I didn’t know during the chaotic part of my life from 1984 through 1986, that I was not safe to embrace who I was becoming. I stubbornly wanted to forge my own way. Break some of the rules I’d been following. When I look back on those years, it’s the pain of not belonging that I remember most.
A Waste of a Woman
My world was in total upheaval. My sense of self? Utterly devastated. I tried to squish myself back into the box I’d been in. No luck. I tried church counseling. The male counselor advised me that being lesbian would be, and I quote, “such a waste.” But I couldn’t stay in my previous life any more—waste of a good woman or not. I took my baby and moved to an area of my hometown as far away from my family and previous friends as I could get. Nothing and no one fit any more. AND, all of this was happening while I was mothering.
I had to start all over on belonging. I’d been well-schooled in cisgender female Southern Baptist white heterosexual womanhood. And I was SUFFOCATING. So here I was, liberated from the cage of one set of stereotypes, only to be on the cusp of throwing myself into another.
Reconciling my mother identity with my newly embraced lesbian identity was like whisking oil and water together. Let it sit for a while, and everything separates. I didn’t know then that learning where I fit in the queer world would take years. There were so many possibilities: lipstick lesbian, jock, bull-dyke, butch, femme… even Velma on Scooby Doo. Not sure how to label good ole Velma, but she might have actually been the closest identity match for me, now that I think of it.
Lesbian mother? Not even on the list.
In an effort to learn my new identity, I threw out the old one. I stopped seeing anyone from my past life. I pawned my engagement ring and flung my wedding band out the car window into the cow pasture alongside a Mississippi country road (very dramatic gesture). I sold my hand-made wedding dress in a garage sale. All very liberating. Imagine a 25-year-old with her first taste of freedom. Something as mundane as a lazy Sunday morning became an exercise in self-indulgence. No jumping out of bed to get to Sunday School on time. I was UNshackled.
After my husband and I separated, my daughter spent time with him occasionally on weekends. Those exciting free weekends were when I started having fun. Fun like I’d never had before. I was also trying to find my place in relationship to another woman. My new girlfriend’s dream was to own a 280Z. What did I do? I found one on a local used car lot and took her along to test drive it (I didn’t know how to drive a standard). I bought it. She drove it home. She didn’t mind. In retrospect, I started trying way too hard to please that woman very early in the relationship. Didn’t work out too well for me. But it was a great way to learn to drive a stick.
A summer night in 1985. The usual hot sticky Mississippi weather. Free time. The liberal Redneck Riviera called to us. Along with another lesbian couple—who, by the way, wore matching Don Johnson Miami Vice pastel blazers—we drove five hours to The Red Garter in Pensacola. I saw my first drag show. Danced my little ass off to “How Will I Know,” Whitney Houston’s 1985 hit. That gay bar was my first time to dance in public. I discovered how much I loved to dance and the feeling of freedom it gave me. I’ve always seen “How Will I Know” (yes, the irony is not lost) as my coming-out song.
During my various newfound lesbian escapades, I often had a back-of-the-mind soundtrack running. A strange mix of “If They Could See Me Now” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” played in my head. Southern Baptists believe dancing is sinful, along with everything else I was currently doing. Being queer is something to be prayed away. You’re expected to make the choice—with the good Lord’s help—to stay straight. Force away the thoughts and feelings. But I had begun to DEEPLY question the Southern Baptist belief system. Unfortunately, instead of questioning the rightness of dogma for ourselves, we humans tend to ask “what is wrong with ME? And “why don’t I belong?” Sometimes we get stuck in those questions.
While writing this, I couldn’t help remembering that terrific scene in the movie In & Out, when Kevin Kline is listening to a learn-at-home course to resist being queer. That scene captures the coming-out feeling so perfectly.
It Gets Better
When I write these blog posts, I am caught off guard at the pain I still feel as I dredge up these old memories. I ask myself, once again, why I’m writing this blog. After all, in my Southern upbringing, you didn’t talk about private things. Here’s what I discovered keeps me writing: gratitude that I not only survived; I thrived. And the hope that someone else who is struggling with shame and fear will read these words and come through the pain with more room for joy. I wish someone had told my younger self, IT GETS BETTER.
Joy, Sorrow, and Comfort
I was inspired to re-read Kahlil Gibran’s writing about joy and sorrow in The Prophet. Gibran’s words have brought me so much comfort over the years.
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. …When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. …They are inseparable.”
Going In and Coming Out
My self-discovery/coming-out process carved out everything I had been before. And it hurt. A lot. At the same time, I began to discover who I really am. Queerness is paradoxically and simultaneously one aspect of who you are and everything you are. We all navigate this differently. For me, there was a major identity crisis.
Sorrow carved a huge hole in me because I was not the idealized mother/wife/daughter/person I believed I should be. That sorrow never completely goes away. It hides in the raw edges of that carved out place. But, with time, I made friends with it. I can now say that joy fills that hole. Joy in my wife, my children, my chosen family, my beloved friends, my precious dogs, my work, our home. My life is full of love.
The Pain of Shame
But when I was 25? The pain of shame. Being shamed. Feeling ashamed. I had not yet forgiven myself for not measuring up. For being a waste of a woman (circling back to the church counselor). For defying God’s plan. For not being heterosexual. For not being a good mother. That period of time was long before I learned that the whoever was holding that arbitrary measuring stick DIDN’T GET TO MEASURE ME.
My sharply divided worlds presented me with a choice: conform or be me. Cue the Baptist rhetoric—life is about sacrifice, your joy will be in heaven, not on earth. I had been taught, “God is love,” followed closely by, “love the sinner; hate the sin.” If my so-called sin was fundamentally who I was, I found love me, hate my sin quite problematic. As a matter of fact, it really pissed me off.
The Right to Mother
Back to my story. I stopped taking my daughter to Grandma’s and placed her in daycare. Soon followed all the usual terrifying childhood illnesses that go along with public daycare, everything from diaper rash to ear infections. All of it amplified because I was so caught up in self-blame. I had such a deep, tender place in my heart for my baby—my mothering self. My constant searching for a home began. I’d lost the one I knew, the self I knew, the friends I knew, the family I knew. Something in me was driven to make my own home; a safe place for my daughter and me. Little did I know my very right to mother would be questioned when I filed for divorce.