Everyone these days knows about “the gays”. When I was a kid growing up in a small prairie town in western Canada, I had no idea. I didn’t know that a male friend who curled his hair and wore makeup was gay. I didn’t know what to make of the interest I had in kissing a girlfriend. Although there are limits to labels and real damage done by contempt and shaming, visibility at least lets us know about possibilities.
“I come from a sacred legacy of trancestors who thrived outside of the western gender binary. They lived as if they were already free (because they were). So I do, too. (Because I am.) The world says that people like me don’t exist. But here we are, breathing.” Alok Vaid-Menon
I was seven months pregnant when my sociology professor brought in a gay man and a lesbian to speak to us. This was quite radical in 1973. At the end of the class, I walked down the long set of stairs to the front, where about a dozen people were milling about, talking with the speakers. They turned and looked at me, obviously wondering what a pregnant woman was doing there. I turned and walked away. I didn’t think about it again for another four years.
I came out in a bookstore. I was twenty three, and newly divorced with a three year old child. I saw a book cover Now That You Know, for Parents of Gays and Lesbians, and I knew. I also knew I couldn’t stay where I lived in northern Canada in the same city as my parents. I moved back south to the city.
In Calgary, I met a few gay men, went to my first gay bar, and met my first lesbian there (thrilling and scary). By the late seventies, I was immersed in the lesbian and gay community. In 1981, I began a lesbian relationship.
I mailed everyone in the family a coming out letter but the next day, I had a rare phone call from my mother. I took a deep breath and came out. This was literally our conversation.
“Mom, you’ve probably been wondering why I never talk about having a boyfriend.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“It’s because I’m gay. I have a girlfriend.”
“It’s been snowing a lot up here. What’s the weather like where you are?”
One sister had trouble with it but my other two siblings were more supportive. A few months later they sent dad to check us out. We were tolerated in the family. Accepted. See the Riddle Homophobia Scale. I was pretty defiant and didn’t realize everyone had their own coming out process, especially parents. Mom never did reveal to her friends that she had a lesbian daughter. I would be more sensitive to that now. Maybe give them that book!
I defined myself as a radical lesbian feminist activist (never a TERF). I organized the Lesbian Information Line, monthly dances, started the Lesbian Mothers Defence Fund in Calgary (my son’s dad was threatening to take custody), was part of the collective that organized the first Women Reclaim the Night marches, supported anti-racism work, and started the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes and the Bad Trick Sheet in Calgary.
I spoke at marches. I spoke at university classes like the one I’d been at in 1973, at group homes, and to the media. I had a dyke hair cut and a leather jacket. I regularly wore a button that said Lesbian Mother and almost got punched for that one day in a store. I was out and proud. In 1987, I began seven years of working at AIDS Calgary and the focus of my activism changed. I never really went back to the fury and action of the eighties. I’m more likely now to write a check than organize a march.
The focus of my work over the last ten years is healing trauma and teaching meditation, which I’m doing as an out lesbian. I guide a few meditations for Halifax Pride. This year I’m going to the parade and volunteering as an emotional support person. I recently facilitated a four day retreat for an upcoming documentary I See You on sexual health for women and gender queer artists. I participate in a different way. Being a visible lesbian elder is important.
I know how important it is to find “our people” and to be accepted and included somewhere. Things have changed since the 1970’s in terms of visibility. It is easier for many people to come out. They have gay/straight alliances in schools. In 1980, we held a “kiss-in” on the steps of city hall, but it was years before our first Pride march. Now major corporations sponsor Pride events and politicians, including Canada’s Prime Minister, march with us.
And people are still bullied. People are still subject to violence, especially trans people and people of color. It takes courage to come out and to be who we are. We might do that quietly in our communities and family or on a wider stage like AIDS activists and Ellen, who changed the lives of so many people. My son and other allies have an important role in supporting our rights at the ballot box, at work, and in educating others.
I love the recent conversations around gender identity. People are exploring how they define their gender and there are so many possibilities. Click here for some terms people are using.
I identified as a girl and woman because I didn’t feel like a boy or man. I describe myself now as gender non-conforming and genderqueer. I don’t feel I am a woman in the way society defines woman. We are conditioned to be a certain way and I have always rebelled at that.
I am newly comfortable describing myself as nonbinary. I am not an either/or. To reflect this ongoing exploration, I am changing my pronouns to she/they.
May we all find and live in freedom, and may we value each other’s freedom as our own.