28 08 2010

When I started writing My Imperfect Truth I began with the assumption that anyone reading would either be a friend or family member and would already know that I’m gay. Somehow starting a blog with a great big “hey y’all did I mention I’m a lesbian” essay seemed disingenuous and a little attention-grabbing. After all, I reasoned, other writers don’t provide any back story that begins with “so I’m straight…” Being gay is just one of the many things I am, along with freakishly tall, bad at math, a snazzy little dancer, Irish-Italian, and a mom. Besides, every gay person has their coming out story and most of my close friends know mine. Well a glossed-over version of it anyway. I had also made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going detail my coming out story here because it involved the end of my marriage, which was an understandably painful event for my ex-husband. I have too much affection and respect for him to publicly revisit that time. So, to save time, the answers to the questions I invariably get in odd places (cocktail parties, business events and recently a friends wedding reception) are: A) yes I suspected my sexuality from a young age, B) no I didn’t get married hoping it would make me straight. I loved my ex husband and in spite of the marriage ending there were some really terrific times and a pretty spectacular daughter along the way. And, C) um, no I don’t plan to ‘go back to men.’ (I was recently asked that question with Kelly sitting right next to me. Dude really? ). And really that’s always been the end of that. After nearly seven years with Kelly, the most recent of which has been spent happily co-habitating, building a great family home life, traveling together and planning a wedding, I thought I had finally leaped over most of the coming-out hurdles and could sit back and enjoy our happily wedded life. After all, it’s been a long time coming.

When I first came out, my life was a combination of outright terror and tentative excitement. Moving on as a single mom (although one blessed with a supportive and involved co-parent) was scary, and there was some rough water to navigate. My coming out changed my role in many of my personal relationships. I was no longer the straight tag-along to my gay friends and in many ways those relationships required the most care and feeding. Some friends gay and straight felt a bit betrayed by this secret I had kept, others felt I was just being trendy and wasn’t “really” gay. There were some harsh words, some misunderstandings, and the loss of one very dear friendship completely. And then there was my parenting life. Suddenly I was very different from the other moms dropping off their new kindergarten-ers at the local Catholic school where we had decided to send Liza.

I know. This is where I get the inevitable. “Wait a minute, you’re gay but you’re sending your kid to a Catholic school?” question. And my short answer is this: “Yes.” My relationship to my faith is complicated and it’s very personal to me, but at the end of the day it is my faith and I wanted my child raised in that faith, for even as the politics of my church turned its back on me, the prayers, rituals, and hymns comforted me at a time I needed it most. I wanted Liza to attend a school where the academics were rigorous, where the emphasis was on respect and personal responsibility, and where she could be fully a part of the school and parish community. It was absolutely the right decision for her but I was understandably nervous enough about being welcomed as a divorced mom at a Catholic school, let alone a divorced gay mom. For nearly five years I kept that part of my life quiet when dealing with her school. Kelly wasn’t living with us then and aside from a few of Liza’s friends who spent enough time with us to know that Kelly was usually around, no one “officially knew.” But as I grew to trust that the moms and dads of her friends were o.k. with the situation, and as Liza matured, I finally felt comfortable enough at the end of her fourth grade year to ask my friend in charge of volunteers for a school fundraiser if Kelly and I could volunteer together. We were greeted warmly and enthusiastically as we handed out pizza and desserts and Kelly’s joking demeanor was a big hit with the kids. That was the first time I introduced Kelly as my partner to other parents and teachers at her school. And after that we never looked back. Kelly has been there at concerts and plays and when she picks Liza up at her after-school program the teachers never have to ask what child she’s there for. Last spring, when I read of a boy in Massachusetts being denied entry into a Catholic school because he had two moms, it made me doubly thankful for the warm and supportive environment we had found at Liza’s school. This week as the start of sixth grade was upon us, and as our wedding draws closer, I let out a sigh of relief that surely the biggest coming out hurdles were behind me. I was wrong.

There’s an expression in the gay community that you don’t come out just once, you come out over and over again each time you meet someone new. I hadn’t thought until this week how that expression would also be true for my daughter until the night she burst into tears and told me how embarrassed she was that I was gay, and how afraid she was of having to tell new kids at a new school next year, how she was afraid she’d be teased for it, that when we go places as a family she wonders what other people are thinking. The rawness of her emotions slammed into me and I found myself grappling for an answer. I took a deep breath and told her that the people who matter will accept her and her family and the people that don’t are not going to be the people that matter. That we don’t live our lives in secret as if we’re ashamed of who we are, and that by living honestly and openly we are taking away the opportunity for others to use our life as a weapon against us. I told her that sometimes I wonder what people think of our family too, but then I remember how awesome our family is and I remind myself that what other people think is their business. She listened tearfully and said she was done talking about it. I gave her a hug, went into the bathroom, got into the shower, and cried. My coming out had been over 30 years in the making, but Liza had gotten dragged along on my ride and now it was finally catching up with her and it was killing me. Suddenly I doubted everything. Had I handled this the wrong way? Should I have remained closeted at her school and around her friends? I’m used to parental guilt but this one was a doozy. For the next week I proceeded to tread Ilightly and didn’t force the subject. I held my breath that Liza wouldn’t be embarrassed when one of her teachers inquired about what caterer we were using for our wedding and wished us well. Although she was a bit more scowly than usual for a few days by the end of the week we were back to sitting on the deck laughing at wedding scenarios (like Kelly’s suggestion that we have the guests greet each other by rubbing noses) and I hoped that the storm had passed at least for the moment. Kelly thinks I’m naïve to think that my sexuality will never be an issue for Liza with her friends and peers. I continue to maintain that the only way to change minds is to simply live our lives and by doing so show that there’s nothing unusual about our family (well other than the fact that Kelly likes to eat pretzels with taco seasoning sprinkled on them but that’s another blog post entirely). I know most kids are embarrassed by their parents at some point in time and I know Liza wishes I wasn’t so fat, that I could cook, and that I would never again do any show with the local teenage actors who are her friends. But I hope that she can find it in herself someday to be proud that I finally found that courage not to hide who I am. That she can be proud that I’m out.


Empty Spaces: Musings On Absent Friends.

31 10 2009

absent friends

In one of the (to my mind) unfortunate consequences of the social media revolution we are often besieged with poems and quotes from friends and acquaintances waxing rhapsodic about the place of friendship in our lives.  “Friends come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime” is a popular forward along with all sorts of instructions about how many friends to send it on to and then of course the obligatory way to count whether you have enough friends in each category.  Then there are the occasional ‘your friend sent you a friendship flower!” messages on Facebook, or the gifts of “Friends are Forever!” flair for your virtual corkboard.

It will probably come to as a surprise to some that I ignore those. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. But in these the waning months of the 43rd year of my life I have a hard time taking that kind of stuff seriously. Friendships can not be nourished with a cheesy email or a virtual pink flower.  My friends occupy a cherished place in my life and I take the care and feeding of those relationships seriously. But every time I get another quaint forward instructing me to ‘send this to 10 amazing friends” my thoughts and my heart go to one place: the friends I am missing, the absent friends and the empty spaces they have left behind.  I don’t mean friends who live some distance away from me — things like Facebook and iChat have rendered distance all but meaningless and I often connect with them daily.  No, I’m speaking of the friends who still occupy prime real estate in my heart but not in my life: friends who have died… and friends who have left me.

The first category is of course inevitable.  Part of living is accepting that people die, even your friends. Friends like Mark, the talented dancer who used to charm me with his Janet Jackson imitations over the dining hall tables at Holy Cross, and whose versions of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” will stay with me forever.  The memory of Mark, whose future seemed so bright, and who died of AIDS in the early 90s before any of us who eventually came out of the closet were even close to doing so, remains frozne in time in the photos of our college heyday.  There is Sue, the gifted and slightly nutty director who pushed me to new creative breakthroughs and who lost her battle with her demons, leaving a hole in many lives in the NH theater community.   Or Kim, whose red hair and endless legs turned every head in the room, who had the ability to encourage even the shyest, heaviest woman that she could be a powerful strong dancer in her jazzercise classes, and whose battle with a rare cancer was fought with astonishing grace and inimitable style.  And then there is Dani. Dani, who I think of every day and every time “Rubberband Man” comes on my iPod.  Dani, whose pictures populate my home and office, who encouraged me to be true to who I really was, whose sly humor and beautiful smile made every dinner party, coffee shop gathering, or impromptu get-together special. Dani taught us all the value of a life well lived and, as importantly, that there is such a thing as a good death, a peaceful passing surrounded by friends, the color purple, music, and poetry.

I grieve the loss of these friends and their place in my world. But the friends who haunt me more are those still living, still close by, still in my heart, yet parted from me because of who I am.  In college I was blessed with two amazing friends I met the first week of freshman year. We took classes together, studied together, worked on shows together, sang together, partied together. We spent time in each others homes and grew close to each others families.  While one of us moved to far off places two of us remained within an hour of each other for the next two decades.  We were maids of honor and bridesmaids, godmothers and honorary aunts.  As we grew into women with young marriages we spent time in our new apartments, took bike rides and beach trips, drank gallons of wine and planned our futures.  We went through each others pregnancies together, pushed our babies through shopping malls on hot summer days just for the free air conditioning, commiserated over tantrums and potty training and the outrageous proliferation of shiny plastic toys in our house.   When we were fortunate enough for all three of us to be together we’d gather for wine or coffee while our kids played and reminisce about all that we had gone through together. They were the sisters of my heart and we joked about how while two of us together was wonderful, the three of us together always felt complete.

Then my marriage ended and I came out of the closet. (That very cut and dried declarative sentence hints at a story best told in stages perhaps at another time) Telling people about this change in my life was terrifying and as any gay person knows you don’t come out just once you come out over and over again. The prospect of having that conversation with my closest friends was daunting but I remained confident they would love me unconditionally even though they may not understand. For the most part that is what happened, my friends listened, they hugged, they asked questions, and in the end I like to think our friendships were stronger. For the most part.

I had haltingly, fumblingly tried to tell one of my friends what I was struggling with in that last painful year of my marriage. One night I opened an email from her that pulled the rug out from under me.  She told me in no uncertain terms she could never “approve” of this “lifestyle” I had “chosen” that she had even struggled with the fact that some of our best friends had already made that journey out of the closet and wondered what that said about her that she had ‘all these gay friends.’  She concluded by saying everything would be fine as long as I didn’t talk about it anymore and didn’t go “waving any rainbow flags in her face.”  This was six years ago and writing those words now still makes me cry.   How could she not see I was who I had always been? How could she not see I was finally trying to be all that I was supposed to be?  How could she say these things? She eventually apologized – but only for ‘drinking wine and writing emails late at night.’  A few months later,  we tried to get together again with our girls as we had for so many years but something had changed.  Conversation didn’t flow freely, I couldn’t talk to her about anything real anymore.  We watched the kids play at the children’s museum and parted awkwardly.  I haven’t seen her since.  She lives twenty minutes away from me, has a daughter the exact age as mine, writes beautifully, and shares a past with me that I treasure, but now lives a life I can no longer share.  We exchanged Christmas cards for a while but even those stopped eventually.  Briefly, after the loss of her father (oh how I adored her parents) and my mom, sympathies and platitudes were exchanged.  But for all purposes she is gone.   My other friend, the third part of this trio never opened the door for these conversations.  I tried a few times to talk over email about my new life, about Kelly, about how happy I am.  I tried to talk about how much I missed our other friend.  To do so guaranteed there would be no return email.  She briefly appeared on Facebook where so many of our college crew enjoy near daily exchanges and a few ‘real life’ reunions.  I let myself get my hopes up that this would bring her back to us.  It didn’t. She just as quickly disappeared.

I live a life so full, so rich, so blessed with friends from all corners of the globe that I tell myself this shouldn’t matter anymore.  That six years later I should be used to a life without them.  But the truth is that as much as I grieve the loss of my friends who died too young I grieve the loss of these sisters of my heart who left me.   I miss them. I wonder if they’ll read this and see themselves in it.  I wonder if they’ll ever come back to me.

So you see why cutesy cyber flowers and balloons irritate me, for they are easy ways out of truly nourishing the friendships that feed our lives. If there are friends in your life you’ve let slip away, go now and find them.   If there are wounds that need to heal, if there are rifts that need to mend, go now and fix them.   And if you have a friend in need, a friend in pain, a friend who needs help that maybe you can’t understand, go now and listen to them.  If you’re too far to connect, write them – an email, a letter, send a card – but please no forwards and no flair.   Let them know they matter.  I wish I could.