This is a really bad picture Of Laura and me living the "gay lifestyle." Does that sound silly enough? It is. I hadn't heard that one -- a great favorite of the religious right -- in a long while, until yesterday when someone I know to be open and accepting of us said it: "the gay lifestyle." Even though I know he does not understand the negative connotations of it -- he used it openly in front of us and I know for a fact he's not a homophobe -- it still shocked me to hear those words. That phrase makes it sound like all gay people have the same "lifestyle" -- maybe like going out to dance bars and circuit parties all the time and having a lot of indiscriminate sexual encounters. That's what the fundamentalists hope it will sound like to you. That is not what our friend meant at all.
The word "lifestyle" doesn't even vaguely go with the word "gay." I think of the Jet Set lifestyle, the Bohemian lifestyle, maybe even the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Lifestyle is what one chooses to do, not what one is at the core of their being. Our friend gets it that it is innate, something inborn that can't be changed. He even mentioned genetic components, yet he still came out with a stunner like "gay lifestyle." It jarred me to my very soul -- so much so that here I am still wallowing in it more than 24 hours after the fact. He said it not once, but several times. Each time, the words made me flinch, even though I knew he didn't realize they were offensive.
When I was little, I more or less ignored boys and stuck with the girls at school. Boys seemed like aliens to me, and about as nonexistent. I always came in dead last running races, but one day in 1947 -- I was about 9 -- a boy named Tommy sneaked up behind me and tried to kiss me. My friends said they had never seen me run so fast in my life. I ran straight to the girls. That should have been a revelation, but I was only 9 years old. I didn't realize the truth until I was about 13.
It was 1951. It was against the law to be gay then. It was considered a mental illness and a perversion, sort of like the conservative Christians, who actually seem to still be living in 1951, see it now. Very few people were out. They didn't dare. You could be locked up and given shock treatments for it! Another girl had a crush on my best friend. She was open about it, which shocked me. People seemed pretty tolerant of the girl, though they called her "Queera" (her name was Kara). One afternoon, one of Kara's posse stopped us to give my friend a love note from her as we were walking home from school. My immediate thoughts were "That's really stupid! You NEVER tell anybody! And anyhow, she's already mine!" This interior revelation shocked me worse than Kara's openness. I was stunned and horrified. I had buried my homosexuality and my attraction to my best friend so deeply that I wasn't even aware of it myself. Of course I followed my own advice and never told anybody about it. I pushed it back down so deep that it didn't fully resurface in my consciousness again until the early 1980s, though there were plenty of covert signs it was in there, and I had a big crush on a girl in college. I read someplace that teenagers normally have homosexual crushes. I don't really believe that now, but it soothed my fears a little back then.
My first husband occasionally used to say "I think you might be a lesbian." He said it gently, quietly, without any negative connotation, just trying to see if I was aware of the possibility. "Of course not!" I'd tell him. "I'm married and have children!" as if that were proof of my heterosexuality. As if! All that was proof of was that I was hiding from myself.
Over the years, I had been an active and vocal supporter of gay rights. I had a lot of gay male friends and had no trouble understanding that they were who they were and had been the same way all their lives and that they were not mentally ill or perverted in the least -- just gay. I knew, also, that they could not change or be otherwise even if they wanted to. Somehow, I did not apply that same logic to my own condition. When it resurfaced unbidden when I was in my mid-thirties, I was horrified again, almost to the point of wanting to hide in the house and never come out again. I had realized that my feelings for my best female friend were not in the least way platonic. But I had 5 children and I could not hide myself away. I had to keep going. They were also the reason I was so horrified. What would finding out their mother was queer do to their lives? They would be teased and bullied at school. I vowed never to act on it so that they would not have to know.
After both husbands had died and my kids were in their 30s and 40s and safe from the playground bullies, I finally could not keep it pushed down any longer. I was 61 years old. I had tried all my life not to be who I am at the core of my being. Circumstances arose -- the death of a dear friend -- that made my hiding it seem too dishonest to bear any longer. I will never forget what it felt like to look at myself in the mirror and say out loud "I am a lesbian." I burst into tears, not of shame but of joyful self-acceptance. I can still feel what that felt like. It gave me a sense of health and wholeness I had never experienced before. Memories I had suppressed for a lifetime began resurfacing -- things my kids had done and said, things from my own childhood. For a long, long, time, I had not been able to remember much of my life at all, and it all came flooding happily back.
Gay for 61 years, and never once acted on it. I assumed it would continue that way -- who would want me at this age? I was happily wrong. My beloved Laura had loved me for years and never said a word. When she found out I had come out, she emailed me instantly -- "Is it true?" and I answered with a long story. The truth was, I had a crush on her for years, too. We have been together more than 10 years now. Now I know what "and the two shall be as one" means. When I was married to a man, that was never the case. And that's the crux of being gay: you cannot bond in a true way, soul to soul, with a mate of the opposite sex, however hard you try. It simply is not possible.
So the real "gay lifestyle" is just ordinary people living, learning, raising families, working, loving each other, learning to accept themselves when others won't, living with uncertainty like everybody else. Living with what God dealt us -- an unusual hand that takes some strategy to "make it work," as one of my very favorite gays, Tim Gunn, says. And make it work we do.
Photo credit: Laura's Macbook web cam