These were the sentiments of a good friend who is gay:
I don't think I'm even gay any more. I mean I don't feel gay. I mean I live my life, I am out, I have great friends, I have a wonderful partner. I am just like everyone else. What does being gay mean then? In fact, does it say anything at all about me or my partner?
Quite steady in his professional job and nearing retirement, he and his partner have no children and they have had their share of ups and downs in terms of coming out and coming to accept themselves. While he was lamenting, I was thinking about this question. Really thinking hard about it because on many levels I agree, once you've done that hard work of coming out and coming to terms and you survive it in a somewhat intact way that hopefully allows you to have a productive, fulfilling life (whatever that means to you) then what does "being" gay, lesbian, or bisexual actually mean?
I do know that when I was living in San Francisco, had all of my great friends around who did not care who I was sleeping with, my family was cool and my job was cool, I also felt nonplussed about the fact that I am queer. Visiting with a friend of mine from high school this week, I was reminded of why being queer does matter. It matters in terms of your social network.
I hadn't seen this woman, we'll call her Abby, for over 20 years. She now lives far, far away and just happened to be in town visiting. At the end of our picnic, with her kids and my partner's teenage daughter basking in the sun on the blanket in the background, she said that she had read my blogs and some other writings on my queerstory.
We are from the same hometown. She said she was sorry about the terrible time I had coming out and I apologized for not trusting her and my other friends at school after my traumatic coming out to my family and neighborhood friends. I had pretty much generalized the terrible response I'd received by a few to mean that everyone would behave that way. I was, of course, wrong, but the risk of confiding in anyone else at the time was really more than I could bear.
So I went about rebuilding my life with others. Trying to forget those connections I had forged during childhood and in high school, ignoring most of my family unless absolutely necessary, and building a wall of supportive friends who became my family. After college, I moved to San Francisco on the $2000 I got by selling my car in order to get a better understanding of my queerness, queer history and, well, because there were probably more women there to date.
I did lots of things during this time--got a master's degree, performed lots of poetry, grew up, rode my bike everywhere, learned how not to be a vegan and loads of LGBT history, dated, got my heart broken, broke some hearts, moved away for graduate school.
During this time, I realized that my real reason for wanting to move to SF was to make my queerness less visible to myself. To, for the first time since I was bashed out of the closet, just be. It worked. Upon leaving I wasn't plagued with questions like, "Will I go to hell for this?" or "Will I grow old and lonely?" questions planted by my conservative upbringing - I felt free and really felt, like my gay friend above, I didn't know what it meant any longer to "be" gay or lesbian or bisexual or queer or any of the other labels I have applied to myself over the years.
That question was answered when I recently moved in with my partner and her then 12-year-old daughter in a more conservative area of Southern California. You see, it didn't matter that I was in any way queer when I was fortunate enough to ignore people who didn't like me, to have lots of choices for whom to make friends with, or to be able to turn down a job if they didn't like that I was queer because it was only myself that I had to think about. But things are different now. The slight shift: a child in my life.
I didn't realize it at first and unconsciously slipped back to a time before I came out. The pronouns I would leave off when picking her up from sporting events or friend's sleepovers and the way my partner and I would stand a little further away during school events.
Then there were her (and our) worries about which friends to bring over for sleepovers in case their parents didn't like our relationship. To my partner, who was a single mother for the 12 years before I showed up, this was old news but it hit me hard. The taken-for-granteds of my life were available to me precisely because I was able to avoid those people who would hate me for being queer, who would teach their kids to hate me and all associated with me, who would put "Yes on Prop. 8" signs on their front lawns near my house, or who would feign calm when I/we come out to them and then avoid us at all costs. Now these people are in my network because of my partner's daughter.
Having kids connects us to our child's friends and their parents with all of their phobias and blind spots. Those same people I would jokingly call "breeders" in the past are now surrounding my family and I am lumped in with them. We rely upon our neighbors and others for carpools and emergencies and attend birthday parties and school functions as our queerselves, I am no longer able to ignore and/or escape a homophobic savagery that threatens, if not our lives, then our child's esteem.
I sharply feel my queerness here, in this space, in this moment, for the first time in years. Those networks that I had attempted to erase and forget are still there, no matter the years of activism I've been involved in. Connected and wrangling this sociality, this foreign territory - we have found many who are wonderful with our family (even if we have teachable moments here and there) and others who ignorantly fear us. I am sure this beauty and struggle will continue. I know that we will make it through, better than before.
The real lessons here for me are twofold. The first is that I use the toughness built up from being an LGBT activist - of not being silenced even if it makes some people uncomfortable, of claiming my space while being sure I'm safe, of having a patient response to ignorance at first and being tougher if need be - to deal with this new chapter (these skills also translate well to parenthood!).
But I think the biggest lesson for me is an intimate understanding of the power of LGBT families; we do bust into that perennial land of homophobic make-believers who like to pretend we don't exist or matter and, like it or not, we're here to stay.
Here are some links to good information on LGBT family issues and resources:
Family Equality Council envisions a future where all families, regardless of creation or composition, will be able to live in communities that recognize, respect, protect, and celebrate them. The Family Equality Council envision a country that celebrates a diversity of family constellations and respects individuals for supporting one another and sustaining loving families.
True Child was created by a group of concerned parents and experts who wanted to ensure children could achieve their full potential and not be held back by narrow stereotypes for boys and girls. TrueChild is a research and action center devoted to challenging and transforming gender stereotypes and their impact on young people so they achieve their full potential. They are particularly concerned with the challenges faced by at-risk or disadvantaged youth, like those who are of color or LGBT.
PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) promotes the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, their families and friends through: support, to cope with an adverse society; education, to enlighten an ill-informed public; and advocacy, to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is a national non-profit organization with over 200,000 members and supporters and over 500 affiliates in the United States. This vast grassroots network is cultivated, resourced and serviced by the PFLAG National Office, located in Washington, D.C., the national Board of Directors and 13 Regional Directors.