Coming out is scary. Coming out is hard. Coming out is vital. Coming out in the classroom is what I do each time I reveal that I am a lesbian. Each time I come out involves a sense of urgency, vulnerability, necessity.
During these past twenty years of teaching, I take the opportunity to let my students see me as I am, in all of my complexity. However, the process of deciding to own my lesbian identity in the classroom is almost contradictory. If I require myself to state that I am indeed a lesbian, am I saying that this is what defines me apart from everything else? If I donʼt, am I endorsing the strict prohibition that silences any of us who are gay from identifying ourselves? And when I remain hidden, what message am I conveying to my gay students?
Usually the choice is not whether to come out or not; the choice is how and when. Sometimes it just happens naturally, during the course of speaking about my past writings (like my unfinished dissertation on lesbian parenting and child custody conflicts) or past experience (conducting interviews as part of a gay research project). Sometimes itʼs in a personal reference to my partnerʼs gender. Other times, itʼs through “outing” other writers weʼre reading or discussing. Mostly I try not to pass, but sometimes unless I directly state the words “I am a lesbian”, some students remain ignorant simply because of the assumptions of heterosexuality. Sometimes I even assume this about my gay students, surprised at my own heterosexist conditioning which prevents even me from identifying other gay students.
Homophobia prevents me from unguardedly identifying myself at the start of a class, preferring to develop rapport throughout the weeks before I actually say the words. Homophobia keeps me from spontaneously stating the gay sexual preferences of the writers we discuss. I much more readily state that Iʼm Jewish , without applying the same scrutiny to this revelation as I do to saying Iʼm a lesbian. Despite these insidious internalized challenges, coming out almost doesnʼt feel like a choice, because it allows me to be the person I am which, in turn, allows me to be a much richer resource to my students and the comfort I need to be a good teacher.
I “came out” in 1974 during my final year of college and the frenzied height of the womenʼs liberation movement, having fallen in love with my closest friend. Even then, surrounded by a burgeoning lesbian movement, it was a challenge to be open about our relationship and we inevitably lost many friends, while we gained others. We were both activists in the local socialist-feminist organization, feeling that we were creating revolutionary change in institutions, left politics and ,especially, our own lives. After a painful break-up, it became increasingly difficult to run into each other while crossing the street in between the houses we moved to and during monthly all-day meetings. I used the excuse to move an hour and a half away to a university beach town after getting into an interdisciplinary graduate school program called ʻHistory of Consciousness.”
When I returned years later to another graduate school program, without the prestige of teaching or the benefits of fellowships or grants, it was indeed a rude awakening. Struggling to pay rent and bills, collecting student loans and getting school work done while cleaning houses and doing massage was a constant strain. I experienced a los s of status and, for the first time in years, did not actively identify myself as a lesbian in school. While there was one lesbian faculty member who was quite supportive, no one else and nothing else validated my being out as a lesbian. I found a few people who I could confide in and came out to them, but as a rule I never made any public statements.
Having already had several years of teaching experience in sociology, writing and womenʼs studies classes, I knew the importance of feeling comfortable with myself within the classroom. I know that it was only through clearly identifying myself as a lesbian that certain students confided in me, enabling them to address certain controversial issues in their writings and to have the confidence to explore ways of being comfortable and courageous enough to be “out” themselves in their classrooms and on the campus. Lesbian and gay students are painfully denied role models unless gay faculty and staff exercise their rights to be visible. I know that my being out definitely relied upon a few open faculty members to which I owe a great deal who took the risks despite the possible sanctions.
With my degree in hand, I journeyed to the Pacific Northwest, in search of love (I was having a committed, long distance relationship with a woman living here), employment and life in the green lushness that I find so compelling, leaving close friends and familiar surroundings. I found myself on the “part time” teaching track at a community college just outside the cityʼs border. Those first weeks of teaching challenged me in ways I would never choose to repeat. Experiencing myself as a minority as a Jew for the first time ever, I felt the shock of teaching in a conservative environment in which not only did it feel unsafe to be out as a lesbian, but it felt threatening to be identified as Jewish. So I learned how to feel comfortable modifying my views, discovering ways to be myself but not revealing too much. Again, I came out to selective colleagues, but not to students. For the first three months, when approaching my box in the composition office, I anticipated receiving a note saying: “This is to inform you that your services are no longer required.” I felt like an imposter, certain that if anyone knew who I really was, I would be banished from the premises.
The next quarter, I was hired to teach a writing seminar at a more progressive college in the area. Organically, during a discussion about Alice Walkerʼs “In Search of Our Mothersʼ Gardens,” as we were each sharing our views on the essay, I mentioned my difficult relationship with my mother. Then later on during the same class, a student described a disturbing conversation with her parents who had expressed homophobic views during a dinner conversation. Feeling that the time had come, I revealed that actually the reason I have such a difficult relationship with my mother is because she doesnʼt accept that I am lesbian. Contrary to my deepest fears, no one winced, gasped, threw up or struck me.
When in the class we were later discussing Adrienne Richʼs “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” I felt comfortable commenting about Richʼs lesbian identity and noting that that fact was curiously absent in the biographical sketch in the textbook. That evening, we grew closer as a group. That personal revelation inspired a deeper level of sharing than had previously occurred.
That summerʼs intensive composition course (argumentation and analysis) at another community college coincided with my fatherʼs critical illness. Just before the class began, I planned a visit to my parentsʼ home in Los Angeles. On the day I arrived, my father entered the hospital, not eating and feeling extremely weak. I spent the next five days with him, talking to him, touching him, crying with him. He recognized that I was there, winking at me when I first entered his hospital room. I knew that he was “transitioning” and tried to give him support to move on, if he so desired. I told him that I loved him very much (“I love you, daddy,” to which heʼd reply, “I love you, baby.”) I shared with him that I felt good about my life, that he didnʼt have to worry about me or about any one and that he should do what he needed to do. I wrote furiously in my journal, drew some pictures of him, called friends on the phone for sympathy and support, shed many tears and kissed him often. When I left, I knew that it could be the last time I would ever see him.
Then my summer school class began. Half way into the class, on the night before he was scheduled to leave the hospital for a nursing facility, he passed on, releasing himself from his very tired body and difficult existence. My mother phoned to tell me the news, upset because she had left the hospital early that evening and wasnʼt there with him when he died. I told her that she was with him in spirit and knew that he probably needed her to leave in order to pass on as Iʼve heard many stories of people leaving only after loved ones left them alone. She blurted, “Youʼd better come on down.” “Iʼm coming.” then I paused, adding, “I”m coming with Corrie.” (my lover). She said, “No! I donʼt want Carrie (mispronouncing her name) to come. She canʼt come. Sheʼs not family to me. Sheʼs nothing to me,” to which I replied, “Sheʼs everything to me.”
This reflected a long and agonizing history of non-acceptance, barrages of ridiculous questions, insulting remarks and what always felt like rejection by my mother in regards to my sexuality or “lifestyle”, as it is commonly and insultingly regarded. Coming out to her largely in self defense and frustration with receiving questions I no longer cared to answer proved to be a disaster; but then so was pretending that it wasnʼt so.
I recall an instance in her kitchen in which she shrieked, “Youʼre not a lesbian, you canʼt be, tell me it isnʼt true…” to which I replied, “Okay, believe whatever you want to believe,” deciding to try another tact since my admonitions for years that I felt good about being a lesbian never seemed to sink in. “Oh, what a relief! I knew it wasnʼt so.” This illusory elation held over for another year or so, only to be shattered during subsequent confrontations I grew to despise and try to prevent at all costs.
After the phone call with my mother, the phone rang again. My brother, obviously goaded on by my mother, asked me to make reservations with him to fly to L.A. I told him that Corrie and I planned to go together, despite my motherʼs protestations. He argued that I would be hurting mother because, after all, it was her funeral. I disagreed saying that it wasnʼt only “motherʼs” event, that many of us were grieving and that I had every expectation of bringing my lover to my fatherʼs funeral . He realized it was useless to try to get me to change my mind and hung up.
I met with my class the following morning, telling them that my father had died (they knew that he was in the hospital) and that I was going to the funeral. One student said that she was sorry and that it must be hard for me. I admitted that actually I felt good about him moving on, but that the real difficulty was that my mother had forbidden me to bring my lover to the funeral because she is a woman. (There, I came out again.) They were sympathetic, compassionate and respectful.
I arranged for us to stay at Sandra, my first lover, and Anaʼs home in San Pedro, about an hour outside of L.A. proper. I can still remember the airport shuttle circling and circling the airport, seeking enough passengers to make it worthwhile before driving towards our destination. Borrowing their car, I drove into the city myself to a meeting with my mom and my brother with the rabbi. I tried to be civil; I suppose they tried to suppress their hostility towards me, at least while we were in the rabbiʼs office. He wasnʼt the same rabbi that had been there when I attended religious school or when my brother was Bar Mitzvahed or who knew my parents by their first names. The meeting was a ritual to observe, nothing more. After leaving the rabbiʼs, mom chastised me for not staying at the house with them, not helping them go through daddyʼs things and not being part of that supposed bonding experience. She neglected to add the fact that she prohibited Corrieʼs presence or that that had anything to do with the fact that I wasnʼt there with them.
The next day was the funeral and I, again, made the trip myself. Sandra and Ana were scheduled to arrive home that day and had promised to bring Corrie with them. I rode in the Cadillac hearse with both my mother , brother and my uncle, my motherʼs only brother. At the mortuary, I didnʼt sit next to my mother, preferring to be in the back row of the area where the immediate family assembled, because I didnʼt want to be close enough to view my fatherʼs casket and I didnʼt want to sit near my mother. I gave a short speech, based on a story I once wrote about my father and me, and recited a Native American prayer about passing into spirit . My brother got up and rambled on about how wonderful of a person my dad was and about his and motherʼs relationship and any anecdotes he could muster. I silently seethed that he had the nerve to call up
all of this emotion when he had recently admitted how he hardly had any strong feelings for dad, since he had felt neglected by him.
Back at the house later that day, Corrie came with Sandra and Ana. At one point, my mother yelled that I didnʼt even want to be close to her (which was true) and she was obviously disturbed by the fact that Corrie was there in her house and relating to other family members. That day is a blur and I welcomed the end of it.
The phone rang early that next morning, awakening me to the sound of my motherʼs frantic shrill: “You must come here today, alone. You havenʼt spent any time with us alone. I need you to come now.” Reluctantly I agreed and nearly fell asleep at the wheel during the hourʼs drive there. It was Corrieʼs birthday and I had promised to return so that we could “celebrate” that night by going out to dinner. At once, I began to clean dishes and serve people who dropped by, not minding because at least it gave me something to do. I tried to stay as far away from my mother as I could. My brother left to take a friend of his to the airport and when he returned I was getting ready to leave. In the kitchen, he took some verbal jabs at me, criticizing my poor judgement for bringing Corrie there against momʼs wishes, saying that if mom had forbid him to bring his wife (who was traveling in Europe at the time) to dadʼs funeral, he would have obeyed her wishes. I strongly doubted his reasoning, knowing that my mother would never dare to make such a request . Already late in leaving I went into the den to say goodbye to my mother and uncle. As I walked towards the front door, he swerved towards me, muttering, “Iʼm not going to kiss you goodbye because*******” and suddenly reached for my neck with his arms, in a strangling motion, pushing me to the ground. I got up and, reaching for my shoulder bag, swatted him with it. Gradually my mother and uncle arose to witness the struggle. Somehow I got the front door opened and ran down the stairs to the car I had come there in. After a few tries, I got the carʼs engine to turn over and was pulling away just as my uncle finally got to the car, telling me he was sorry, handing me my necklace that had broken in the scuffle, saying that he wished there was something he could do. I thanked him and drove off.
It wasnʼt until I walked into the house where Corrie, Sandra and Ana were waiting for me that I even recognized the full impact of what had transpired. By then I was hysterical but I told what had happened as clearly as I was able. Corrie then phoned my brother and confronted him for hitting me. He replied that he didnʼt do a thing to me and said that it was just a matter of “…common human decency. If you were any kind of a mensch you would have told Wendy to go without you.” After a while, Corrie realized it was fruitless to continue to argue and ended the conversation. The next day we returned home.
Upon returning to the class I was teaching after the funeral, I revealed that it had been trying and even tortuous. I briefly explained that my mother and brother had refused to accept the fact that I had come with my lover and that my brother had physically assaulted me on the day after the funeral, pushing me to the ground in front of my mother and uncle. My mother refused to acknowledge that it happened, saying only that “he was trying to knock some sense into you.”
I wonʼt say that miracles occurred. Students still made their usual errors. They misused or omitted punctuation and failed to catch proofreading errors, paragraphs lacked focus or clarity, arguments lacked development or complexity, writing was too short, time was limited, people were tired and not all expectations (theirs nor mine) were met. But the course and the classroom environment that we created presented the opportunity for me to be honest about a life-changing experience, create dialogue about the real effects of homophobia, lesbian-hatred and intolerance and showed that people can deal with these issues with maturity, respect and thoughtfulness. I hope that I have the courage to come out, to be myself with the following classes, will fear less that Iʼll lose my job or feel too vulnerable and feel more aware of the real value of being all of who I am–in the classroom, in my community and in my life.
Read at Harry Cutlerʼs Funeral:
They had quite a special relationship . While they didnʼt see each other much, and hardly ever during the day, when the sunlight shone, they grew closer as they learned about each other. Fortunately, she lingered awake until wee hours of the night, the time that he nourished and relaxed for some moments.
After long hours fitting polished jewels inside peopleʼs mouths, heʼd return to their cave, strip down to his shorts and t- shirt and have soup with beans. Rather than let him eat alone, sheʼd join him, under the pretense of asking for his advice on words she was weaving. He would always welcome her company and usually offer sounds, meanings, thoughts that she could use.
They collaborated in this way for many moons. She became fond of twirling, gliding, leaping around in an organized fashion and gathered together regularly to perform steps of fancy and flight in large gathering places with music, costumes and audiences. He was always present at these events, sometimes capturing the moments with visual records which she adored.
On travels away from familiar settings, they felt adventurous, climbing, soaring, inspecting intriguing sights, even climbing steep edifices though they both were fearful of high places. When sitting together to watch musical theater events, they would squeeze hands as they light dimmed, heightening the suspense.
They exchanged written words when she left the cave for northern climates ,tribes and travels. He made certain she had a supply of stamps (though not American flags, which sheʼd affix upside down). He gave her the name “Wendova Kotlerenka” and shared previous memories from their past Ukranian heritage. He never struck her and kissed, patted and stroked her gently and with deep affection. He mostly called her ʻbaby.”
Upon her return from studies and excitement far away, theyʼd spend long hours of the night in the kitchen as before “solving the worldʼs problems”. No matter their opposing views, they both relished the chance to consider problems and various suggestions for improvement and always agreed about the complexities of life. They loved each other deeply and knew how each other felt. Yes, theirs was indeed a special relationship.
Sioux Prayer of Passing:
“Never the spirit is born
The spirit will cease to be never
Never the time when it was not
End and beginning are dreams
Birthless and deathless and changeless
Remains the spirit forever
Death has not touched it at all
Dead though the house of it seems.”