We learn early how to calculate safety. We take into account the place and the people and how closely they are paying attention. We watch to see if they notice the two women with short hair and strain to read facial expressions and body language to inform our decision. The simple question is -- can we hold hands? The bigger question is -- do we take the risk?
Because it is still a risk sometimes.
We do the same thing when coming out. We take into account history, running through a mental list of things this person has said. We think about their political leanings, their education level. We think about the comments they’ve made about others and try to figure out whether or not they are judgmental people. The simple question is -- can I tell you the truth? The bigger question is -- what price will I pay in doing so?
After graduating from Grinnell College in Iowa, I stayed in Grinnell another year while I waited for my girlfriend at the time to graduate. I needed a job and had no experience in my chosen field of Psychology, so I took the only job I could find -- working as a care provider at a massive institution for people with severe mental and physical disabilities in the nearby town of Newton. Most of the employees had lived in Newton their whole lives and few had any education past high school. I stood out as a college graduate but also because I got my hair cut at a barbershop and wore jeans, T-shirts and work boots.
Within 3 months, I was promoted to shift supervisor and people began to actively talk about me behind my back and question my sexual orientation. I have always been an open and honest person but, from the moment I walked in the door of that building on my first day, I knew that I could not tell anyone that I was a lesbian. It went against my nature to say nothing but I knew it wasn’t safe.
One night, a staff person came into my office and shut the door behind her. She sat on the edge of the desk and asked, “Are you a lesbian?” I didn’t know what to say so I told her it wasn't appropriate for her to ask questions about my personal life. She stood up, took a step towards me and said, “Well let me tell you something. If I ever find out that you are a lesbian for sure, I will be waiting for you at your car when our shift’s over and I will beat the shit out of you.” Before I could say anything, she got up and left.
She never found out “for sure” and, a year later, I left that job and that town and moved to Minneapolis. But sometimes I think back to that time and wonder what would have happened if I’d been outed, if I hadn’t been in control of my own story.
I think about this when the school directory comes out each fall and our children are listed with their two mothers’ names below them. I think about it when we walk into open houses and school auctions and plays. I think about this when we sit on the sidelines together at soccer games and cheer and answer the question, “Which one is yours?”
From a very young age, our kids’ have not had much choice in the decision to come out as children of lesbian parents. In essence, they have been outed time and time again by our presence and involvement. This is inevitable and yet the significance is not lost on me.
They have been lucky. They live in a liberal city and have gone to a school with other children of GLBT parents. But I also know that their lives are becoming increasingly separate from ours. Our son just started high school and, for the first time since he was three, he is in a new place, one where no one knows him or his family.
I want him to be careful, to make the calculations that my partner and I have had so much practice in making. I want him to understand when it is safe to talk about his family and know that we won’t judge him if he chooses not to tell someone. But I also know there will come a time when everyone will know and I can only hope that most people will find his family unremarkable. And though he will always have our love and support, he will have to navigate this on his own and we can only hope that we’ve given him the skills to do so.
PHOTO CREDIT: VIKKI REICH