My favourite love story is ours. It started off in Amsterdam on December 9th 2010 and would travel around the world as an art project. A performance piece in which my wife and I would get married in every country that had legalised same-sex marriage.
We wanted to create a positive artwork that celebrates the countries that allowed same-sex marriage, while highlighting the ones that still needed work. Art broadens the mind and we wanted to generate greater awareness for equal rights.
When we started out in 2017, there were twenty-two countries where two women could get married. So that is why we called the performance 22. The name was a conscious decision and we hoped for an extra country to join the movement while we were travelling. It would show that the world is constantly changing. In the course of our performance we were able to add Malta, Germany and Australia to the list. We were building a time capsule that instantly referred to the possibility of change. The ceremonies were filmed. A video and photo installation would travel to all the countries we had visited. We were going to make a book and an on-the-road documentary. A five-year-plan had been worked out. We’d never looked that far ahead before. We were living the life of our dreams.
My wife died on January 22nd 2018. We had said I do in four countries. When she died, the sun stopped shining.
I met Julian at an event about feminism and gender in Amsterdam. She came to sit next to me when the speech started. After a couple of minutes, she asked me if I too, thought it was boring.
“Yes,” I said.
I don’t know if that was really the case, but at that moment there were too many voices and I only wanted to hear hers. Because I was wondering if she was real, if I had not perhaps made her up. As she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen: she was large, with a shaved crewcut and an athletic body that moved lithely. She was dazzling. For a second, my brain short-circuited because I was wondering whether she was a boy or a girl, but the look in her eyes was decisive. All I wanted to hear was what someone like that would have to say.
We never stopped talking. Seven years, non-stop. There were moments where we staggered, stumbled and tripped over our words because we had so much to say. I had never met anyone before who could talk as much as she did. And I listened. Interrupted her. Sometimes we woke each other up to say something. Is this too much? We wondered the next morning. But it wasn’t. It had been urgent. Necessary. And we agreed that we were always allowed to wake each other up.
That first night, she told me about her past. About that little village in The Netherlands where she had grown up. Where she fell in love for the first time. In the sandpit, with a girl. She dreamed about a house and children but quickly realised she didn’t fit that mould, so she kept quiet. Later on she wrote long love letters to a girl from school but didn’t sign them. “Nowadays I would be called a stalker,” she told me. On the last day before she moved to another school, she told her classmates she was a lesbian. And she confessed the letters to the object of her affection. To her amazement the girl had been mutually interested. So many years, so many letters, so much left unsaid. So much lost time. How does all that silence affect the rest of your life?
The fact that she was a girl only crossed my mind later. I’d been married to a wonderful man for 10 years but then I fell in love with a girl and suddenly I was labeled “a lesbian”. I can tell you that coming out of the closet at 37, makes you question the whole concept of Identity. So what is identity, I wondered? For me it’s everything that comes after ‘I AM’. What I know is that I am a privileged white woman. I grew up in a very unorthodox family but had a very comfortable upbringing. My mom allowed me very much to be whomever I wanted to be as long as I was kind to people and had good table manners. She was surrounded by a large group of friends and if you weren’t a painter or a musician or a writer, you were a weirdo. When Julian and I met, I was thirty-seven years old and had already moved house forty-two times.
“There’s nothing I can do about it, it’s genetic,” I often said. And I finger-pointed my mother, my single mom and self-diagnosed sufferer of relocation disease. From an early age, we kept moving from one house to the next. The first few months after moving into a new place went smoothly. After six months, the furniture would be in a different place when I got home from school. Once the frequency of decor changes had attained a tempo that many interior architects would have been jealous of, I knew it was time for me to pack my suitcase. This pattern made my life orderly but sometimes I dreamed of a house of my own. Where I would be allowed to stay. I would have chairs and cupboards made of concrete. I went to live by myself when I was eighteen. Six months later, I was moving the furniture about.
When I met Julian she felt like home, like gravity.
The strong connection between the two of us took on many forms. We started an online magazine called Et Alors? – French for “So What?” – and worked towards cultural awareness when it came to gender equality and gay imagery in mainstream art history. Our research-based work as female artist duo JF. Pierets functioned as a mirror in which viewers could confront themselves with their own ideologies or beliefs.
When we found out that most people didn’t know that in most countries around the world you can’t get married when you are gay, we wanted to do something about it. But – just like our magazine – it had to be in style and in a positive way. Because in our opinion, that was the first step towards lasting change and building bridges. And we figured that marriage and love – something that everyone can relate to – was a perfect starting point to raise awareness. So Julian and I decided to get married in all the countries where same-sex marriage was allowed.
We wanted to celebrate the countries that legalised gay marriage, meanwhile silently pointing out to all the others that didn’t. It was 2017 and we named the project 22. Because there we 22 countries where we could get married at that time. We didn’t have the money to take this journey but we learned that if we sold everything we had, we would make it to 5 weddings. And we hoped that after that, there would be some airlines or bus company that wanted to sponsor our travel expenses. And that people would let us sleep on their couches. So we took a leap of fate, sold everything and we ended up with each one suitcase. Filled with the only belongings we had left in the entire world. And we knew that if this project would fail. We would have nothing left. But we were brave and enthusiastic. And very much in love so nothing else really mattered.
On Wednesday, September 20th. we officially started our art project by getting married for the first time at the Marriage Bureau in New York. Our mailbox exploded and every news and media outlet wanted to talk to us.
We told a story of hope. a story of inclusion and the press was labeling us as role models. Julian and I got married in New York, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Paris. After our wedding in Paris my wife felt dizzy and was diagnosed with multiple brain tumors. She died 6 weeks later.
Obviously a lot has changed since then. When Julian died I not only lost the love of my life but also my job, because we were working together. I had no home or belongings to go to, because we sold everything. I was left with two suitcases.
It’s been a year and a half now since that happened and the only thing that keeps me here, that keeps me in this life is my deep empathy and compassion for human suffering. And the idea that I can do something about it. That I have to keep working.
And working is what I do. In the past year I’ve been writing a book called “Julian” about the work we did and our life together. I’ve written a children’s book called “Love Around the World”, about 2 women, Fleur and Julian, who are going to get married in every country where they are allowed to do so. In the book Julian doesn’t die and we finish our performance of love.
But every morning I have to make the same effort to open my eyes and to put my feet next to the bed. Slowly, and one at the time. And I’m wondering; what if all my happiness, all my enthusiasm, all my lust for life, only existed in combination with Julian. What if it was her, and not gravity, that keeps me in place?