The New Land

Probably the closest I’ve ever come to being a victim of a mob assault was when I casually mentioned to a roomful of lesbians that I didn’t really like dogs. 

“Did you just say you don’t like dogs?” one of the women asked with thinly-veiled contempt.

“Not really,” I glibly replied.

Everyone stopped talking. Silence fell over the room.

It was a scene straight out of one of those EF Hutton commercials from the 70s.  But, like, not in a good way.

My friend Deb had come to the party with me and was just meeting this group of people, and she correctly sensed the hostility brewing.  She protectively positioned herself between me and everyone else. 

“She doesn’t like dogs, but she doesn’t hurt them or anything!”

I tried to backtrack, but it was of no use.  They were clearly disgusted with me. Soon after that gathering, I started seeing those women less and less. 

Coincidence?  I think not.

This was early on in my career as a lesbian, and I had a lot to learn.

Fortunately, I had good company for the ride. As I was beginning to explore the culture of this new world, I connected with a subsect of the lesbian population — a group of women who had also previously been married to men. 

Just before I left my marriage, I had started going to weekly meetings at Whitman Walker, a non-profit organization that provides support for the LGBTQ community.  They had a peer group called Women Coming Out of Marriage, which went by the acronym Coomers (the W is silent, apparently).  I always thought they should have called it the “Whoops!  I Married a Man!” group (acronym WIMM), but I didn’t get a vote.

Anyway, the women I met through this group became the nucleus of my gay social life.  We were a collection of people who had professions, and kids, and mortgages.  Many of the women were in the process of ending marriages to men we categorized as “nice guy husbands,” guys who were heartbroken about losing their mates.  Many had kids who were struggling.  It was helpful to have people to talk with who were in the same boat. 

With my homeys Jane and Pam at one of our early parties

We also had a ton of fun together.  We went to concerts and gay bars.  We threw parties that offered an opportunity to let loose.  There is an episode of Malcolm in the Middle where the mom goes to a book club meeting, has too much wine, goes wilding in the neighborhood with other drunk soccer moms, and ends up hiding from the police in a dumpster.  Our gatherings didn’t quite reach that level, but some were pretty close.  It was great to hang out with women who had bucked convention to be true to their own nature, however late they came to it. 

Beginning to date in the lesbian world was a whole other matter.  I found it both thrilling and baffling from the start. 

The devotion to dogs was just one of the conventions I either didn’t know about or wasn’t prepared for.  I had never heard that many lesbian relationships become so intense so quickly that there is a running joke about how one party always shows up in a U-Haul on the second date in order to move her stuff in. This is a joke, but the struggle is real. The dynamics of two women together just yields a different level of intensity. I remember a conversation with a girlfriend that went something like this:

GF: Your eye just twitched. Were you having a feeling?

Me: What?

GF: What did that eye twitch mean?

Me: I’m not sure. That my eye needed a blink?

I also had no idea that many lesbians remain close friends with their girlfriends long after breaking up and expect to socialize with them.  I mean, I’m all for being cordial, but does it make me a huge jerk if I don’t feel like having candlelight dinners with my new girlfriend and her overly-accepting ex? 

Perhaps the biggest surprise was learning that when you skip adolescence, it waits for you.  If you missed the dating part of adolescence, as I largely did, you can look forward to acting like a teenager at 36, complete with poor decision making, giddy chats where you resemble a character in a Judy Blume novel, and trying on different “looks” as you search for your signature style.  Fortunately, I had learned my lesson about bad hairstyles after sporting a permed mullet in the late 80s, so I was ahead of the game there. 

I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Big.  He’s dressed in adult clothes and reports to an adult job, but he’s a kid on the inside. The irony was not lost on me that some days I went to work and scolded students for acting like teenagers, then went home and acted like one myself.

I should acknowledge that I didn’t skip the dating phase entirely in high school.  I did have one boyfriend, but only for five days.  He broke up with me as we walked out of social studies.  Said he just wanted to be friends.  Body blow! 

I still think of him every time I hear the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream.”  It was our song.  (I’m not sure he knew that.) But enough about him.

Without discussing the particulars of any of my relationships with women, which I feel is the only respectful thing to do, I will say that it was clear to me right away that I had made the right decision to switch teams. Throughout this adventure, I have spent time with some wonderful people and I am grateful for the dating experiences I have had.

I have learned a lot about myself over the last 15 years.  I’ve been surprised at how insecure and anxious I have felt in my relationships with women.  I’ve also felt calmer and more whole in many respects since switching over, and that comes from knowing that I am in the right place, and knowing that all the turmoil involved in making that change was the correct thing to do — for me — in the long run.  There has been great joy in finally feeling comfortable in my own skin.

I’m on the sidelines these days.  My college friends used to say the drama with my girlfriends sounded like high school.  As I grew slightly more evolved in my dating behavior, they would say I had moved up. (“You’re in junior college now!”)  I would say these days I’m in grad school, living off campus.  Working on my dissertation, maybe. 

Tattoos and Watering Holes

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!

My tattoo

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.”

Wow.

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?”

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 …”

Tertiary? 

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.

My alleged doppelganger

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.

Kleinfeld and Me

Because my childhood ambition was to play in the NFL, the furthest thing from my mind when I was young was what kind of wedding dress I might like to wear someday.  While other girls were keeping up with fashion trends like over-sized pocket combs, velour shirts, and culottes, I was sure that my most stylish outfit was Toughskins jeans, a ratty T-shirt from a garage sale, and my New York Yankees wristbands.  While they were passively playing with Barbies, I was playing Kill the Carrier with a pack of boys and slinging playmates to the ground by their necks. While they were squealing over David Cassidy and Leif Garrett, I was lighting up every time the impossibly cool Kristy McNichol appeared on the television screen. 

So the day I found myself standing on a pedestal in the middle of a brightly-lit dressing room at the Kleinfeld bridal salon in Brooklyn, I felt like Scout Finch in a pair of overalls.

I was 26 and getting ready to marry my boyfriend, and I didn’t know a cap sleeve from a spaghetti strap or an empire waist from a chapel veil. What I did know was that I was now a lamb being brought to slaughter.

It would be 10 years before I would find my voice and realize that I had ignored dozens of obvious clues that I was gay.  But for now, in the spring of 1995, I was relieved to finally get in step with my female peers.  Though I always had friends and was never quite an outsider, I had always been keenly aware and mildly ashamed of the fact that I was not like other girls. 

Somehow, when I was in my 20s, I had lucked out and found a great guy who enjoyed watching sports and drinking beer with me, and now I was going to have a full-blown wedding like all of my friends.

“You should go to Kleinfeld!” people had told me.

“What’s Kleinfeld?” I asked.  

 “It’s where everybody goes.  It’s the best place to get a wedding dress!” 

Actually, it’s not just where “everybody goes” – it is such a quintessential model of high-end bridal fashion that the cable channel TLC later decided to film a show there called Say Yes to the Dress.  When you are a member of the Future Lesbians Club, it’s the best place to go if you are looking to feel as out of place as possible. 

Garage sale T-shirt

This over-the-top establishment, with its high ceilings, ornate chandeliers, and white carpets, is full of pushy, intense New York women with really long nails who can’t wait to tell you what you should be wearing.  Many of the brides-to-be at Kleinfeld have been dreaming of coming to this salon for years; the only issue that has been holding them up was having to find a mate first. 

 “What are you lookin’ for, doll?” Regina, our bridal consultant, asked me.

 “Well, I … I don’t like anything up around my neck, so I guess just nothing that’s like a turtleneck?”

Regina looked at my entourage, my mom, my sister, and our neighbor, and said, “Is she kidding?”  Apparently, she hadn’t worked with too many brides nicknamed Sporty Spice.  She seemed genuinely surprised that I did not already have an air-tight vision of what kind of dress I wanted.

In my rolled up Toughskins jeans

Then she started to consult with my people to figure out what I might like.

A few minutes later, as I was led through a room lined with dozens of bejeweled gowns, it brought back memories of how I used to have heated debates with my mother every time I had to wear a (stupid) dress, and how I acted like a prisoner trudging along on a chain gang when I inevitably lost the argument and had to wear that dress to Sunday mass or a family holiday gathering.  Now I was voluntarily walking through the vaults of a place that was the height of femininity.

After feeling mortified for an hour as I was helped in and out of each dress I tried on (I never grew accustomed to Regina rearranging any body part she thought was out of place), I selected a silk shantung gown that had a long train and weighed approximately 700 pounds. Scarlett O’Hara would have been proud.

When I went back for the final fitting several weeks later, the seamstress cinched up the corset they had made for me.  It was modeled after an instrument of torture from the 1800s, with lots of rods and clasps.  I could barely breathe.  

I was 125 pounds and didn’t need a garment that restricted my organs.  What I should have said was, “Absolutely not.  Sew a couple of tube socks in the chest and we’re done!”

But I didn’t say anything, and consequently, I spent my entire wedding day feeling as if I were in an iron lung.  Bonus: it was over 100 degrees out.

After the Kleinfeld makeover

I did manage to march down the aisle in a rather masculine fashion, keeping my steps wide in an effort to handle my high heels, pointing my flowers at friends and saying things like, “What’s up?” and “Hey!”

Turns out that what Betty White said in the Gingey sketch on Saturday Night Live was accurate: “You can put that lesbian in any kind of dress you want, and you know what you’re going to end up with?  A lesbian!”

So although the marriage got off to a good start, everything changed five years later when I fell head over heels in love with a woman.  The interest was not mutual and nothing came of it beyond a few Ani DiFranco concerts and long dinners.  But it started me down the path of examining my choices, and eventually I came to the conclusion that wanting to fit in was not going to keep me going for the next 40 years. 

I realized that I would need to risk losing the approval of my parents and my friends and leave the safety of a loving relationship with a very good man to forge my own path and become fully myself.