October 8, 2017
Somewhere in the back of my mind I had the romantic illusion that my ancestors had been driven from Ireland by famine. But when Lynn and I traveled there in 2010 I discovered that the dates were vague. Rather than starving refugees in the bottoms of leaky boats, it appears my forebearers came before the Great Hunger, during times of opportunity with skills to make a modest living.
On my mother’s side my great-grandfather was a steam pipe fitter from what is now Northern Ireland, and my immigrant great-great-grandfather on my father’s side was a tailor from what is now The Republic of Ireland. I can’t imagine the courage it took to leave family and hearth and step onto their first seagoing vessel. I visualize old maps that fade into stormy seas with the notation, “There be dragons here.”
But what I most came away with from that trip was a profound love for the Irish who did not emigrate. Particularly, in the Blasket Islands, shards of land off the west coast of Ireland, I realized how difficult life had been in “the old country.” In family after family the eldest son would travel to America, and once he was established, he would send for a sister or a brother, and so it would go down the line of siblings. Until one day the patriarch of the family would die, and the youngest child, the one who hadn’t made it away yet, stayed to care for mother. This continued until 1953 when the British government removed the last residents from the islands, 22 single, elderly women and men. The children who never made it away. They were the ones with quiet courage.
Later this week, on October 11, will be Coming Out Day. Now some people may take that as their opportunity to “come out,” but in my experience, it doesn’t usually happen that way. Some people come out when confronted by well-meaning friends or family. Others when confronted by more hostile interrogators. Many come out after years of grappling with self-doubt or even self-hatred. For others, it is a startling self-revelation.
That’s how it was for me some thirty years ago when I was in my early forties. It was an earthquake I didn’t understand. Easily 8.5 on my personal Richter scale. The aftershocks never stopped coming. Gradually I realized that it’s not simply come out and be done with it. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day.” Morning after morning you wake up to the shock of remembering, “Oh, yeah, I’m gay.”
Repeatedly you calibrate who knows and who doesn’t. With each person, each location, each group, you have to come out again, or not, because for those of us who easily pass as straight, that has to be an actual decision. Is this location, group or person safe for me? It took a long time before I realized that sometimes the important question was not “Is it safe?” but “Is it authentic?” That doesn’t mean I don’t always still first ask myself, “Is it safe?”
When I first came out there were no happy gay or lesbian characters on T.V. or in the movies. This was long before “Will and Grace,” and fifteen years before Ellen came out on T.V. The most famous lesbian novel I’d ever heard of was titled, “The Well of Loneliness.” It did not have a happy ending.
Lynn and I are fortunate. We live in a place and time that is relatively safe, but we know to be more circumspect in Nevada County than in the Bay Area. Mostly we barely merit a glance, but as getting-up-in-years, middle class, white women we are safer than LBGT persons of color. Just two years ago, vandals attempted to destroy a mural in the Mission District in San Francisco. First, they spray-painted over the image — a tribute to queer Latinos and Chicanos; two men on one side, two women on the other and a trans man between them all — and then they set it on fire. In San Francisco!
My first fears of coming out were the realized consequence of divorce, the risk of loss of family, fortunately not realized, or friends, realized, and the fear of financial insecurity. My law office was less than a mile from Solano Avenue in Berkeley where I would regularly have lunch at a particularly inexpensive Chinese place.
The owner, and sometimes her young children, would rush to service all the tables during the lunch hour. You hated to ask for even a glass of water for fear she would literally run to get it. For $2.95 I could get a pot of tea, a plate of mango chicken (my favorite), rice, a fortune cookie, and a slice of orange. I would eat half the meal in the restaurant and take the other half home for dinner.
One evening, having calculated that I could afford an entire meal for dinner, I stopped on my way home. The place was empty. The owner asked if she could sit at my table. “Of course,” I said. She was tired and wanted to tell me that this would be her last weekend. “I have worked every day for eighteen months,” she told me, “and I have lost eighteen thousand dollars.” I still get tears in my eyes when I think of her. I could have afforded $3.25 or maybe even $3.50 if I had known. She had such courage, endurance, and a hopeful dream, but sometimes you need more. You need community.
By coming out as lesbian I found a new community. Actually, I found community for the first time. I had never felt that I fit in; I just didn’t know why. Looking back I now see that all the groups I belonged to, the books I read, and all the movies I saw were imbued with a heterosexual perspective. It’s funny how you never see that until you step out of the frame.
A gay man explained this to me as follows saying, “As a gay man my feelings about this chair are etc…” Silly example perhaps, but suddenly I got it. Everything, down to the chairs comes with assumptions about who will like them, who will buy them, who will sit in them.
Whether you are straight or LBGT, black or white or Latino or Asian, everything comes with the assumed norms of white and straight and probably male, unless someone musters the courage to question them.
Coming out is a lesson in courage that LBGT persons live over and over again. For me, each time gets a little easier and brings a little more community. On the other hand, I note last week’s announcements from the Department of Justice that transgender persons are not protected from workplace discrimination, and it’s now okay again to turn same-sex couples away from a business because our mere existence offends the religious beliefs of the owner.
I am a big fan of newspaper comic strips, and I saw one recently that tickled me. A man is reading the paper and nearby a parrot is sitting on a perch, without a cage. The parrot says, “You’d better hope PETA doesn’t find out you’ve got me working up here without a net.” Maybe all of us feel that way from time to time. But in this congregation that underlying assumption is not true! We are all each other’s net.
Mutual support gives us the courage to speak and sing out loud. My courage builds your courage. Your courage builds mine. As a community our individual courage gathers us together in love, in faith and in support. It gives us each the courage to be authentic and to walk, talk and sing our way toward justice.