Home' LOTL : June 2015 Contents out with their realtor, who has read Mutchler’s memoir and is
determined to find the couple the perfect house. In the other
tale, Mutchler goes to pay a parking ticket for her partner and
is told by the clerk that she can’t, because she’s not family.
Mutchler goes to the clerk’s supervisor. After apologies to
her, the ticket is paid and the clerk reprimanded.
“We can’t let anything go,” she explains, her voice suddenly
filled with emotion. “You think, ‘Pick your battles.’ But these
are all our battles. We have to make ourselves present and
seen and not be dismissed as ‘friends’ or ‘sisters.’ ”
Mutchler has been on a book tour and is speaking at uni-
versities. She says, “Young people are almost shocked that
there is a story like this to tell. They want to know ‘What can
my generation do?’ ”
She pauses. “This generation can tell the truth—if you are
gay, lesbian, transgender, tell the truth about your life. Make
sure that people know that you are not shying away from liv-
ing out loud. That your life matters and is valuable.”
It is no wonder that Mutchler spiraled into despair after the
trauma of Severns’s death—she was not even allowed to sit
near the family at the funeral. The recovery took time and en-
ergy, but she came out of it a sort of phoenix, ready not just
to rise from the emotional conflagration that had destroyed
her previous life, but ready to tell her story and urge others to
tell theirs. She notes that much of what happened to her was
due to “the consequences of not having a voice, not speak-
ing a voice.” She adds, revealing another truth, “As a victim of
sexual assault, I had a high tolerance for secrecy and the pain
of silence. Your instincts are to do what’s expected.”
But she argues against that—against the acceptance of
suffering to maintain a straight status quo. “My lover dying,
being locked out of my home,” Mutchler explains, “was ter-
rible. But what was MY role in this? Terry had a direct role in
her own demise here. I had to discover that and deal with it.”
For anyone who might consider dismissing her story as
unique, Mutchler suggests that you think again. “I hope that
another person never has to experience what I did. I hope this
story will give you pause.”
Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, A Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America
By Terry Mutchler (Seal Press)
HOT READS » BY VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH
Don’t judge a book by its title. If Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, A Journalist, and the Politics of Gay
Love in America seems like LGBT boilerplate, don’t be fooled. This is one of those memoirs that look deceptively
smooth and surfacey, but this one sucker-punches you from page 4, where, without knowing much of anything
about the lesbian couple at the center of this story, your eyes are welling with tears.
Terry Mutchler was 27 when she met Sen. Penny Severns in 1993, and right from the first they were in love.
Mutchler was a reporter and Severns was a rising star in the Democratic Party of Illinois—at the same time that
the state had another rising star, Barack Obama. Severns might have been propelled into the governor’s post or
into national politics if she hadn’t died of metastatic breast cancer in 1998.
As a reporter and a politician in the early 1990s, Mutchler writes, “Instead of simply being able to enjoy this
newfound happiness–or have time to explore our feelings for each other...we were immediately thrust into
planning mode, forced to create lies to camouflage our true lives.” Because a mere 20 years ago, staying in the
closet was the norm. So even though Mutchler moved in with Severns just six weeks after they started seeing
each other, they always hid more than they revealed about the relationship.
Severns’s death would leave Mutchler devastated. It would also leave her homeless and bereft—not just of
Penny and their life together over the years, but bereft of everything they owned and shared together–the art,
the tiny special things, a cherry table they designed to match a set of chairs they’d found on an antiquing trip to
Champaign. When Severns was dying, Mutchler would wheel her to that table in their home–it is one of her last memories of a shared possession that
was taken from her.
In 2015, 1998 seems like a long time ago. Bill Clinton was still president, 9/11 hadn’t happened, we were not entrenched in two endless wars. It was
a political lifetime ago nationally, and also for LGBT people. Ellen had just come out publicly the year before. Yet she was the only one out there in
the spotlight, with her “Yes, I’m Gay” Time magazine cover, while celebrities we knew were gay or lesbian stayed safely in the closet, afraid for their
careers. That was the world in which Mutchler and Severns lived.
Almost to the end, Severns believed she would somehow beat her cancer. But as her final days played out, and Mutchler was barred even from
picking up Severns’s prescription for pain relief because, the pharmacist told her, “you’re not family.” Mutchler and Severns both failed to see what
would happen when Severns finally died.
Because she had been Severns’s constant companion for years, Mutchler never dreamed that she would be excised from her own life when
Severns died–the doors to their home locked, everything that belonged to them both taken from her. The shock, the betrayal, the pain spiraled her into
her own private nightmare of alcohol abuse and emotional withdrawal, from which it took a long time to finally extricate herself.
Under This Beautiful Dome is more than a cautionary tale or some historical picture of a time we are now well beyond. It is a stunning memoir of
what it was, and still is, to be lesbian in America, in a world where people who are not in your life can make decisions about your life because you have
no legal authority, no social authority. You are a social, political, and legal cipher, no matter how long you have shared someone’s bed, someone’s love,
and someone’s life.
It’s impossible to read Under This Beautiful Dome and not feel sorrow, pity, and intense outrage for Mutchler, for Severns, and for ourselves. This
gutting, brutal memoir details the breadth of two women’s love for each other and the path the survivor is left to traverse alone, as much for her dead
partner and for us as for herself. It is a love story and a history, and it will remind you that when it comes to our own emancipation as full citizens of
our nation, we have won no the battles definitively.
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