I persuaded myself I was straight until my late 40’s. It made life less personally complicated and more socially acceptable. For most of that time it didn’t cross my mind I might not be straight, and for the rest, I relied on the idea that sexuality is a spectrum (true, I think) and the conviction that I could choose where to be on it (less true, in my experience).
My parents had friends I later realized were gay, and I never heard anything negative at home, but I grew up with the homophobia of the culture. I didn’t know women could be attracted to women until I was in college, and by then I was totally invested in the Good Girl fairy tale of the One Man who would come along and sweep me off my feet and make me a wife, just like my mother. I graduated from college in 1982, and lived my 20’s in the world of HIV and AIDS, at first standing by while jokes were made about its victims. I had begun to look past the reactive hysteria when a friend came out to me. He was as much like me as a guy could be in terms of his desire to be good and pure and live the fairy tale. His story didn’t immediately point the way to my own realization, but did open me to to understanding that gay people weren’t “other.” They were people I knew and loved. They were people who, like me, desired love and connection and commitment. How could God not love them and want happiness for them, too?
More years went by before I recognized my own heart’s desire, and then ten more years, in which I packed that feeling away carefully, before I ever named it aloud to anyone. My experiment at the straight life continued. You can do things without meaning them, you see, and even persuade yourself to believe in them, but in the end a life lived otherwise faithful to God will reveal the truth about you.
My belated re-realization, my midlife romance, my marriage, and move to Pennsylvania all played out like a romantic comedy: two friends figure out there’s more to it, and they go through various misunderstandings, and then one of them says to the other, “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible” (Harry Burns, When Harry Met Sally). Our details varied, but they were just as romantic and charming, I promise, because we are not “other.” We are two people who love each other and who are blessed to get to live out the epilogue you never see in the movies, with all its ordinary challenges. My otherwise failed experiment at being straight did include the bonus of three children I love beyond limits, and my wife’s similar experience means I now have a young stepson who I also love beyond limits and who even has the same name as my dad, which feels like a flourish of God’s grace and affirmation.
If you wonder why I keep using the word “experiment,” it’s because over the past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly’s decisions in favor of marriage equality generated push-back I’ve found personally hurtful, and I can’t seem to stop chewing on a few words in particular. Experiment is one of them, used by a conservative Presbyterian pastor in a series of comments decrying the decisions. To sum her up but not quote her exactly, “All this acceptance of homosexuals is encouraging kids to experiment.” I want to be clear that I didn’t go out there and read the comments on news stories; these remarks came into the closed Facebook group for RevGalBlogPals, including one describing LGBTQ people as “a group looking for validation” as opposed to people in actual need. Of course there are actual needs for justice for LGBTQ people in civic and church arenas, and while there is great movement in some areas, there is little in others. Our marriage is recognized now in Pennsylvania, but it’s still legal to discriminate against us here in housing and employment and the service industry based on our sexual orientation.
It particularly hurts that when the church and its representatives use demeaning or dismissive words. Church is the place where I learned about love. It was my desire to be faithful to God that gave me the courage to own up to my orientation. I understand my life now as being lived in response to God’s call to be the person God made me to be, to sing in the key to which God tuned my heart. Being queer is not an experiment or a persuasion – and that’s the other word hectoring me. It’s kind of an old-fashioned way to say it, “someone of your persuasion;” it sounds almost genteel, but truly it’s insidious. My life as a woman married to a woman is neither an experiment nor a persuasion. Those words imply a casual perversion with no relationship to who I am. Persuasion doesn’t suggest orientation, or the way someone is made. It describes being won over. For me it applies to the time I spent living as a straight person, co-opted by social expectations for a gently-raised young woman in a politically and religiously moderate family in the South with a particular concern for public appearances. I did everything I could to live up to the terms of the experiment, but I remain unpersuaded.