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.

U is for Unwritten

UI am on a writing retreat as I type this. For the past two days I’ve been sequestered away with two very quiet and serious writers in a lovely home in a lovely valley. We’ve been very dedicated since we arrived, but I have to say I am having a hell of a time producing much. I need to write a paper for class by Saturday, and I am struggling. I can’t get the words out. My failure has nothing to do with lack of effort on my part. In my attempts to jar something useful loose, I’ve read books and scholarly articles, I have watched videos—some deadly boring (really, if you ever have insomnia watch a video of someone else conducting a counseling session). I’ve listened to relevant and riveting podcasts. Yet, I’ve only managed to squeeze out about 300 words. I am interested in the topic. I enjoy the class. But I’ve got a terrible block around this paper. I’ve even asked for an extension, a request about which I am ambivalent. Is it wise to extend my struggle or should I just grit my teeth and power through?

Perhaps I’m feeling resentful that all during my three-day writing retreat I have felt besieged by this paper. Rather than working on my more creative pursuits, I’ve been straitjacketed by academia. I’ve also been thrown off my game a bit because I haven’t been for a run since Tuesday and it’s now Friday. That, and you know how the digestive system can go awry when it leaves home for more than a day or two. Should I have stayed home this week? Would the words be flowing any easier if I were wrapped in the stifling yet familiar embrace of my normal routine? Doubtful. All quarter, each time I’ve sat down to write anything for either of my classes, I’ve felt this tightness, this overwhelming ennui, and a great urge to close my eyes for a nap. Yet, somehow I have managed to keep up, to crank out the papers and turn them in, complete and on time. Mostly they’ve received excellent feedback, and, upon rereading what I’ve written, I am struck by my ability to string coherent thoughts together, paragraph by grueling paragraph.

So, what gives? Why this epic struggle to engage with the material and shape it into a useful form this week? What am I resisting? I think part of the problem may be that I am emotionally engaged elsewhere—that is, my heart just isn’t in it. My subconscious is busy working on other more compelling issues. If I could write a paper on love and loss, obsession and compulsion, friendship and forgiveness, I would be nearly done by now. If I could write a treatise on the human heart, what drives us in life and love, I would ace this assignment. And even as I type these words, I realize that in a way, this is exactly what I am doing—

My assignment, for my Group Therapy class (it’s a class on how to lead group therapy/group counseling sessions), is to write a proposal for a group that I would like to lead. Since I began my Master’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling last year, I have written a few papers about and done more than a little research on counseling transgender individuals. The group I am attempting to write a proposal for now is a transgender support group. I have all of my information. I know the material, the issues, the format, but I’m fighting a major battle to put it all together and get it all down on paper. Why?

I decided to step away for a bit. Stripped my bed. Did some laundry here at the retreat center. I took a shower. And that’s where I was when it hit me—I need to give this paper a more personal twist, breathe some actual life into it, make it less abstract, more tangible. But how? I’m not transgender. I am a cisgendered female (biologically the same gender I was labeled at birth) with no desire to change my identity. Oh sure, every now and then I think it might be awesome to have a penis, if only to experience the power and privilege the penis inspires. Like my occasional fantasy of taking one hit of heroin or meth to experience what must be an awesome high—I ponder the sensations that must accompany the penis. How must that feel? All those nerve endings concentrated in that one place, exposed, expectant, exquisite?

I don’t want to have a full time penis any more than I want a heroin addiction, but I am often misgendered, that is, I am mistaken for a man. Even though I have no desire to change my gender, feel no compunction to make an anatomical correction, I sometimes present as something other than the culturally accepted female norm. I am not tiny. I don’t wear makeup. I keep my hair short. I sometimes wear clothes purchased in the men’s department, but mostly I wear clothes made for women that don’t have ruffles, sparkles, bows, bright colors, or plunging necklines. I eschew high heels and dresses and pretty much anything tight, clinging, or revealing. Do these preferences make me less of a woman? The occasional stranger apparently thinks so.

Last summer I had an experience that brought home for me the fear and real dangers facing trans* folk. I was dressed to go for a run—bright orange racer back tank top, quick dry shorts (men’s since they are longer and don’t ride up as I run), socks, shoes, iPhone in my armband. I parked my Jeep at my favorite running spot, locked the truck, and headed to the bathroom. It was early, maybe 7:30 in the morning. As I opened the bathroom door, a voice behind me hollered something I didn’t quite catch at first. I turned around to find the owner of the voice standing about 20 yards away.

“Did you say something to me?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Never mind,” he said with a surprised look on his face.

As I entered the women’s restroom and headed for a stall, the words he had yelled rearranged themselves and suddenly made sense: “Hey bro, that’s the women’s bathroom.” Ah, I realized as I sat down to pee, he thought I was a dude going in the wrong restroom. Nice of him to warn me, but how could he have possibly mistaken me for a guy in these tight running clothes? I’m not some thin, lanky runner. I have, shall we say, noticeable curves.

And then the fear settled around me. What if he thinks I am trans*? What if he wants to harm me? What if he realizes I’m a lesbian? Will he think he can do with me as he pleases? What if he hates gays and trans* people (or anyone on the LGBTQQIAP–jesus, that gets longer everyday– spectrum)? What if he is one of those guys whose masculinity is threatened by our very existence? I occasionally worried about running this sometimes lonely trail by myself, but generally shrugged my fears off as unfounded. Now, seeing myself through this particular lens, I felt more vulnerable than ever.

This vulnerability is the way into my paper for Group Therapy. This vulnerability is why the trans* counseling group needs to exist. Thanks for reading. I’m off to finish my paper now.

The Road to AROHO Day 8: Feel the Fear and . . . Well, Just Feel It

I am an introvert. Being around lots of people exhausts me. And it terrifies me. I am not one for idle chit chat, not very good at the “getting to know you” niceties that appear to be second nature to most other people. I knew this about myself before I set out on this adventure, yet I was unprepared for the ferocity with which my inner introvert roared into action these past two days.

Even though I am 50 years old, whenever I am in an unfamiliar place with a lot of unfamiliar people, I am transported back to my childhood, back to the days of trying to fit in at yet another new school, trying to look just right, say just the right thing, have just the right clothes, hair, shoes. I look longingly at the table where the cool kids sit and with dread at the empty table where my seat awaits. I keep my head down in the hallways and my hand down in the classroom.
My instinct is to run away and hide, to pull my head back into my protective shell and wait.  I figure if I’m going to feel invisible, I may as well just be invisible. At least if I’m hiding, I can understand why no one approaches me, why no one sits at my table, why no one reaches out. If I am truly invisible, then I am in control. If you can’t find me, you can’t ignore me.
These are my primal instincts. My educated, intellectual self knows better, knows that if I put myself out there, if I reach out, I will be met half way. Knowing this does not make it any easier. It does not matter that I am 50—I still feel five, ten, 15, 20, 25. I still feel too young to understand, like life is still a mystery that will resolve and clarify as I get older. When I do not have my friends, my family, my community to reflect back to me who I am, I am nothing. I am empty. I am older, but I do not understand.
Virginia Woolf
What frightens me most about this experience is that even when I do reach out (and I have), even when I have intelligent and reciprocal conversations with others here, I feel like my words are as silent as I am invisible, that my mouth opens up and the language evaporates, unintelligible and indecipherable. Even as others respond, at that moment I do not feel seen or heard, just empty and alone. 

Evidently, this is my work, to welcome the fear, the loneliness, to invite them in and set them a table, and wonder what they have to teach me. Before great light, darkness. Before great relief, great pain.

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.

Writing is Daring Greatly (thanks Brene Brown)

Dear Reader—Tomorrow night is my debut as a published writer—my first reading of a piece of writing that is actually in a book.  Not on a blog, not off my printer, but there on the printed page amongst other pieces in a collection of published writing.
Pretty sweet. I have to say that it is about damn time considering I’m closing in rapidly on the big  Five Oh (mere months away) and considering I’ve wanted to be a writer for, oh, all of my life. So what conspired to keep me silent and unpublished all these years?
Fear. Fear of being known, of being vulnerable, of being reviled. Shame. The certainty that what I had to say didn’t mean anything to anyone else. The terror that what I thought made no sense to anyone else. Scared that if I committed the thoughts in my head to paper that I would be forever judged by what I wrote down, by the ink stains.
So, what changed? What enabled me to throw caution to the wind, to finally put pen to paper and let the world in on my innermost thoughts? Fear. Ha! How’s that for irony? But seriously, the fear that I might never realize my dream of being a writer impelled me to write.
What if suddenly I were unable to write tomorrow? What if I’d played it safe all these years, thinking I had unlimited time ahead in which to overcome my fears slowly, always confident there would be time later to pen my memoirs, and suddenly I found myself incapacitated? I’d be pissed—angry that my fear of vulnerability, the shame of being thought less of had kept me from sharing my most authentic self.
I didn’t write for so many years because I thought that a) I would be laughed at or, more likely, told my ideas were heretical and would ultimately land me in hell (seriously) or b) I didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say, that my ideas weren’t universal enough to catch on with anyone outside of my own head.
I realized, in small, baby steps, however, that people did listen when I read, my words did resonate, and slowly, I found a writing community, a group of other writers to cheer me on and for whom I could root. As Cheryl Strayed told us at the Wild Mt. Memoir retreat a couple of weeks ago, we should write from a place of abundance, that is sharing our joy and passion with other writers and cheering them on because there is plenty to go around.
I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown lately, and if you haven’t had a chance to catch one of her TED lectures, caught her with Oprah on Super Soul Sunday or read one of her books, make the effort. She’s got some amazing research to share, some great life lessons about living with vulnerability, abundance, and passion.
So, tomorrow. That’s it. Tomorrow I lay myself bare in front of complete and total strangers. Wow. That’s daring. Greatly.