House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made it one of his priorities as speaker to push through anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in March. He also opposed last year’s historic bill to codify same-sex marriage protections into law. But in a delightful change of tune ― and likely with no idea he was doing this ― he kicked off Pride Month on Wednesday with a celebration hailing “one of the country’s most beloved authors,” lesbian Willa Cather.
“As one of America’s greatest novelists, Willa Cather is a fitting addition to this gallery of great Americans,” McCarthy raved at a statue unveiling ceremony for Cather in the U.S. Capitol. Cather, a Pulitzer Prize winner who died in 1947, was chosen by Nebraska leaders to be the subject of one of its two statues in Washington that represents the state.
“Nebraskans are lucky to call Cather one of their own,” McCarthy told the audience gathered in Statuary Hall, which included congressional leaders and Nebraska’s top elected officials. “But ultimately her work belongs here. Because it is American to the core. Her authenticity, emotion, artistry, it spoke of Americans’ fundamental values.”
He probably wasn’t referring to Cather’s authentic and nearly 40-year relationship with her partner, Edith Lewis. Same-sex couples obviously couldn’t get married in the early 1900s, but a decades-long romantic partnership between two women — neither of whom was particularly secretive about it — is about as close to a marriage as it gets.
Melissa Homestead, an English professor and faculty member in women’s and gender studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, spent 18 years researching and writing a book specifically about Cather’s relationship with Lewis.
“She and Lewis lived together openly for nearly forty years, jointly leasing apartments in Greenwich Village and on Park Avenue,” Homestead wrote last year on lithub.com, a hub of online literary content. “Indeed, one of the main contentions of my book is that their domestic partnership was not a secret. Still, Lewis often was and sometimes still is made over into Cather’s secretary (she wasn’t) rather than being recognized for what she was: a highly compensated professional woman with a demanding office job who was also Cather’s romantic partner and her editor.”
McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he knew any of this.
His office also did not respond to a request for comment on whether he could appreciate the rich irony of his celebration of Cather’s life and contributions to American society in the middle of Pride Month and at a time when conservatives, including McCarthy, are fueling particularly cruel and dangerous attacks on the LGBTQ+ community.
In still more irony, the speaker’s effusive praise of Cather’s depictions of American pioneers in novels like “O Pioneers!” and “My Antonia” take on additional meaning when applied to Cather herself and her determination to live an authentic life.
“Pioneers have a vision of a better life beyond the immediate world they currently live [in],” McCarthy gushed. “Pioneers are risk takers, who have the courage to brave the unknown, to reach new goals. Pioneers use independent judgment and come up with new ideas and innovation that often make the world a better place.”
The California Republican, however, has long been an obstacle to ensuring any kinds of legal rights and protections for LGBTQ people. He earned a zero out of 100 in the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional scorecard on supporting LGBTQ+ equality. And when Congress passed the Respect for Marriage Act — a response to some conservative Supreme Court justices hinting they’d like to revisit federal marriage equality — with a strong bipartisan vote in December, McCarthy was a no.
If the Supreme Court does decide to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 case that guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry, the effect would be particularly devastating for marriage equality in Nebraska. The state has both a constitutional amendment and a statute ban on same-sex marriage still on the books, and those would take effect if Obergefell were struck down.
The Respect for Marriage Act would require Nebraska to still recognize marriages that were legally performed in other states, but it would not require Nebraska to legalize marriage equality there. An estimated 55,000 residents of Nebraska identify as LGBTQ as of 2020, according to the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.
McCarthy wasn’t the only anti-LGBTQ Republican at Wednesday’s ceremony celebrating Cather’s life while glossing over the fact that she was a lesbian in a long-term relationship.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who also voted against the Respect for Marriage Act and who earned a 5 out of 100 from the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional report card, talked about the strong influence that Cather’s work has had on her sister-in-law, Nadine, and her paintings.
“Nadine’s art reflects the profound resonance of Cather’s writings for those of us who call Nebraska home,” Fischer told the group. “That resonance, that talent, that imagination that immortalized Cather’s indelible novels is what endows her with the significance to be placed here in the U.S. Capitol as a representation of Nebraska’s best.”
Nebraska Gov. James Pillen (R) read aloud some of Cather’s famous quotes with pride.
“Where there is great love, there are always miracles,” said Pillen, repeating it again. He suggesting the quote is one that “Mother Teresa must have taken from Willa Cather.”
In related news, the conservative governor a few weeks ago signed a law banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth and called such care “absolutely Lucifer at its finest.”