Growing up, I was never particularly ambitious, so no one paid much attention to the fact that I spent many years just getting by. I was smart enough that I could get Bs in school without having to work too hard and life on the home front was similar. My much-older brothers had been so ill-behaved as teenagers that I barely had to breathe to be the best child. Because of all of this, no one noticed, and no one much cared, that I didn’t have big plans for my life, despite the “potential” my mother frequently said I had. What she didn’t know is that I couldn’t see anything in my future because, in those mid-1960s suburban days, I never saw anyone who looked like me.
Without even the mention of the word “gay” or “lesbian,” I knew it was very wrong and that I was bad because I was more attracted to girls than boys. Once in a while, I heard words like “queer” and “lezzy” and “faggot,” as mean, older teenagers spat them toward someone they hated, but I drew as little attention to myself as possible so I wouldn't hear them hurled at me. I expect now, that if I could have talked to an understanding adult or a savvy teenager, I might have seen a path for myself. But, I was so ashamed of my own sexuality, I never spoke of it to anyone until I was in my early 20s. Instead, I plodded along, one foot in front of the other, trying to figure out a life that looked “normal” on the outside and that I could tolerate on the inside.
Finally, and with great good fortune, I have been able to love myself and to be surrounded by people who love me in return.
For a long time, hiding was my solution. At first that took the form of just not facing my own truth. I dated guys and I frequently found myself squinting to see if I could imagine living my entire life with them. The answer was muddled, but the feeling in my stomach was clear. Once I did finally start dating women, the huge barriers I had erected around me began to crumble, and I felt some hope. I could actually love another human being and have that feeling reciprocated. As basic as this sounds, it meant everything to me. I was 21 years old and I was being seen for who I was for the first time in my life.
But it was the early 1970s, and I knew that, despite having a girlfriend, being gay was not something I would be announcing to the world. Even talking to my mother about it resulted in her melting into tears and then having to go away for the weekend to decide how she felt about it, and me, in this new context. The irony of this being a new framework for her was clear when she asked me how long I’d known I was gay and I said, “Probably forever.”
“Me, too,” she said as she sobbed.
None of this helped my confidence as I moved forward in the world, and I was very slow to see myself as an acceptable person in any arena. I kind of fell from one job into another, and eventually a career—fortuitously, education. But it was many years before I was totally out in my workplace, despite the traditionally liberal attitudes associated with higher education. I kept it to myself and lived a pretty basic “don’t ask/don’t tell” existence. I never spoke of being gay with my students and I only introduced my partners to people if I felt sure they wouldn’t judge me or reject me. Eventually, and with great good fortune, I have been able to love myself and to be surrounded by people who love me for who I am. For this, I thank the people in my life who saw me, acknowledged me, and stood up against those who hated me and other gay people.
Still, it never occurred to me in a million years that, in my lifetime, the Supreme Court of the United States would decide that it is illegal to discriminate against people like me in the workplace. I felt the same way in 2015, when the same body gave me and Jodi the freedom to get married. That this life I held so far inside of myself that I couldn’t even speak of it has now been sanctioned in some way by the Supreme Court is still almost impossible for me to believe.
Of course, this ruling comes at a time when our country is reeling from the grim realities of our abhorrent behavior toward human beings who have experienced 10 times the discrimination and abuse that I have. So, having SCOTUS decide in my favor doesn't fill me with naive hope. But it does let me know that sometimes things can change. And it reminds me again and again of the importance of paying it forward—to love people, to acknowledge the roads they've traveled, and to stand up against hatred whenever I can. Without that in my own life, God only knows where I'd be.