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. I 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.