Notes & Queeries: A Wal-Mart Wedding

Notes & Queeries is
a monthly column that focuses on the personal side of pop culture for lesbians and bisexual women.

A week or so after Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi’s wedding, my mother told me over the phone that she had heard they’d gotten married. My mother lives in the suburbs near Boulder, Colo.
She told me she had bought a copy of People
magazine, with Ellen and Portia on the cover, at Wal-Mart.

People, which is
possibly the United States’ most mainstream magazine, is available everywhere in this country. Obviously it would be available at Wal-Mart. But her statement still surprised me. A happy lesbian wedding on display at Wal-Mart?

“I wish them the best,” my mother said to me, as
if I could somehow relay her congratulations to the newlyweds. “I hope
they will be happy.”

I tried to imagine my mother at the Wal-Mart near her home. Maybe she was standing in the checkout aisle when she saw People, picked it up to leaf through it, then tossed it on top of whatever else she had been buying that day. But I kept going back to the question of which Wal-Mart she had been visiting. I know that a new Wal-Mart — and by new I mean since I left for college in 1992 — has been built that is nearer to my parents’ house than the one I remember from my childhood, but I have never been to the new one.

The old one was in Lafayette, Colo., at the corner of South
Boulder Road and some other street that led into “downtown”
Lafayette, a couple of blocks of Old West-style false-front buildings. It might
still be there, but I haven’t been back in years.

I remember that Wal-Mart well because my best friend,
Maggie, worked there when we were in high school. She was in charge of stocking
the grocery section. I think it was at Wal-Mart that she met the women who
ultimately helped her realize she was a lesbian.

I might have met those women once or twice. I can’t remember the details, but I do remember that these women — perhaps they were Maggie’s co-workers — were adults, and they seemed to be comfortable with who they were. They might have only been in their 20s, but to me they seemed very mature, maybe even a little hardened. I don’t know what they thought of me, an Asian-American nerd who was leaving a small town for a prissy college back East.

Maggie and I had begun to grow apart during high school. It
didn’t help that we went to different schools, and our old childhood friendship
couldn’t survive even a small geographic difference, much less the thousands of
miles that would come between us after high school.

She went to Colorado
State for college, and at
Wal-Mart she was promoted, I think, to assistant manager. But the Wal-Mart job
was just another reminder of how our lives were diverging; my next job was an
internship at a university press.

When we lost touch during college, I felt guilty. I wondered
if she thought I didn’t call or write because I had become an elitist, but the
truth was that I couldn’t bear to think of our paths splitting off in such
different directions. We had shared so many dreams as kids that it physically
hurt to think of her not getting to do everything she wanted, and I knew that
stocking the grocery shelves at Wal-Mart had never ranked on her list of goals.

At 18, I didn’t know how to deal with that. I didn’t know
that a job at Wal-Mart during college wasn’t exactly a sign of doom, or that it
might actually have opened a window, in a way.

The summer after our freshman years in college, the one
thing that brought us together, temporarily, was that we both were struggling
with coming out. She took her steps out of the closet more quickly than I did,
and I think it was partly because she had met those women who were living their
lives as openly as they could in small-town Colorado. She had an example to

It is astonishing to me that the same Wal-Mart where she
worked in the early ’90s is now a place that sells a mainstream magazine with a
happy lesbian wedding featured on the cover. Younger women and teens today
might not realize just how different the world was then, even though it was
only 15 years ago.

But in Colorado in 1993, there was no internet. There was no
gay television. If you wanted a magazine, you went to the grocery store — or
Wal-Mart. I know that everything would have been different if I had been able
to read that issue of People when I was 17. I would have had an example to follow.

Of course, back then, Ellen herself hadn’t come out yet. But
after she did, her coming-out broke down walls precisely because she has
cultivated a television persona that is safe, friendly and not too different.

In a recent interview with Newsweek about her
wedding, Ellen said: “We did something that was nontraditional but not
weird. I think you could find a straight couple that had a weirder wedding than