The Queer Issue
At the age of 28, I thought coming out would be a kind of curative, magical "awakening" that would save me. It seemed to offer me a ticket out of my routine world into an electric and passionate one where I might finally line right up like a good spine. I was married at the time.
By myself, I didn't invent the concept of coming-out-as-redemption. This notion was taught to me by a Welcome Wagon committee of queer friends and neighbors, and by my very gay Uncle Cal, who was excited by the prospect of another black sheep in the family. Everyone was eager to rush me through gay rebirth, then enroll me immediately in the church of divine queerness. It was late 1988. Tracy Chapman was singing lesbian escape ballads on the radio. There was a big rumor circulating about Kelly McGillis, Jodie Foster, Whitney Houston, and their Hollywood love triangle--how someone kicked someone's ass on a movie set.
One older lesbian friend told me, "Coming out is like winning the lottery," and, "We're more evolved than other people." I desperately wanted to believe such absurd comments, in order to ease my anxiety. But in retrospect, I wish someone had warned me of a few things, or that I had enough common sense to realize them on my own. First off, coming out is not, in itself, salvation: It wasn't going to fill the void in me or soften the rough edges of my life. Nor would coming out allow me to skip developmental steps--like grieving--that slower, "less evolved" straight people had to muck through. Finally, I wish I'd understood that my blossoming new sexual identity did not come with a giant permission slip, allowing me to be manipulative and emotionally sloppy with other people's hearts, which I was.
Coming out was a million times more complex and ambiguous than my self-appointed midwives ever mentioned. Hundreds of times I was asked the same question by veteran gay men and women: "Don't you feel like a kid in a candy store?" The question implied that I was entering a promised land of unlimited sexual indulgence. I would nod my head, not really comprehending. When I think back on that cliché question now, I see that old-school queers were just getting a charge off the newness of my new sexual identity.
I also noticed that there was a lot of pressure about having a really good coming-out narrative to flash around the gay community. I fashioned my story so I was the divorcée hero; my husband was the monster. I neatly omitted any self-incriminating details about the destruction I caused. Unfortunately, I also believed my own story, and I must have thought, even for that act of twisting the truth, I was unique.
The actual story goes like this: While my husband was out of town, I told one of my closest friends, a lesbian, that I was attracted to her. It turned out the woman had a crush on me too. We embarked on a long-distance love affair. At first, I was mesmerized with her. Just having sex with a woman seemed phenomenal and profound, partially because the sex was so loaded with volcanic-style repressed emotions, and partially because I wanted so desperately to climb out of myself through sex. I thought coming out was all about sex, and I threw all of my broken self into it.
I never told my husband that I was a lesbian. I was afraid of what he might do, or that he would talk me out of leaving. My irrational fears were fed by a film friends showed me--John Sayles' Lianna, in which a university professor's wife (which I was at the time) falls for another woman. She's honest with her husband about the attraction, and he cuts her off financially, and won't let her see her kids, and Lianna's life goes to shit. That lousy film fueled my already flaming paranoia.
So in 1988 I left my partner of seven years to live with my girlfriend in a flat in San Francisco. I eventually left her too, but not before I had driven a backhoe through my marriage, smashing any hint of intimate connection and commitment. I didn't see the fatal flaw in such a rapid deconstruction project. At the time, I refused to grasp how my abrupt actions and coldness might have devastated my husband. And therefore, I also failed to notice how the act of shutting him out had made a cold, dead field of my heart. All of my efforts went into making a villain of him so I could feel justified in leaving. I even told him the failed marriage was his fault.
Yet underneath all of my frantic great-escape-from-repression scenarios I was ignoring one major, confusing fact. Coming out didn't magically reboot and reformat my heart. I was attracted to women. Yes. But I was still in love with my husband.
There was no question that I was a lesbian. I wanted to sleep with women. But my ability to "love" my new girlfriend, or the next, was buried in a pile of rubble alongside my ungrieved grief.
I was still hung up on my husband when I professed undying love to my first girlfriend. And after that, even though I professed the same undying love to a whole line of serial girlfriends, my heart was too messed-up--too stuck in the past--to back up my words. And some of those girls were just as messed-up as I was. I hurt people, and caused chaos in my own life, because I hadn't excavated my ruined marriage and grieved it. Back then, I thought gay and straight emotions existed in different chambers of the heart.
I can see it more clearly now. But obviously, getting to this vantage point has been arduous. I've been hampered by my own arsenal of tricks and defenses for avoiding pain, tricks that I have honed and perfected over the years. And I used every trick available to me--alcohol, home changes, job changes, relationship hopping, and overworking among them--to avoid facing a handful of uncomfortable truths.
I can't picture, given the person I was back in '88, being capable of more skillfully navigating my coming out transition in a rational and graceful manner. I was doomed from the start, my mind wired with extreme shame and self-hatred. It seems odd now, and vaguely funny, to recall how much I felt like a criminal as I was dramatically fleeing my bewildered husband. I was haunted by numerous punishment scenarios, like being thrown in jail, or being locked up forever in a mental ward.
I've also been trying to understand my deeper motivations for trashing my marriage, and then taking so damned long to go back, clean up the mess, and get on with the routine of a queer lifestyle. At the time I was coming out, the prospect of being gay--being out there alone, without the protection and entitlements of straight marriage--terrified me. In a way, when I buried my marriage, unfinished, I was able to preserve it, and thus I kept my emotional life suspended for years in a kind of limbo.