Welcome to the Club! The Challenges of Becoming a Latebian
Becoming a Latebian meant starting over. In every way. I had a lot to learn, and learn quickly. My sanity depended upon it.
First, I had to muddle through the issues related to the “new me.”
And while I was trying to figure myself out, I also struggled to cope with a bewildering legal process.
In the midst of all of this, I was committed to nurturing my new relationship with TDL.
But my safety was at issue, too.
When I opened the door onto my new life, I found bigotry and prejudice waiting across the threshold. Experiencing the hatred myself, up close and personal, was a revelation.
* * * * * *
I was surprised that most of my new friends were not “out” back then.
With all the zeal of the newly converted, I viewed coming out at work as a natural first step. I had looked to them to guide me.
I was truly shocked that they accepted, and even advocated, denying your sexual orientation wherever you felt you must.
Because living openly could have grave consequences.
In my former straight life, I had thought that the claims of discrimination were a result of media hype spurred on by a few malcontents. After all, weren’t there laws? Didn’t the Constitution guarantee the pursuit of happiness?
But living as a Latebian, I learned that I was colossally wrong. Laws were few and rarely enforced. Crime against the gay community was under-reported and minimized. We were practically invisible to the mainstream and they liked it that way. Discrimination was rampant.
It was real, and it was sobering: Being openly gay might bounce you from the candidate pool, deny you a deserved promotion, or get you fired. It could also, quite literally, kill you.
Getting killed because of it was the reality for one of our friends, a policewoman. She confided to me that homophobia was so prevalent on the force that she couldn’t be out. She was convinced that if her fellow police officers knew she was a lesbian, help would be much slower to arrive if she were hurt in the line of duty. She was even afraid of being “accidentally” shot by another cop, in a situation where guns were drawn and her back was turned.
The teachers in our circle had to be vigilant, too. Even a whiff of their sexual orientation could damage or end their careers. Several of them had forsaken or turned down school coaching positions, even though they needed the extra income. Because being discovered as a lesbian coach in close proximity to girls in the locker room, would have most definitely forced their ouster by the school board or the parents’ association.
The stories told to me by the investment advisors, the UPS delivery women, the construction managers, the grocery store supervisors, the social workers, and the therapists were similar. One lesbian friend had been sexually harassed at her job for months. Although she was looking for something else, she endured the harassment rather than report it. For her, the greater evil was the possibility of being outed.
The prevailing attitude was “do what you need to do,” without apology. It was a sad, but established fact of life.
* * * * * *
Another part of my education as a Latebian concerned the real and present danger our lifestyle presented. I came to appreciate how fear invaded our personal lives as well as our professional existences. It dictated our code of conduct everywhere, except in the most private of settings.
Safe places were few.
It was hard at first to accept being unable to hold hands in public. But it became ingrained in me quickly, after hearing stories of friends who were attacked because of how they looked or dressed or acted. They had the scars and chipped teeth to prove it.
Self-defense for women took on added meaning for me. I learned the vulnerable places on the male anatomy, how to strike with my elbow instead of the palm of my hand, how to become attuned to the signs of danger on the street, and to leave bars and nightclubs in groups of five or six rather than twos or threes. I learned the routine of driving each other to our cars on different levels in parking lots.
I gradually adapted to the necessity of walking alongside TDL with my hands in my pockets wrapped around a set of keys or a roll of nickels, after a night spent dancing cheek-to-cheek with her at Sister’s. It became a commonplace survival tactic to tense into readiness when walking around corners, in case predators were lurking. Even within the gayborhood, we were targets for gangs of young men who considered it Saturday-night sport to bust up gays outside of Woody’s or Sister’s. Although nothing ever happened to either of us, being psychologically on high alert walking through the streets lent a different flavor to those evenings out.
I learned to ignore the stares and stage whispers that were unrelentingly directed at us at the movies or the mall, and to expect less than stellar service in certain stores or restaurants.
It was my new way of life. I swallowed the frustration. Every time we locked the door of our house behind us, I exhaled with relief.
* * * * * *
Many things have changed for the better with the passage of time. Almost all of us have been empowered to come out at work with less fear of reprisal. Some people still stare at us and whisper when we’re out together. But most often, servers don’t stutter at us any more when TDL and I show up together for a dinner reservation on Valentine ’s Day or any other day of the week. We still observe the concepts of personal safety, although it’s been a long time since I stuck a roll of coins in my pocket before going out.
We have been emboldened by these little victories, as well as what is happening on the national scene. But there remains a lot of work to do.
Last week TDL and I walked along the waterfront, in the daytime. It was my birthday. We were holding hands. Wrapped in the cocoon of our conversation, we didn’t notice a youngish woman approaching us until she was about three feet away.
She looked at us and shouted, “Lesbians! An abomination!” Startled, at first we stared mutely back. Instinctively, I reached into my empty pocket. Then, without a word, TDL circled around the woman and we continued walking, still holding hands.