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.

C is for Counseling, or How I Got into this New Gig

 

CTurns out that April is Counseling Awareness Month. Isn’t this just a serendipitous turn of events? I’m writing a blog a day, A to Z about my adventures as a graduate student in Mental Health Counseling and the American Counseling Association is making it a special month. Pretty sure I can’t take credit, but still . . . (maybe tomorrow I’ll tackle Delusional and Diagnosis).

I have a long history with counseling. I started seeing a psychologist in 1992 and have been in therapy of some sort consistently since then. For a long time, I thought of myself as having a serious character defect. I was young. I didn’t really understand how counseling worked, or could work. I had only a vague notion of Freud and his couch and Woody Allen’s neuroses.

Prozac and SSRIs hit the market about the time I began therapy* and not long after my psychologist diagnosed me with depression, she and my general practitioner agreed I would do well to try the new wonder-drug, Prozac. And, honestly, I looked forward to some relief. At 29, in 1992, I was a fairly new mom of an adopted bi-racial daughter, in a relationship with a woman 13 years my senior. I had just sold the bookstore I started, owned, and operated for three years, and I had moved back home full-time after living 90 miles away for most of each week. To complicate things, my fundamentalist Christian parents were only just beginning to adjust to my, er, lifestyle (as we called it then) and its unconventionality.

There’s more, but that’s enough. You get the idea. I was a stress monster. The crinkling of a tissue set my teeth on edge. The noise of someone actually blowing their nose sent me over the edge. The first time I swallowed one of those little green and white pills, I felt like I was taking communion. I crossed myself and sent up a prayer.rumi

After four weeks of taking that precious little capsule every morning, I no longer cared who sneezed or how loud. Irritation rolled off my back. The grey veil that separated me from the rest of the world lifted, and I started seeing in color again. Cliché, I know, but accurate. Everything sparkled. I got a good job as the bookstore manager at the local technical college with a great boss as well as health and retirement benefits. Did the little pill have anything to do with my new job? I believe happier, less-stressed, less-depressed people tend to have more self-confidence and do better in job interviews, so yes. But I digress.

I felt good, and I loved talking to my therapist. I loved paying someone to listen to me. I loved the 50 minutes of uninterrupted attention. I could do this for a living, I thought. I’d love to listen to people’s stories, to help them make sense of their feelings, to help them gain the confidence to reach for their high dreams. I had no idea that someone who went to counseling could actually ever become a counselor. I thought my diagnosis and being on meds precluded me ever being in the field.

I had never heard of Jung’s Wounded Healer. I was an English major who, stupidly and stubbornly, avoided all social science classes. The books cost too much. The classes met on Fridays. What can I say?

I wanted to get off the meds, though, yet every time I quit taking them, things in my life would head south, and the psychologist would exhort me to stay on the meds. I got stuck in a loop and never really got to the issues that were causing me to become depressed. I’d just start popping the pills again, and things would improve. Etc.

franklquoteI spent about twenty years with the psychologist before I found a new therapist, and the woman I chose to see was an LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor). I didn’t know what the difference was when I made the switch, I was just seeking someone a little more flexible and spiritual, a little less dogmatic and not so pharmacologically oriented. Turns out the switch worked very well for me then. I made several changes in my life at the same time: I got a new job, I relocated, I started taking writing classes and running, and found new community with both activities.

The psychologist got me up and out of the depression and quite literally saved my life on many occasions. And the LMHC has helped me move forward from there, developing self-confidence, practicing mindfulness, introducing me to non-Western philosophies. I have learned so much about myself, about why I am the way I am, and how I can move forward.

I’ll never be done working on myself, but it turns out, I can become a counselor anyway, not in spite of my past, but because of it. Jung believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer. And as Victor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” By these measures, I am perfect for this job.

*for a more in-depth—but still inadequate—explanation of the differences among therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, and psychology see this previous blog

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.

 

 

 

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.

A Whole New Me–Coming Out Again

I have a confession to make. I am not what I seem. You have known me, Dear Reader, only on the surface for the past 25 years. I’ve been keeping this burning secret at the very bottom of my soul, trying to keep people out, away from the real me.
I know, I know.  How many coming outs can a gal have in a lifetime? I’ve had two official ones so far: once at 16 when my parents stumbled quite accidently upon my very first lesbian affair and took me to be exorcised (in their defense, lesbians were a lot more frightening in the very early 80s—mullets, flannel, white sneakers), and once in my early 20s when I renounced god and embraced Sappho once and for all.
But really, as I type, it occurs to me that pretty much every day is a coming out if I want to live as authentically as possible. Every day I come out when I don’t censor myself: at the bank, the grocery store, the staff luncheon. I come out when I refuse to change the pronoun when I’m talking about my wife. I come out when anyone sees and asks me about my wedding ring. I come out when I talk about my memoir. It’s getting easier. But I’m not completely comfortable doing it. You’d think, after 34 years I’d be better at it. So, yeah, I may have had two official coming stories, but it’s a lifelong adventure.
I still think twice about it too—I don’t make any overtly lesbian gestures or comments without first thinking about it. Checking the crowd. Weighing the dangers. The Dangers: alienating co-workers—which could make the largest part of my day hellish. Being judged by wait staff, which might result in something bad happening to my food. Being denied service. Being kicked out of a cab. What might the danger be? If I can ascertain a good amount of safety, I will, say, grab my wife’s hand as we walk in our neighborhood. Even grocery shopping together feels like exposure and vulnerability.
I know I’m not supposed to, but I really do care what people think. I’m trying to get over it, though. And tonight, as a step in that direction, I am coming out again, as something else.
Tomorrow is the beginning of something amazing. Tomorrow is the end of my life as I’ve known it for the past 25 years. Tomorrow, I become a stay-at-home writer, full time. Fully supported by My SugarMama (formerly known as The Little Woman).
It’s a whole new kind of coming out—and I have been emphatically undecided about telling people about this new me. I’ve been afraid of what people will think: Career suicide. Poverty. She’ll ask for money. She can’t hack it. She’s nuts.  
Shocking isn’t it? I’ve quit my job. I have said no to the man. Life is too fucking short to spend most of my time on earth miserable. I tried, but I could not just decide to be happy. No more than I could decide to be straight. I am not cut out for this shit. And neither are most people if this article is even remotely accurate (and I’d say this guy is absolutely right on).  And like being a lesbian, choosing happiness over misery is absolutely no reflection on anyone I work with (well, except on maybe one person). It’s all about me (My SugarMama will concur). What makes me whole.

Clearly, I would not be doing this without my best supporter and best friend, best lover and wonderful wife Nancy. I’m a lucky woman. And for that I thank her.