Thursday, June 26, 2008

I am what I am

Published in The Suffolk Times and The News-Review June 26, 2008

I'm still not sure if I should write this column. I'm reluctant to give some people another reason to criticize this newspaper for running a series of articles on what it's like to be "gay on the North Fork."

So let me address upfront the critics who will accuse me of furthering a personal agenda. When Gov. David Paterson announced his executive order requiring state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside New York, I wrote a story about local reaction to it because it was news. I didn't set out to tell the story of gay people on the North Fork. But when I started talking to people, I found out there was quite a story to tell. A compelling one. And one that hadn't really been told, certainly never on the pages of this newspaper. That's how the series began.

I knew there would be some "hate mail." (Actually, I thought there would be more of it.) I knew some people would be offended, and others would be pushed beyond their personal comfort zones. But just as telling the stories of people's lives is part of what community journalism is about, so, too, is tackling hard issues and provoking discussion.

Human sexuality is a scary subject. Up until quite recently, it was taboo. People whose sexuality differed from the majority got along all right if they weren't too obvious or outspoken. Ours was a "don't ask, don't tell" society. That's the world I grew up in.

But the world is changing.

The discussion has become a discussion about civil rights. And that, I think, is exactly what it should be.

Opponents of gay rights stand on their Bibles and religious beliefs. I respect the freedom of my neighbors to practice their religion as they see fit, as is their right under the U.S. Constitution. I also respect the Constitution, which prohibits our government from establishing a religion. That means the government can't pull out the Christian Bible and quote from the writings of the Apostle Paul to justify denying people civil rights and equal protection under the law on account of their sexual orientation. Pastors can kick out of their churches people who don't conform to their religious beliefs. That's their business, between them and their God. But the government can't make it illegal to be nonconformist or keep nonconformists out of our nation's voting booths or courtrooms because the religious beliefs of government officials, even if shared by the majority of Americans, condemn the nonconformists.

Keeping quiet and "knowing your place" doesn't work for gays any more than it worked for blacks or women. But it's a lot easier to keep quiet about -- or hide -- your sexual orientation than your race or gender. That could be why the "gay liberation" movement was a few decades behind the other two. Sexuality is, after all, the most private of things. That's true, until it's used as a basis for discrimination and the denial of civil rights.

I never hid or denied my own sexual orientation -- if asked. But I never stood up and made any announcements either. My daughter Katie changed that for me when, as an adolescent questioning her own sexuality, she asked, "Mommy, would you hate me if it turns out I'm gay?" I still fight back tears just thinking about that moment -- that she felt she had to ask me that question, that she thought my love for her could ever be anything but unconditional, that I could ever hate her, that I was such a stranger to my own daughter.

She'd never known me as anything but a straight woman, married to her father, living a very conventional life. I'm not sure how or why I ended up this way. But I fell in love with him.

Being bisexual has its own complications. Straight people tend to think you're simply promiscuous. Gay people tend to think you're simply afraid. I'm neither. But I was, until my daughter asked the question, silent.

I'm not exactly sure what it means to be "bi" when you're in a monogamous relationship. For the past 17-plus years, partnered with a person of the opposite sex, I guess you could say I've been living a heterosexual life. For 14 years before that, partnered with a person of the same sex, I was living a lesbian life. Monogamous is probably a better word to define my sexuality than straight, or gay or bi. But it is what it is. And I am what I am.

It's important to be "out" -- something that's been underscored for me in the course of writing this series, interviewing gay people between the ages of 14 and 84. You can't claim your civil rights as an American citizen from within the confines of a locked closet. And nobody's going to open up your closet door and hand them to you. As long as you're content being quiet, the rest of the world is content pretending you really don't exist. And, as history teaches, in your silence, being ignored is probably the best you can hope for.

Copyright 2008 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.


Natasha said...

WOW! Amazing. Im glad you attacked this topic. It was time and you hit it on the head!

ceil said...

Hi Denise - I have been following your series of articles and just finished reading your current.."I am what I am"

Your series was excellent, well-timed and sensitive. We live in the year 2008 - it's time for a reality check...

...Sexual orientation should not be shamed-based or locked in a closet. Gay and lesbians folks come from all walks of life and deserve the same basic civil rights as straight folks. We are, after all, born of the same creator.

Your personal story is heartfelt, brave and forthright. From my vantage point you are: a wife, mother, friend, advocate and speaker of the truth.....and may I add..a pretty gutsy gal!~

Anonymous said...

Dear Denise, It's been a while since I checked in here and I must admit that the personal nature of your blog did startle me. Granted, in a small town it is a little more difficult for a journalist not to become part of the story but, GLORIOUSKY girl! It saddens me to think that you may have spent any time being apprehensive about the reaction to your revelation by those beyond your own family. One of the things that repeatedly surprised and pleased me about Riverhead is the level of tolerance shown by the majority of my neighbors. Maybe it’s because the place is so small and there really aren’t any secrets.
Back in the 80’s these folks elected a woman to the Town Board. Imagine that! What forward thinkers they turned out to be. Not only was our candidate a female but she had a same sex partner. My impression was that everyone knew but it just wasn’t an issue.
My hope is that the younger members of the community will be as reasonable as the grown ups. I’m betting that for a brief moment they will think it is very cool… and then it will be forgotten.

Anonymous said...

great article & great series