Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Clean, Well-Lighted Closet

Strangely little to say about the Family Holiday Festivities (though we've still got the Aunt to go today.) In the meantime, I've finally tackled this post I've been avoiding since Day 1. Which is fitting, because it's about silence.

I came out to my parents in the summer of 1993, just after I'd finished college. I figured I'd finish school before I did the deed in case they disowned me. I also purposefully came out to them as "lesbian," even though I knew the truth about my attractions was far more complicated than that. I just figured if I told them I was attracted to both men and women (I hadn't yet considered trannies or genderqueers), they'd say, "Well then, we expect you to choose men."

I have no idea if I was right or not -- it's not one of those things you can do twice to find out which is better. As it was, they struggled mightily with the news, screaming, crying, suggesting it was just a reaction to my having been raped the year before, and doing their best to forbid and/or blackmail me out of speaking about my "lesbianism" to anyone they knew, including my entire extended family.

But over time (meaning, several years), they really worked hard to understand. My girlfriend got invited to family holidays. My mother let me know she supported equal marriage rights.

And then there was D. D. was the very first transman I got involved with. You don't need to know much about him, as we didn't last very long, but it was being with D. that opened my eyes to the realities of the closet. Namely: there isn't just one.

There I was -- an out, proud "lesbian" lying to my increasingly accepting family about whether or not I was dating anyone. I refused to use female pronouns or a female name for him with them, even though he wouldn't know. It felt like too big a betrayal. And as far as they knew, I wasn't attracted to men, so I couldn't just suddenly be dating one. How could I explain D.? This was before Boys Don't Cry, even.

After D. and I managed to disentangle, I got involved with a woman quite seriously and figured that particular dilemma was in the past. My folks loved her, they wanted to know when we were going to get married. We fell apart at the two year mark.

Almost immediately, I met and fell for the person I've been referring to on this blog as "my ex." For the purposes of this story, I'm going to call him Bob, though I'll probably go back to calling him The Ex so that newer readers don't go, "Who's this Bob guy, and why doesn't she get with him?"

Anyway, Bob and I fell hard and fast and there was no possible way to pretend to my mother that he didn't exist -- I'm just not that good of a liar. But, at the time we met, he had a very laissez-faire attitude toward pronouns. His official policy was "call it like you see it," and while I had immediately taken to using male pronouns with him, he understood why I might want to use female ones with my family -- he himself hadn't yet come out to his family as trans. He also happened to have one of those names that can be "either" gender. So I skirted the issue for a while. This didn't mean I wasn't closeted. It just meant the closet was roomy and well-lit and had a glass door.

The thing I'm trying to get at here is the feeling of lying to my family. So literally familiar and simultaneously this intolerable pressure. I've been lying to my mother since the days of "Who broke this?" "It wasn't me!" Sometimes it's still like that: an act of self-preservation, an elision of consequence. Sometimes it's because I don't think she really would want to know the truth -- about my politics, my sex life, my cleaning habits, my generally debauched and radical ways. It's a way of maintaing her idea of who I am, an idea that serves us both. Most of the time.

A few Christmasses ago, we were at the home of a friend of the family, and for the first time in memory there were no minors present. Talk turned to drinking, and my mother claimed to have been drunk only twice in her life. Someone cracked that this was because shopping and drinking don't mix. I offered that the last time I'd shopped while drunk I'd bought a feather boa, and I hadn't regretted it one bit. My mother was shocked. Not that I'd been drunk (she's not that naiive), but that I was someone who would own a feather boa. Of all the people she knew, she said, I seemed the least likely to own such a thing.

If you polled all of my friends and acquaintances and colleagues, even the ones I don't know very well, and asked them how likely it was that I own a feather boa, I guarantee you no one would guess under 90%.

I understood completely and suddenly: she didn't know me because I had protected us both too much for that. It's like feelings -- if you cut yourself off from grief, or anger, or heartache, or whatever awful thing you'd rather avoid, you cut off the joy and passion and love and creativity and all the juicy stuff, too. There's just one spigot. I never got to share with her the very first story I had published in a book, because it was in an erotica anthology. No pronouns, no boa.

To be fair, my fears are not unfounded. I wore a dark red lipstick to Christmas this year and she called it "goth." When I teased her about the size of the American flag she was flying one Fourth of July, she asked me, only half joking, if I was a Communist. We just returned from seeing The Good Shephard, and while we agreed that it would have benefitted from a firm editor, my dad thought it completely useless because it wasn't the action thriller he'd expected. He literally said, "I don't want to be thought-provoked." Anyone who veers from the norm -- and make no mistake, the norm is considered to be white, affluent, suburban, them -- is derided, at least at first, as weird or deviant or wrong in some way.

Still, after that night, I've tried little by little to loosen my grip on what parts of me, well, come out. I explained to them about Bob and trans, and it freaked them right out, but once again they worked hard to understand and really came around, to the point where they still think I made a mistake in leaving him. But they also reinforced some of my original fears -- there were several points during my four year relationship with Bob that she asked me, if Bob and I were to break up, would I date men then?

And now I am. But they don't know that. In fact, as far as they know, I haven't had a single date since Bob & I split in May. Again with the boa: they think I'm sad and chaste and overworked, when in fact I'm just having casual sex with men, pining after a 22 year old trans punk (whom I haven't mentioned to them b/c of the age thing and the dramarama), and my sexual identity is complicated. (OK, it's true I'm sometimes sad and often overworked, but that's got nothing to do with it.)It's not that they don't ask. It's that I lie.

Or maybe I should say, I lied. Pretty effectively, it would seem, based on this very silent holiday visit. Eerily silent. The sound of dozens of coupled-off friends and relations decidedly NOT asking me anything. Which is completely uncharacteristic for my family. It's been a blessing in the short term, however it came about, but long-term means the ball's now in my court. If I want to say anything at this point, I'm going to have to bring it up myself.

I tell myself I'll come out to them again when and if I get involved with a guy in an ongoing way. That's not a lie -- I'm sure I will, if I do. But lately I've been wondering, why am I waiting? Why would it be different then? I think I really fear I can't put this genie back in the bottle. What if I wind up getting serious about a transman or a woman, either now or at some point in the future? Once they know I date men, I can't undo that. And I'm afraid after all of these years of struggle and accpetance and love, I'll find out they're really homophobic and judgemental after all.


ruby said...

damn, this closet shit sure is complicated.

i have come out to my parents twice recently, about different parts of my life that don't fit into their ideas of how people live their lives--about things that deeply *deeply* confuse them.

and i've never had to come out to them before, because in spite of how queer i have felt for ages, and in spite of the fact that all through college my parents were clearly waiting for some other shoe to drop and for me to bring a girl home to meeet them, i had until recently never dated anyone who wasn't a pretty standard boy. lots of queer boys, but those closets weren't mine to come out of. and i never could see even the tiniest reason i should come out to them about what a slut i am, so most details of my dating life could just slide under the radar without me feeling like i was hiding a damn thing.

anyway, the first coming out was when the guy i was casually dating decided that the transition he had been referring to in passing was actually going to be happening soon, as in now, and could i please call him by a new name and use a different pronoun? i didn't have to tell my parents--it was a casual entanglement, after all--but i must have wanted to, because i opened the door. me: "the person i've been seeing is moving away." mom: "oh, is that the much younger man?" me: "um, no. yes. well, yes and no. it's the same person, but she's transitioning her gender and is identifying as female now."

the second coming out was just a couple days ago, when i had to explain to my married-for-almost-40-years parents, one of whom has almost definitely never slept with anyone other than his wife, that i have a new man in my life, and we really really like each other a lot and he may become pretty important to me. but not in the way that they would expect, because, see, he's what we call polyamorous out here in the wilds of san francisco, and he already has a primary partner. and guess what, mom and dad, i am great with that because i probably never want another monogamous relationship in my life! (ok, i admit i didn't quite get to that last part--i haven't quite figured out how to let them know that i don't see monogamy fitting into my long-term plan. but i'll have to, because i don't want them to ever think that anything that i or a partner might be doing could be seen as cheating.)

interestingly, the poly thing threw them more than the trans thing. my career in feminism has introduced them to a lot of new ideas, and, to their credit, they're very open. a gender change confuses them, but as my mom said, "this is obviously something you know a lot about, and it seems to make sense for you."

but the open relationship thing, well, they (ok, my mom, 'cause dad just tends to go silent at these kinds of moments) clearly think there's something pathetic about it, like i'm settling for leftovers because i can't get someone to call my very own. and there was also an implication that i am somehow making bad choices out of a self-sabotaging impulse.

why am i even telling them this stuff? i could easily not, at least until i'm seriously dating someone, cisgender man or not.

i don't want to be stuck in ladyred's situation, with my family missing fundamental information about who i really am.

i don't think i would feel this way if i didn't have a pretty fuckin' great relationship with them (as parental relationships go). my parents have stuck by me and done their best to understand what they see as my wackiness through all sorts of stuff: an unconventional (to put it mildly) career path that, at times, has been downright embarrassing to them; a two-year domestic partnership with a man who i was not sleeping with or, technically, dating, but who was my best friend and all the rest of what you would expect from a partner; long periods of singlehood in which i have not been particularly interested in pairing off; not wanting to have kids. so i want them to "get" the rest of me the way they have been able to come around on all this other stuff. (my mom has even come around on the kids thing--she no longer tells me that, asks me if, or openly expresses hope that i'll change my mind.)

thanks, ladyred, for your absorbing and insightful post about this and for the opportunity to share my own stories.

for what it's worth, i think you're right that you can't put the genie back in the bottle with your parents. you'll just have to figure out which is worse: having them think you're a pathetic nondater, or having to deal with the fallout from their assumptions and opinions about your sexuality down the road, no matter who you end up with.

the idealist in me wants to tell you to let them know about the men, to tell them that your attractions have always been fluid and that you could end up with pretty much anyone: male, female, trans, genderqueer. but the pragmatist knows that a) that's *hard* to do, and likely to be painful and b) they will probably take what they want from any explanation (e.g., "ladyred likes boys!!") and leave the rest ("and girls and people in between").

so either way you're going to have to deal with some bullshit. it's really just a question of what you want the challenges to be.

Enne said...

Your post stirs a lot up for me. I lie to my parents as well, but it's almost always through lies of omission. They're uncomfortable with large swathes of my life and so I struggle to strain it through a tiny filter before sharing any of the pieces with them. Of course, I've fallen into the same trap and my parents no longer know me.

I can definitely understand your reluctance and your waiting to tell them. It sounds like it took a lot of time and energy for your parents to understand and accept your "lesbianism." Coming out again as also liking men might also take a lot of time and energy on your part, although probably in a much different way. And, once out, it might be a longer struggle still to try to get them to stop pushing you towards men because of how they see anything that deviates from the norm.

I think you are right on when you talk about both how protecting yourself and your parents from yourself both protects you but simultaneously cuts yourself off from them. Family can be a very weird thing to come to grips with, because there is a pull to be close to these people, but simultaneously they aren't necessarily the kind of people you are comfortable being close to (and vice versa.) I suspect that it's great when it works out and you can be close friends with your family, but for the rest of us I think there's always a private negotation about how much to disclose and how much to protect.

The choice between feeling distant and potentially feeling hurt or uncomfortable is a terrible one to have to make. That pull to be close to family is a hard one to shake; I constantly wonder why I personally feel the need to open that spigot as you say and force a closeness on people who are uncomfortable with it.

Anonymous said...

this kinda hit me hard, my girlfriend is closeted to her parents and as the girlfriend that doesnt exist i get to deal with lots of funtime. and i get why she is so scared and dont want to pressure her but the hard part is how she reacts to the fact that i am totally out with my family. it is like the guilt she feels ruins so much