I’m a 9th generation American homosexual.
Either that, or there’s an amazing coincidence in the inordinate number of bachelors and spinsters in my ancestry. I count two or three in every generation on both sides of the family for the past 336 years.
Perhaps that’s why the stigma attached to being single wasn’t an issue in my upbringing. My father’s sister never married. And even though the topic of ‘why’ wasn’t openly broached, my maternal grandmother divorced after her second daughter was born. She spent the balance of her life as single, in the close company of women.
I suppose you could misconstrue this as proof that it’s possible to be raised gay, or that I was. But you’d be wrong.
I wasn’t raised to be sexual at all. Like so many of my generation, the subject of sex was taboo in our home. And even though I grew up with two sisters and three brothers, we never shared conversations of an intimate nature until we were all well into our 40s. Even then, the talks were strictly casual between just sisters.
My father was as distant as mother was demonstrative by nature. It was she who showed us how happiness flows from doing good.
We learned to be courteous, courageous, curious and kind. We were exposed to music, literature, art and theater. We were trained to respect language through oratory and debate. And while exploring the works of William Shakespeare, my mother implored us to hold dear the line, “To thine own self be true.”
So don’t think it took some long struggle with my sexual identity before I spoke the words, “I’m gay” to my mom. Nor was it her fear of hurting my feelings that kept an exchange from happening between us before she reached 89.
It’s simply — believe it or not — most lesbians don’t consciously categorize themselves as being gay, per se. I don’t. I never have.
True, I avoided dating while in high school and remained chaste until halfway through my 23rd year. By then the family phone fests had my younger sister convinced I’d become some sort of recluse, while my older sister swore I must be ‘on’ something. (Mom thought if I wasn’t, maybe I should be.)
So, when I called home from New York City that glorious March day in 1970 to tell mom I’d be bringing a friend back for a visit, she was delighted. She didn’t question what the friendship entailed or which gender it involved. All that mattered was I’d finally connected with someone.
No one has questioned it since. Liz remains the only love of my life. For the past 43 years we’ve lived under the same roof sharing the same bank account, abiding by the same moral compass, collaborating in the same businesses, and demonstrating the same affections for an array of pets.
We’ve never been apart in all those years. Never taken separate vacations or even wanted to. Never appeared at gatherings alone. Never accepted an invitation unless the other’s name was included on the envelope. Never sent a birthday card, letter, or holiday greeting without our joint salutation.
We aren’t provocative or particularly political. There’s no role-playing, recognition-dressing, or exhibitionism. And even though our choice to remain reserved is based on a nothing-to-hide-nothing-to-share ideology, you can’t exactly classify us as closeted.
The fact is, no one has ever asked me, “Are you gay?” Not even once in all these years. Instead, we’ve been treated like any other two people who graciously appear as an extension of the other.
But then, at age 89, my mom finally brought it up.
“Why now?” I asked her during our daily long-distance chat.
“I watched a biography on television last night about two men who had this great devotion for each other,” she recounted. “And I marveled, how wonderful it must be to know that kind of love. It made me think of you and Liz.”
My eyes welled.
“But they led such tragic lives in many ways,” she continued. “I hope no one’s ever been mean to you like that.”
I recognized a question masked in those words.
My mom and I were always close. She was a role model for the independent spirit I became, a mentor of uncommon good sense. But there are things I’d never confided — mostly because they all occurred to me in retrospect, long after I’d missed the meaning of the stone thrown.
I had just turned 15, fresh from being voted the wittiest girl in my class and slated to become editor of the school paper, a forensics champion, thespian, and most photographed person in my senior yearbook. Plus, some considered me cute to boot.
And yet, I was never a team player. I rarely attended sports events. I avoided pep rallies. I didn’t spend spare time with classmates. I resisted temptation and defied intimidation. I refused to follow the crowd. And I simply did not date.
Not that I lacked opportunity. Indeed, my primary pals were male. But I was careful to keep boys at bay, preferring platonic relationships restricted to school hours, or clustered occasions.
Because my mind wasn’t functioning in the immediate present back then. It was clouded with illusions of running off to Greenwich Village to live as a Bohemian poetess and consumer underachiever.
Then one afternoon while stopping to pick up books for history class, I noticed a word scrawled sideways down my hallway locker with letters the length and width of the door: Q-U-E-E-R.
It was 1961, a time when ‘queer’ hadn’t yet become generically derogatory in small-town, Midwest America and graffiti was an anomaly. I pondered the purpose of the scribbling only a moment before shrugging, grabbing my books and jamming the combination lock closed.
Then I glanced toward the far end of the hall. There stood my best friend in the company of girls belonging to the most popular class clique. They’d been watching me. Watching as I approached my locker. Watching as I read the message on the door. Watching while I prepared to leave. They seemed insidious standing there.
So I did the unexpected. I waved, and smiled, and walked away — oblivious. Because right then, I hadn’t a clue the day would dawn when I’d look across a crowded room and fall in love with a woman looking back at me.
But apparently, they knew — those cowards with ‘pencils’ mightier than swords.
“No,” I said to calm my disquieted mother. “No one ever hurt me.” It was such a long time ago and such a well-intended little lie.
But I think about it more often now that she’s passed on and I’m getting older. How the heartsore hasn’t healed much in 336 years since the first of my ancestors sought freedom here from religious persecution. How men are still mauled and murdered and women are ridiculed and raped in righteous retribution for being gay.
What has changed is an emergence of people demonstrating compassion, acceptance, and moral courage — most of them parents, friends and relatives enlightened by genetic codes.
I know there will always be conflict between those who flash a swagger as their badge of honor, and those who flash a swish.
But I’m thinking, someday, there might be three key categories from which to choose: Heterosexuals. Homosexuals. And people who love each other.
The last one?
That would be me.
# # #
This freshly updated essay by Marguerite Quantaine first appeared in The St. Petersburg Times, eleven years ago. (Copyright by M. Quantaine © 2002/2013)
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