My sister-in-law is a lesbian. We have known this for almost 20 years, but she has never really been “out and proud.” That was really not her personality so far as I had known her, and this was certainly true with respect to her family, where her “lifestyle” was never discussed.
“Joan” has been with her partner for over 15 years. “Gayle” has typically been friendly enough when I’ve been around her, but I always felt an emotional distance, as indeed I did with Joan. I strongly suspect that this was due to the fact that, although my wife and I did our best to be “open-minded” and accepting, Joan and Gayle still felt some judgment from us because of our active membership in the Mormon Church.
I recently had an opportunity to travel to the city where Joan and Gayle live. I hadn’t seen or spoken to them since coming out, and I had no idea how Joan felt or what she thought about the breakdown of my marriage to her sister, let alone what she thought about me coming out. Would she “side” with her sister and reject me? ( For which I wouldn’t have blamed her.) Would she think me terribly selfish and irresponsible for coming out after all these years?
I thought about contacting Joan and Gayle while in their city. But I was apprehensive. I vacillated and sought advice from my friend with whom I was staying. He gently encouraged me to reach out in a non-threatening way, and I ultimately went with his advice by sending an email, asking how they would feel about meeting.
I’m glad I did. I received a warm response and we arranged to meet on “neutral” ground – a gay-friendly restaurant in the gayest part of the city. My friend and his boyfriend would go along for moral support.
As we sat in the restaurant waiting for them, I became increasingly nervous and apprehensive. How would it go? What would we say? Would it be painfully awkward? How would they feel? What would they think?
I kept glancing toward the street. Gayle had called to say they would be running a bit late. My fingers drummed the table. Turn. Look. A good stiff drink is what I needed. Glance again toward the street. I explain my increasing nervousness to my friends.
Then, I heard my name. A voice from above. I looked up and there, standing at a railing overlooking the area of the restaurant in which we were sitting, were Joan and Gayle. Smiling. Not a hint of nervousness or judgment in their eyes.
I hadn’t expected them to enter from the rear of the restaurant. (How typical: events had panned out in ways I hadn’t anticipated. When will I learn to open my mind to other possibilities?) I got up and met them on the steps at the end of the railing. I already knew. The looks on their faces and the feelings that they radiated told me that they had accepted me; they didn’t judge me; they loved me.
I gave Gayle a hug and Joan an even bigger hug. I was fighting back tears, the kind that easily (for me) turn into sobs. We went to the table and sat down. Thereafter followed a delightful hour or so of conversation, sharing, laughter. Joan told me I would always be a part of the family, no matter what. There were no words of second-guessing or judgment regarding my coming out. Curiosity, yes; a desire to understand, yes. But nothing beyond this.
(The fact that I had been concerned at all may sound surprising to some who read this. After all, they are lesbians: they know all about coming out! I have thought about this over the last couple of days, and I think I have realized that I am still working on giving myself permission to come out. It might be perfectly fine for someone else to come out, but there is a part of me that is still withholding his permission and doesn’t approve of what I’m doing. It was this part of me that had been feeding my apprehensions that day.)
As I sat talking to Joan and Gayle, I felt a dawning awareness of something that I had never before sensed in Joan: she was totally at ease. No nervousness. None of the anxiousness I had always felt and seen in Joan over the years at various family gatherings and which I had assumed was simply part of her personality. And Gayle was more open than she had ever before been.
And then it hit me; I realized why Joan seemed more at ease than I’d ever seen her, despite the fact that I am divorcing her sister. I realized why Gayle could do something she’d never done before, viz., refer to Joan as her wife. Duh. They no longer had to pretend with me; they no longer had to be guarded. They could simply be themselves. And I in turn could be who I am. We were all completely “out” to each other in an environment in which we felt totally safe. The result was amazing.
It was as if we had entered another dimension – a dimension I had felt and experienced on other occasions in other circumstances during the course of my visit to that city. It was a dimension of authenticity where genuine love, respect and friendship flourishes; where self-acceptance feeds self-knowledge. As “new-agey” as that sounds, I know it is real. I experienced it. And I’m so thankful that, at this point in my life, I’ve discovered it.
I had other realizations as I sat there. I’ll mention only one, which caused me to feel regret and shame. I realized that Gayle had never been openly acknowledged in the family as Joan’s spouse/partner, and that she and Joan had never been allowed to live “out loud” within the family circle. Tolerated, yes. Acknowledged privately, but not publicly.
I felt terrible for whatever complicity I may have had in this. I also realized that a big reason for this situation is that all of Joan’s siblings were or are still are active Mormons. As such, we could bring ourselves to be “liberal” and “tolerate” Joan’s “lifestyle,” but we could never bring ourselves to openly acknowledge, let alone celebrate, who Joan is and what she and Gayle have together. We are/were not programmed to allow ourselves to do that because to do so would be too conflicting. And that goes beyond sad, beyond unjust, beyond simply unfortunate. It is immoral.