Coming out is not something you do once. It is an ongoing process. This is especially true, I think, if you don’t look stereotypically gay.
I am never quite sure how I appear to others. In the ’90s, I didn’t pass for straight in the mid-West — perhaps because of my short hair — yet I would walk into a gay bar and routinely be asked if I was straight or bi. In fact, I once went to a gay bar with the gayest man in the world. A group of women kept staring at me. Finally, one of them called out, “Are you here with your husband?”
“My husband? Who, him?”
These days, I look more traditionally feminine, but I do not pass as straight when I am out with my wife. We are butch/femme. When people see us together, they get it.
I first suspected I was a lesbian when I was 13 years old, and I thought that it would be the worst thing in the world to be gay. So I prayed really hard to Jesus to make me straight and quickly began aggressively focusing on boys.
My feelings resurfaced after I enrolled at Smith College, but sadly I did not come out in time to really experience the joys of the womyn’s community there in Northampton, the so-called “lesbian capital of the world.” Instead, I lurked on the sidelines of the Tenney House parties, hoping no one would ask about my sexuality.
After graduation, I was still unsure whether I was bisexual or straight, and I was so naïve at the time that I couldn’t understand my own confusion. “How can I not know what I am,” I asked myself.
The long feared question finally came on a camping trip with three female friends. As I put a forkful of fish in my mouth, Rhonda said, “I want to talk about Claire’s sexuality.” I nearly choked. Then, I confessed to them that I didn’t know whether I was bisexual or straight — to which Rhonda replied, “maybe you’re gay and you’re just too scared to admit it.”
OMG! Maybe I am!
Shortly thereafter, I decided that since there was no way to resolve my uncertainly, I would just start living my life as a lesbian and see if I liked it. And guess what? I did! That was 1987.
At that point, however, the resolution remained theoretical. When I actually kissed a woman for the first time, clarity dawned. It was as if in a romance novel; the earth moved. Then I knew, for sure.
Nevertheless, it took a while for me to feel comfortable being out. At first I felt shame being publicly identified. I struggled to overcome the pain of my mother’s hurtful words. I felt fear about my career prospects. I didn’t want to face social rejection.
Over the course of graduate school, however, I became completely comfortable being out socially, but was still a little concerned about the job market. During the interview process for my first job in 1998, my friend on the hiring committee reportedly outed me to his colleagues. “Claire’s a lesbian,” he said. “Does anyone have a problem with that?” No one spoke up, and I got the job. During the Mason hiring process, back in 2000, I didn’t say anything until they hired me. I came out in my first phone call with my new chair. Of course, he was cool.
Despite my reticence in a competitive job market, I was fully out with my colleagues in both departments and had no problems to speak of. I did not, however, talk to my students about my personal life, although I was on the LGBTQQIA faculty list as a resource.
Right before I came up for tenure at Mason in 2004, I came out to the Provost. Since I was writing a book on marriage equality at the time, I sorta had to. I confess I was a wee bit worried, but I got tenure with no problem.
After tenure, I became a bit of an LGBT activist. Mikki and I served as Lobby Day Coordinators for Equality MD for several years. We were featured in the Baltimore Sun and another newspaper right before we flew to CA to marry legally in 2008 — and those articles were reprinted widely. Plus an NPR reporter recorded our ceremony for radio segment. After moving to DE, our work continued, and I co-led the weekly phone banking effort at CAMP Rehoboth during the Equality DE marriage fight in 2013.
At this point, I am so far out, that I couldn’t go back in the closet if I tried — thanks to Google, among other things.
That is why I had to laugh when a certain person in the RB community went around town telling people I was not out when I was on the campaign trail. For Goodness sake, dude, we ran the campaign out of our home — where we live together as wife and wife! Just because Mikki was not in every photograph, glued to my hip, does not mean I was closeted. Get a grip!
I also loved the guy who said I was trying to be feminine for the campaign. As you can see by the photos, I am just being myself — a proud femme. I no longer capitulate to the lesbian feminist beauty standards of the 1980s.
It makes me happy to read this post and not be able to quite understand the shame and fear I felt in the past. We have come a long way. And thanks to the Supreme Court, marriage equality is the law of the land.
Happy Coming Out Day!