by Alaina Mabaso
Mt. Airy couple Linda Slodki and Arleen Olshan thought their upcoming trip to Vienna would be an ordinary vacation. But a visit to the Montgomery County courthouse earlier this month, where Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes began issuing same-sex marriage licenses July 24, has transformed the couple’s plans into a honeymoon.
Locally, Slodki and Olshan, a master leather crafter, are best known as the founders (in 2009) of Mt. Airy Art Garage, a public hub of music, arts and culture on Mt. Airy Avenue with more than 160 members. One of their most visible undertakings has been the Rain Barrel Project. In May of this year, the second year for the project, representatives of CW Henry, Homeline, PA School for the Deaf, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and the Germantown HS Stained Glass Project were able to create and paint 10 rain barrels for the Northwest community. The barrels, combined with 15 more that were produced last year, now line Germantown Avenue. The barrels are used to water planters in an effort to show homeowners and businesses how to save money while protecting the Wissahickon Watershed.
But this summer’s sudden journey into matrimony for Slodki and Olshan has been a personal one. They met about 15 years ago at a Commodore Barry Club benefit event. Speaking last week about her groundbreaking Pennsylvania nuptials, Slodki remembered that the Dukes of Destiny, the great Northwest Philly rockin’ blues band, were playing that night. Olshan first saw Slodki sitting with mutual friends.
“I was totally smitten,” said Slodki, who has referred to her spouse as “the butch of my dreams.” Linda, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, became one of Conrail’s first female railroad engineers in the 1970s. (She once told an interviewer, “I admit to my moments of joy sticking my head out the window and seeing people go, ‘Oh my God, there’s a woman driving the train!’”) Linda still has relatives in Germany (she learned to speak German before she learned to speak English), and she has a cousin who is the founder and executive director of the Gay Museum in Berlin.
Olshan, a former owner of the country’s oldest LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans-gendered) bookstore, Giovanni’s Room in center city, took a little longer to seal the deal. “I was more difficult. I really wanted to get to know Linda and be friends with her.”
A few years later, Olshan moved out of her Germantown home and joined Slodki, who has lived in Mt. Airy for over 30 years. “Linda has a sense of humor, she’s really bright and wonderful,” Olshan said.
Slodki reciprocated. “When I think of Arleen, I think of someone who is absolutely one of the funniest people … she’s smart as a whip, she’s a leader, she’s a really good artist. She is such a dreamer that she floats out into the skies.”
“I saw it on TV,” Olshan said of getting the Montgomery County news, after Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced that she would not defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits gay marriage, in an ACLU court challenge. “It was Linda’s birthday, and I proposed to her.”
After a 15-year partnership, Slodki was thrilled at the chance to make it official. “We would’ve been married way before this,” she said. “We felt really strongly that this was an issue of civil rights and of love and of justice.
“It was really wonderful on the day we were there,” she went on, describing their trip to the courthouse, where a pro-gay marriage demonstration was going on. After the mandatory three-day wait, Slodki and Olshan married in a tiny private ceremony on Aug. 12, with the help of a grown-up flower girl and their longtime friend, a mischievous rabbi, who said, “This looks like an act of subversion. Want me to marry you?”
But for all their joy, the couple knows that challenges are coming. Even those who wholeheartedly support their partnership have voiced misgivings about the wedding itself.
According to Slodki, some people have tempered their congratulations with worry, saying, “I can’t believe you did this; don’t you know that if Pennsylvania doesn’t support your right to be married as a couple, then this is something you’ve done in vain?”
Olshan acknowledged that there are still many people who aren’t comfortable with same-sex relationships. She said it may be impossible to change their minds, but she aims for what she calls “a life of integrity,” without worrying about what others have to say.
For her part, Slodki thinks questions about what they’ll do if DOMA prevails in Pennsylvania are “rhetorical.” As of July 30, Hanes has been facing a Commonwealth Court lawsuit from the Pennsylvania Health Department, which would overturn his decision to issue the same-sex marriage licenses. But Slodki and Olshan agreed that the legal uncertainty means little compared to their personal decision to take action on behalf of their partnership: “For us it just made sense.”
“If you love somebody that much and you were going to do it all along anyway, how could you not seize the opportunity and say, ‘This is how I feel?’” Slodki added. “We know and expect doors to close … if there’s going to be a fight, we’re ready.”
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