Friday, March 23, 2018

My Coming Out Story

1. Let’s Get Some Things Established

This is a very unusual post for the Opulent Opossum. It has to do with slightly more personal matters than recipes, critters, and hikin’ trails. It’s also looonnng, and there aren’t pictures. (Links are provided at times just for fun and for further information.) I realize this is BAD BLOGGING: it’s incredibly long, it’s completely off topic for this blog, and I admit, boring. And yeah, no pictures!!! (So, basically, no one will read this.) I have written it like this to hopefully force people to actually read, not skim it, and not just look at pictures.

What I'm writing about happened so long ago it’s rarely ever on my mind. For me, it’s “ancient history”—“been there, done that.” But recently I’ve been thinking that (re)telling my coming out story might be helpful for others to read—and maybe for me, too.

I’m motivated to do this because my church congregation has embarked on the “Open and Affirming” process, a pathway developed and encouraged by the United Church of Christ denomination as a way for its congregations to grow into their widest community—to wholeheartedly extend “extravagant welcome,” as Jesus calls his disciples to do. But even in 2018, it’s hard for many people to see LGBT folks as deserving of whole membership in the church. Given my life’s trajectory, it can be hard for me to believe that there are still Americans who don’t “get” LGBT people—but there you go. Not everyone’s lived in a big city, or had someone personally explain it to them, or been forced between ditching their prejudices or losing their connection to a beloved family member.

The storytelling process is powerful, and the more individualized and concrete, the better. When you avoid generalities and focus on your own unique experience, you may actually enable someone else to “see through your eyes”; to spend a few moments “walking in your shoes.” I keep thinking, “If only other people could understand my experiences, they might understand how gay people can be so confident that being gay is natural for some people and not sinful.” Labels and generalizations can be really problematic. I absolutely cannot speak for everyone who shares my label of “lesbian”—but I sure can speak for myself.

For young LGBT people today, coming out is apparently as much an issue as it was when I was young, but I suspect it’s also different. They have less explaining to do, and to fewer people; they have a vocabulary, a name for what they’re feeling. They can find friends and support systems more easily. Meanwhile, the gay rights movement I’ve been a part of has created a backlash of much more overt, entrenched homophobia. (I picture it like a viper that’s finally been cornered, coiled up and vicious.) People are hypersensitized to the existence of LGBT folks, and many small-town and conservative church environments are especially toxic for young LGBT people, making life harder for them in many ways. The homophobia seems especially developed and systematized, more so, I think, than when I was a teen. So let’s be gentle with the young people, and the people just trying to figure themselves out. And let’s keep in mind that all I can talk about, really, is my own point of view.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, “coming out stories” used to be a big thing, amid the feminist consciousness-raising groups that developed and the “rap sessions” and other discussion groups of that time. It was a critical process for many people—an understanding support system in a hostile world. I think I caught onto the last of that era when I was in college. One of the common discussions at our Gay and Lesbian Alliance meetings would be to share our experiences of coming out of the closet as gay or lesbian—first, coming out to ourselves (“when did you first realize . . . ?”) and then, in an ongoing process, coming out to others, including, at some point, our families. As holidays approached, we talked about how we would “deal with” our families.

It became sort of a trope, the stereotypical scene of the young gay person approaching his or her parents and whispering, “Mom, Dad . . . sit down . . . there’s something I need to tell you . . .” OH! the overwhelming trepidation and gravitas; like breaking extraordinarily shocking and bad news—like a stage 4 cancer diagnosis: “. . . I’m . . . gay.BOOM! In this scenario, which we’ve all seen repeated ad nauseam in maudlin TV movies-of-the-week, the mother is then supposed to break down in tears, and the father is supposed to get all gruff and angry and disown his son or daughter: “I don’t know you anymore!” he’s supposed to growl. “Get out of my house!”

Yawn. Aren’t we all bored with that storyline by now? . . . But unfortunately, the scenarios were indeed common enough in real life, and I think those TV shows created a template for how people actually expected it to be, and how they were expected to react. I’ve heard many friends tell me their coming out stories, which pretty much follow that pattern. (Yes, art imitates life, but with mass media, “art” can also plant seeds in us for how we think we’re supposed to act. We’re social animals; monkey-see, monkey-do.) But I tell you, this stereotypical scenario was not the case with me at all. (I was lucky.)

Most of the people in my generation have moved waaaaay beyond those “coming out” days. We’ve developed calluses around all those sensitive places. It doesn’t hurt anymore. We’re comfortable with who we are, our families and friends accept us, and we accept them (or else we all moved on long ago), and we really couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about the opinions of socially “slow” people, or “people who don’t get out much,” who still have trouble with us. (Really, I think that’s a problem right there—that we’ve grown content with that situation—that we’ve given up on people.)

But you could say that every gay person, no matter how out of the closet he or she is, is still continually “coming out,” because the default expectation in our society is that we’re all straight. Even if I look pretty stereotypically lesbian, still no one knows for sure, until I tell them. And then—how will they react? There is usually some degree of tension at that point. (Those TV tropes!)

By this time in my life, I can congratulate myself for becoming socially nimble at telling people I’m gay—I usually introduce it as off-handedly as possible. Let’s say I’m having a conversation with someone—for example, the guy who drives the courtesy shuttle at the car dealership after I’ve dropped off my car for service. He’s congenial enough, and we’re chit-chatting. Maybe we’re talking about the neighborhood where I live; as anyone would do, I talk about “when we bought our house in 2001 . . .” and say things like “we really love living here; Jefferson City has been good to us.” As the conversation continues, at some point, I’ll just say something like, “yeah, and the unheated sun porch has been perfect for Sue’s bonsai trees!” Ding! I just came out. And by staying very nonchalant about it, and continuing on my dribble-drabble chatting, and acting like I know they’ll be okay with it, I allow it to be okay. Just a fact of life. It’s a way of modeling to others how to accept my difference: This really isn’t a big deal. See? We got through this. I give them permission to relax.

Society has changed a lot since 1983, when I first finally acknowledged to myself that I was gay. The LGBT civil rights movement, which I’ve been a part of since college days in the mid-1980s, has kept LGBT people increasingly in the news. Many musicians, actors, and other prominent people have come out of the closet. We’ve gained so much! People don’t hassle me (to my face). Yet our political visibility has caused an ugly backlash among homophobic people, who have become increasingly vocal as they push back against the LGBT people who refuse to shut up, to stop demanding equal rights, and to hide the existence of our primary relationships.

When I grew up, no one talked about homosexuality. When I was very young, I guess it was on the news (the Stonewall Riots occurred in 1969; and there were plenty of marches going on; in Columbia, the MU Gay People’s Alliance went to the US Supreme Court against the University of Missouri, and won its right to be a recognized student association)—but I was much too young to care about the news. (Richard Nixon’s face on our black-and-white TV screen: “blah, blah, blah.”) Vietnam and Watergate were much bigger stories in those days.

And in daily life, people didn’t like to talk about “it” in any serious way. It truly was “the love that dare not speak its name.” Even though it was the “sexual revolution” (for straight people), I think people were afraid to even talk about homosexuality because they were afraid others might think they were gay—horrors! Just talking about it made you a suspect. There weren’t books about it at the bookstore; bookstores absolutely didn’t have “women’s studies” and “gender/LGBT” sections back then. Antigay jokes and slurs were common.

Of course, as always, it was the gay men who bore the brunt of the fear and hate, because in a patriarchal society, men are viewed as powerful and significant, so their transgressions against the social system are serious, while lesbians, being women, have always been basically invisible, frivolous, relatively powerless, so their transgressions aren’t so worrisome (women are still second-class citizens in a lot of ways). In other words, homophobia is very closely tied to sexism. Oddly enough, though, people tolerated “tomboys,” and they loved celebrities like Paul Lynde, Liberace, and Charles Nelson Riley, who seemed awfully “light in the loafers.” Maybe it was because they weren’t agitating for civil rights.

. . . Y’all, this really wasn’t all that long ago.

On a more personal level, I was lucky to grow up in a city, a faith community, and a family that were, at least in theory, open and accepting in all kinds of ways. Columbia is a university town that embraced the diversity of the many students and faculty attracted to MU. Any university worthy of the name should be open to exploring, understanding, and celebrating the diversity of humankind. I had classmates who were from Egypt, Vietnam, the Philippines, Iran, and many other places. Although I heard the terms “integration” and “busing” on the news, the problems with it always seemed to apply to someplace else, not Columbia; Columbia (as far as I could tell) was past it. I didn’t know what segregation was; as far as I could tell, it was ancient history. My schools were multiracial, and I had interracial classmates. Some classmates were well-to-do while others were poor. I had black schoolteachers. I grew up thinking diversity was a “given.” I never heard bigoted stuff from teachers, and I didn’t hear much from classmates, either.

There were (and still are) many progressive organizations in Columbia—free-thinking, liberal, peace-and-justice groups. The city’s community radio station, KOPN, for instance, used to have radio shows focusing on lesbian and feminist issues. Long before I figured myself out, KOPN helped me understand that gay people were okay. I entered high school thinking that homosexuals were simply yet another misunderstood, oppressed minority.

The church my family belonged to (Columbia United Church of Christ) reflected the community’s general appreciation of humanity; it held progressive ideals about inclusiveness. I never heard judgmental poppycock from my minister—none of that “those folks are going to burn in hell” crap. Instead, the focus was on “How can we do the work of Christ on earth? How can we be better people? How can we help others?” We sang that song: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” But although I never heard anything negative about LGBT people in there, I didn’t hear anything positive, either. Hush-hush . . . let’s not broach that subject. Let’s not make anyone uncomfortable. No one talked about it.

At the time, Columbia UCC was doing well to be racially inclusive and ecumenically active. Over a couple of weekends, our minister drove my confirmation class to several other churches, and a synagogue (Columbia’s mosque wasn’t built yet), and he let the other ministers talk to us about what they believed. At the Baptist church, they showed us the big tiled tub they use for full-immersion baptisms of adults. The Mormon leader explained how they believe the same stuff other Christians do, but that they also have the Book of Mormon to follow. We visited the Catholics and learned about how they are distinct from us Protestants. The rabbi at the Congregation Beth Shalom told us about the Jewish faith. From the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, we learned there were hardly any differences between “them” and “us” at all. And so on. It made good sense for us to have a general understanding of other faith traditions; it helped us to understand our own denomination so much better!

But the best part of all this visiting was seeing our minister displaying warm comradeship with the city’s other religious leaders, and them all being cordial and respectful to us. This was a huge lesson that I wish everyone could experience: We’re all in this together. Our similarities far outweigh our differences. Each house of worship is holy. God is big enough to embrace all this diversity.

My family was also tolerant of the diversity of humankind. My parents didn’t spout off about people who were different. If they ever groused about other people, it was because of what they were doing, as opposed to who they were. Paul and I were told “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” And mostly, my parents modeled this behavior. We had books about seemingly everything in our house, and none were off-limits. My dad’s a geographer, and we always had National Geographics to read—the whole, beautiful, wide world was available to me. My dad was also active in the campus Ecumenical Center. At the time I was too young know what that was. . . . Today, I think they need to resurrect it.

In my wider family, diversity was embraced in concrete ways. There have been several Catholic-Protestant marriages, including my great-grandparents, Albert and Wilhelmina Thomas, who immigrated to America in large part because of Old World prejudice against their “mixed marriage.” All of my cousins are older than me and were getting married when I was in junior high. One cousin married a Buddhist fellow from Thailand—and I heard absolutely no grumbling about him, even though he looked different than the rest of us pink-colored Schroeders. Indeed, I think we were all rather proud to have such an interesting and welcoming family.

At this point, instead of disgust, I feel compassion for people who haven’t had the opportunity yet to learn that LGBT people are just like everyone else. I try not to be impatient. I feel compassion, because I feel that times have passed them by, and when it comes to understanding LGBT people, they’re still in the small-town 1960s. It’s gotta be confusing and frustrating: What’s happening to this world? Also, and more importantly, they haven’t gone through a coming out process—the painful process of acceptance that we LGBT people and our families and friends have all gone through.

All I can say is, start asking LGBT people questions. You can’t really offend us—just be polite; don’t ask us anything you wouldn’t mind being asked yourself. And I will try to be patient.

So, setting this stage, I can begin with my own story.

2. I Was Confused

. . . Okay, so what adolescent isn’t confused, when all that stuff starts happening to them? The physical changes were straightforward and simple—but the hormonal changes were just nutty! For me, I guess, it was especially mystifying, because I didn’t feel “sexual.” Wasn’t I supposed to start feeling “hot and bothered” over boys in my class, or well . . . some kind of male human? Television showed how it was supposed to be, right? I was supposed to feel swoony and “turned on” by “cute” guys. I was supposed to want to kiss and hug them, at least. I was supposed to feel dreamy and moony—and plenty of my female classmates exhibited this behavior to the hilt. As early as fourth grade (I think), kids in my school started to “go together”—hold hands, talk privately, have jealous spats, and “break up.” I thought we were all too young for such foolishness. (My mom said so, and she was usually right about such things.)

Then there were the celebrity pinups. It was John Travolta, Shaun Cassidy, Leif Erickson, and who else . . . Scott Baio. And Willie somebody, with curly blond hair. Oh, and remember Andy Gibb? My friends bought Tiger Beat magazine and swooned over the photos. I kinda looked at this whole scene and thought, “Hmm, well, yeah, they’re good-looking guys. Pretty hair and eyes. But they seem kinda dumb and shallow. Vacant. Whyever are girls swooning over them?”

I was a sci-fi nerd! I was memorizing scenes and dialogue from Star Trek and Space: 1999. I went to every science fiction movie that came out. I read, and read, and read. I built models of my favorite spaceships. I also built model cars—I wanted to do a model Ford representing every year up to about 1960. Painstaking work. And I watched much too much television, though I’m sure it was less than a lot of other kids watched. (Nowadays, I believe just about ANY television is too much. I think it’s mostly toxic for us as individuals, as families, as a society, and for our democracy. But I digress.)

It turned out I wasn’t quite immune to what was going on with my friends, but I didn’t recognize it as the same basic thing. It seemed really different. The swooning that I felt couldn’t be labeled desire, because that wouldn’t have “worked” with another female. Right? And I was honestly not feeling anything I could call sexual. There were absolutely no stirrings “down there.” I was truly “pure” in that respect. (Naive, really.) I was not sexual. . . . Still, I felt an intensely powerful tugging in my heart, starting with my own suite of celebrity figures—I felt as if we shared, or could share something personally—as if they could know me somehow and understand me. It was a deep, emotional longing—an urge to connect and share big emotions with, a desire for emotional catharsis and comfort. Kate Jackson (I still jokingly refer to her as “my” Kate Jackson) was someone I felt this emotional longing for, or kinship to; so was Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman.) I felt this so strongly, I was ashamed of it. Was I going nuts? Something wasn’t “normal” about this, and I was smart enough not to talk to anyone about it.

How can you keep your feelings bottled up forever? When your hormones start to rage, how can you suppress them? I believe the desire to connect, to share ourselves with another human, is one of the strongest feelings we humans have, and as an adolescent, I had no experience, no basis for comparison, no idea of what to do. It didn’t seem like anything I’d ever seen before—not on TV, not in real life.

When young people start feeling their feelings, it seems crazy, undeniable. But I tell you, gay kids learn how to bottle them up. They learn how to play it cool. The straight kids can be completely open about everything they feel; the whole world can see what they’re going through. The straight kids are swooning and mooning, holding hands, telling all their friends about their cute new girl- or boyfriend, going through their innocent puppy-love phases, learning how to read and evaluate potential partners, bill and coo, grow close and then back away, fall in love and break up. And how to protect their hearts. Meanwhile, the gay kids are learning how to clam up entirely, gaining no experience in how to handle relationships. At the time of their lives when “relationship” emotions are at their most unpredictable and overwhelming, the gay folks are learning to suppress them. They have to.

Mel White, in his memoir Stranger at the Gate, talks about how awful it was for him as an adolescent, in gym class when he’d have to change clothes in the locker room with the other boys. He was terrified that his body might respond on its own to the sight of their handsome bodies and betray his secret. He learned, as we all do, to do whatever it takes not to let anyone, ever, find out. (Seriously, read his book!)

This is why I despise the homophobic contention that gay people “can’t control themselves.” The truth is entirely the opposite: Gay people have lived through the hellish boot camp that other people fondly remember as junior high and high school. If anyone knows how to control their desires and urges, it’s gay people.

Meanwhile, for most of us it is ultimately undeniable—those feelings, those longings. At some point, an opportunity arises and a connection is made with someone else, and then—how can you not try to go further on that path? (This is one reason I think it’s a bad idea to try to convince gay folks to attempt to lead lives as straight people, and why rules requiring celibacy are generally a bad idea. Suppressing one’s strongest feelings for true connection is a recipe for disaster—for many, those feelings will end up emerging, through some regrettable lapse of good judgment, in some inappropriate or possibly incredibly hurtful way.)

So anyway, I was starting to conclude I was pretty different from the other kids. But everything else in my life was fairly normal, and I was doing well in school, so I wasn’t too worried. My parents loved and supported me just as they always had. I found lots to enjoy in life. Hiking! Music! Painting! Reading! My aquariums!

I had some very good friends in junior high and high school, and to this day I feel sorry for them, and ashamed of myself for the way I treated them. This next bit is hard for me to write.

Starting in about eighth grade, I had a handful of female friends who I was very close to, and I kept wanting to be closer to them—emotionally closer, as I’ve already explained. It was all completely from the waist up. Bottling up my feelings, it seemed I was always about ready to crack—to burst into a crying jag—but that never happened. I wanted to sit up late into the night with these friends, talking, sharing our hearts—and I wanted hugs. I wrote them lots of notes. It got so that I pretty much invented drama, or overreacted to little hurts, so that I could have reasons to seek comfort from my friends. Even today, I think ouch—how creepy I was! I tell you, these friends were (and I think still are) gems.

One of these friends, in early September 1981, had the bright idea of giving me a journal as a gift, telling me, “This book will always ‘be there’ for you.” Maybe this gift idea was suggested by her mother. (I think her mother suspected and disliked me more and more as time went on.) (I can laugh at that now—she’s never exactly had a warm and kind personality, as far as I can tell, so I do rather relish the idea that I was a source of vexation for her!)

And so my journal writing began—I’ve kept up with it, more or less, all these years. My blog is an offshoot of it. (Of course, the focus has changed immensely as the decades have rolled by; the topics of interest are very different for 15-, 25-, 35-, and 45-year-olds.) But in my junior high and high school years, the writing was incredibly helpful. Journaling was also a little crazy-making, since it was an echo chamber for my wailing, with little fresh objectivity, and my ruminations tended to run in circles. But at least I developed a voice and a discipline of regular writing, and I did eventually figure some things out. (I admitted to myself I was “homoemotional,” a term I invented.) Journaling is still incredibly helpful in many ways, though now it’s more like “something really cool happened today that I want to remember.”

I still have all my journals (mostly), but I’ll spare you more details about them. Back to my special friendships. I was pretty messed up, I guess, though I was still very functional at school. I excelled in trumpet playing. I was in the honor society; I was a National Merit Scholar. But I kept feeling like I was close to falling apart. I bugged my friends; I was emotionally needy. I couldn’t really tell them what it was I wanted (and they did ask).

Later, when I finally figured myself out and told one of them I was gay, she told me (rather flatly), “I think you were the last person to figure that out.”

It’s not like I didn’t wonder. I had dared to ask myself in my journal: “So, am I a lesbian?” And I actually wasn’t homophobic; I wasn’t necessarily against the idea; for example, I loved listening to all the women’s programming on KOPN, including the lesbian stuff. I even thought lesbians were pretty cool. But I still didn’t see how it applied to me, as I was nonsexual. I simply didn’t feel anything “down there”; I didn’t even want to kiss anyone. Again, it was an emotional connection, and an emotional release, that I craved so badly. So I had to answer that question with “No, I don’t think so.”

So my manipulations, my drama, my pushing and pulling, my silent treatments, my depressing little notes, all that dramatic garbage—it ultimately wore down all of us. I was frustrated. In my junior year of high school (I think), I wrote a very mean and hurtful letter, photocopied it, and gave it to my entire circle, and that was the end of it. That was, understandably, the last straw with them. And in that way I removed myself from them. I guess they pretty much breathed a huge sigh of relief. I’d say “it was awful!” . . . But no—I was awful. And to this day, I’m ashamed. Even now, those bridges remain mostly burned. These had been my best friends for years.

3. Figuring Myself Out

Fortunately, I found other friends, and a whole new, enlightening dynamic arose—but then I would go from the frying pan into the fire. As the songwriter Lui Collins sagely put it, in her song “Baptism of Fire,” “the only way out is through.”

For one thing, I had a boyfriend—kind of. We were chums. We went on dates together, but we weren’t attracted to each other; there truly was no “spark.” We had lots of fun! He’d pick me up and we’d go to a movie, then get pizza and cokes, then go to the video arcade. We talked a lot. We giggled. We enjoyed each other’s company. We were moody teens, but we were just friends. I think lot of people figured it was more, but it wasn’t. Later, when we were both at MU (he was a year older than me), we both came out to each other at the same time! He had known he was gay from an early age (I’m guessing it’s often very different with boys). It turns out he had suspected that I was gay, but I had been oblivious about him. We had been “beards” for each other! In college, we would both be officers of the university’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance, and we’d talk and take questions about being gay to the enormous Sociology 1 lecture class. We also had a lot of fun going to the gay bar and dancing together. We double-dated!

But back to high school. I told you I was a trumpet player—it’s hard to pick a more high-pressure instrument. When you play, everyone hears you. When you screw up, everyone hears you. You must have the strength of your convictions! If you play well, it’s glorious! But you must be completely prepared and on top of your game, or your disgrace could be epic. And we all know how high school kids handle disgrace: horribly.

So it was in the spring of my junior year, I think, when several of us band kids were off at some other high school somewhere doing the district solo competition, having taken a bus to get there. All in our suits and dresses and what-not. The nerves at these things are out of this world. Everyone waiting for their turn in the hallways outside their assigned performance rooms, quietly, frantically fingering difficult passages, people warming up outside on sidewalks. In the girls’ bathrooms, it all was excited, nervous gossip; it was “heels, hangers, and hairspray.” (Ugh!)

I played my solo well—I’m blessed with an ability to kind of tune out “the situation” and focus on something simple, like, “this time, I’m gonna play it really well!” As soon as I finished my rather tricky solo, I felt confident I’d get another “I” (that is, a “one”—the highest rating). However, another trumpeter from my school, who was a year younger than I, succumbed to an attack of “dry mouth” (oh, that’s the worst, right?), and she couldn’t get her horn to “speak.” The attack of each note was a mess: Flahf, flahf, flahf. She fought through her challenging piece, sounding pretty terrible. Of course, she knew that damn piece inside and out. She was WAY better than what happened to her that day. It was a total fluke, but—there you go. She crashed and burned.

When it was finally over, completely humiliated, she strode directly for one of the girls’ rooms in a part of the building far away from the teenage competition brouhaha. I followed her. Hidden in a stall, she wept. I talked to her. I don’t remember what I said, but I tried to be supportive. And it seemed to help.

That day, our special friendship was born. In some ways, for me it was sort of a continuation of what I had attempted with my other friends, but in other ways, the positions were flopped. Because I was a year older, she kind of deferred to me, and I felt less needy or dependent. Another difference was that we were focused on each other; we were a duo. We were best friends. We confided our deep secrets to each other; we also joked and had lots of fun. She had a clever, rebellious streak that was hilarious and charming. We spent a lot of time supporting each other—she was incredibly insecure about her looks, her weight, her attractiveness to boys, her trumpeting, and on and on. I adored her; each time she said something self-deprecating, I assured her she had nothing to fear.

She was jealous that I had a boyfriend and she did not, but I assured her that he and I were just friends. And she probably picked up on it. The three of us often hung out together. Sort of like three misfits who went to movies and fast-food restaurants and sat at the mall and said snarky things about the big-haired strangers who passed by. One afternoon, we sat on a bench at Columbia Mall and stared at some random point on the ceiling. When someone saw us and glanced up to see what we were watching, we’d snicker and guffaw. (Kids!)

My friend often told me she didn’t want to come in between me and my “boyfriend”; she kept saying she didn’t want to be an unwelcome “third wheel,” but he and I both assured her she was quite welcome.

A lot of my communication with my best friend was done via notes and letters. But a lot of it was done at night, too. During my junior year and the summer before my senior year, we spent several evenings at each other’s houses. Sleepovers—in the same bed. Yes. And here was our secret: We held each other as we talked. We rubbed each other’s backs and shoulders. We stroked each other’s hair. And we talked. And that was all.

I cannot speak for what she was feeling, even though she reassured me, then, she felt the same way I did (whatever that could mean). But for me, it was honestly all “above the waist.” We were careful not to “go too far.” I wouldn’t have known what to “do,” anyway, and I sure as hell didn’t want to wreck my great friendship by trying to do anything so daring. But I simply was not sexual then. I didn’t masturbate until I was in college—in my first real lesbian relationship. So this was all quite pure, really.

We held each other; we talked all night. We were careful not to fall asleep in each other’s arms, in case someone should enter the room and see us. We knew what people might think. We kept writing to each other. To anyone looking at us, we were simply the best of friends—which was pretty cool, us both being talented female trumpeters.

The band directors must have recognized our friendship. When they drew out their detailed plans for our marching band show my senior year, they positioned her and me beside each other throughout the whole performance. Which would’ve been great, but . . .

Right before my senior year of high school, my friend’s mother discovered one of the letters I’d written to her. I can’t recall what it might have said, but it might have used the dreaded “L” word (“love”—egad!); certainly, it expressed a closeness and intimacy that appalled her. She angrily confronted my friend with this “evidence”—and my friend had denied everything: “No, mom, I’m not ‘that way’!” And she pretty much hung me out to dry, agreeing to her mom’s various demands. (Her mom, by the way, was a guidance counselor at our high school. Scary, huh? Of course, it’s a lot easier to be open-minded and understanding when it comes to people in theory, but when it’s your own daughter, NOPE!)

So it was right before one of our evening band rehearsals, the week before school started, and my friend told me what had happened that afternoon. I could tell immediately something was wrong; it was obvious she had been crying. And she seemed shaken, numb, transformed, wooden, a stranger. As she spoke, however, her voice grew haughty as she laid down our new boundaries: “Mom found one of your notes, and she hit the roof. . . . Look, you might be gay, but I’m definitely not that way. Maybe we can still be friends, but absolutely not that way . . .”

Aaaaaand that’s how my senior year started. I marched right beside her all that autumn—this stranger, who in the following months and years would apply increasing amounts of makeup to her face, bleach and curl and spray her hair, and act more and more, well, ditzy. Especially when boys were around. Eventually, once we were both at MU, she joined a sorority and in her first year lost track of how many frat boys she’d slept with. Seriously, that’s what she told me, along with details of her sexual encounters. But whatever—that is her story, and not mine. Draw your own conclusions.

When she (basically) broke up with me, that week before school started, I was incapacitated by the pain. I stayed in bed. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. And I couldn’t stop crying. This was my first real heartbreak, but it was much more. It had to do with who I was. I had been misjudged and mislabeled. It wasn’t fair. What’s wrong with me? I figured I must be crazy, to keep forming these emotional attachments to females. Why did I love them so damn much?

Of course I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. Mom couldn’t figure out what was going on with me. She suggested maybe I could talk to Reverend Brandenburg—maybe he could help? In my misery, I couldn’t bring myself to laugh at that idea, but I did know that, no matter how nice he was, he couldn’t help me at all. (Now, I realize, he might’ve directed me to an actual therapist, who might actually have helped, but oh, well—see how sad it is when Christians have such a bad reputation with gay people?) “No, Mom, he can’t help.”

At some point, days into this crisis, as the rubble was starting to settle and the dust was clearing, and I wasn’t crying all the time, I finally, grudgingly, said to myself, “Well . . . shit. Maybe I am a lesbian. Maybe that’s what this is all about.”

I had little idea what to “do” about this idea. I didn’t know the first thing about dating. Where do you meet other lesbians? At a bar? Do you just walk in by yourself and ask someone, “Hi, my name is Julie. Will you be my friend?” And I was eighteen—I couldn’t go to bars, anyway.

My friendship with my “boyfriend” went on hiatus, as he had started at MU when I began my senior year. It seemed like a lie, to hang out with him; I was tired of it. Plus, being around him reminded me of our trio, and the betrayal I had endured.

So that’s how I started my senior year of high school. I had no close friends anymore, but thankfully plenty to keep me busy. I had a swell GPA, was in honor society, I was first chair in band, got third chair in all-state band, had a solo in marching band, completed my sweep of “ones” in the state solo competition, had a senior solo with the band, played in the school musical (Annie—what a lovely solo cornet part), and garnered a sweet National Merit and other scholarships for MU.

And all along, I kept thinking, “I can’t wait to get the hell out of here.” MU, I believed, would open new doors for my heart.

4. Finally Making Connections

There’s more to this story than I can possibly fit in, such as my connections to my apparently gay high school classmates. There were some students who I thought might be gay, and with my dawning self-acceptance, I became more aware of my friendships with these individuals. We didn’t talk openly about being gay, but I think we understood each other. This, of course, was “gaydar.” We were learning how to come out without coming out; how to exchange “I know you know” looks; how to read between the lines.

I passed notes in French class with one friend who seemed to be going through a really rough period. We didn’t come out to each other, really, but we hinted at it. A kind of breakthrough happened when, in passing notes, we established that we both enjoyed women’s music (the kind they played on Womenergy and the Moon of Artemis programs on KOPN), which was sort of the same thing as coming out. And once that was established, we shared information about local appearances and new albums by our favorite women’s music performers. I share this because I want to remind you what it was like back in the 1980s. We hinted and danced around the subject, but we didn’t broach it. We were that scared to say it—to say the words.

I had another gay friend in Music Theory class. He was pretty well out of the closet, at least in speaking to me, but mostly it was implied. No direct language, nothing that could be construed as absolutely clear. He had a delightfully goofy sense of humor, he was rather gossipy, and he loved to laugh. I wish we could have done more, well, networking. Like, “who else is gay at this school?” “Which teachers or counselors are okay to talk to about it?” “Is anyone sneaking into bars? Where is the gay bar, anyway?”

I’ve often talked about how KOPN’s “Crystal Set Feminists” (the group of volunteer radio hosts for the women’s programs) “saved my life.” There were actual voices of actual lesbians talking, on the radio, to actual lesbians out there in radioland. In Central Missouri! There were concerts and meetings going on. There was a bar (somewhere). There were songs that went out, dedicated to So-and-so. There was humorous chitchat in between the songs. Just knowing these people existed, and that they were okay, and that they had a community, was incredibly important for me.

And the music spoke to me as well. Meg Christian, with her gorgeous classical guitar work and emotionally vulnerable lyrics, seemed to speak for the feelings in my heart. I remember lying in bed, listening to these songs late into the night, in my dark room.

. . . So I started attending MU. I was an undeclared music major—I had a scholarship that required me to participate in ensembles, and I was interested in pursuing music, but until I was sure, I didn’t want to declare a major just yet and have to take “intro to piano techniques” and “music theory I” (both of which I was pretty sure I could test out of, anyway).

So I was pretty busy fitting in to college, getting used to the different pace of class work, taking mostly large-auditorium freshman general education requirements, but taking some honors classes, too. Because of my scholarship requirements (and interest), I spent a lot of time around the music majors, who seemed more immature than the students in my other classes.

I found, in band, particularly, that the male trumpet players I sat with were especially immature (I was the only female). They “acted out” to make the girls laugh. It was truly disgusting; I won’t go into the things they did. But I had to sit with them, among them. I had thought that college wind ensemble would be a group serious about making fine music—not like silly high school kids. We were supposed to be the crème de la crème, but these jokers were making my high school band look like seasoned, sober pros. The more immature they were, the more dignified I tried to be.

But I was good, and they knew it. I’d basically gotten third chair in the whole school—as a freshman. A senior and a junior were first and second chairs. That’s pretty good, huh? And when we auditioned for places in the orchestra—for which there were only four trumpet positions, total—I again got third chair, behind the same two guys. But with the shenanigans, I felt increasingly out of step with them. The conductors (men) turned a blind eye to their behavior. All this would eventually help turn me off of the idea of being a music major—and professional musician—the thought of sitting beside jerks like these all the time? Yucch!

I’m telling you about this so you can picture the scene when I met my first actual girlfriend.

Generally, when I was waiting for my lessons or for any other class in the music building, I’d wait outside the building, across Lowry Mall, on a bench or a low retaining wall, instead of sitting in the building among all these clownish ding-a-lings. I’d watch the people go by—it was much more interesting.

I didn’t know how to meet other lesbian and gay people, but I was getting an idea of whom I should be trying to meet. There was a woman who worked the circulation desk at the university library—she must be a lesbian for sure (I thought). Another couple was blatant enough to walk down Lowry Mall hand-in-hand. One striking woman had a glorious mane of long hair and tended to go barefoot, with well-worn (perfectly fitting) blue jeans and an artistic, flowing blouse; she’d often walk with her pet malamute. (Or was it a husky?)

For my part, even in high school, I’d adopted my own style of clothes, a blend of “liberal young academic” “New Wave,” and “Annie Hall” looks. Blue jeans; sneakers, oxford shoes, or hiking boots; a striped oxford dress shirt; a tie (I had a bunch of ties appropriated from my dad, narrow ones, which were sooooo in style then); and either a sweater or a tweed jacket with patches on the sleeves. “Androgyny” was cool in the 1980s. I look at old pictures of me then, and I think, “dang, wasn’t I a dapper little dyke!” (I was a lot thinner then, too, so . . .)

So I was putting myself out there. But then again, I wasn’t. I was shy. Again, what was I supposed to say? “Hi, I’m pretty sure I’m gay. Will you be my friend?” You know, I actually should have done that! But I was shy. Remember, I’d come out to myself, but I hadn’t yet learned how to talk about it to anyone else. “Coming out” is a multistep process that never really ends.

I began to visit the campus Women’s Center, but I was too shy and awkward-feeling to step inside the door. It was in the basement of Gentry Hall—you’d go down a short flight of steps to a wide hallway, and the Women’s Center was on the other side of a big glass window and door. I could see in. There was a sitting area, like a big living room with a sofa and comfy chairs, and another area for their small library of feminist and women-related books, and beyond that were the desks of the people who worked there. Often, there’d be a few women sitting on the sofa and chairs, chatting, but I didn’t know what I could possibly say or do if I stepped in the door.

Fortunately, in the hallway, there was a big rack full of brochures of interest to women. There were KOPN program guides, flyers about the Women’s Studies academic program, anti-nuke activism, and so on. And always, there were folded copies of the big, two-sided Women’s Center program calendar, ranging from self-defense and “how-to-change-your-own-oil” classes to feminist deconstructions of literary works and discussions of radical feminist politics. I would stand there and browse the brochures, looking for something I hadn’t read yet, while also trying to work up the nerve to just go inside there and start talking. But I never did.

I did read a lot. Somewhere, I found a used copy of Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. There was a big labyris on the cover. I have to admit, I’ve never really gotten into that book, but I knew all the other lesbians were reading it, and many held it in high regard. This’ll get me in trouble with my more orthodox feminist sisters, but honestly: it’s always struck me as the kind of “brilliant” writing one does at three o’clock in the morning—that really needs to be carefully looked at in the light of day. Daly kind of lost me by the time she was deconstructing the word “therapist” to “the/rapist,” creating a false etymology in her effort to criticize how patriarchal medicine has mistreated and injured women. But mostly, that book is hard to read because of the awful truths she exposes about the worldwide patriarchal system that has oppressed women for ages, including female genital mutilation in Africa, foot-binding in China, witch-burning in Europe, and so on.

So, back to my trumpet playing. Orchestra rehearsal was on Thursday nights, starting at 7:00. As the symphony’s third-chair trumpeter, I would have a lot of time off. Most orchestra music calls for only two trumpeters, or none. Often, if there were only two parts, we’d double in rehearsals, just so the 3rd and 4th chair players could get experience. Some pieces, of course, need all four trumpeters in, say, movements 1 and 2, none in 3, and then all four again in 4. So the conductor would start us rehearsing at the beginning of the symphony, work through movements 1 and 2, and when we’d get to movement 3, he’d say, “Okay, when we’re done with this movement, we’ll have a 15-minute break, then return to work on movement 4.” That would allow all of us who were tacit on the third movement to leave the room and walk around somewhere until after the break.

I’d take my trumpet in its case and my daypack full of notebooks out of the room with me. Sometimes I’d explore Jesse Hall (which is where MU large ensembles rehearsed back in the dark ages, downstairs in the band room below the stage), but because of all my stuff, I rarely went far. The other trumpeters and brass players, I guess, would leave their horns in their cases in the rehearsal room, because once freed they’d completely leave the building and hoot and guffaw outdoors. Or whatever. But usually, I’d sit in one of the boxy wooden 1950s classroom desks that were lined up against the wall outside the rehearsal area, and I’d study.

One night in October, a few months into my freshman semester, instead of class work, I was reading (or trying to read) Gyn/Ecology. I’d settled in, and the sound of the orchestra rehearsing the slow third movement lulled me into a rather serene mindset. I was actually getting into the book when the group finished and the break began. Out poured the orchestra members, yakking and chattering. All the fiddle and flute players, the violists and cellists, the bassoonists and bassists, and all the other instruments who played in the “quiet” movement. I still had fifteen minutes before I had to go play again, so I doubled down and focused harder on the book. Then I heard a knowing cackle:

Ohhhhhhhh, so you’re reading the Daly book!”

I immediately started shoving the book into my daypack, and she cackled again: “Oh yeah, better hide that front cover with the LABYRIS on it! Too late, I saw it!” I looked up and didn’t quite recognize the young woman who was accosting me. It turns out she sat directly in front of me, a few rows ahead, so I never really saw her face during rehearsals. She was petite and thin, with huge eyeglasses and a kind of page-boy haircut. She was pursing her lips and smirking, with a knowing, triumphant gleam in her eyes. She said, “I’ve been watching you, with your ties and tweed jackets, and trying to figure you out, but now I’ve just got to introduce myself!”

And that’s how I met my first real girlfriend. She was an oboist, pianist, synthesizer-aficionado, and senior composition major. A brilliant musician. And a lesbian. And so we chatted for the next fifteen minutes. We found that we both loved women’s music, and she offered to loan me her Ladyslipper Catalog, if I’d walk back to her dorm with her after rehearsal to get it. (Remember print catalogs?)

At this point, I don’t need to go into detail. Suffice it to say, we became friends, and she introduced me to a lot of people. As I finally started hanging around with more lesbians and gay men, I learned how to chat casually about my subculture, my “lifestyle,” “my people” . . . myself. I learned to negotiate friendships with politically correct “humorless” lesbian separatists, and with raunchy gay men who seemed never to stop laughing (those are pretty much mutually exclusive groups, in case you didn’t know). Also, as the only two lesbians in the music building (that we knew of), we supported each other amid the infantile posturings of the musicians around us.

Yes, we hung out a lot and fell in love. She was the first person I ever had sex with. Are you expecting me to describe that? Sorry if you are! We were lucky that she had, during her senior year, managed to acquire one of the rare single dorm rooms in Johnston Hall. I spent a lot of time with her there, since I lived at home. (I never felt any desire to live in a dorm, when I felt perfectly comfortable at home, plus I was saving my folks money by doing so.)

So: I’d come out to myself, I’d come out to someone else, and I’d confirmed my suspicions with my first actual relationship, but my “coming out process” wasn’t done, was it. It was actually only beginning.

5. Coming Out

When most people talk about “coming out of the closet,” they’re usually thinking about revealing their sexual orientation to others—like when celebrities are “outed” to the public. But what I’ve tried to make clear, in all my rambling so far, the first person you come out to is yourself—and that is probably the hardest part of the whole process.

In an odd way—at least for someone after the sexual revolution of the 1960s—my coming out struggle hinged not upon me being attracted to women, but about the “sex” part itself. Although many of my high school friends were experimenting sexually, that part of me was completely unactivated. I was not particularly homophobic. My problem was with being sexual—at all. Maybe the term is “inhibited.” I didn’t recognize my feelings as sexual, because they simply weren’t, and I had gotten the impression that homosexuality was all about being sexual. I had gotten the impression, also, that homosexuals were more sexual, spicier, wilder, whatever, than straight people—and in high school, that definitely didn’t fit me (I thought then—wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

But what was I supposed to do? What was I supposed to surmise? I had been told that sex was supposed to be reserved for someone you love, that I’d know when the time was right for sex, because we’d both deeply love each other.

Did I choose this? Not a bit. The choice was whether to attempt to live a lie, or whether to follow my heart.

If you pay attention to any part of this, here is what I want you to remember.

Everyone I’d ever wanted to hold me, to be intimate with, to share my deepest feelings with, to hold, to adore, to share everything I am with . . . has been female. I’ve just never felt that way with men. What was I supposed to do? Pretend to love a man, marry him, have sex with him (ew), and make us both miserable, or at best, unsatisfied? As I asked during my crisis, “Why do I keep loving women so damn much?” . . . I had to admit it was love. And where does love come from--? Whose name is synonymous with Love?

This, my friends, is how I can reconcile Christianity (or any spiritual belief) with my lesbianism: I don’t think my Creator made a mistake. It’s not a choice, that I tend to form my deep attachments with women; it’s part of who I am. And it is love; that is the underpinning. The sex (that everyone gets so het up about, no pun intended) is a natural outgrowth, and unless you’re in the porn industry or make sex a personal hobby, it’s generally not the ultimate focus of one’s life, anyway.

My bachelor’s degree is in English literature, and I’m a professional editor, so I know how to interpret and reinterpret texts. And I’ve learned that the very best things to read, in all the world, are the texts that continually offer up new readings and interpretations. The great works of art are ones we can revisit over and over, and find new ways to understand and appreciate them. The Bible falls into this category, I think.

In other words, I believe it’s a profound disservice to the Bible and its authors (and its ultimate Author) to treat it as a DIY or “how-to” book, like a cookbook, to be taken literally at whatever face-value meaning that immediately springs to mind. It’s far richer than that. Its revelations get better and better as you delve into it more deeply, as you learn to understand it in its historical context (as much as we can fathom it), and as you remain open to the new perspectives of expanding human knowledge and God’s unstoppable voice.

It’s time to put the Sodom and Gomorrah story into the same category as the curse of Ham/Canaan, and the multitude of biblical descriptions of slavery, which were used for ages as a rationale for African American slavery and segregation. I won’t go into my own interpretations of the Bible, but if you are interested in new biblical perspectives on homosexuality, just Google “clobber verses.” You’ll find plenty.

So, as for coming out to other people, it was a gradual process, and I believe that most of the people who were closest to me—my family, especially—could tell all along where I was headed. So I never actually had a “coming out” talk with them. My dating simply became more open and relaxed. We didn’t talk about it, though I introduced my girlfriends to them, and everyone was basically cordial and decent to one another. I am endlessly grateful for my parents’ grace throughout all this.

And I soon realized that “coming out” was something they had to do, too—even though it certainly wasn’t something they’d “asked for.” (As if anyone does.) Having a lesbian daughter has forced them to learn how to talk about “it”—for instance, how to introduce Sue to other people as my “partner,” and now as my “wife”—when it would be so much easier to call her my “friend” or to not introduce her at all.

I remember a long time ago having a conversation with my mom while we were watching a tennis match on TV. Good ol’ Martina Navratilova was playing, and we were talking about her relationships with women. And I remember thinking how much of a stretch it seemed for my mom, then, to be talking about the subject.

When I lived in Arizona, I remember Dad sending me a little envelope containing a clipping from the Christian Science Monitor. This was in about 1990, and some denomination was struggling about the idea of gay clergy. The clipping had been a sidebar that talked about how the United Church of Christ had way back in the 1970s made loud, clear statements “deploring the violation of civil rights of gay and bisexual persons” and allowing for the ordination of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. It was just a little clipping in an envelope, but the message from my dad was clear: Be proud that you are a member of a progressive denomination. You do not have to leave your church. You are welcome here. . . . It meant a lot to get that clipping in the mail.

For the most part, I’ve been incredibly lucky that I’ve been completely accepted by pretty much everyone who matters to me, including Sue’s family, more or less. When people do have problems with Sue and me, apparently it’s the religious dogma that gets in the way. Again fortunately, we still feel loved and valued. Glad that we all agree to be civil and loving even if we disagree on some issues.

I think it’s funny (well, sad, really) that religious beliefs are what’s driving most of the active hatred toward gay people. Religion! —When nearly all religions say “treat others as yourself,” “treat strangers as you would the deity,” “see everyone as sparks of the divine,” “don’t judge other people,” and “be kind to the outcasts.”

I’ve already told you about my usual strategy for coming out to people—to avoid pronouns and names until well into a pleasant conversation, then to say “she” or “Sue” in an exceedingly casual way. It’s a form of “leading” the person I’m talking to, to make it seem like no big deal, like it’s just my ordinary, natural life (which it is).

I’m sensitive about the idea of gay people “flaunting” their sexuality, so I have usually treated it as anyone might treat their marital status. You don’t exactly go around telling everyone “hey, I’m married”—but it comes up organically, eventually, if you talk about your life.

Of course, it’s one thing to do this when talking to someone you’ll never have much to do with, like someone you’re standing in line with at the DMV—but it’s different when it’s someone with whom you must continue to have a relationship. A neighbor, for example, or your dental hygienist—both can make you feel pain. (“Oops!”) And then there are the people who have power over you—your supervisor at work, or the big boss over her or him. The landlord, or the apartment manager. Who gets to know? Does it become an “unsecret secret”? Should you try to hide it? In America, gay folks are still not guaranteed basic civil rights.

I should say something about how lucky I am to have had it relatively easy. Several of my school friends didn’t have it so good. For some reason or other they had a much rougher time of it. Maybe they didn’t have the uncompromising, unconditional support that I had from my parents. Maybe their families’ dysfunction left cracks in their foundation, making the structure of their personalities more fragile. Maybe they had early love relationships that left them emotionally injured, with little support for healing.

Depression is common in LGBT people, for good reason: most of us grow up thinking we must be some sort of monsters—the love that tries to make our hearts soar simultaneously makes us shrivel inside and loathe ourselves. Can you imagine how that feels? Is it any wonder that alcohol and drug abuse is common in LGBT people? For generations of gay people, the only place to meet one another and socialize was in bars!

And so I ponder my friends from elementary, junior high, and high school who are gone today—and I know that their being gay was an ingredient in their early destruction. There’s that saying, “there, but for the grace of God, go I,” but that’s a silly thing to say. God’s grace doesn’t have anything to do with it—like I was somehow chosen over them—no. It’s just dumb luck that they had the background and experiences that led to their fates, and that I was lucky enough to have the unconditional love and support of family and friends. I had a stable family. I did not live in poverty. I did not grow up crippled by parental judgmentalism. I did not have siblings with grave medical issues. I did not have to face racism in addition to being a lesbian. I was not addicted to anything, and neither were my parents. I had a church that didn’t preach hate. I had KOPN’s women’s programming to introduce me to feminist perspectives, and a progressive college-town community that valued diversity. I was flat-out lucky.

Sadly, however, plenty of people don’t have all the stars line up like I did.

6. Learning about My People

I’m not going to write my whole life story, here. But I ought to tie up some loose ends, and mention some parts of my trajectory that relate to my being a lesbian (I guess). I was just telling you about finding my first girlfriend in college, how I was living at home with my parents, and that I was a near music major . . . Needless to say, that all changed. In many ways, my undergraduate years were spent majoring in being a lesbian—learning about my subculture, meeting people, participating in groups like GALA (the university’s Gay And Lesbian Alliance, back when there were only two letters, G and L) . . . and learning how to date and have love relationships, which most straight people start doing in junior high and high school.

My first girlfriend had been a senior while I was a freshman, and after she graduated and moved back to her native St. Louis, we tried to keep our relationship going, but . . . we both knew it was improbable. I resisted when she suggested we should both feel free to date other people, but she was right, and indeed, though I wasn’t looking, I would find a new girlfriend when I was a sophomore. But I’m really grateful for my first relationship, especially with someone a little older, who could introduce me to my own subculture.

When I would visit her in St. Louis, she would take me to lots of lesbian/feminist and gay places—and it was wonderful! We could spend all afternoon in the Central West End, having a meal at the Sunshine Inn (a terrific vegetarian restaurant that I still miss), shopping at Heffalump’s (gag gifts, quirky novelties, cards, including plenty of risqué items for the pierced, purple-hair, men-in-black-leather-chaps set), browsing the women’s and gay book and record sections of Left Bank Books (which is still there!!!)—oh, and people watching! As St. Louis’s then most prominent gay district, the CWE was the place to see and be seen. I always made sure my dykey little tie was straight—and that my “look” was anything but!

The Women’s Eye bookstore (554 Limit Ave., off of Delmar, back when it was a bona fide “bad neighborhood”) was another place we always had to visit. Way back in the 1980s (creak!) common everyday bookstores didn’t have “women’s” or “gender studies” sections! That stuff was marginalized and suppressed—it was radical! There was a raw purity to it, because it was unfiltered by mainstream commercialism. (Sort of how health foods started off in local coops with simple, cheap tofu-and-sprouts dishes, and now has all kinds of pretentious, exotic, gourmet ingredients and corporate-organic products sold for top-dollar at the gigantic Whole Foods chain.)

So feminists and lesbian-feminists wrote their own book manuscripts, formed their own publishing companies, created their own distribution networks, and ran their own bookstores. Often, these stores were collectives, kind of like what was going on with health-food coops and bakery collectives. Power to the people! The Women’s Eye was off of Delmar, before that part of town was revitalized. In addition to book sales and a lending library, they had women’s music records, pottery, calendars, tee-shirts, jewelry, and so on. That’s where you could buy interlocking-women’s-symbols earrings, and labyris pendant necklaces. I remember buying Jane Chambers’s play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove there. And lots of other stuff!

I’ve mentioned women’s music, but that’s such a huge topic, I hardly know where to begin. It’s a thread that has woven through my whole story—listening on the radio, buying the records (and tapes, and CDs), and going to concerts and festivals. These women are my heroes, angels, saviors—mothers and sisters. Every trip to Streetside Records included a visit to the Women’s section—a big, single bin of LPs, Margie Adam through Woody Simmons. These artists, and their loyal fans, were established loooong before k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, and the Indigo Girls.

While all this lesbian-feminist subculture was going on and flowering, having its roots in the crunchy-granola late sixties and seventies, my own generation was moving into a very different-looking culture: New Wave. (Class of 1984!) I’ve always had an affinity for folk music and coffeehouse singers with guitars, but I was also a teen and young adult of the eighties. And lucky for me, this was a heyday for androgyny and smoothness. Annie Lennox, with her short orange hair and tailored masculine suit, was imposing, sexy, powerful, exciting. (How many lesbians had a poster of her on her wall?) The term the media used for her, and Boy George, and others was “gender-bending.” We called it androgynous. I loved it that people were breaking out of stereotypical forms of dress, redefining what men and women could do and be. Not all femininity or masculinity “looks like” how society usually depicts it—and it’s okay.

These were the fresh, hot chart-topping dance tunes, and it was from our subculture. Suddenly the gay bars were the freakiest, hottest places for anyone who liked to dance. It was cool to be queer!

In addition to all the New Wave music, the bars were also full of the good ol’ tried-and-true disco songs that were such a part of gay male culture in the 1970s; by the mid 1980s, many of these had become anthems that got everyone out on the floor! They’re still favorites today, and everyone sings with them:We are fam-i-ly! I got all my sistas with me!” Oh, yeah, and this anthem: “Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die? / Oh no, not I! I will survive! / Long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive / I’ve got all my life to live, and all my love to give / And I’ll survive! I will survive! Hey, hey!

We used to go to the Paradise Retreat, northeast of Columbia on Route PP. It was out of the city limits, out in the boonies, a modified warehouse/Butler building with a lake and dock. There were no liquor sales there—they just sold mixers and sodas. With this arrangement, they could allow in minors as young as sixteen (maybe younger?)—though we had to sign in at the door with our name, hair color, and shirt color, and we had to let the door people mark a big black M on the back of one of our hands in permanent magic marker—so they could keep an eye on us capital-M Minors and keep us from drinking alcohol. (I wonder how well that really worked!) I know a lot of folks had coolers in their cars; and anyway, that’s not including the pot and the poppers, and whatever else people were doing.

I didn’t drink in public when I was underage. I usually got ice water with a splash of lemon juice—which was free!

Ah, the Paradise Retreat. Somewhere, I still have a ballpoint pen that says “PARADISE RETREAT—HAPPY AND GAY IN COLUMBIA.”

My first girlfriend thought the place was “seedy,” but I contended that it was “rustic.” It looked like it had been decorated by a Harley-ridin’ dyke, and yeah, I think that was the case. There really wasn’t much in the way of decorations. In the dark main room was the big concrete dance floor with not-too-extensive disco lights, a DJ booth in the far corner, and huge, loud, thumping speakers; and unremarkable round cafe tables and chairs around the perimeter. The smaller room, which included the entry door, had a few pool tables and a bar that served only the mixers and soft beverages mentioned above. The entrances to the restrooms were off this room. I remember a series of bandanas had been pinned on the framework above the bar, all along the top of the bar, like a little, ridiculously high café curtain. It was pretty lame—maybe that’s why my girlfriend thought it was “seedy.”

I never really liked the bar much. I went there with my friends because it was “the thing to do.” (The only thing to do!) It was noisy and incredibly smoky, and I’d rather talk than dance. At least once every time I went there, I’d walk outside with whoever I was with (or by myself) and step out to the dock and look at the lake. As the sound of the thumping dance party receded, the clicking and chirping of frogs became audible. I enjoyed just being there, in this place—but I always thought it was kind of sad that this—this bar thing—was such a huge part of gay culture. When there are so many more healthy ways to meet people and socialize.

I learned that there’s a big difference between the gay men and lesbian subcultures. The bars in Columbia reflected this. The town at that time was only large enough to support one gay bar. Over time, gay bars would open and close, attracting their particular demographic. Paradise Retreat seemed to serve both men and women well, but then a new bar opened—a flashier one, with thumpier music, prettier, slicker decorations, more dance-oriented—which drew a lot of the gay men away from the Retreat. Eventually, the Retreat closed. But the lesbians wanted someplace to play pool, sit around and talk . . . so another bar would open that would be more for both. Then something would happen with the men’s bar, and it would close. And so on. At least, this is kinda how it used to be.

I’m sure there’s a lot more I could say about those days, but there’s also a lot I don’t know. Many of the men—especially in the days before AIDS—had a generally different kind of dating scene than the women did. You can’t really pigeonhole everyone, because there were plenty of women who slept around, and there were plenty of men who were absolutely monogamous—but judging from the bar culture, there did seem to be differences. But you know, maybe that’s just men (gay or straight)—maybe there’s an innate tendency for men, especially young men, to be fairly happy to not form attachments, while women are focused on forming relationships. As the joke goes, “How do you know when two lesbians are on their second date?” “They’re driving a U-Haul.” Again, maybe things are changing now. Of course, I’m just speculating here.

7. Back into the Closet!

I’ve mentioned my first two real-life girlfriends, whom I dated when I was in college. The second one didn’t turn out so well; at the beginning of what would have been our third year together, she broke up with me about one month after we’d just signed a year-long rental agreement on an apartment, making my departure financially sticky on top of the devastation I felt. But again, remember that I’d only ever really dated two people, and this was the second—so I had little experience in relationships.

This was the summer before my senior year in college, and I withdrew from the lesbian/gay community. I stopped participating in the campus Gay And Lesbian Alliance. I felt like everyone was kinda nutty, and I wanted to raise myself to a higher level. I focused on my coursework, and started fretting about what I was going to do once I graduated. (English degree: not terribly useful right out of the bag.)

It was at this time that I started talking with a woman who was quite a bit older than I—she was about my parents’ age, making her fifty while I was twenty-two. I have to be careful about what I share here, because she is still, to this day, in the closet. (I guess you could put it that way . . .)

I’m sharing a bit about her story because I think it’s interesting to examine what I learned about her world—her growing up in a small town in the forties, attending high school in the late fifties, college and grad school in the sixties and early seventies. Of course, everyone is different, but her take on her own sexuality was that she was not gay, lesbian, homosexual, or even bisexual. She didn’t want any of those ugly labels. She rationalized her attractions and physical response as something beyond what most other people can even understand. She once called herself “pansexual”—explaining that even gorgeous scenery could arouse her physically.

Today, I kind of roll my eyes and shake my head when I remember taking this seriously . . . but complex intellectual maneuvers like these might have been more common than we think. These are ways that internalized homophobia warp people’s perspective about themselves. Here’s another example: She told me of a couple of her friends (of her same vintage) who were of some particular branch of Christianity (I forget which, now); these two women, who were long-term lesbian lovers, reconciled their relationship with their religion by not doing a certain thing in bed. (Look, I’m trying to be delicate here. Use your imagination.) By not doing that particular thing, they believed, they weren’t truly “having sex.” So all the rest of the stuff they did together “didn’t count.” Off on a technicality!

So my friend didn’t accept the label, and she didn’t care much for the gay and lesbian “community.” She, like me, was on the rebound from a relationship that had gone south. We were both hurt, we were both disgusted. We griped and we supported each other. It wasn’t long until we began a relationship. (For the record: I initiated it, pursued it, lobbied for it.)

But with her, “relationship” was a problematic word. (There were lots of problematic words with her.) For a long time, we called it a “whatever.” No strings attached, no expectations, blah, blah, blah, blah. I was living with my parents in their house, so nearly all our “together” time was at her home. But she didn’t want me to move in with her—not at all.

I could write volumes about all the reasons why a huge age difference is generally a bad idea for relationships, but I’ll refrain. I’ll say there were good things and bad things. Good things included me getting a keener insight into the world she grew up in (noted above). Also, we traveled a lot together, so I got a crash course in “adulting”—things like driving to the airport and parking, booking plane flights, hotels, and rental cars, places to go when traveling, how to pack bags efficiently, and lots more. The savvy traveler! At home, she was a pretty good cook, and she taught me a lot about food. She taught me to love hot chilis!

I looked up to her in many ways, and this of course was linked to our central problem: the age and power difference. Also, that she is a poster child for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, for which nothing in my experience could have prepared me. It was an emotionally abusive relationship.

One of the cardinal rules of our relationship (she made the rules, and I tried to comply with them all) was that no one was to know we were together; so back into the closet I went. It felt silly to me, really, because I still looked and dressed and acted as I always did; I just didn’t talk about it anymore. I was supposed to be single; that’s what I led all my friends to believe. Also: We took measures not to be seen in public together (much). When we traveled together, I suppose that many motel desk clerks thought I was her daughter. But when we were in town, numerous times we were together at some event, and she would basically act like she didn’t know me.

As recently as 2003, I had an occasion to be at an event with her—a crowd of people, all mingling—and even though we had traveled to the event in the same car together, and it had been years since we’d broken up, she once again basically ditched me. I didn’t know many people at this gathering, and I was hoping she’d introduce me to one or two of the prominent people there, including a few bona fide celebrities—who were friends of hers—but there I was again, stranded, just like ever. I can laugh at it now, but even then, when I thought I was well over it, it hurt.

This relationship lasted a surprisingly long time, considering how painful it was. It continued as a long-distance relationship after I moved to Arizona for grad school, but that’s when it began to fray. She couldn’t control me so well when she only saw me once every one or two months, and I began to question her judgment—and her niceness.

8. Redemption and Love

The thing that finally liberated me was a summer I spent on an internship in San Francisco. I will forever have a love for that city that goes beyond its famous position as the gay capital of the United States. Again, I won’t go into specifics, but I spent that summer exploring the city and its beaches—and my own feelings. The latter was facilitated by a new friend I met the day of the Gay Pride Parade, which happened just about one week after my arrival in the city. (One of the luckiest days of my life.)

She was an out, proud, black-leather-jacket-wearing San Francisco lesbian, smart, funny, staggeringly well-educated, insightful, and with gorgeous eyes and a sly smile. A random conversation after the parade, phone numbers shared, and soon we became friends. She was so proud of her city, and she showed me around. “Wait, you’ve never had sushi before!? We’ve gotta go—I know just the place!”

And we talked. Because there was virtually no chance she would ever meet my girlfr— my “whatever,” I felt free to tell her about my life. And she was kind enough to listen and bite her tongue. She just asked questions; she didn’t judge me. (Although now I know she was probably screaming inside: “LEAVE THAT HORRIBLE WOMAN! CAN’T YOU SEE, SHE’S ABUSING YOU!”)

And you know how that works—this is what shrinks do all the time—they let you ramble on and on, and they just ask questions, like, “How did it make you feel when she said that?” and “What are you afraid might happen if . . . ?” But she wasn’t counseling me—she was really only paying attention, letting me finally tell my story. In the process, I was transformed by my own words. And when I finally started to comprehend the ugliness of my situation, and how trapped I felt, she offered unqualified support.

Long story short . . . I did eventually break out of my “whatever,” but it took much more time and was uglier and messier than I wish it had. And are we ever entirely free of our past, when healed-over injuries leave enduring scars? . . . Take the best, and leave the rest. I’m actually still on a friendly basis with both of these women, who both live thousands of miles from me now. I try to make good decisions every day.

So we broke up, and then I got into another relationship that turned out truly awful, and I found myself single again and moving to Montana. I was back out of the closet (well, had I ever really been in?), and living in a town where, I soon learned, there were exactly three other single lesbians! And I wanted little to do with any of them—no relationships for me! Girlfriends—ugh! Who needs ’em? I’d rather have a sharp stick in my eye!

A few years later, Sue would come visit me in Helena. I’d met her some years before, when I was in that so-called “whatever” closeted relationship and living in Arizona. She lived in St. Louis. We both really liked each other from the moment we met. We really “clicked,” but we respected each other’s relationships. But by the time I moved to Montana, she’d just had an ugly breakup, too, and she was of the same mindset: Ugh! Relationships! I’d rather eat barbed wire! . . . I invited her to come see Big Sky Country. “It’s really beautiful. Just come out for a friendly visit. I don’t want to be in a relationship, either!” And she came to visit. And though we tried not to, we fell in love. This August will be our twenty-fifth anniversary!

I’ve Rambled Enough For Now

Y’all, I could go on and on about the things I’ve observed over the years. Like, how our families have accepted, welcomed, affirmed our relationship. And how we’ve had rough times with some of our family members, but we’ve all managed to stay together and stay fundamentally loving to each other. It’s something I never take for granted, something very precious. And there’s the story of us purchasing my grandmother’s house the year after she died—how would conservative Jefferson City greet us?

I could talk about so much. I could talk about how we got married on November 11, 2014, right after a federal court struck down Missouri’s constitutional amendment discriminating against same-sex couples wishing to be married. We could’ve married before that, in Vermont or Iowa, but why would we want to go to an exotic place for a marriage license? It’s the principle of the thing—we live in Missouri, and I wanted my marriage license to say Missouri on it!

I could talk about my church’s current voyage into twenty-first-century diversity, but that’s a story that’s not at all finished yet. The push-back from the orthodox-loving, fundamentalist people has begun, and it may get ugly before harmony returns. Hopefully in the next year or two I can give a report on my church's Open and Affirming process, and it’ll have a happy ending! Or perhaps it will no longer be the church for me (and for people like me). There’s a line between living gracefully and being understanding and patient, and knowing when to leave for the sake of my own self-dignity.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you, and I’m humbled by your willingness to let my voice speak silently into your mind, your willingness to immerse yourself in this much of my life’s journey. Of course it’s not the whole story, but maybe it’s enough that some people will be able to see beyond the labels of me, and everyone else in the world, really. We all have so much more in common than we have differences. It’s so important to keep that in mind.

Thank you.