The Times They are a Changin’
A couple of summers ago we made my sister a surprise party. We did it to celebrate her and because it was fun. But in the back of my mind, I remember thinking she deserves this, because she might not ever be able to have a wedding in her hometown. My sister is gay. Nine months later Pennsylvania legalized gay marriage.
On the road a few weeks ago, I followed the Lambda Legal Twitter feed for the Marriage Equality SCOTUS hearing. Lambda Legal along with the ACLU was at the Supreme Court to officially argue for Marriage Equality. There was a lot of chatter, but then I heard with my own ears the voices for Marriage Equality on the steps of the Supreme Court drowning out those opposed (thank you video tweets). My heart skipped a beat. This was civil rights history unfolding!
The Family Story
Old family stories sustain us through laughter and tears. This has both. I remember the night many years ago when my sister, M, came out to me. While my family all suspected well before that summer that she was gay, we respected her privacy and need for self-discovery; no one brought it up. But that night, chatting in the car while I was dropping her off somewhere, she said those words and told me who she was. Big smiles, meaningful hugs, all was right with the world. She got out of the car, and my emotions catapulted into sixth gear:
- Elation – she’s finally free to be herself. Now she can be happy!
- Elation – she wanted to share her true and honest self with me
And then I got all choked up.
- Worried and frightened – about the prejudice and hate she was sure to face once she left the safe haven of her small liberal arts college. Life has its challenges, and just by being who she was, my sister would face the additional burden of unfair judgment. I recalled just a couple of years earlier, visiting my boyfriend at Penn State, out in the open on campus, seeing a college student wearing a t-shirt that read in large lettering “Silly Faggot, Dicks are for Chix.” And that was at university – not even out in the real world.
Her own coming out journey is painful to think about. M knew something was different growing up, but wasn’t 100% onto what that was, or perhaps in retrospect, was uncomfortable with it. She was always cute, cool, witty, funny, smart as hell, and she marched to the beat of her own drum; people loved her.. She went to her school dances with guy friends: her jamming buddy that she played music with took her to the soph-hop. Her super hot climbing buddy (who’s about to compete on American Ninja Warrior) took her to her prom – to this day I joke with him that whatever happened that night clearly led to her becoming a lesbian. But she never had a boyfriend. Pretty soon after going to college, she cut her hair short, asked my dad for all of his old clothes that he didn’t wear, and we didn’t hear a whole lot from her for a while. (Except when she got mono – we were her servants when she had mono).
We are lucky. We come from a loving and accepting family, though like all families, not without our quirks and dysfunction, which I’ve come to accept as endearing. My parents are both psychiatrists, and on top of that trained in psychoanalysis. My sister had some interest in Freud as well. Knowing that Freud described homosexuality as “a perversion,” I remember being concerned that my sister wouldn’t come out for fear of being judged at home. It turned out that when M initially acknowledged that she was gay, she didn’t accept it herself. She thought “Well if that’s what I am, I’ll be nothing.” Heartbreaking! To hate a central part of who you are so much, that at 19, you decide you’ll be alone all your life. Thankfully, she had the fortitude to put herself in a nurturing environment, and surround herself by friends who encouraged her to embrace herself, on her own terms, in her own time, leading to that summer when she came out to her family. To this day my parents remain supporters of psychoanalytic theory. That said, they’ve been further educated. They both put Freud’s opinion on homosexuality in a locked drawer and threw away the key. Hasn’t come up since.
A year later, my dad decided it was time to tell my grandmother. M had a girlfriend, my brother was getting married; it was time. Dad made a special trip down to Florida, and had the conversation over a game of Scrabble:
Dad: Mom, you know your granddaughter? M?
G’ma: (not looking up from her tiles) Yes.
Dad: M is gay.
Silence as G’ma plays her word.
Dad: your granddaughter. She’s a homosexual.
G’ma: it’s your turn
A few days later, G’ma called me. She led by apologizing, but she had some questions about M. I told her to ask away. And boy did she have questions.
On M & her girlfriend:
G’ma: How do they love each other?
Me: Remember how you and G’pa Harry loved each other? Just like that.
G’ma: So M loves J like a man?
Me: No Gramma, M loves J like a woman.
G;ma: Oh. So J loves M like a man?
Me: No Gramma. J loves M like a woman. That’s what makes them lesbians.
The conversation went on like this for quite a while – sheer heartwarming entertaining bliss! It remains one of my top five favorite G’ma Doris conversations of all time. I promised to send her a book that might help her understand. At the time, I lived in Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood,” and found exactly what I needed at Giavanni’s Room on 12th and Pine: (paraphrasing) The Friend’s and Family’s Guide to having a Gay Relative. It was literally in question and answer format by topic. Including “What do they DO together?”
G’ma sent a postcard thanking me for the book.
This postcard has lived on the refrigerator of every place I have lived since. A few months ago my sister visited and found it. It was a moment, forever documented on her fb page:
In the year 2000, my father told my grandma that I was gay, and she eventually asked my sister for some information to help her understand what this was all about. Liz, being the perfect person that she is, went to Giovanni’s Room in Philly and sent our grandma an FAQ “manual” for friends and family. This postcard from my grandma followed shortly after, and I just thought it was super awesome, both its existence and that it was sent when my grandma was taking a college course in La Jolla 15 years ago, where my sister now lives and where the card now lives on her fridge. Here is an excerpt:
“Hi Liz – Rec’d the book a few days ago – thanks very much. I read all of it promptly – found it very enlightening + presented well by the author.”
The only time I really saw my grandmother after she found out and before she was very ill was at my brother’s wedding, where she simply cornered me, looked (up – she was very, very short) into my eyes intently, told me she loved me, and gave me a hug.
I have a pretty kick-ass family – M
Progress in the Cheltenham School District
We’ve got a younger sister in the family who is one of the staunchest supporters of civil rights I’ve ever met. A, just shy of 5 feet tall, stands up to bullies in her school not infrequently. She can’t not do something when she sees injustice. A year and a half ago, she student directed the play “The Laramie Project,” at the same junior high we all attended. It was a place where 20 years ago, homophobic slurs could be heard in the halls, waiting for the bus and sometimes openly in class. But in 2013, when I walked into the building to watch the show, I found these posters all over the school:
The Laramie Project is hard to watch. It boggles my mind that these teenagers dealt with this subject matter intensely week after week in rehearsal. At intermission, in a row filled with family, I tried recounting my feelings about M coming out, but could not get the words out through my tears. Meanwhile the cast went on with the second act, not missing a beat.
And that’s the story of an LGBT person with a supportive family. It was hard, but others have had it tougher: shunned by their families, their churches, the Boy Scouts; been passed over for promotions; told they couldn’t stay at a particular B & B, or that they can’t have their wedding cake made at this bakery because their same-sex relationship is not a valid relationship. These are all events that happened in the last year.
Thank You Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
So at the end of April, seeing and hearing the support for equality on the steps of SCOTUS from my little tiny iPhone made my heart explode. No matter the upocoming SCOTUS decision, these are exciting and progressive days in history. But it doesn’t end here. Every year at Passover my mother reads the MLK “I have a dream” speech. That speech resonates for any person or group (and its allies) that has been persecuted unjustly. To paraphrase, I have a dream that one day we will live in a nation where all people will be judged not by the color of their skin, not by their religion, not by their sexual orientation, not by their gender identity, not by their ethnicity, but by the content of their character. I have a dream.