Every gay person has their own coming out story. Mine unfolded over four years.
It began with a tumultuous stretch of time. Within a span of about two months, I learned I was probably not going to be able to have children. Soon after, I developed a major crush on a woman I met through work.
Coming from a family where things were generally calm and predictable, I am a person who chafes at the unexpected. Two major life curveballs happening simultaneously left me feeling like one of those air dancer wind socks you see outside a used car dealership.
The crush happened when I had been happily married for five years. I was deeply rattled and became quiet and withdrawn for about a month as I tried to understand what was going on. I went on long walks. I had trouble sleeping. I questioned myself. How could this be? Was I gay this whole time and just denying it? (Answer: yes.)
The woman I liked was in a committed relationship of her own and was not interested in me. That didn’t change the fact that a seismic shift was taking place.
The topic came up with my husband as part of a discussion about tattoos. The object of my affection had three, and I announced out of the blue one evening as we entertained friends that I would be getting a tattoo. After our guests left, we talked about my sudden urge to get a tattoo and my withdrawn behavior, and I blurted out that I had become interested in a woman and was thinking of leaving him to “pursue a lesbian lifestyle.”
Yes, that’s actually how I worded it.
(As a side note, out of respect for the privacy of others and to the extent that it is possible to discuss a situation involving two people and only write about one, I am trying to share only my own experience.)
Suffice it to say that the evening and the weeks that followed were very difficult.
I fluctuated between fearing I would need to leave the marriage and not wanting anything to change. I did not want to be gay. I wanted to be a mom. My husband was my best friend, and I had no interest in entering the gay singles scene.
Ultimately, I decided to stay. I told him, and sincerely meant it, that I was attracted to women, but that didn’t mean I had to act on it. This attraction to women was part of me, but didn’t have to be all of me. I figured I could explore gay culture within the confines of my marriage. I would be a lesbian without being a lesbian!
I have to hand it to myself — I really went full bore. I got my tattoo. (And thought I was so edgy and alternative … even though it was Curious George swinging from a trapeze.) I started wearing thumb rings and Dr. Martens. I read feminist manifestos like The Feminine Mystique and Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. I started listening almost exclusively to female musicians like Ani DiFranco.
My husband and I moved from one region of the country to another and adopted a son. Then I hurt my back, and my female physical therapist was very attractive. The same feelings I had had a few years earlier resurfaced.
Like my first crush, the second woman was not available or interested in me. But then I met someone who was, and that’s when the dam broke.
I had clung to the idea that I could be gay, or gay-ish, and stay in a straight marriage in a healthy and honest way. Now I was forced to accept the difficult truth that this was just not realistic. The crushes kept cropping up, like a beach ball that refuses to submerge in water, regardless of where we lived or what the circumstances were. The thought of burying my head in the sand at age 36 and continuing to push this down just started to feel too depressing.
I also felt that if I stayed I would likely develop some kind of serious side issue, possibly with alcohol, and probably end up cheating at some point anyway. It felt like the healthier thing to do was to leave with the integrity of the relationship intact. I decided to end the marriage.
Then came the time to tell people. I had already talked with my siblings about it and they were both wonderful. I was extremely nervous about telling my parents, though. No one has ever mistaken them for hippies. Their household was not an “anything goes” kind of place.
I spoke with my mom first, and told her that my husband and I were separating and putting the adoption of a second child that we had been planning on hold. (My son was two at the time.)
She asked what had happened. I told her it was kind of a heavy story and I was planning to share it in phases. She said, “Well, I’m here to listen if you want to talk.”
It felt like one of those moments where you fall and hurt yourself as a kid and the only person who can comfort you is your mom.
I immediately spilled the tale of falling for a woman. She listened quietly to the whole story and then said, “Wow. That is heavy. But I know I can speak for your father when I say we would never turn our backs on you. We love you so much and you’re very special and we’re just sad for all three of you.”
I’m still stunned when I think about it. I called my mom on a random Wednesday afternoon and told her I was leaving my husband because I was gay and she didn’t bat an eye — she just let me know how loved I was and made me feel like everything was going to be ok.
My dad was equally as supportive in his own way but it came out differently. He called me the following day.
“Um, Suz, yeah, um, obviously, I talked with your mother and uh, obviously, we love you and support you, and uh, this must be very … uh … uh … difficult.”
I agreed and thanked him and then his worries tumbled out. He asked if I could lose my teaching job over this.
“What if someone sees you with a woman in the afternoon at a movie or at a watering hole?”
Hmm. I didn’t realize anyone used that expression anymore.
I told my dad that I knew he and my mom would worry and this was part of why I had not talked with them earlier.
“Oh. Well, that shouldn’t be your primary concern. Maybe your tertiary concern …”
I guess that means 3rd?
Perplexing vocabulary aside, my dad may have led with a question about watering holes, but I fully understood that his angst was based on concern for my well-being and the well-being of my son. I never once felt that he was rejecting me in any way.
Given the fact that my parents were raised in a different era, in a religion that does not accept homosexuality, their response was remarkable. Their support started then and has continued every step of the way over the past 15 years, and it has allowed me to be at least mildly grounded as I have navigated some very choppy waters.
Like my parents, to a person, my friends were immediately supportive and understanding. One friend told me she was surprised, but not shocked. My college roommate said her father recognized that I was gay the day he dropped her off freshman year; another friend told me I reminded her father of Jo from Facts of Life. (I’m not sure what he was talking about. I didn’t part my hair in the middle.) Basically, people already knew on some level, and it didn’t change how they saw me.
The hardest part of this was knowing I would be hurting someone I truly loved. That never goes away. Nor does the guilt of forcing a child to handle two very complicated issues, divorce and having a gay parent. I guess I’ve just tried to do the best I can with both situations, and that’s all I can do.
The Mary Oliver poem below is a little bit cliche, especially in the gay coming out community, but it really resonates with me.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
8 thoughts on “Tattoos and Watering Holes”
I absolutely cannot get enough of your writing. Aside from the topic being so relatable, the writing itself is just outstanding.
PS: I knew the first day I met you, too. I’m so sorry you suffered through it for so long. You have already lived several lifetimes, grasshopper. Just keep swimming.
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Thank you, Juli! And it seems lots of people had this figured out long before I did! 🙂
I have a confession to make, Sue. I knew the first day I met you, too….because I think you mentioned it at lunch. Seriously, though, this one made me laugh AND cry, which is the best kind of writing there is. Also, I just KNOW our dads must be distantly related.
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Your comments made me bust out laughing. Your dad says “tertiary” too? 🙂
You really make clear the depth of how difficult those four years must have been. Between this and the last post I can see how much you tried to fit into that mold. I’m so glad you had the courage to be who you are.
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Thank you, my friend!
That’s an amazing story, Sue. You are such a good story teller.
I want to remember some of your funny Japan stories. Or anything. Keep going!
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Thank you, Ingrid. You know I rarely run out of things to say, so I will continue writing! 🙂