The sun is shining and the days are getting warmer. We may be about to emerge from our cocoons, and I’m reminded of last spring at this time when the world seemed like such a scary place. I stopped going to my office. I stopped going running because the trail suddenly filled with scads of people who were no longer going to work. Two of my best friends were trapped in Vermont, one was in the hospital. I met with clients all day on Zoom and then in the evenings, bewildered and disoriented, joined friends for virtual happy hours. Gone were side conversations and incidental run-ins with acquaintances.
I renewed my relationships with my neighbors, slowly, over the weeks as we dared to leave our homes, stunned, frantic, scared.
Eventually, I felt safe enough to go mountain biking, joined similarly isolated friends in outdoor meals, taking advantage of the improving weather and longer days. We gathered, carefully distanced, on decks, in yards, at the parks, still stunned, still disoriented. I spent hours plucking dandelions from my front yard and grooming my aging and cantankerous cat, Mittens, ducking back indoors to see clients on Zoom, urging them to not panic, assuring them they wouldn’t be trapped back home with mom and dad for too much longer. What did I know then? What did any of us know?
We knew we had to keep on. I kept on by throwing my hat in the online dating pool. I kept on by doing jigsaw puzzles and by hauling out the old Wii Fit. I went kayaking. I’ve already written here about how kayaking seemed a reasonable and safe first date in a plague. I watched ducklings from my kayak, monitored the lily pads’ blooming, spied on the great blue heron, and the parade of goslings. Kayaked at midnight to see the bioluminescence and did it again the next night and again a week later. Sat on the water in our kayaks and talked for hours with new friends and old.
I want to return to that feeling—the satisfaction of meeting someone new, of making a connection, of being in my boat, on the water, in my own skin, keeping on. In the face of a pandemic. In the face of a return to whatever normal will look like, in the face of a future that only unrolls a moment at a time.
So, I keep on. Working from home. Dating. Kayaking. Looking for The One. Making the most of the lessons I learn along the way.
Relaunched the website tonight. I’d taken it offline while I looked for a job. I go back and forth on this issue–should I let prospective employers see what I’ve written here or should I not? Will my writings help my career or harm it? I have no idea. But, now I have a job, so there.
I have a job! As a counselor. Good thing, since I woke up on Christmas to an email from the Federal Student Loan Servicing Company, reminding me that I was half way to the end of my Student Loan Repayment Grace Period. Yay! I won’t get thrown in debtors’ prison. Yet.
And I’ll be in private practice soon, since my job affords me time to see clients on my own as well. I will be working three, twelve hour shifts each week, so I will have a few other days in which to start building my own practice. I am very excited about both of these opportunities and couldn’t have imagined or hoped for a better outcome and transition into the mental health counseling field.
On the homefront, my 27 yo kid has moved in with me for awhile and I am completely digging having her around. It’s a chance at redemption for me. How often do we get an opportunity to have a real life “Do-Over?” I am one lucky mother.
Speaking of Mother, she has moved to a memory care facility. We reached a bit of a crisis point after Thanksgiving with a pulled tooth, a root canal, and a bottle of pain meds. Suffice it to say that her level of needed care exceeded my level of competency. She has a roommate who has a PhD in Sociology, so Mother is both duly impressed and thrilled to have someone to talk to who is at about the same stage of Alzheimer’s. They arrived within a week of one another, and both seem content (generally) with each other.
Charlie (or Chuck, as I like to call him), Mom’s shitzu, moved too, and seems quite happy to be there along with a handful of other dogs, a couple of hedgehogs, a Siamese cat, a tankful of fish, a cage of birds, and a chinchilla.
The transition to the facility was as awful and wrenching as I imagined it would be. Mom was none too happy with me that night, but I had to move her for her own safety. Who wants to have to make that sort of decision for someone? I certainly never imagined I would have to. And, I am thrilled to have my life back, my time and my home back. You can’t know what it’s like until you live it.
I spent the holidays working. Mom spent Christmas and Christmas Eve with my kids and their other mom. I am grateful for everyone’s love and caring these past few weeks, these past sixteen months. I couldn’t have done this on my own.
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?
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.
This is going to be a long and rambling blog. My apologies up front. Gender is a complicated minefield of a topic, and I have a lot to say about it. I am no expert, just someone trying to make sense of it all without offending anyone.
No matter what class I seem to land in seems to bring up gender as a recurring theme. I have to say, I know a whole lot more about gender now than I did two years ago when I started this program. Gender used to be binary—or at least we only ever talked about it in terms of the male/female binary. Now we discuss gender as occurring in a sphere. Two years ago, I had never heard of a pansexual or a demi-girl, or even the idea that gender occurs on a spectrum and not as the binary male/female boy/girl man/woman paradigm.
Take a look at this chart. It’s not a joke (although, I have to admit, when I first saw it I thought it was). Mind blowing, yes? These symbols represent the current (and rapidly changing) gender landscape.
If you’re like me, somewhere between the ages of 40 and 60, you grew up in a time when gender norms just started breaking down. I remember being a child and overhearing my parents and grandparents complain about the hippies, going on and on about how they could no longer tell the boys from the girls now that the boys had long hair. You grew up when girls no longer had to wear dresses to school and were no longer confined to three careers: nurse, teacher, secretary. If you were an athletic girl, you may have even tried out for the little league team. Title IX had an impact in that girls’ sports got funded, finally.
Women became doctors, lawyers, dentists, fire fighters, and police officers. Men became flight attendants and nurses, started taking care of children, changing diapers. Stay at home dads became a thing. Gender roles became more flexible, but generally males remained males and females remained females. Gay men may have been more effeminate and lesbians more masculine, but boys wore blue, and girls wore pink and nobody played coy about the biological sex of their newborn child.
I grew up as a gender nonconforming child, never fully comfortable in the trappings of girlhood. I preferred my Red Ryder BB gun to dolls and spent my free time outside, building tree forts, fishing, and playing baseball with my brother. I wanted to be a boy but not because I felt uncomfortable in my body. I wanted to be a boy because boys had more freedoms, fewer constraints.
When I was about six, somehow I had heard about sex change operations (what is now called sexual reassignment surgery). Since we didn’t have a television and were fairly isolated in our small community, I have no idea how I might have learned about such a thing. Nor do I know what possessed me to ask my Mema about it, maybe a sense that if I expressed my desire to not be a girl, she would stop buying me girl stuff. But there we were in her Gran Torino—I leaned over the console from the back seat. “Mema, there’s an operation you can have if you don’t want to be a girl anymore. I could be a boy,” I ventured.
She turned to look at me, taking a long drag off of her cigarette. After a moment she blew the smoke out the side of her mouth away from me. “Those people are sick,” she announced and turned around to back the car out of the driveway. End of discussion, but message received loud and clear.
These days I sit in classes with people who introduce themselves and then announce their preferred pronouns, as in, “My name is Jennifer and I prefer the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’.” I have to admit, the first time I heard such an introduction I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Many of my classmates identify as queer or pansexual, and there are a lot of trans* people at Antioch. I generally introduce myself as a lesbian, but I recently learned that many younger people believe that to be a lesbian is to be transphobic.
I am not transphobic, though I have a lot to learn and am still wrapping my head around what it means to be trans*. I’m pretty sure it’s more than feeling like a boy who is trapped in a girl’s body or vice versa. Recently, I’ve listened to speakers who identify as trans* but not as transwomen or transmen, just trans, as in somewhere in between or not even.
One speaker said that he (and he did identify as a transman) probably wouldn’t have transitioned from female to male had he stayed in his native country. In his homeland, being a butch lesbian pushed the cultural boundaries enough. But when he moved to the U.S., he decided to transition because being a butch lesbian wasn’t far enough out there, culturally speaking. He wanted to push the boundaries further.
I don’t think I want to be something other than a cisgendered lesbian. But I do understand what it’s like to be misgendered and misunderstood.
I’ve written about this before here, but it’s a story worth repeating. A number of years ago, I took my then four-year-old nephew to the community pool near his home in a very upwardly mobile suburban enclave in the Pacific Northwest. I wore my one-piece speedo swimsuit and a pair of cargo shorts, and sat on the edge of the hot tub where he enjoyed a soak and roughhoused with a couple of friends. He looked up at me as I dangled my legs in the bubbling water.
“Auntie Pammie,” he said, “are you a boy or a girl?”
I looked back at his wide open and innocent face, and I could tell immediately that he was genuinely puzzled, that his four-year-old awareness of what made a boy a boy and a girl a girl was in direct conflict with what he saw represented in me. In his world, girls did not have short hair and wear cargo shorts. In his world there was one way to be a girl and another to be a boy, and he could not figure out where to put me.
“It must be confusing,” I said to him. “You don’t usually see girls with such short hair or wearing clothes like I wear. But, I’m here to tell you, I am a girl, buddy. I’m definitely a girl.”
I smiled at him and thought about all of the ways I could identify myself as a female. I have big boobs for one thing, but I wasn’t going to go there with a four-year-old. I wore diamond earrings, but that didn’t make me a girl anymore, not like it did 25 years ago. I shaved my legs. I was, in fact Auntie Pammie. I tried to think of how else I could convince him that I was a girl, beyond the obvious.
“Okay,” he smiled and went back to playing with his friends in the water.
I breathed a sigh of relief, and his question has become a bit of family folklore. My brother and sister-in-law were slightly mortified when I relayed the question to them later, but once I started explaining his confusion, they began to understand. He wasn’t being impolite or impertinent. He simply had no social construct for me.
While I can easily forgive my nephew his four-year-old’s confusion and innocent question, I’m more hesitant to grant a pass to the woman who mistook me for a man in the women’s restroom awhile back. I had just finished washing my hands in the public bathroom at an Oregon beach when a woman entered, saw me, and, obviously startled, went back out to look again at the sign on the restroom door. I just shook my head and walked by her, leaving her to puzzle things out on her own.
Incidents like the one at the beach happen to me fairly often, more so recently. I would like to say that I am unfazed by people’s confusion, but their obliviousness continues to bother me.
We need to push the boundaries in order to stretch the social construct. That’s what this shift in gender identity is all about. And while many of us are beginning to understand and accept that some people are born “in the wrong bodies” and want their minds and bodies to match (though, there is a school of thought that purports if we could culturally accept gender as nonbinary, and accept everyone just as they are, there would be no need to make our bodies and and our minds match vis a vis sexual reassignment surgery, but it’s a controversial stance. For more info, check out Alice Dreger and her TED Talk), it’s still pretty radical (and, frankly challenging to grasp) to consider gender as nonbinary, as not an either/or but as a whatever.
Changing (or negating) our genders to push the boundaries? I guess that’s where change happens. On the boundaries. If no one ever pushed, nothing would ever change.
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).
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.
It’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), relationships 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.
This quarter, as I continue working towards my Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, I am taking a course on counseling the LGBTQ population. Here is the course description as it appears in the syllabus: This course provides an overview of clinical issues, contemporary theories, interventions, and research relevant to the treatment of sexual minorities. This population includes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender clients, as well as those clients who identify as other than heterosexual (e.g. Queer, Pansexual, Omnisexual, etc.), or are questioning their sexual orientation or gender in any way. Psychological, social, cultural, and developmental issues are explored within the contexts of theory and practice. Emphasis is on affirmative mental health services for sexual minorities, including the importance of developing an awareness of the cultural, historical, and social realities of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. Readings, discussion, videos, presentations, experiential activities, and guest lectures/panels will serve to heighten awareness of problems such as homophobia and heterosexism as they affect the therapeutic setting, the counseling relationship, and the process of psychotherapy.
Students have to pair up to lead class discussion each week, so I signed up for week two (last week), which was to cover Lesbian Identity. I wanted to be done with the assignment early on in the quarter, AND who better to lead the discussion on Lesbian Identity than an actual lesbian?
Imagine my dismay when I realized the articles we’d been assigned to read were all sadly out of date. Two were at least ten years old, and the third, a study done on 15 lesbians who lived in the UK, looked at clothing and hairstyle choices and how they correlated to coming out, data that hardly seemed relevant for a counselor in training in the Pacific Northwest.
The findings certainly didn’t match up at all with my own experience. Coming out for me had nothing to do with how I dressed—I started shopping in the boys’ department when I was a child. Ask my mom. My short haircut has nothing to do with being a lesbian and everything to do with being lazy. And the fact that I look hideous in long hair. Never mind that all the women in Bellingham—lesbian, straight, queer, bisexual—look and dress alike. There’s a uniform: fleece, jeans, hiking shoes, short hair. We all look the same, a confounding and complicating fact of life for the women (and men!) who reside here.
So, armed with my indignation and determined to find more useful data, I put out a call to my Facebook friends. Would any of them give me permission to use their pictures and their sexual identities for a Lesbian Identity Quiz? The responses overwhelmed and heartened me. Assent and identities flooded my inbox. My friends—lesbians, straight women, bisexual women, queer women, were all intrigued and excited about this project. I began creating a PowerPoint slide show, the most stunning one I have ever made, full of my friends’ bright, shining, and beautiful faces.
And it wasn’t just about the pictures. Women sent me stories too, about their sexual orientations, their choices, their gender identities. Intimate stories. I had been gifted with very personal revelations. My excitement for the project grew as I realized I had tapped into something elemental here. Don’t we all want to be seen? Don’t we all want to know how others see us?
The enthusiasm for this project caught me a bit off guard. I heard from some Facebook friends I hardly know, from others I hadn’t heard from in years, from some I have never even spoken to in person. A few I had been close to once upon a time. And a handful with whom I have just a nodding acquaintance. The eagerness surprised me, heartened me.
A couple of people sent me specific pictures, but the rest told me to use whatever I wanted from their Facebook photos. I set about culling just the right pictures from dozens of Facebook feeds. Some were easy to find, others not so much. Many pictures were taken with significant others: wives, husbands, lovers, kids. I needed clear, easy to see photos that wouldn’t reveal anyone’s identity in an obvious manner, i.e. no wedding or family pics.
I didn’t want to bias the results via the pictures I chose, but I faced a dilemma: what picture actually best represents someone? Given the opportunity to choose a picture of a straight woman in a dress or a cowboy hat, which would I opt for? Or, my friend who has a biracial baby—what message would it send if I included a photo of her holding her child? For my lesbian friends, would I choose photos of them that emphasized their more masculine traits or their more feminine sides? I have to say in retrospect that my choices probably skewed the results.
I set up the slideshow with six pictures per slide, and when I clicked the mouse, the pictures disappeared one at a time, revealing each woman’s sexual identity (lesbian, bisexual, queer femme, or straight). I printed slideshow handouts to give to each class member, so they could write their best guesses next to each picture. I looked at my work and was proud. This was going to be a kickass class discussion and presentation. I could hardly wait.
Imagine my surprise then, when I introduced the quiz in class and the instructor immediately objected. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Is everyone comfortable judging other people like this? I’m not sure this is okay.”
I stood there, stunned, and wondered for a moment if I had made a serious error in judgment. I explained that I had everyone’s permission, that each participant hadn’t just agreed but had enthusiastically and wholeheartedly opted in. My classmates rallied to my defense, shutting down the instructor’s objections in short order. I passed around the handouts and fired up the slide show.
When they had finished the quiz, I went through the slide show quickly so they could compare their answers. I didn’t linger over individual identities, nor did we discuss anyone’s picture or what made someone look like a lesbian or a straight woman. Instead we talked about what it was like to judge people based on appearance. One female student said she refused to make any judgments about the individuals, saying they all looked like beautiful women to her. The instructor refused to take the quiz, as well. But she also refuses to label herself. Honestly, I have to say I have some judgments about that.
We discussed the safety of being identifiable, the politics of passing for straight. I (being the only self-identified lesbian in the room) talked about the changes in the past ten or fifteen years. How I used to feel like no one would know I was a lesbian because gays and lesbians weren’t part of the social or political discourse. Now, I feel like I’m always identified, categorized, and labeled. The discussion meandered from there, eventually covering a variety of topics, but one that we kept bumping up against and then turning away from, how to meet this population in our counseling offices.
And there’s the lesson—or should have been. How will we counsel lesbians when they come to us? What will we know about Lesbian Identity? Is it important that we know how a dozen or so UK lesbians changed the way they dressed when they came out? Or better that we know it’s nearly impossible to identify someone by the way they look? That 50% of the time we can tell a straight woman from a lesbian? That hardly anyone will know a queer femme when they see one, and more often than not bisexuals are invisible?
My tiny experiment revealed that, in this instance at least, we are right about our assumptions approximately 50% of the time regarding sexual orientation. I’m sure there are many more ways I can exploit the data for better/more interesting information, and I have my more mathematically inclined friends working on that for me. I’ll publish those results when I get them. In the meantime, here is what I have.
Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties (you will recognize them when you see them). Some of what I wrote makes sense and some of it clearly needs rethinking. Yesterday on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., my eldest daughter, now 23, texted me (this is how we communicate these days). She was wondering if I thought it odd that the company for which she now works didn’t celebrate the national holiday. I do find it odd, odd that only governments and banks shut down on this Monday when the world grinds to a halt, more or less, for other national holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, the 4th of July.
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.
I recently came across this piece I wrote some 17 years ago. I didn’t have any way of publishing this then, there were no blogs in 1996, but I strongly believe it is still relevant today. I don’t think adoption has changed much in the past two decades for birth mothers. I am pretty sure making the choice to place a child for adoption is not any easier now than it was then. I know that adoptees still cannot access their records if they were adopted before open adoption became commonplace. I know gays and lesbians still cannot adopt children in many states. I appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to adopt my daughters in the early 1990s. I am no longer in a relationship with my partner and co-parent–we split up in late 1996, just a few months after I wrote this.
Mother’s Day 1996
As we celebrate Mother’s Day at our house, we also celebrate our youngest daughter’s second birthday. The irony is, that two years ago on Mother’s Day, we didn’t yet know that she would even be a part of our lives. Two years ago, her birthmother was in the hospital alone, making a decision to place her fourth child for adoption.
As I look forward to celebrating my sixth year as a mother, I cannot help but think of several mothers who have made such an impact on my mothering. I would not be a mother at all were it not for Deidre and Cheryl. I would not be a sister except for a woman who made an unselfish choice nearly thirty years ago. Much in my life would be different if it were not for a woman whose last name is Wilmuth who chose not to parent her daughter, my mother. I may not be a good mother or a mother in such fortunate circumstances had it not been for my biological grandmother.
In essence, much of my life is the culmination of the decisions of several mothers whom I do not know, women who gave life and gave life away, trusting more than I know I could, in the kindness of strangers to do what they themselves, for whatever reason, could not do at the time. While I know the circumstances and a bit about the women who gave birth to my daughters, I know very little about the women who bore my brother and my mother. And if I as a daughter and a sister feel this void on Mother’s Day, what must my mother and my brother live with every day? What will my children grow to feel and believe about their birth mothers? And what can I do to facilitate their questioning and understanding of their adoptions and families of origin?
This year these questions seem particularly poignant as Mother’s Day comes on the heels of major adoption law reforms: tax credits for families who adopt, removal of racial barriers in adoption. These laws, like so much about adoption, fall short of doing justice for those who really make adoption possible—the birth mothers. As so often happens, the lawmakers are approaching the issue sideways, at an awkward angle, seemingly unconcerned about the birth mothers and where they will go and what they will do after placing their children for adoption. With the noble intention of placing as many kids as possible in permanent families out of the chaos that is foster care, our leaders have inadvertently promoted adoptive parents as saviors worthy of reward and blatantly disregarded birthparents, especially in cases of transracial adoptions. I often hear from people how lucky my kids are to have us as parents, read these kids are so much better off with us than they would be with someone whom they could only imagine as an impoverished, unemployed, welfare-scamming, drug abusing, teenaged illiterates.
Well, maybe and maybe not. We cannot place a value on knowing our families of origin, of knowing where we came from, where we got our eyes, our funny feet, and our predilection for taking risk in whatever form it comes.
I rarely pause to consider my mannerisms and preferences because I know exactly from which parent I acquired each personality quirk and physical characteristic. From my mother and my father both a love of reading, from my mother my brown eyes and auburn hair, thin wrists, and a tendency to sometimes overreact. From my father a disdain for the mundane, my spelling and writing abilities, a preternatural aversion to authority in all forms, and naturally curly hair. Sure, my kids may learn to love to read because I do, and they may become avid gardeners because my partner is, but in the battle for control of the self, nature wins out over nurture 70% of the time. Where will my kids turn for answers when they excel in science or develop a completely un-nurtured talent for music, or a dangerous attraction to alcohol?
How will my kids cope, not just with unanswered medical history questions, but with the color of their skin, the kinks in their hair, the rich and painful history of their (unknown) ancestors? The partial understanding of their backgrounds, maybe the knowledge that their birthfathers abandoned them, their birthmothers kept some of their siblings but not them? I hope that an open adoption and an ongoing communication with my children’s birthmothers will facilitate an increased understanding for each of my kids of where they came from, from whom they got their talents.
But who is going to make sure that the birth mothers survive, grow up, get their lives together? If we are going to reform adoption law, we had better start with nurturing the connections between birth mother and adoptee, we had better start honoring the difficult, no wrenching, decisions birth parents make when they plan an adoption for their child. We had better put out a safety net for those who can’t pull themselves up and carry on. We had better think about offering something to the women who can’t afford to keep their children rather than to adoptive parents who have the wherewithal and resources to negotiate the adoption process and to afford agency and lawyer fees.
Just yesterday we received our first ever communication from our two-year old’s birth mother. For two years we have been sending letters and pictures off into space, an act of faith that imbues the postal service with godlike qualities. Yesterday came the confirmation that our faith was well placed. Yesterday too came a whole new conundrum and set of questions when we received two letters: one was very sweet, telling us how much she enjoyed the pictures we have been sending, how she is still glad she chose us to raise her baby, that she and our daughter will talk one day, that she is a good mother. The other letter asked for money so she wouldn’t lose her house.