Coming Out in the Class of 1980

I graduated from high school in 1980 and I knew no lesbians in my high school graduating class.  Not one. In fact I didn’t know a single lesbian in my entire high school. The only lesbian that we thought we knew was a teacher; we quietly wondered but inquisitive nature notwithstanding, silence was the order of the day. Not one of my friends or acquaintances ever, not once, named even a single same-gender romantic encounter or inclination.

And who could blame us?

Stonewall may have happened in the big city but liberation had not yet arrived in southern Michigan where I grew up. This was the land that reared Malcolm X, where all things were polite on the surface and the Michigan Militia gathered in secretive corners. You could be disowned for dating across racial lines and same-gender orientation was still a mental illness.

I remember one rather daring conversation that I had with my most out-of-the-box acquaintance in high school. I remember whispering secretively, “But what if I’m, you know…”. This goth-before-goth-was-cool friend cut me off mid thought: “You better hope you’re not.” Period. And I never broached the subject with another person (friend or foe) in southern Michigan for at least two more decades.

In recent years I’ve reconnected with several high school friends through Facebook and found myself stunned that more than a handful of my former classmates are, wonder of wonders, just like me. In high school I lived with the terror that I was an aberration, the only one of my kind. Unbeknownst to any of us, we were swans dropped into the chicken coop.

I find myself wondering how differently our lives may have unfolded had we been able to speak our truth out loud and with one another?

With my young adult children home for the holidays and now back at school, I wouldn’t trade the path that is mine and have no regrets. I was married to their father for nearly twenty years and they are the fruit of that relationship; I can’t wish that away. At the same time, though, I am glad that another generation of women won’t have to choose between being mothers and being lovers, between procreation and a lasting love story.  K&D handsI feel deep gratitude for the gift of love in this second half of life, for a partner who makes my heart and body sing in sweet harmony. As I watch young families with same-gender parents, I cannot help but smile for joy at the choices that await this new generation.

As I move through this new place of life I am learning that my choices, then and now, are limited not simply by the cultural context in which I find myself but even more by the courage that I do (or don’t) have as I face external expectations. Perhaps my desire to belong is actually more limiting than the nets thrown by others. Were I less concerned about my friend’s caution all those years ago, I might have sought out another friend.  If my own courage had been at least commensurate with the hushed tones about “that teacher”, I might have been able to honestly face the emotions that were my own.  The choice to hide my light in the context of a heterosexual marriage was my own.

Letting go of the temptation to lament I see a pattern that is mine, that of looking for external validation. It is delightful to discover that I am not the only woman-loving-woman to graduate from high school in 1980, but it is perhaps more important to realize that it would be ok if I was.

As I speak my truth today, I discover so many friends (new and old) sharing similar stories. Undoubtedly if I had found the courage to speak my truth all those years ago, I would have provided safe space to hear the stories of others. My fear kept any kindred hearts at bay, my fear created its own isolation.

When we find the courage to shine our light, we make a way for others to do the same. This sentiment is shared by religious greats like Jesus and Marianne Williamson, but holding our light high for the world to see isn’t just religious jargon.  Nor is our rainbow waving pride about flaunting an agenda. Shining our light is survival in the face of deafening power of silence, holding our light high is about making a safe path for another that we’ve not yet met. 

As the warm sun melts the snow that just last week shuttered much of the heartland, I am aware that each new day offers choices to engage with the life that is ours.  I am grateful to know that I am not alone in the class of 1980, even more I am grateful to have opened my heart to share life and love with my dear one. For it is only in the breaking open that we find the love for which we are created.

And it is so very, very good.

Snow Days Three

Snowmaggedon came at the close of our winter break, unexpectedly extending our vacation by three days. Three is the number of perfection and as I sit snuggled on the couch pondering tomorrow’s return, I find myself grateful for the reframe that these days have given.

Perhaps I should come clean and admit that I did nothing of import for three days. I didn’t. I enjoyed a Downton Abbey marathon (every episode of three seasons before indulging in this season’s opener). I crocheted two hats, two scarves, and a bunch of squares for a maybe-afghan. I stared at the snow and considered the contrasting colors visible from the warmth of my front window. Today I spent the better part of the day doing lesson plans, organizing a new online gradebook, and researching for a new unit; but before this brief burst of energy I spent three full days staring at the snow while my mind and heart cleared.

In my own defense I would point out that the winter break began on December 20th, so we jumped from school routines into holiday ones. Cleaning, shopping, cooking, wrapping, and baking quickly filled the space in my heart and mind that school had occupied. Our adult children filled the house with laughter and I paused to notice the gratitude I felt but as soon as the wrapping paper was cleaned up, I was back to the work of planning for the next semester.

By Friday afternoon, my lessons were complete, computer links checked, and copies made. After a Saturday commitment, I had planned to have a day of sabbath on Sunday before returning to school on Monday morning.

But on Sunday morning the snow began and one day turned into two and then three. For reasons that are unclear (and irrelevant I suppose) I spent each of these luscious days in sabbath and on the couch. At the end of the third day, I was out of red yarn and ready to return to the world. Which came first is uncertain.

As I think about returning to my classroom tomorrow, and spending the day with children who are not in the rhythm of being together, I realize that the peace that attends me is different than that I felt last Saturday. Although anxiety sits in my gut, my mind is no longer racing. My heart feels the tension but holds it gently, now is the moment.

Sabbath is a spiritual practice that is rooted in an understanding that in order to be at one with the source of life we need to let go of our busyness, relinquish our lists, and allow our minds to reset. I don’t do this very well. And the more I try, the more elusive such a state of openness becomes. Given the number of hours that most of us spend in front of computer screens, I’m guessing that the struggle is a common one. To have stumbled into this sabbath was incredible gift.

Three days is enough. After three days fish and company stink, and likewise even Downton Abbey looses its charm. It was after three days that Jesus and Lazarus and Moses all made their re-entry and so must I. Yet just as they were changed by their time away, I come back to the world with a peace that is new.

And it is very good.

January 2, 2014

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

White… milk in my coffee, snow on the evergreen, noise that allows my soul to settle.  The absence of color opens our eyes and hearts to what has been present if unseen all along.

Brown… paper packages, chocolate holiday candies, barren branches that line the sky. The jumble of warm colors mirrors our complicated emotions during this season.

Red… Christmas baubles, maraschino cherries, cardinal sitting in solitude in the cold. The attention grabbing color signals caution and closing, always present before the new way opens.

A new year begins with gratitude for love, for laughter, and for the practice of noticing both.

A New Year’s Celebration Story

My new year begins with a late morning, coffee, and pondering how I might approach teaching the topic of heroes with my little ones.  Zinn’s Education Project is geared for older kids and Scholastic’s resources are much too mainstream for my taste, so what shall I say in this upcoming season of winter cultural icons?  In the midst of my musings I flip back to my Facebook page and see the wonderful news that Jeff is now engaged to be married.  Wonder of wonders, such a happy beginning to this new year.  Here is a hero story worthy of the telling, complete with happily ever after.

I met Jeff what seems a lifetime ago but the calendar would suggest it was just a decade. Jeff was a community organizer in those days and I an activist suburban pastor.  Missouri was one of the first states to be targeted to add a marriage discrimination plank to our state constitution and Jeff was heading an opposition effort. Jeff was a child of the church, a PK and himself an active church member; he knew that there were lots of religious folk that did not support such codified oppression.  His strategy was to gather religious leaders together and invite us to speak as a unified voice on behalf of civil rights.

For my part, I had recently come face to face with my own orientation only to toss it back in the closet.  I had a job, children, and a husband.  And my job was as a suburban church pastor.  My congregation was very liberal and supported my work on behalf of justice, whether or not they could or would support a pastor coming out of the mythic closet was dubious.  When Jeff introduced himself and his project, I jumped at the chance to be involved. With Jeff and a cadre of wonderful rabbis, I spent the summer of 2004 writing, speaking and organizing on behalf of marriage equality – or at least in opposition to codified oppression.

This was the summer that Karl Rove paved the way for Bush’s second presidential inauguration, where the rhetoric of “marriage” was tested and found to be the perfect issue to draw conservatives to the polls in droves.  Missouri was a bellwether state with a special election in August and, liberal city pastors not withstanding, the churches across the state of Missouri offered free air time to voices promulgating oppression disguised as “defending marriage”.  What appeared at the outset to be a winnable fight was an astounding defeat that sent reverberations across the nations.  Even today we are fighting against the cloak of these horrid amendments.  As Utah officials cling to the shreds of their anti-gay amendment in an appeal to the United States Supreme Court this week, we see a new dawn and I pause to give thanks.

In the decade that has ensued we have seen the pendulum swing both ways and the only certainty is change.  Change has been the constant in my own life.  After the campaign and it’s aftermath, my life initially settled back into a routine but closets take on a life of their own. Eventually my truth needed to be told and the structure of my own life changed.  No longer married to a man, still serving a suburban church; now married to a woman (my dear one) and no longer in church.  At significant turns in the road I’ve reached out to Jeff whose wisdom and perspective I encountered that summer and cherish even now.  We eat waffle fries, share stories, and find common ground.

Jeff’s life has held an enormity of change as well, leading him away from organizing and into his studio.  He designs really amazing liturgical vestments, works of art each of them.  I’m privileged to own one, it is one of the few treasures that I took with me when I left church.  His ability to do great work in one arena and then step out and onto a new road professionally was inspiring as I stepped away from the church just last year.  Our paths were very different but witnessing his courage helped me to find my own.  The last time we shared waffle fries, he shared his story of a long-awaited romance and the spark in his eyes was truly precious. One of the gifts of Facebook is the opportunity to see life unfold even when chance may not bring us in proximity and I’ve been delighted to watch Jeff’s new path unfold.  jeff handsEven so I was delightfully surprised to see the news this morning: Jeff is engaged. The news was complete with a photo of ring-clad hands.  A perfect beginning for a new year.

Ten years ago, Jeff invited a bunch of clergy to join him in the fight for marriage equality in Missouri.  Though the skirmish appeared to be a bitter defeat, I look around today and realize that I am oh-so happily married to a woman, Jeff is poised to marry a man, and the vitriolic amendments are falling down all around us.  Always I have admired Jeff’s work in organizing, his art, and even more his authentic choices in life. Today I wear a goofy grin in honor of romance that comes ’round right. Authentic efforts for compassion and justice are never truly lost.  What appears in the moment to be a defeat is perchance a seed for a later harvest or a stepping stone for those who will come along in season.

As I think about American heroes this month, I cast my vote for Jeff.  I want to teach my children to have the kind of self-respect, perseverance and courage that brings Jeff and countless other true heroes into a place of delight.  Shining his light, Jeff inspires countless others to do likewise.

Congratulations, Jeff!  Mazel tov!