I’ve been watching a lot of coming out videos lately, and a common theme these days is whether or not a “Hey, I’m gay!” announcement is even necessary anymore. DOMA is done. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is done. The world is opening up. Does it even matter anymore for someone to make a proclamation? Has it become ho hum, lost in the noise of so much other information flying at us every day? Does anyone care if a famous athlete is bisexual, when we could all be watching a video of a baby moose being born in a Lowe’s parking lot?
It’s easy to say (and to think) the world is moving on — that coming out stories have lost their shock and awe. It’s easy to say that being gay isn’t a thing anymore, that people shrug and move on, knowing that their sister or cousin or brother or friend is the same person they’ve always been, and can’t we just go shoe shopping like we’d already planned on?
But the reality is, while people do seem to be considerably more accepting now than in the past (hi, Stonewall Inn as a national historic site), there is a LONG way to go before proclamations and videos and sweaty-near-passing-out discussions with one’s parents aren’t necessary. When terrible human beings like Dan Patrick actively request school districts to give up federal funding and violate Title IX laws for the specific reason of discriminating against children, then it becomes pretty clear that we still need to make a big deal when someone celebrates their queerness. (Or, if we don’t make a big deal, it can still be acknowledged in some way; there can still be a “we’re all in this weird game of being humans together” head nod. You know?)
How would my own life have been different had I known, at 10, that Sally Ride had a wife? That Lily Tomlin wasn’t into men. That Louise Fitzhugh dressed in men’s clothes and had girlfriends rather than boyfriends. What would it have meant to a young girl in rural Florida to experience a world where gay wasn’t a slur and where gender was unimportant when it came to partnering and having children? Maybe nothing would have been different. Maybe everything would have been different. What does it mean to a young girl today who *does* know that Sally Ride had a wife? Who knows Ellen and Portia are Hollywood mainstays, and who understands the kid in her school who looked like a girl last year looks like a boy now, because he’s always *been* a boy, he just needed to be able to match his outside self with his inside self? We certainly can’t discount these revelations, can we? Even if we want the world to be a place where it doesn’t matter, it still matters very much.
Then there’s another tricky thing… is there a responsibility to be one of the people who others look to? Is there a requirement to take this small part of you and put it on display so that your own fists get muddy while you help tear the barricades down? I don’t have the answer to these questions, but I think about them a lot. If you are a person who is congratulated for writing with openness and rawness and honesty and emotion, are you being disingenuous to leave out a very important aspect of your own life? Or is it really anyone’s damn business other than your own? Is it shameful to worry that while you could have a positive impact on children – you could be their Louise Fitzhugh living an open life – you could also harm your career, making it more difficult to buy groceries for your own children? Is it ridiculous to even have this worry in 21st century America? Based on some of the political rhetoric of late it isn’t ridiculous at all. How can we be moving forward and backward at the same time?
Eight months ago I needed to make a choice about moving forward even if it required some backward leaps to get there: was I going to continue to quietly suffer, or was I going to allow myself to be happy. It sounds so simple, but in reality, I was terrified. Could I really choose my own happiness over everyone else’s? Even if I desperately hoped my family would be happier in the long run, could I cause the kind of irreparable change that would leave an indelible mark on everyone? Initially, I felt like the collateral damage I would cause wasn’t going to be worth it. I felt like my best choice was probably to keep quiet, learn to make do with the status quo, and then one day make a deathbed confession to my children, telling them I had stayed quiet to protect them, I had lived a secret life to make sure their lives would be better. But then I realized that was really stupid. Really, really stupid and the opposite of what I want to teach them — the opposite of what I’ve taught them already. I also realized that while initially the news was going to cause confusion and hurt, in the long run it really would be better for everyone.
So I did it. I came out to my family and close friends. I wanted to feel free. I wanted to celebrate finally being able to be the me I’ve always been. I wanted to shake off the years of being an outsider in nearly every world I was part of. I wanted to be ok.
I didn’t feel ok, though. And I didn’t feel free. Not at first. I felt selfish. I felt guilty. But then… there was a lightness that overtook me. And while I concentrated on talking to the kids, and answering every question, and being as open as possible… while I tried desperately to maintain a relationship with my now former spouse… the lightness prevailed. I do get to be me now. Does it tear through me that for me to get to be me I have to cause pain in others? Of course. Do I hope with a kind of flailing desperation that their pain will fade over time? Of course. Do I expect to be torn apart by people who think mothers should be living embodiments of the Giving Tree, sacrificing everything for their children until their own identity just disappears? I do. But here’s the thing… I am not just a mother. I am a human. I am a woman. I will sacrifice sleep and food and money and pretty much anything else to ensure my children are happy, but I will no longer sacrifice my own ability to feel quiet joy in just being alive. A mother’s joy and her children’s joy are not mutually exclusive.
In Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, Ole Golly gives Harriet some advice: “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.” In the 60s this might have been life-saving advice to a girl like Harriet (and in the 1980s to a girl like me). But it isn’t the 60s or the 80s anymore, and I don’t want to just tell the truth to myself. I want to tell the truth to everyone else, too.
I might not put on a rainbow cape so I can make a flamboyant video, and I might feel the guilt that comes with having watched others pave a path while I was too scared to help. But I’m here now, better late than never. My own little tributary path is now connected to the bigger road. Where that road leads isn’t something I know, and for the first time in my life I’m happy that the future is a bit blurry.
Kids made fun of me when I was in the 8th grade and still reading Harriet the Spy, but you know what? I’m 39 now and Harriet continues to be a guiding light. She’s an independent, sassy, pain-in-the-ass young woman, and I can only hope that in some way I’ll be able to help inspire another generation of women just like her.