Tag Archives: The South

Why Coming Out Still Matters

I’m going to tell you something today. It’s personal and honest and something I have hinted at, but avoided writing about in concrete terms for a long time. Countless bottles of wine, blogs, and Netflix series have been consumed putting this important thing off until I was ready to write it. But I am turning 30 this year. I would like to enter this new decade in the spirit of absolute honesty- with my family, my friends, my community, and most importantly, myself. So here we go.

I am gay.

Why does it matter that I’m telling you this? Why does coming out still matter?

The general public reaction to anyone of cultural significance coming out – read, celebrities like Ellen Page or athletes like Michael Sam – has been met with an equal mix of “Good for them!” and “Who cares? It’s 2014. None of this should matter anymore.” (There are still the messages of hate, but I’m going to pull a Honey Maid here and embrace a message of optimism rather than fuel the haters).

I would like to agree with the coming-out agnostic crowd. I appreciate that evolved view of the world. And bravo to society for swiftly progressing on LGBT issues over the past decade. But I can’t help but think that this agnosticism may be fueled by a perceived over-saturation of news on gay rights over the past few years.  A decade ago over 54% of Americans opposed marriage equality, with 31 states banning the idea altogether via state constitutional amendment or voter referendum lest anyone get the crazy idea in their head to get hitched. The only safe-haven was Vermont. The Defense of Marriage Act seemed impenetrable. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a “necessary evil” for our armed forces.  Transgender Americans were on the fringes of American society. And in many states you could be fired if your employer discovered whom you loved or if your gender stated on your HR paperwork didn’t match what was on your birth certificate. America was in the throes of a culture war and LGBT rights were a grenade, the weapon of choice to throw onto conservative battlefields in South Carolina and Ohio and even California.

In the middle of this dynamic socio-political landscape I was growing up in The South. I chose to ignore my identity. Being the other was not an option. I wanted to fit in, to be like everyone else. Maybe I wasn’t brave. Maybe I didn’t give folks the benefit of the doubt.  But it was far easier to craft a story for myself that I sincerely believed than to be honest about who I was.

There has undoubtedly been a paradigm shift on the subject of LGBT rights in the past 8 years since I moved to Los Angeles. Over 54% of the population – including the majority of self-identified young Republicans,– support marriage equality. Last year Edith Windsor took on the United States, and the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, allowing married gay couples access to the same federal benefits that every other married couple receives. DADT was repealed. And now, in May of 2014, 18 states- and counting- recognize gay marriage, while other states are being forced to comply with the United States v. Windsor majority opinion. (We know, Vermont. You were doing it before it was cool.)

To the outside observer it may seem like coming out is a non-issue. Facebook feeds are peppered with HRC equality signs and YouTube proposals. Talking heads analyze Michael Sam celebrating a watershed moment with his partner. And many folks say,”This shouldn’t matter anymore.” And you’re right. It shouldn’t- but it still does.

It still matters because members of the LGBT community want to be seen the way everyone else is seen. We want to go to dinner, or pick up kids from school, or be able to love who we love in public just like everyone else. We don’t want to hide, or whisper “my girlfriend” at work to those in the know lest we offend someone or out ourselves. And sadly, even in this time of progressive change, there are those people who would like to refuse to acknowledge LGBT folks in their community, or worse, deny them the right to be seen and acknowledged under equal protection under the law. To those people I will touch on my Southern upbringing and only say this: Bless your hearts.

Coming out should be a celebration of owning your truth. And the more people that do celebrate their truth the more that other members of the LGBT community can be seen and – hopefully – accepted by all of you reading this. There is a reason gay teens are three times (!) more likely to kill themselves than their peers. They would rather end a promising young life than have their peers see them as the other, or their church turn their backs on them, or worse, have their parents cut them off emotionally and financially.

Coming out will continue to matter until there is no longer a fear that you can lose your job based on your sexual orientation or identity (Get on with passing the ENDA, Congress. This is embarrassing). It will continue to matter until American teens can be recognized in their yearbook as who they are, not who their school board wants them to be. It will continue to matter when violence against the LGBT community, especially its members of color, is merely a painful stain on the landscape of the American experience.

Every one of use wants to be seen and accepted, to walk in the light as your true self, even if it takes you 29 years to have the courage to announce it to the world.

In the end, all we have is love. I am forever thankful for my family, who love me no less for being true to myself and for always being my biggest fans; for friends that have fiercely supported me; and for all of you reading this.

I hope you are as full as love as I am. I hope you are seen.

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The Sweetness

My mother often tells me about the wisdom my grandmother gave her when she was my age. I’m nearly thirty, an age where I’ve lived enough to know my understanding of the world is infantile, at best. It’s a blessing to get out of the “I know everything- it’s the rest of y’all don’t get it” phase of life. When Mom drops knowledge on me I listen. Wisdom, I’ve learned, is like black coffee. It’s an acquired taste.

Catherine Sauls lived in the South her entire life. Every Sunday she and my grandfather loaded up their Lincoln for service at Reformation Lutheran Church. Whenever we visited from Virginia we dutifully followed our grandparents down the long aisle and had our cheeks and crowns of our head kissed by strangers. After the service Ma would head home to make Sunday supper, a meal that took two days to prepare for, a meal that could feed dozens. In the South you had to be prepared for extras; every Sunday could bring a new cast of characters: a down on his luck parishioner, or a cousin three times removed, or an old friend, or a stranger that Pop-Pop met on the street. No one was turned down, and there was always room for “just one more” at the table.

Ma religiously dressed in the second holy trinity: pumps, stockings, and pearls, even as she stood over a pan of fried okra popping and hissing in Crisco on a slow-burning South Carolina afternoon. She and my mother would talk, Mom shelling green beans or checking the temperature of the ham in the oven. Anyone could help with the little things, but the stove was Ma’s ship, and she was the only captain. There was always talking and laughing. I liked being in the kitchen with them. Something inside of me, even at age seven, told me this was where I belonged, bonded with the women who bore life and witness to each other.

Mom and I had a quick visit recently. We shared a bottle of red wine under an unusually dark California sky. This was our communion, just as cooking in the kitchen had been her ritual with her mother. Mom and Ma didn’t drink together. Despite her legendary status as a party thrower, Ma was a complete teetotaler. Not to say she didn’t have her vices. Mom would sometimes offer her a martini, to which Ma would deadpan, “You have your cocktail, I’ll have mine,” before popping a Valium.

“Your grandmother had a lot of sayings,” Mom said, her eyes glistening like they often do when she is remembering her mother.  “But if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be this one.” Her accent changed, shedding the staccato acquired after two decades in Northern Virginia. She traded it for Ma’s drawl, the vowels tilted. “’Dahlin’, living is like licking honey off a thorn.”

Southern sayings are sometimes blunt, sometimes beautiful, but always rooted in truth. Tolstoy, chief of all things truthful for literature geeks like myself, wrote a parable along the same lines. It goes like this: A man is chased by a monster. He jumps into a well to escape, but while falling he discovers that there is a dragon at the bottom of the well, prepared to swallow him whole. The man catches a limb during his free-fall, hanging above the waiting jaws of the dragon and below the snapping of the monster. For a moment he is safe, but then he notices two mice chewing the limb. His demise is imminent. So what does he do? Lament his situation? Curse his luck? Nope. He discovers that there is honey dripping from the branch. Instead of thinking of the end, he licks the honey.

To paraphrase Jeffrey Eugenides: we are the man on the branch. Death awaits us. It could be in the form of something as big as a dragon or as nondescript as a mouse. There is no escape. And so we distract ourselves by licking whatever drops of honey come within our reach.

I’m not sure if my grandmother had Tolstoy in mind when she told my mother that living was like licking honey off a thorn.  I’ll never be able to ask her. But the truth remains the same to Tolstoy and my grandmother and my mother and me and you. We are all looking for the sweetness in life. It comes in many forms. For some it presents itself in the first snow of the year, or a kiss from a child, or a passage from a book that has the power to connect your mind and soul, or a moment tangled in the hips and sheets of a lover. It’s these things and all things.

For me I know that time spent in a Columbia, South Carolina kitchen with a woman dressed in the second holy trinity is one of life’s sweetest moments. And by writing that memory down my grandmother lives on, even though she left this earth over a decade ago.

Our time here is limited. Our capacity for the sweet moments is infinite. Live well, live now, live sweetly.

Ps, hi Mom. Love you to the moon and back.

mom and woog bw

 

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