G is for Grace

I am a huge proponent of grace—granting it, receiving it, asking for it . . . holding someone new with an open palm, adopting a stance of curiosity and inquiry.

I used to have a silver bracelet that had Grace engraved on it—I bought it as a reminder when I was in IT support, to remind myself that not everyone was comfortable with technology and to arrive as a helper, not as a scold or know-it-all. I attempt to take the same approach as a counselor, subscribing to Carl Rogers’ approach of “unconditional positive regard.” Making no judgments, being accepting and supportive.

The bracelet got lost somewhere in the past five years, perhaps because I no longer need the reminder, the granting of grace coming more naturally now. It’s a testament to neuroplasticity—we truly can rewire the connections in our brains when we practice, when we work on getting those neurons to fire together.

My favorite beach to be washed up on

Grace is helpful, perhaps even necessary, when getting to know a new person, especially when online dating. We all arrive here, washed up on the shores of Zoosk and Match and Bumble and Tinder, refugees from a sunken ship, tossed and thrashed by the latest relationship storm. Some of us have been here a while—we’ve made our huts and gathered our coconuts, surveyed the landscape and spelled out SOS in the sand with whatever we could find. Others of us have just arrived, storm-tossed and disoriented, wondering what happened, still reeling, shaking the water from our ears and the sand from our eyes.

Getting to know another complex human being within the parameters of online dating seems nearly impossible at times. All of the intricate details of our lives distilled down to “likes” and “interests,” a few carefully curated photos, and 500 words. We are all putting ourselves out there, but not our whole selves, only the parts we’ve deemed good enough. Good enough to attract another. Good enough that we don’t scare anyone away, good enough that we manifest another good enough person.

So, when we “meet” i.e. send a heart, initiate a conversation, we do so carefully, continuing to put that best self forward, bolstering the good, diminishing the less than optimal parts of ourselves. We can’t do that forever though. At some point, we have to get real. We have to admit that of course we do actually watch television, sometimes for hours on end. We don’t always eat “clean” (whatever that means), and yes, we were athletes, hikers, bikers, kayakers, travelers at some point in our lives, but maybe that’s all been a bit ago.

We say we’ve been in therapy, that we’ve been over our ex, that we have done our work—and all that is so great. Sometimes we forget that we continue to be works in progress. Thus, grace.

Grace for the broken parts, grace for the half-truths, grace for the “I’m still figuring this part out,” grace for the ongoing relationship with the ex . . . grace for the extra weight we carry since hitting menopause. Grace for the getting to know you process. Grace for our journeys.

And then we can decide. How does this person show up?

Most importantly, do they afford me the same grace?

Coming Out, Again and Again and Again

I am reposting this today though I wrote it four years ago. Much has changed since then. I was thinking this week how we still aren’t completely free to be ourselves in public. I was on the Oregon Coast and walking down the beach behind what I assumed was a lesbian couple. We were at least a mile from the main beach and far from the public eye on a remote part of the beach before they held hands. They seemed oblivious to my presence a dozen yards behind them, but I couldn’t help wonder what if I had not been me, but someone who didn’t support LGBTQ rights? What if I were a homophobe and emboldened to act out as so many are these days? 

Also, this piece was published in a slightly different version by Ooligan Press in their anthology Untangling the Knot:  Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships, and Identity

It’s fitting that National Coming Out Day should fall during Mental Health Awareness Week. The two are inextricably linked.

We wore our cowgirl outfits to the wedding, after all the invitation had said country chic and it was being held outdoors in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with the reception to follow in a barn. Me: black cowgirl hat, pointy-toed boots, Western shirt with pearl snaps, bedazzled cowgirl jeans. The Little Woman: ruffled skirt, black cowgirl boots, black Western shirt with longhorns on the shoulders, pearl snaps. We had road-tripped down in our Jeep, all 1600 miles or so, through eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming. We were excited to see the family, to celebrate with my cousin Brad and his soon-to-be wife Megan.

TLW grabbed my hand when we got out of the Jeep and waited for my brother and his family and my father and his wife to debark from their vehicles and join us as we walked to the front of the (very upscale) barn. I let Nancy hold my hand then, but I could feel that familiar uneasiness creeping in the closer we got to the venue, and when I didn’t immediately see anyone we knew (i.e. members of the family) or anyone else so duded up, I pulled away and dropped her hand.

“So that’s how it’s going to be,” she said. “Really?”

At that moment, self-preservation trumped self awareness. I pretended not to hear and walked a little bit ahead, suddenly flooded with shame and hoping that either the ground would swallow me whole or that a whole posse of cowgirl lesbians might be waiting for us just around the corner. Of course neither happened. Around the corner waited only straight (as far as I could tell) normally attired wedding attendees—maybe a bit more casual than normal wedding attendees, but still, straight, suit jackets, dresses, the occasional cowboy boot. I wanted nothing more than to turn heel and run, to safety, to the familiar, to someone I’ve never been nor will ever be: a taller, thinner, more feminine, more socially acceptable me.It did not matter one whit in that moment that I was surrounded by people who loved and accepted me. It did not matter in that moment of panic that my brother was also wearing a cowboy shirt and cowboy boots and jeans and a cowboy hat. It didn’t matter that I had come out to my family years ago and that TLW and I were as accepted and loved and as much a family unit within the extended family as my straight cousins and aunts and uncles. All that mattered to me was my obvious otherness.

I did not flee. Even when I realized we were 45 minutes early and would have to mingle and make small talk or stand awkwardly with each other and sip the lavender water. I silently cursed the lack of pre-ceremony alcohol and our obsessive punctuality. I talked myself down from that internal ledge and tried to see us as others might. I tried to look at the individuals in the crowd and not at the crowd itself. I feigned interest in the barn and the surrounding grounds, and I eagerly greeted familiar faces as they trickled in. I reminded myself that I was 50 years old, goddammit and beyond (hahahaha) caring what other people thought of me and my life choices. I berated myself into behaving as if I actually believed that.

Eventually, I talked to enough people, had enough wine, ate enough dinner, spent enough time to re-inhabit my body. No one laughed at me. No one made fun of me for being a lesbian. In fact, just the opposite happened. I relaxed and opened up, and TLW and I danced. We danced together, alone, with strangers on the dance floor, and as we danced a funny thing happened: acceptance.

The wedding invitations had included RSVP cards to mail back. Each card asked for a song request, what song would we like them to play at the reception? TLW told me to put down “Same Love” by Macklemore. I seriously doubted that our song would get played—partly because it’s really not a dance song, partly because it’s gay. But wouldn’t you know it—about three quarters of the way through the evening, I heard those notes, grabbed TLW’s hand and pulled her onto the dance floor as I whooped and waved my hands in the air. We were the first ones out there, but not for long. My cousin wrapped us in a huge embrace and thanked us for coming. Strangers and relatives alike joined us on the dance floor in what felt like an enormous celebration of love. Period.

I wish I could bottle the feeling I had at the end of that night, wear it around my neck and sprinkle it over me before I walk into new situations, because coming out isn’t just a one time event. Coming out happens over and over and over again, every day, every week, every month.

L is for Listening, or Oh? How Do You Feel About That?

LI can’t think of anything better than having a conversation with someone and really being heard. Walking away from an intimate exchange with another human being and leaving with that warm, fuzzy feeling that not only did that person give me the time and the space to express what was on my mind, but they really listened to me.

How do I know if someone has listened? Well, they reflect back to me what they heard me say. They ask questions related to what I’ve said, and they engage in active listening skills—nodding when appropriate, making sympathetic noises, maybe reaching out to touch my arm, hand, or leg in empathy and understanding. I had a therapist once who would get teary-eyed when I told a particularly poignant story about my child custody struggles. Her tears made me feel heard and validated.

One of the most challenging aspects of training to become a therapist has been learning to listen in a way that will help my clients not only feel heard, but helped, assisted, valued, and worthy. I remember when I used to think that being a therapist would be so easy—how hard could it be to sit and listen to people all day, throwing out only the occasional, “how does that make you feel?”

I didn't have a happy childhood, I was often misquoted.
I didn’t have a happy childhood, I was often misquoted.

Ha. If only. At school we practice on each other quite a bit. I’ve listened to my fellow students in nearly all of my classes thus far, learning to hone my listening skills, learning to take in what they say and ask relevant, useful, insightful questions in an effort to help them move forward. It’s not easy. There’s so much to hold in my head and pay attention to. Details to notice. Key words to focus in on. Facts to track.

We’re learning not how to give advice, but how to ask good questions, open-ended questions, questions that will encourage our clients to explore their feelings. For example, if a client were to tell me they’re anxious about a weekend outing with their partner and the partner’s family, what might I say in order to help the client better understand and deal with the anxiety?

If I were practicing gestalt, I might ask where in the body the client feels the anxiety and if they could talk to it, what might they say? What would the anxiety say? What does the anxiety look like? What color is it? How big is it?

If I were practicing narrative therapy, I might ask the client to give the anxiety a name and to imagine a world in which the anxiety no longer existed. What would that world look like? I’d ask the client to tell me about a time they didn’t experience the anxiety and ask them what was different about that time.peanuts-cartoon-about-listening

I have so many theories and approaches rattling around in my head, sometimes I think it might explode. What theory to use? What words to zero in on? And then, in one class, the instructor told us to not work harder than the client. And, yes, that makes sense, but oy vey.

The best approach might be Carl Roger’s—he believed that the therapist should always give the client unconditional positive regard. His approach, Person Centered Therapy, came in response to psychoanalytical models popular at the turn of the last century. He believed the therapist should be warm, genuine, and understanding.

He said, “It is that the individual has within himself or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes and self-directed behavior – and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”

I no longer think that being a therapist will be an easy job—in fact, I’m pretty sure it will prove to be one of the more difficult I take on. Listening to people, actually hearing them and reflecting back what I’ve heard, will take practice, time, and focus. I can’t afford to space out or daydream halfway through a session.

Maybe Stephen Covey said it best: “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

My success as a counselor will not be measured by what I have to say, but in how much I understand.

 

 

 

Lesbian Shame, Attachment Theory, and Identity Integration. (Or, I am so f*ing tired of this sh*t)

peanuts attachment
I love that Peppermint Patty is the securely attached one in this graphic

I’m currently working on a group project for my Counseling Sexual Minorities class. We are looking at Attachment Theory as it applies to LGBTQ people and the clinical implications for counseling this population. For my part, and to help the cause along, I decided to take a look at the relationship between attachment styles (secure, fearful/avoidant, dismissive, and preoccupied), identity integration and lesbian shame.

Attachment theory suggests that how well our primary caregivers met our needs as infants and children determines how we relate in relationships later in life. (For a more complete discussion, check out this site).

cass_2
Cass Identity Integration Model

The Cass Identity Model is one of the primary ways of evaluating how well gays and lesbians have integrated their sexual orientation into their lives. It has six stages, beginning with Identity Confusion (am I a lesbian?) and ending with Identity Synthesis (I am a lesbian and I am out in all areas of my life). (For a more complete discussion on the Cass Model, click here).

The Internalized Shame Scale is an assessment tool used to rate individual’s levels of internalized shame.

Turns out there is a correlation between a lesbian’s attachment style and the amount of shame she experiences. The two studies I looked at gathered data on about 500 lesbians and discovered that those lesbians with a secure attachment style had lower levels of shame (as measured on the Internalized Shame Scale) than those lesbians with other attachment styles (fearful, dismissive, and preoccupied).

The first study (published in 2003) looked at 380 women who self-identified as lesbians and as a level 4, 5, or 6 on the Cass Identity Integration Model. The results aren’t really that surprising. What’s surprising is that overall, lesbians scored 49.8 on the shame scale where 50 is a clinically significant result (i.e. pathological). As a comparison, heterosexual women average a score of 33.

attachment cartoonIt’s important to note that most infants and children who escape childhood with a secure attachment style tend to remain securely attached in other relationships as their lives go on. Not so with LGBTQ children. Even those who begin life securely attached run a high risk of shifting attachment styles later in life due to particularly severe breaks in important relationships: rejection by their family when they come out, for example. Rejection by peers, teachers, clergy, friends.

One paper I read for my presentation reported that 43% of LGBTQ youth experience some form of physical violence. In addition, a significant number get kicked out of their homes when they come out to their families. LGBTQ people are barraged daily with messages that it’s not okay to be LGBTQ. I just have to open my laptop and scan the headlines on any given morning to read that politicians want to strip me of my rights, that “christians” want to round us up and put us in camps, that self-appointed guardians of morality want to outlaw me, and that people like me are threatened with death just for being who we are.

Sure, we’re gaining rights, but we also face a backlash from those who believe we are less than human, less than deserving of equal rights. The Kim Davis’s, Antonin Scailias, Michelle Bachmans, Ann Coulters, Ted Cruzs, Marco Rubios of this world. We have the right to marry, for now. But how long will that last? Will a change in our country’s administration threaten my rights again? Will I ever be able to relax or must I remain vigilant?

The second study, published a year later looked at 100 lesbians who scored a 6 on the Cass scale and who had also spent at least three years in therapy. What this study showed was that these lesbians scored 43 on the shame scale and 58% were securely attached, compared to 49% in the previous study.

What are the clinical implications of reduced lesbian shame, more secure attachment styles, and higher rates of identity integration? Therapy may work to repair attachment by providing a new secure base, resulting in reduced internalized shame. This is good news.

Why am I interested? Funny you should ask. One of the amazing (and awful) aspects of this graduate program I am in, is that I am constantly analyzing myself, challenging my assumptions about myself and monitoring the way I am in the world. I can’t think of a single class I’ve taken that didn’t shove me right up into the shit, from the initial Family of Origin Issues class, where we looked at intergenerational patterns and all the ways we have unfinished business with the people in our lives to Human Development: Gender in which my mind was blown regarding the social constructs of gender roles and the false dichotomy of binary genders (i.e. boy/girl, male/female).

Every class has taught me something about myself: Ethics, Psychopathology, Psychodiagnostics, Group Therapy, and so it has been with this class, Counseling Sexual Minorities. I signed up for the class with a level of excitement and anticipation I’d not had for other classes because we were finally in my wheelhouse. I thought I knew a thing or two about this topic, at least from the client side of the couch. I wasn’t prepared.

In general, the class has been less than stellar, but even still, I wasn’t prepared for how digging into all the ways in which LGBTQ folks are discriminated against would impact me. I figured that I’ve been out of the closet for the past 40 years and had dealt with my internalized homophobia and had come to terms with my sexual orientation, but what I have realized so far this quarter is just how exhausted I am, how much I shut out on a daily basis in order to protect myself, and that there’s a simmering rage just below the surface that is eating away at me.

The other day I ran across a story on some county clerk in Texas who likened her fight against same sex marriage to the fight against Nazi Germany. Really? And the rhetoric amongst the GOP candidates who want to roll back what few legal protections LGBTQ folks have terrifies me. One candidate whose name shall not grace this blog has stated he would nominate Supreme Court justices who would repeal same sex marriage.

And that’s the thing that just kills me a little inside all the time—other people think they have a right to determine what is best for me simply based on whom I love. Everyone has an opinion and sometimes even a vote about what rights I should have. Just this morning there’s a story on the front page of my local paper about a debate in Charlotte, NC on LGBT protections. A debate. About my rights as a human.

As I grew up, instinctively knowing that there was something different about me, I tried hard to keep that difference under wraps, to not let my true self out for fear of rejection. But eventually the need to be true to myself overruled cultural mandates to fit in. Being authentic, regardless of sexual orientation, can be challenging for many of us, but I would posit that most people don’t spend most of their time with this level of anxiety.

As I came out over the years (coming out happens over and over and over again, by the way, not just once), comingout_rainbow doorrelationships fell away. Some repaired, others did not. I remember writing to a friend from my high school days when I adopted my oldest daughter. My friend wrote back that I was an abomination, that my daughter deserved better, that I was going to hell.

Eventually, I learned to be more discriminating, oftentimes pushing people away and shutting others out who may not have rejected me. Better to protect my heart than to have it shattered over and over again. Even now when I know better, when I am pretty certain that the folks around me are open and accepting, I still armor myself against betrayal, though occasionally I let down my guard and show up as completely out, completely me, defenseless, and vulnerable because I feel safe, because the environment seems to exude acceptance and warrant trust. Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I am very wrong.

I am tired. I want to lay down my shame. I want to live in a world where I am not afraid, where no one cares who I sleep with, where no one is threatened by my relationships, where no one wants to strip me of my dignity, humanity, my rights. I want to live in a world where no one gets to vote on my right to marry, work, buy a house, use a restroom, adopt children. I want to live in a world where who I am is not up for debate.

A Christmas Blog, Re-gifted

I originally published this piece on my blog in December 2012. I thought it was worth re-posting, given that it’s that time of year again and my holiday anxiety is ramping up. 

Christmas Eve always provokes anxiety in me.  For all of the 1960s and well into the 70s, I was the sole granddaughter amongst many grandsons and as such the only target for girly gifts from my well-meaning Mema: dolls, dresses, and purses.  While my cousins and younger brother gleefully tore through the wrapping paper to discover footballs, cowboy hats, cap pistols, and baseball gloves, I opened my gifts cautiously, always hopeful that my true wishes would be granted, that my grandmother would see me for the tomboy I was, not as the girly girl she wanted me to be.  As the Barbies, ballet slippers, tea sets, and girly frou-frou piled up over the years, I knew better than to be expressively disappointed. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I learned early that it is better to give than to receive, to be thankful for what I had, and to put others ahead of myself, so I pasted on a smile and gave my thanks with as much authenticity as I could muster.

That's me on the right, checking out my cousins' presents
That’s me on the right, checking to see if my cousins, Jimmy, TJ, and Billy, got better presents than I did.

As the years wore on and the family expanded, my girl cousins finally came along, gleeful recipients of all things sugar and spice and everything nice, and I could ignore my gifts and slip away to play with my boy cousins and their superior toys.  They would share their bounty with me, and for many happy hours I wore the cowboy hat and shot the cap guns, threw the footballs around the basement.   Still, an uneasiness always settled over me as the holidays drew near, and as much as I looked forward to Christmas Eve at Mema’s, a genuinely fun and spirited occasion where the alcohol flowed freely and everyone sang and acted out a verse in The Twelve Days of Christmas, where we all wore colored paper hats from the Christmas crackers, I dreaded going because I didn’t feel like I belonged.

A sense of Other became my Christmas cloak:  fundamentalist Christian amongst fun loving Catholics; country bumpkin cousin among my sophisticated Seattle cousins; and something deeper that I sensed about myself, something I knew set me apart in ways I wouldn’t understand for many years.

So, no surprise then that those familiar pangs rushed back as I navigated our red late-model Volvo into Mema’s driveway for Christmas Eve in 1994.  Even though I was 31 and had a family, the anxiety dogged me.  I let out the breath I’d been holding during our hour and a half drive south from where I lived with my partner and our two daughters.  I pulled on my wide-brimmed purple felt hat that matched my paisley purple dress and smiled through the rear view mirror at the girls, Anna four and a half, and Taylor six months old.  They were ready to be sprung from their car seats, their holiday dresses hidden beneath their matching Christmas coats from Nordstrom.  I squeezed Sweetie’s hand, both for comfort and for strength, and admired her stylish red wool coat and her fine black leather gloves.  I allowed a small satisfaction and confidence to creep upon me.  We looked so normal that no one could possibly know from first glance that we were lesbians with two children.  I drew comfort from our appearance as we wrested the girls out of the car and arranged ourselves into presentability—straightening rumpled tights, buckling Mary Janes, wiping the spit up from Taylor’s chin and removing her bib, making sure Anna had a firm grasp on Blankie.  We each carried a child and marched to the front door to ring the bell.

Christmas 1997
Anna and Taylor, Christmas 1997

We knew better than to wait for someone to answer before letting ourselves in.  The bell served only to announce our presence before we walked into the sounds and smells of Christmas tradition:  cracked crab, singed spaghetti sauce, bourbon, scotch, laughter and conversation, the burble of children’s voices and laughter.  Aunts and uncles yelled out greetings or raised their glasses to us as we entered.  My mother came to coo over her granddaughters.  We collected hugs and kisses as we waded deeper into the gathering, and because we were women, we all finally came to a stop in the kitchen.

“Merry Christmas!” My aunt Betsy said, “You guys look great.  I love your dress Pam.”

“Where did you get that hat?” Mema sipped her vodka, the ice tinkling.  “I love it!”

“Sweetie!” Uncle David stepped towards us, a glass of red wine in his hand.  “Merry Christmas!”  He gave her a sideways hug and a peck on the cheek.  “How are the girls?”

“Hey David,” Sweetie matched his enthusiasm. “They are great.  Thanks for asking! Your girls must be getting big, too!”

I began unbundling the girls, removing their coats, checking Taylor’s diapers for any obvious odors.  They both looked amazing, their brown skin glowing against the red velvet dresses, their white tights gleaming, their Mary Janes shiny.  Anna’s eyes took on the pensiveness of being in a strange situation, and Taylor’s eyes grew wide, her Surprise Baby look we called it.  Since we’d only just adopted her in May, many of my relatives had yet to meet her.

“She’s so tiny! How old is she, again?”

“She’s so dark!”

“Well, yes, she’s African American,” I explained.  “She’s just a bit over seven months old.”

“Anna, you’ve gotten so big!”

“Anna!  How do you like being a big sister?”

Anna buries her face in the pleats of Sweetie’s red skirt.

“She’s still adjusting,” I say.

“Hey, Pamalamala!” My uncle Mike approaches, the funny guy in the family. “What can I get you to drink? You’re still drinking, right?” He nods at Taylor in my arms. “You’re not nursing are you?”

“Scotch on the rocks sounds fabulous,” I say, happy at that moment to be an adoptive parent, no breastfeeding required.

Anna peaks inquisitively from Sweetie’s skirt.  “Pamalamala?” She laughs.  “That’s funny Mommy!”

“That’s what I called myself when I was your age,” I explain.  “I couldn’t say Pamela, so I said Pamalamala whenever someone wanted to know my name.”

Anna’s brown eyes light up, and some of the anxiety disappears.  I want nothing more than for her to be free of the anxiety.  Mike hands me my scotch and I relax, happy to be among family on this holiday, grateful for the acceptance from nearly everyone, and even thankful for the forbearance of those who might still disapprove.  I am aware they might be masking their disdain with holiday cheer and copious amounts of alcohol.  I don’t mind.

Before long, the girls and their cousins hear the prancing of reindeer feet on the roof and the ringing of sleigh bells.  The little ones who are old enough to walk, rush to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa.  I hold Taylor as she wiggles and babbles excitedly and points to her big sister, eyes wide with anticipation.

“HO! HO! HO!”  Santa opens the front door, a pillowcase bursting with presents slung over his shoulder.  “I hear there are children here who have been very good this year!

“Sit over here, Santa,” one of my younger cousins points to a wing-backed chair between the fireplace and the lavishly decorated tree.  Over the course of the next hour, each child under 18 sits on Santa’s lap and assures him they’ve been nice and not at all naughty during the year.  Santa digs in his bag and presents each child with a present, and as they unwrap their gifts, they hold them up as cameras snap and flash.  The adults grin conspiratorially at one another, remembering Christmases not that long ago when they did the same.  I’ve chosen Anna and Taylor’s gifts carefully, the sting of disappointment still fresh on me.

Once the spaghetti and crab have been devoured, once the platters of cookies have been depleted, once the children have succumbed to the rush of sugar and the excitement of Santa and fallen asleep about the living room, once the adults have exchanged gifts, and had a final glass of holiday cheer, we begin to gather our newly acquired belongings, our coats, the diaper bag, Anna’s Blankie.  We whisper our good-byes and carry our sleeping babies to the car and tuck them in to their car seats.  After several more forays between house and car, more hugs and kisses, I put the Volvo in reverse and head north, letting out the breath I’d been holding the past several hours.

We had navigated through a family Christmas Eve, our little family of four breaking new ground, the four of us presenting as just another family in spite of our differences.  No one else in my extended family had ventured quite this far outside of the norm:  being a “married” lesbian mother of adopted multi-ethnic children broke some new family ground and gained not just tolerance, but acceptance.  Still, my anxiety and self doubt colored my experience and I believed that the love and welcomes came because we worked so hard to be a normal family, we wore dresses and feminine shoes; we bought thoughtful and not inexpensive gifts; we were fortunate to have beautiful children and dressed them in dresses and lace.  We drove a Volvo.  I believed that acceptance required stringent adherence to heterosexual norms.  I thought that if we were going to be a successful lesbian family, we were going to have to be as non-threatening and as normal as possible.

I was so busy hiding who I was, I didn’t even try to be myself.  It didn’t occur to me that my family would love me anyway.

We’re Here, We’re Queer. Everyone’s Used to It.

One of the primary conversations I’ve had with people after publishing my last blog post on the SCOTUS same-sex marriage ruling has been about the loss of a gay/lesbian community, or at least the appropriation and dilution of community. An acquaintance told me about attending the Seattle Pride Parade with her gay brother just last week.

“It was so corporate,” she said. “Even though the dykes on bikes still lead it off, and even though the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence still march, something gets lost when the last half of the parade is comprised of Starbucks, Microsoft, Alaska Air, Amazon and other giant corporations.”

I haven’t been to but one pride parade in Seattle since it moved from Capitol Hill for that very reason. Pride is no longer just the gay and lesbian community coming together in solidarity and defiance, marching to our own drummer, and flying our freak flags for all to see. Now Pride encompasses anyone who wants to join in the party—and the gays know how to throw a good party—and my sense of community has been shattered. We’ve been co-opted by big business, and it seems everyone wants to wear the rainbow. Apparently these are the costs of acceptance.

Again, I realize as I type these words that they may be misconstrued as hostile at worst and ungrateful at best, but hear me out. I used to attend Pride with a chip on my shoulder and a swagger in my step. The day was about being brave, stepping out, risking discovery. Back in the day, before smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, few of us advertised we were going to Pride. We joked about avoiding the cameras or ending up on the 5 o’clock news. How terrible, we thought, to be outed by Jean Enersen or Aaron Brown.

Pride was about letting our collective guard down, putting on our ass-less chaps and our leather vests or even simply our pink triangle or Act UP! t-shirts, holding our girlfriend’s hand and maybe even kissing on the sidewalk where anyone could see. For a whole day or a weekend we could just be ourselves. And on Monday morning, most of us bundled away the rainbow flags and nipple clamps for private use the rest of the year. When colleagues asked about our weekend, we shrugged and mumbled a few words about going out of town and enjoying a little street fair.

I came out in the mid-80s, when AIDS and anger defined the community, when “We’re here. We’re Queer. Get used to it!” was the rallying cry, when wearing my Names Project t-shirt seemed a very out and brave act. I remember one Pride weekend when I stopped by my parents’ house with a carload of lesbians on our way to the parade—somehow I thought my parents wouldn’t think twice about six women in mullets and jean shorts and combat boots. But, as my parents* pointed out later that week, they recognized the devil when they saw him.

Comedian Kate Clinton did a routine back then about being a stealth lesbian—Reagan was president and as a country we were spending (surprise) bazillions on defense (remember the SDI?)—lesbians were as good as the stealth bombers, Kate said, because we were invisible and low flying, undetectable in a patriarchal world, hidden even when we were in plain sight and powerful.

Some days I miss being a stealth lesbian.

The world doesn’t see what it isn’t aware of. And as long as gays and lesbians weren’t on the covers of Time and Newsweek (and identified as such), as long as celebrities like Ellen and Rosie weren’t out, no one noticed that they were lesbians. Honestly, once Newsweek did its lipstick lesbian cover in 1993, life as a stealth lesbian began its decline. These days it seems that no matter what friend I am out and about with, everyone (and by everyone, I mean wait staff, clerks, acquaintances) assumes we are a couple. Instead of dead people, everyone is seeing gay people, even when they aren’t.

Before I came out, I didn’t really know who else might be a lesbian. Oh sure, I had these mad and inexplicable feelings for Kate Jackson, my PE teachers, Kristi McNichol, and Jodie Foster. I knew something was up with Meredith Baxter Birney and Tatum O’Neal, but I didn’t have words for my feelings. (Even Tatum is only just now figuring things out herself.)

When I was in graduate school, some friends took me to my first lesbian concert. Cris Williamson and Tret Fure played at our little state college, and when I entered that concert hall, the energy electrified me—no kidding. The air crackled and snapped as I recognized woman after woman. Suddenly, biblically, the scales fell from my eyes, and I never saw the world in the same way again.

That night at the concert, I felt for the first time the rising inside me, the surge of recognition, camaraderie, an “us against the world” sense of belonging as if I’d been initiated into a secret society that was pulling off the greatest prank ever. I don’t know how else to describe that feeling, that way of being, that sense that I was getting away with something amazing in plain sight. The uninitiated couldn’t see us because they simply couldn’t imagine us.

And now they can. There’s no going back. And that’s the price we pay for progress. A little bit of loss for some big gains. I screamed like a giddy schoolgirl to see Abby Wambach kiss her wife on national television when the USA women won the World Cup yesterday. How amazing that baby lesbians can grow up with these positive images. How great that the next generation will be less compelled to hide their true selves. It truly does get better.

So, does it matter that Starbucks and Alaska Airlines and Boeing employees, gay and straight, are “encouraged” to march in the Pride Parade? Would I rather buy my coffee or my airline tickets from indifferent companies? Or is it okay to know that the corporations that want my lesbian money can and do imagine me and my people?

*My parents are now 100% supportive. They came around to the light many years ago. It took time and pain, but ultimately, love won out.

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage. It’s Not All Rainbows and Unicorns.

I have some things to say that are not going to be very popular, Dear Reader. Seems to be a trend lately, but I’ve got to be true to myself. Here’s the deal. Yesterday morning when my running buddy texted me asking if I’d seen the SCOTUS ruling yet, my heart sank a little. Not because I don’t believe we need equality. I totally believe we do. I’m just not sure marriage is the best means to that end.

So, while I’m happy that so many people I know are happy, I’ve not rainbowed my Facebook picture. I probably won’t. And here’s why: I’m a failure at gay marriage. As I type this blog, my same-sex marriage is dissolving its way through the Whatcom County Court system. My wife and I (for technically we still are married) were together 15 years. We got legally married in December 2013, and our marriage lasted about a year. We should be legally same-sex divorced sometime in August.

Obviously getting married didn’t doom us. Clearly things were not all rainbows and unicorns prior to our wedding. A relationship doesn’t fall apart suddenly. These things take time, but I believe that marriage contributed to our demise because we felt like we had to get married for a few reasons, not the least of which was so I could keep my health care benefits. And, because we were registered domestic partners here in Washington State before Washington granted marriage rights to same-sex couples, we would have been married by the state anyway by June 2014. That’s right. Either we had to dissolve our domestic partnership or the state would marry us. We chose to be active, to get married.

And then I had this feeling that since we finally could get married, we should, something akin to obligation. Since the straight folks had been so kind as to extend us this benefit, we would be rude to refuse such a gift. Right? After all, wasn’t this what we’d been asking for? What sort of ingrate wouldn’t jump at this offer?

Admittedly, I got excited picking out a ring, and when I proposed on Christmas Eve, 2012 in front of my mother and my daughters, I felt genuine happiness and love. I knew that my partner wanted to get married, and I did want to make her happy. Still, I had a nagging doubt that I couldn’t quiet or quell. And as that doubt grew, I pushed off my partner’s entreaties to set a date. I tried to express my feelings, tried to walk that line of “yes, I love you, but I’m not sure I want to get married.” My doubt became an issue between us.

Friday afternoon, my mood grew increasingly foul as I watched the internets morph into a giant rainbow. A huge black cloud descended over me and I tried to puzzle out why, exactly, I was so damn sad, mad, irritated, and grumpy. I knew my sadness went deeper than the fact that I’m getting divorced AT THE EXACT MOMENT that same sex marriage became the law of the land, though that does feel like a sufficient reason to not want to celebrate.

I tried to explain it to a friend. We had an errand to run together, and I warned her as she climbed into the Jeep that I was extremely grumpy. She asked if it was because I didn’t have someone with whom to celebrate this momentous occasion. No, I said. It’s deeper than that, though that is part of it.

I knew that in order to fully explain my feelings, I would probably end up crying. And I hate crying in front of people, but I needed to articulate what was roiling inside of me.

Here’s the deal, I said through my tears: When you grow up knowing you’re different, but not really understanding why, when you spend almost your entire life being told you’re wrong and bad and going to hell for the way you love, you develop a way of being in the world (or at least I did), protecting your heart, living a double life, watching what you say and to whom you say it. Just because the Supreme Court decides one day to validate same-sex marriage, I’m supposed to forget and forgive and move on? Suddenly it’s okay to be fully myself?

I didn’t grow up expecting to get married. My worldview, my view of myself, never included marriage. I had no fantasies about wedding dresses, being walked down the aisle and being (god forbid) given away. I always viewed marriage as a patriarchal institution, a way to own and control women, children, and property. Why, I always wondered, were the gays and lesbians fighting to become a part of such an institution?

I am not trying to be Debbie Downer or rain on anyone’s pride parade. Honest. I just think, like I always have, that marriage is an imperfect institution fraught with all sorts of pitfalls. Why we as a culture view it as the pinnacle of loving expression baffles me. Yes, legally it represents the only way many people can pass on property upon death, the only way some folks can get adequate health care, but it is laden with outsize expectations and a 50% failure rate. Is this something to which we should aspire?

So, there’s that.

But there’s also this.

Friday’s SCOTUS ruling means something critical to all of the gay and lesbian children who can now grow up knowing that their love is not aberrant, at least not in the eyes of the law. Do not underestimate the power this ruling will have on making this world a safer, friendlier place for future generations.

However, for those of us who grew up having to fight every step of the way to love openly, the ruling means something different. It means we have left a legacy, the benefits of which we may not get to fully enjoy. I, for one, cannot simply breathe a sigh of relief and lay down my guard because the Supreme Court finally handed down a 5-4 decision in my favor. I still have 52 years of prejudice, hatred, doubt, and fear to overcome. I’ve grown up in a world where, yes, Roe v. Wade passed in 1973, but the right to abortion continues to be attacked and threatened. I’ve grown up in a world where, yes, segregation was ruled illegal, where yes, interracial marriage has been made legal, where yes, voting rights have been granted to people of color and to women, but where, my friends, we still have to fight every fucking day to maintain these rights.

As another friend pointed out, Brown vs. the Board of Education declared segregation illegal in 1954, but schools were still not fully integrated until the 1970s (and really, are they integrated now?). The pictures of the National Guard escorting Ruby Bridges to school haunt me, and we can still see the ugly faces of discrimination protesting today.

ruby bridges protesters god hates fags 2

We still live in a world where people WANT to fly the confederate flag, where governors allow it to fly over the state capitol, where lawmakers refuse to acknowledge the hatred and racism behind the assassination of nine Black churchgoers, where police routinely kill unarmed Black men. Gay teens are still bullied and hauled off to reparative therapy, trans* kids are killing themselves in droves and are being harassed in school.

We still have so much work to do. So, while yes, maybe same sex marriage being recognized as legal in all 50 states is a step in the right direction, the ruling doesn’t guarantee that anything will actually change.

So, yes, in many ways last week was a very good week. I can get health care insurance even as I lose my benefits in the course of my same-sex divorce. A new generation of young people can grow up knowing that their love is recognized as valid by the United States of America—unless they live in Texas.

Coming Out. Again and again and again

It’s fitting that National Coming Out Day should fall during Mental Health Awareness Week. The two are inextricably linked.

We wore our cowgirl outfits to the wedding, after all the invitation had said country chic and it was being held outdoors in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with the reception to follow in a barn. Me: black cowgirl hat, pointy-toed boots, Western shirt with pearl snaps, bedazzled cowgirl jeans. The Little Woman: ruffled skirt, black cowgirl boots, black Western shirt with longhorns on the shoulders, pearl snaps. We had road-tripped down in our Jeep, all 1600 miles or so, through eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming. We were excited to see the family, to celebrate with my cousin Brad and his soon-to-be wife Megan.

TLW grabbed my hand when we got out of the Jeep and waited for my brother and his family and my father and his wife to debark from their vehicles and join us as we walked to the front of the (very upscale) barn. I let Nancy hold my hand then, but I could feel that familiar uneasiness creeping in the closer we got to the venue, and when I didn’t immediately see anyone we knew (i.e. members of the family) or anyone else so duded up, I pulled away and dropped her hand.

“So that’s how it’s going to be,” she said. “Really?”

At that moment, self-preservation trumped self awareness. I pretended not to hear and walked a little bit ahead, suddenly flooded with shame and hoping that either the ground would swallow me whole or that a whole posse of cowgirl lesbians might be waiting for us just around the corner. Of course neither happened. Around the corner waited only straight (as far as I could tell) normally attired wedding attendees—maybe a bit more casual than normal wedding attendees, but still, straight, suit jackets, dresses, the occasional cowboy boot. I wanted nothing more than to turn heel and run, to safety, to the familiar, to someone I’ve never been nor will ever be: a taller, thinner, more feminine, more socially acceptable me.It did not matter one whit in that moment that I was surrounded by people who loved and accepted me. It did not matter in that moment of panic that my brother was also wearing a cowboy shirt and cowboy boots and jeans and a cowboy hat. It didn’t matter that I had come out to my family years ago and that TLW and I were as accepted and loved and as much a family unit within the extended family as my straight cousins and aunts and uncles. All that mattered to me was my obvious otherness.

I did not flee. Even when I realized we were 45 minutes early and would have to mingle and make small talk or stand awkwardly with each other and sip the lavender water. I silently cursed the lack of pre-ceremony alcohol and our obsessive punctuality. I talked myself down from that internal ledge and tried to see us as others might. I tried to look at the individuals in the crowd and not at the crowd itself. I feigned interest in the barn and the surrounding grounds, and I eagerly greeted familiar faces as they trickled in. I reminded myself that I was 50 years old, goddammit and beyond (hahahaha) caring what other people thought of me and my life choices. I berated myself into behaving as if I actually believed that.

Eventually, I talked to enough people, had enough wine, ate enough dinner, spent enough time to re-inhabit my body. No one laughed at me. No one made fun of me for being a lesbian. In fact, just the opposite happened. I relaxed and opened up, and TLW and I danced. We danced together, alone, with strangers on the dance floor, and as we danced a funny thing happened: acceptance.

The wedding invitations had included RSVP cards to mail back. Each card asked for a song request, what song would we like them to play at the reception? TLW told me to put down “Same Love” by Macklemore. I seriously doubted that our song would get played—partly because it’s really not a dance song, partly because it’s gay. But wouldn’t you know it—about three quarters of the way through the evening, I heard those notes, grabbed TLW’s hand and pulled her onto the dance floor as I whooped and waved my hands in the air. We were the first ones out there, but not for long. My cousin wrapped us in a huge embrace and thanked us for coming. Strangers and relatives alike joined us on the dance floor in what felt like an enormous celebration of love. Period.

I wish I could bottle the feeling I had at the end of that night, wear it around my neck and sprinkle it over me before I walk into new situations, because coming out isn’t just a one time event. Coming out happens over and over and over again, every day, every week, every month.