. After a move to Chicago and a divorce, Amirah’s mother used her beauty and wisdom to survive as a single mother of interracial children in the 1950s. The family had very little money, but, as Amirah recalls, there was plenty of love. One of the many ways Amirah’s mother earned a living was by running a restaurant, employing her extensive talents in the kitchen and no-nonsense attitude, just two of the many traits she passed on to her daughter.
Amirah realized that she was lesbian early in life, having had experiences with girls and women throughout childhood. Her mother also seemed quite aware of her daughter’s differences, and strongly encouraged her to find a boyfriend in order to survive. To say that there was no social acceptance of LGBT folks in those days would be an understatement. Bull dags, as lesbians were called then, had no place in society, but that didn’t stop Amriah. When she declared her attraction to women to her mother, her mother threw her out of the house, sending Amirah into a string of unsuccessful and sometimes abusive relationships with both women and men. After leaving a particularly rough relationship with a woman, Amirah was approached by a young man named Howard, an artist, who began to woo her. He understood her unique situation, and having had it with constantly fighting for her difference, decided to marry him. Together they had two children and lived together for many years, even after separating.
Darlene, on the other hand, was born to a deeply religious middle-class African-American family on Chicago’s South Side in 1963. She had a relatively happy and sheltered childhood, repressing the lesbian side of herself until her early 20’s. During her teen years she proved to be rather promiscuous with boys, perhaps in an attempt to disavow her attraction to women, even marrying a man at the age of 19. Her parents offered to pay for college after graduation, but Darlene preferred to get married and begin work, wanting to see what the world had to offer.
After a couple of years of marriage, the feelings she had repressed for so long began to surface, a process she detailed in a letter to herself. Her husband found the letter and confronted her mother with the information. Darlene’s mother did her best to bring Darlene in to herd to make her forget about any ideas of going with girls, but Darlene held her ground, understanding that her need to be true to herself outweighed any outcome. That discussion with her mother caused a rift between Darlene and her family that has not fully healed even now.
Once she was on her own, Darlene began exploring the lesbian scene in Chicago in the early 1980s and searching for a new family where her desire for self-discovery would be fostered, not stymied. She quickly found a girlfriend who did her best to feminize Darlene, but, as Darlene came to know herself better, that task became near impossible. When attending a party one night, Darlene’s girlfriend badgered her into wearing a ruffled gown, but Darlene wasn’t having any of it. “I promised myself, God, and twelve other responsible people that I ain’t ever going to wear nothing like this again, because it’s not me, it doesn’t feel good on me, and [those] shoes hurt my feet.” From then on, she began looking at the more masculine side of herself, and today her eyes begin to sparkle with but the briefest mention of power tools. It was that girlfriend; however, that introduced Darlene to her future wife.