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.

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.

The First Time

Beyond Belief Contributors:  Cami, Pam, Susan, Colleen, Elise

So, Readers, the reading at Elliott Bay Book Company was fantastic! The first time was all I expected it to be ~ magical, terrifying, exhilarating. Every last one of us did ourselves proud—Cami, Susan, Colleen, Elise, me. At first, I didn’t think anyone was going to show up, and I wondered if we’d still carry on with the reading for a crowd of six, five of which were us, one of which was The Little Woman. 
But then Greg—our Elliott Bay liaison— told us to wait til 10 after the hour and sure enough, next time I looked up, the place was packed. And while I definitely know that a full house is the better than an empty one, I had a small moment of panic.  That panic I wrote of last week—the fear of being seen.

I had practiced my reading the night before with TLW who told me that I needed to be more passionate in my delivery.  So, I had that in my head as I stepped up to the microphone there in the basement at Elliott Bay Books (what is it with basements as reading areas?).

I intro’d my reading with the story of the Jehovah’s Witness flyer with its metrosexual Jesus that arrived on my doorstep the same day I got my copies of the BB anthology in the mail.  That got a good laugh—a good sign.  And I tried my darnedest to read with passion.  (TLW reported later that I nailed it, passion-wise). Still, I was nervous, nerves that come from the fear not just of being exposed, but of being misunderstood by strangers and misinterpreted by those closest to me.

Anne Lamott advises to “write as if our parents were dead” and that seems good in theory, but it’s scary in reality.  My story paints a rather unflattering portrait of my parents, and this is one of my primary anxieties—both that my parents will be hurt/angry/sad that I wrote so honestly about what transpired AND that the audience will think they are bad people with whom I’ve severed all ties. 

That’s ME! At Elliott Bay Books!
So, it was with great relief that an audience member asked The Question—the one question I hoped hoped hoped someone would ask:  “How is your relationship with your parents now?” I’m happy to report that I have solid relationships with both of my parents and that we’ve all come out the other side of this crazy religious nonsense.
And really, that’s the best part of my story. 


John Lennon said it best:  Imagine no religion. It’s easy if you try . . . no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine.  I try to imagine what life might be like for me had I not been subjected to fundamentalist christianity between the ages of 5 and 21.  Those 17 years more than any in my life shaped me irrevocably. What happened during those years color what I do still, more than 25 years after I decided I could no longer subscribe to the tenets of christianity.
Last night, I sat with a group of women, all writers, all of us contributors to Beyond Belief: Women in Extreme Religion, an anthology of stories about women’s experiences getting into, staying in, and getting out of fundamentalist religions of many stripes: Mormonism, Judaism, The Moonies, Catholicism, among others.
Each of us read an excerpt from our story, and as we went around the room, a deep sadness overcame me (that and a not irrational fear that an angry god might smite us for talking smack about him). Sad about the potential wasted, the time wasted, the energy wasted—all the ways in which we’d been shamed, subjugated, stigmatized, separated in the name of god. Imagine growing up female and never feeling shame about being a girl, a woman. Never having to hide: our bodies behind burkas, our brains and intelligence behind our bodies. Imagine life as a woman without the imposition of religious constraints.
What could we have achieved, each of us, I wondered, had we been free to follow our natural impulses?  If we had been encouraged to embrace our places in the world rather than forced to shut ourselves off from the world, shut ourselves down, hide our true selves because our religions taught us what we felt was wrong—our loves, our bodies, our desires, our thirst for knowledge. We all have managed to overcome the limits our religions  imposed upon us, but at what cost, I wondered?
What might I have accomplished if my energies all those years had been channeled toward, say, academics instead of directed constantly at worrying about going to hell? What if instead of having to be vigilant against every carnal thought, I could have spent those years, oh, I don’t know, learning to play the drums or enjoying each moment, guilt-free instead of feeling pressured to proselytize so my god would smile upon me, so my god would not cast me into the fiery pits of hell. Imagine.
 The red thread of sex ran through most of our stories, which was a little surprising, given our diversity as a group—each of us spent so much time and effort struggling to come to terms with our bodies, our sex, our sensuality. Our natural way of being in the world.  Why, I wondered is religion so preoccupied with sex? Why is so much devotion to not-sex?  We can see how well suppressing those natural urges and biological imperatives has worked out for the Catholics, after all. 
But, back to religion and wasted time. Oh, sure, I am what I am because of my experiences, and I’ve got lots of rich material thanks to years of being repressed and, frankly, terrified at times that my basic humanity was enough to condemn me to an eternity of damnation. But what else might I have been? What else might that energy have cultivated had it not had to be engaged in a religious jihad against my very own nature?