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.

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.

So Far From the Tree

I just finished reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. I managed to get through the 700 pages in a couple of weeks and right up to the last chapter, I found it engrossing and revelatory. As the parent of two adopted children, the sister of an adopted brother, and the daughter of a mother who herself was adopted, I know a bit about horizontal relationships in parenting. As a lesbian, too, I know a bit about falling far from the tree.

That said, I have some serious issues with what seems to be his bias toward creating a family biologically rather than via adoption, as well as the notion that it is better to breed than to adopt, even when biology is clearly flawed. On page 678, he writes that “the right to reproduce should be among the inalienable ones,” and later laments with one mother who didn’t consider adoption because it would be heartbreaking not to be pregnant or give birth (even though she would have a handicapped child).

As he continues on with his own quest for a perfect bio baby, I fail to understand how one person’s desire to be pregnant and birth a biological child, even though the chances of said child being profoundly handicapped, trumps creating a family through adoption. As a gay man, Solomon should know the value of creating a family of choice. I find the selfishness and narcissism rampant in his final chapter sufficient to render the preceding chapters nearly meaningless.

My mother was placed in a children’s home when she was about a year old by a single mother who couldn’t both work and support an infant. The people who became my grandparents adopted her when she was three years old, even though her birth mother came to visit her regularly.

My little brother (my only brother, my only sibling) arrived with only a week’s notice the year I was four, right around Thanksgiving. One day the phone rang and my mom asked me (rhetorically, I’m pretty sure) if I wanted a little brother. Seven days later, I’m at the hospital with my parents picking him up. I cannot imagine life without him.

Nor can I fathom the possibility of life without my daughters, children born into and then given into impossibly complex circumstances. I may have once been ambivalent about motherhood, but their arrivals in my life eradicated any indifference I may have ever had about being a parent.

I wasn’t one of those women who felt incomplete without children, or maybe I should say I wasn’t a young woman who felt that my life wouldn’t be complete should I not ever have children. I just didn’t think about it that much given that I was a lesbian. I figured that kids just weren’t in my future, and this realization did not cause me any angst.

Then I met and fell in love with a woman for whom having children was critically important, an imperative, even. Myself, I didn’t really understand how much I valued my role as a mother until I faced losing my children when my relationship with my co-parent went south. At the point where I could choose to remain a parent or walk away, I decided to stay. I guess in this way, I am like some of the parents in Solomon’s book.

My eldest daughter came to live with us three days after she was born. Her birth mother had decided to place her for adoption and had chosen my partner at the time as the person she wanted to raise her as yet unborn child. Given the times (1990, pre-Will and Grace, pre-Rosie, pre-Ellen, pre-gay marriage, even pre-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell), it made sense for my partner to adopt as a single parent. I was a willing, if somewhat ambivalent, participant in this process, until I held Anna. Once that baby was in my arms, any uncertainty melted away.

One of my greatest pleasures is wearing a sweatshirt my daughter Anna got for me one year for Mother’s weekend at her university—the sweatshirt has a large pink apple tree on it and says The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree. I love the irony. I take certain pride in the fact that Anna is more like me than I ever could have imagined. But I didn’t adopt her so she would reflect myself back to me. I adopted her because I fell in love with her. I parented her because I loved her, from the moment I first held her.

Taylor, my youngest, found her way to us from Philadelphia. At the very moment I got the phone call as I was sitting at my desk at work, she became my precious and beloved child. When I first saw her tiny (and she was very, very tiny—a full term 4 lb. baby) little person, I had no doubts that I would love her with all of my heart and soul. She couldn’t be more different from me, and I love her fiercely. Taylor’s adoption got all kinds of complicated before it became final, but she was as much my child before the birth certificate arrived as she was after.

The paperwork is a formality—it doesn’t make my love or support for Taylor and Anna any more real. In that way, adoption is a bit like gay marriage—the paperwork grants us privileges under the law, but we are already a family without the judge’s decree.

I suppose Solomon is to be admired for not hiding his fears and feelings in the final chapter of his book, but I find his quest for the perfect child completely antithetical to the notion of parenting. As his book so profoundly shows us, there is no guarantee that our actual children will even remotely reflect our ideal child. And I would go so far as to say that the greater our expectations are that our children will arrive and fulfill our dreams for us, the greater our disappointment and the greater damage we as parents will inflict upon them.

Becoming a parent is a crapshoot any way it happens, but I do believe the children we need find their way to the families they need. May we all be able to accept these gifts with grace.

Christmas 1994 or Why Gay Marriage Means So Much

Christmas 1997
Christmas 1997

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.

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.

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, and I spent another 10 years figuring it out.