When I came out to my mother at 21, she asked me how long I’d known I was gay. “Probably forever,” I said, thinking back to the nervous 7-year-old I once was, the one who knew there was something "wrong" with me. I couldn't name it then, but I knew the oxfords and tailored blouses I loved were not anything like the Mary Janes and frilly dresses my friends wore. My mother sobbed on that coming-out day in 1971 and lamented that I had “chosen such a hard road.” I explained to her that no one in their right mind would choose this. I had chosen my partner at the time, and I’d chosen to finally act on feelings I’d had for as long as I could remember, but I certainly didn’t choose those feelings in the first place.
My partner and I lived a protected version of “out of the closet,” for many years, calling ourselves roommates, despite most everyone knowing what we really meant when we said that. Friends in our inner circle were either gay or supportive, so we felt safe in a certain, hidden way. Neither of us was openly gay at work, nor did we talk about our relationship with people who weren’t close to us. Truthfully, though we didn’t speak of it, we were afraid. If people knew, they would reject us, we might lose our jobs, be chastised in our neighborhood, even physically attacked. These were not false, dramatic fears. They were based on stark reality.
Luckily, the world began very slowly to shift a tiny bit. My gay friends and I breathed a little more easily and gradually, very gradually, we told people at work, we put our arms around each other in public, we adopted children, we wrote books, and we stood together proudly. For me, pride was a foreign emotion growing up gay. I knew shame and self-hatred as if they were my closest friends, and I was aware early on in my life that dignity and self-respect would not be a regular part of my repertoire.
For me, pride was a foreign emotion growing up gay. I knew shame and self-hatred as if they were my closest friends.
I have wanted to say so many times that I am grateful that things have changed, and truly I am very happy to be out and safe. But of course there’s something that seems wrong about having to feel thankful that I am allowed to be the person that I am. So I have focused on simply being in the world and I have tried very hard to find a balance between resentment at the unfairness of it all and a growing sense that I am not as disgusting a person as I grew up feeling I was. In some ways, I am a living example of “It Gets Better.” I am happily and legally married to my partner, we live openly among our friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and I don’t have to squint nearly as much as I used to in order to feel as if it’s OK to be who I am.
And then we had an election.
Along with most people I know, the despair about what has happened is so huge that it’s almost impossible to explain. I have been in a daze since Tuesday night, profoundly saddened and disappointed and scared because no one knows what will actually happen now. But I do know that our new vice-president has said that gay couples are a sign of “societal collapse.” He has urged “conversion therapy” for gays and he has supported pro-LGBT-discrimination legislation.
I am 65 years old and I live a comfortable life. I am, in many ways, invisible and non-threatening in a culture that values heterosexual males above all else. But I can’t stop thinking about other 7-year-old girls and boys, who lie in bed at night and worry, as I did. Over the course of the last decade it feels as if their path has become a little wider and safer and that maybe, unlike me back then, they could see something in the distance for themselves. But I understand now how intimidating this tiny bit of growing freedom has been for some people, who believe that rights and liberty and future and possibilities should be reserved only for them.
This election is a wake-up call on so many levels. And more than anything, it is a reminder that too many of us have lived in fear for too long. I have been here before, but I am empowered this time around by age and courage and justice. We know too much now to allow the shaming of any more 7-year-olds or teenagers or young adults. Instead, we can listen, we can support, we can encourage, we can love, and we can stand between them and any threat that fear and ignorance dare to present.