One of my proudest moments as an instructor came about when I was at Auburn, A student who was working on the AU production of The Laramie Project asked me if he could interview me after class one day. I still look back at that interview as a pivotal moment in both of our lives--it certainly taught me about the power the truth has.
It's no surprise on the heels of the horrific Orlando shooting that I'm thinking about Laramie and Matthew Shepard. The same defense is being given by Mateen's father--the gay panic defense. So, seeing two men kiss each other "a few months ago" so rattled Mateen that he went on a rampage.
Matthew Shepard lost his life in 1998. I was in graduate school in Mississippi and still fully closeted. Understandably, such moments create binary reactions of either regressing further into the closet or bursting out.
One of the parts of being involved with the Auburn University version of The Laramie Project was that students had to go out, just as the members of the Tectonic Theater Project did, and interview people in the AU community.
When my student asked to interview me, I had that old familiar choice again of either staying silent or coming out. I could simply answer his questions in a vague way, or I could tell the truth. He asked me if I had been aware of Matthew Shepard's murder and how it impacted me. And I was honest. So, we started the conversation with me coming out to the student. And then he came out to me. He was so relieved to be able to talk to someone.
His story was a hard one to hear. He was a native Alabamian. When he came out to his father, he'd been kicked out. As a student he was struggling with the anxiety and depression that came from that rejection while trying to carry a full load of courses. The work he was doing on the play was cathartic, but it was also painful. I was glad that I was the first person he interviewed and that I was able to provide him with a friendly ear. He knew then that there was a safe space.
It was then, and still is, an honor that he trusted me with his story. That he was able to do so made me more aware of my own clostedness by omission. it was easy to not come out at Auburn. I involved in a relationship that was both long-distance and long-term. In my office, I had pictures of myself with the woman I was involved with. I carried a travel mug with me every day that she made for me, adorned with pictures of us on various trips we'd taken together. So, I argued to myself that I wasn't really hiding. Besides, other gay folks could spot me and I had gay friends. I even attended a couple of military parties as someone's "date." Even with straight folks, I pinged on gaydar enough that I had a straight male student say once at the start of class, "Hey, you got your haircut again--who is your barber?" When I asked him if he had any good ones to refer me too, he turned red and mumbled "no." I'm sure that the fact I was childless and never mentioned a husband or boyfriend was obvious to those students who were paying attention.
Still, when I saw the student interviewer's face light up and his shoulders relax when I started the interview by outing myself, I realized that overt visibility is important. The student and I went on to remain friends for awhile after he finished my class. He even was inspired by my blog at the time, which I wrote under the name of Elizabeth Laurence, to start his own blog, Scared@AU.
The student patched up his relationship with his dad, got a boyfriend with a supportive family, graduated, and left a review for "Elizabeth Rodgers" on RateMyProfessors.com It was a good review, but the mixing of my pen name and of my real name made clear that I hadn't completely come out, not even to him.
Coming out is a never-ending process, it turns out. One of the breakups I've had and keep having is with accommodationist language. I announced that I was going to stop saying "partner" and start saying "wife." We're coming up on our tenth wedding anniversary next year, and it still sometimes takes a pause where I mentally tell myself that the word is "wife," not "partner," not "significant other" and not even "spouse." It's important that people like Scared@AU hear us say the right word without effort or shame.
This is my third personal blog I've had and it's the first one that bears my name. When I started publishing fiction a few years ago, I almost brought Elizabeth Laurence out of hiding. I chose not to do so. I often joke that "at least if my students read something I wrote that means they are reading something!" But, it is about more than that. It's time I claim my identity in all things. It's time for the real me to show up and to show up all the time.
And, as today's "What it costs to be gay in public" makes clear, we have to keep showing up.
And more often than not the reaction is a warm one. I have had people say "Excuse me? Did you say 'wife'?" A smile and a "Yep, I'm a gay lady" usually clears it up.
I know there are people who look at such openness as "pushing the gay agenda," which they often refer to as (tellingly) "shoving gayness" somewhere (in your face, down your throat, and so on). Instead, we need to look at it as a process of being authentic. It's really not that big of deal. I am the same person you knew before--you just happen to know one tiny new thing about me that really doesn't impact you at all, probably.
If it does actually impact you, then there's probably some questions you should ask yourself.
All of this leads me to reflect on that girl in her 20s who would cry at the drop of a hat and who thought her sister was mean. I once said to Renee that she had "no tact." This was well over 20 years ago--probably 25 years ago, in fact.
It was when I was still living in that adorable detached garage apartment I wrote about before. Ever since I wrote about it, I've been thinking about why I think so fondly of it. I only lived there for a couple of months. I am pretty sure we didn't finish our lease--Huey had to move a lot.
Renee came to see me give a paper reading at the Honors College. We had a good time, and things were great until I had to go pick up my portfolio from my creative writing instructor. I flipped out when she made a joke about how I was her little sister, which they could probably tell as I had to be reminded that it was polite to introduce people who don't know each other.
I was mortified. At the time, I worked it out that I was mad because I was simply embarrassed about being treated like a kid in front of my professors. Of course, now, I realize that this was an incident where I was wrapped up on the idea that other people's perceptions of me defined who I was.
There were other incidents in that time period that were just as ridiculous. I flipped out a lot in my 20s.
Looking at the incidents like this now, I think they are pretty funny. At the time, though, I was so wrapped up in trying to figure out how to present as what I thought other folks wanted me to be, rather than just being myself, that I didn't see the humor. And, even worse, my anger at myself for not being able to define myself at that point in my life got projected at her. It really impacted our relationship over the decade that followed. She felt that I was mad at her all the time and she had to walk on eggshells.
We don't have any eggshells since I started telling the truth.
Sorry it took me so long.