~ A Guest Post by Rita ~
My first bachelor’s degree is in elementary education from Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. Taylor is an evangelical Christian liberal arts college that consistently is ranked #1 in its category by US News and World Report and happens to expel students for things like consuming tobacco and alcohol, premarital sex, and homosexuality. During my four years on campus I was nearly oblivious to the fact I am a sexual being, much less a lesbian. My sexual awakening began in my late twenties and required many steps to shake free from beliefs that had frightened several aspects of my entire self into remission.
By this time, I had quit my fourth grade teaching job in the same school district I attended from grades five to twelve to reside as a student at L’Abri Fellowship in England and as a volunteer at the L’Abri branch in Massachusetts. Additionally, I lived briefly in Northern Ireland and Scotland and taught English in Korea. Just before leaving Korea, I exchanged my plan to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway for a second bachelor’s degree at Massachusetts College of Art & Design (aka MassArt).
I’d say moving to New England and studying visual art for the first time since junior high was culture shock–and it truly was–but so was every situation into which I had thrown myself after stepping away from life as I knew it in Indiana. I was accustomed to perpetually feeling like Alice in Wonderland. The most remarkable aspect of my new life as an art student was being surrounded by the highest density of free thinkers I had ever encountered. Thus began the most exciting and enriching adventure of my sheltered life. I embraced the experience with such wide-eyed enthusiasm that I was aptly nicknamed Rita, the hairdresser-turned-academic-scholar protagonist in Educating Rita by Willy Russell.
My formative years that culminated in receiving a sensible degree from an uber-conservative Midwestern college included a unique infusion of dogma from the US Navy, Bill Gothard, Navigators, Pensacola Christian School, ACE School, Good News Club, Good News Summer Camp, and nearly a new Protestant denomination for each of my family’s navy-induced relocations which criss-crossed us over the US several times.
Our relocation journeys were always undertaken in a pale yellow Ford Falcon station wagon. It was two wood panels short of a Brady mobile but did sport two exciting bumper stickers. One said Honk if you love Jesus, and the other said One Way and featured a silhouette of a closed hand with the first finger pointed upward. This was Jesus code for One Way to Heaven and served as my parents’ counter response to the Hippie Movement’s peace symbol, a closed hand with two raised, open fingers.
Our bumper stickers helped break the monotony of endless highway travel, and we heard many horn honks. Maybe it was a quick toot-toot from an elderly couple or a young family like our own who smiled sweetly as they passed. Other times, a trucker would wait until he was twelve inches from our back bumper and blow his air horn so loudly we nearly wet ourselves. Occasionally, we encountered a carload of teens riding parallel to us who incessantly honked, laughed, waved, and leaned out open windows as far as possible to wildly wag a raised finger that happened not to be the first but the middle. My older brother and I stifled giggles and avoided eye contact lest we burst into laughter while my younger sister asked too many questions. Mom turned it into an opportunity for a spiritual lesson about the influence of Satan in society and led us in an impromptu prayer session for lost souls such as these hooligans. I wondered if God was able to hear Dad’s prayer since he couldn’t close his eyes while driving. I was a habitual eye opener during prayers and already knew that God found my prayer habits questionable. Being saved by the blood of Christ was hard work.
The first time I heard the gospel message was as a kindergartener at a Good News Club meeting in our living room. Good News Clubs are to children what Tupperware Parties are to housewives. The difference is that it is repeated for five days and each session ends in Nilla Wafers and Kool-Aid. We sang songs and heard color-coded stories that grew more surreal each afternoon. The stories went something like this:
Before the world began, there was only God, his angels, and his golden streets in heaven.
Then, God created the earth and animals and two people named Adam and Eve. God said to them, “Do not to eat the apples on the tree.” One day, a snake told Eve to eat an apple. She took a bite and shared it with Adam. Their hearts turned black and now everybody is born with a black heart.
God’s son Jesus was born in a special plan to heal black hearts. He was nailed on a cross. There was red blood.
Believers’ hearts are washed white, and they go to heaven when they die. Non-believers and their black hearts are punished and burn forever in hell.
In utter terror, I raised my hand above my pounding, black heart so I could be a believer and was promptly led into our dining room to pray with an overly excited woman. I begged Jesus to save me from my five year old sinful ways.
In addition to the blissful promise of eternally strolling heaven’s golden streets with Jesus when I died, I was gifted a white leather-bound King James Bible made complete by a zipper that opened and closed by pulling on a dangling metal cross. Tucked inside the frail pages of the New Testament was a picture of Jesus. Years upon years of Sunday sermons provided me with ample opportunity to internalize his character based on this picture.
He appeared to be the sort of fellow my parents would invite home to Sunday dinner, had we lived two thousand years ago, before wider clothing and hair styling options were available. In the 1970s, long haired, poncho-wearing hippies were to be feared and never received invitations into our home. Gentle Jesus probably would have enjoyed my mother’s cooking. I wanted to know what she would prepare on the day he came to dinner but always forgot to ask once church let out. He stood barefoot in the dirt with open arms, blue eyes, long beard, and flowy white robe. He was surrounded by well-fed Caucasian children who were clad in matching, miniature white robes which, like his, were finished at the waist by primitive ropes with tidy knots. I wanted to be one of those children.
Coming out as lesbian was made a bit less traumatic with the aid of a compassionate and competent therapist who helped me deconstruct the homophobic, patriotic, patriarchal, white-centric, fundamental, evangelical world view of my childhood. She also patiently guided me into the process of rebuilding a fresh world view. To the chagrin of label lovers, my new, improved world view lacks a formal name or creed but does glean inspiration from many sources, none of which include theism, dualism, afterlife, reincarnation, angels, devils, and a few other things I find nightmare-inducing and therefore unhelpful. My ideological measuring stick has three sides: kindness, love, and respect. Another three-sided model I embrace is Maslow’s Self Actualization Theory. This triangle-shaped diagram fits my understanding of what it is to be human with more regularity than any other ideology. If anyone asks whether I’m aware that the Trinity shares my love of the number three, I will respond by borrowing a line from a popular 1970s Monty Python act: “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition,” after which three red-robed men will burst in and declare, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
Near the end of my junior year at MassArt I was invited by a faculty member to be student ambassador to the Baccalaureate speaker for that year’s graduation ceremony. I would collect the guest of honor from the airport in a campus car, be her escort and personal assistant for three days of graduation-related events, and then drive her back to the airport.
I stood in awe, completely stunned. I shook, went white, felt honored beyond words. While browsing in the library as a freshman I discovered the work of this woman, an activist and art critic named Lucy Lippard. Her ideas and perspective helped me begin that chapter of my life as an artist, the one in which I was fully present with eyes and heart wide open.
After too long a pause I serenely said, “Thank you, but I must decline.” This would interfere with my planned trip to Indiana to sit my parents down and tell them exactly who I am: a non-believing abstract artist and lesbian. I had spent my every last dollar on that 100% non-changeable, non-refundable Priceline.com plane ticket and could not financially nor emotionally afford to change my itinerary.
I was begged to change my plans. I was told I was the one the faculty had specially chosen for this job and would make a mistake to turn this down. I felt trapped and said I would call on Monday with my answer.
After a sleepless weekend I made the phone call. I offered a vague explanation of how I am often haunted by the mystery of being me, especially in these crazy moments when it feels like there’s only one right answer–the one I dislike but the one that compels me. I hung up, cried, and promised myself to do my best to neither mention this to my parents nor resent them for this sacrificial gift I was about to give them that most likely would be unappreciated.
I arrived in Indiana with solemnity and was met with little ceremony. My parents knew my visit’s purpose was to tell them important news. They probably had guessed but withheld any speculation. I spoke separately to them. Each conversation was several hours long. I fielded questions rooted in myths about homosexuality, such as, “Who raped you to cause it?” To this, I responded honestly I had never been touched inappropriately. Mom was not convinced and suggested it probably happened when I was too young to remember; perhaps it was that time she hired a teenage boy to babysit when I was a toddler. My strong doubts could not dissuade her.
Dad denied I could possibly be happy, as I had stated I was, because I was too far outside the will of God to experience true happiness. He also said it was his duty as a grandfather to protect his grandchildren from me. I think he believes homosexuality and pedophilia are synonymous. Interestingly, he knew I worked part time as a nanny to help pay for my tuition and living expenses but never expressed concern for those children.
Mom said she’ll try to not be like the father in Fiddler on the Roof. In my opinion she hasn’t tried very hard.
Dad asked why the tears and why travel all that way to tell him and Mom what I knew they wouldn’t accept. I said in breathless exasperation that I had hoped for understanding but felt like I was only being judged. After a deafeningly long pause, Dad said, “Okay, I’ll give you some understanding.”
I wiped my tears and leaned back in my chair. Dad first reminded me that he had not graduated from high school because he failed a required math course during his last semester. He was too humiliated to retake it during summer session and without consulting his parents he walked into a military recruitment office and enlisted in the Navy. I knew this already. What came next still mystifies me today.
Dad then recounted that throughout that school year he had received weekly letters from his best friend on the high school Drama Team. The friend had graduated the previous year, and just like me, Dad noted with irony, had moved to Boston to attend college and study creative arts. The handwritten letters enthusiastically described the joys of escaping their Bronx neighborhood and encouraged my father to join him as a theater major the following year at Emerson College. The letters were always signed, “Love, Bruce.”
Dad said this troubled him because he loved his friend, but, as he told me, “Bruce loved many guys, and I knew what he was doing with them.” This was Dad-speak for “gay.”
His story continued that after boot camp Dad was stationed in New Orleans, where he met and began dating my mother. Then, “things happened” and he “took responsibility.” (More Dad-speak.) Dad leaned forward, slapped a hand on the kitchen table and emphatically said, “You see, I was only nineteen, and I made the right choice. Other things happened that you will never know.”
This is the closest admission I’ve been offered that my parents eloped and the reason was because Mom was pregnant.
Immediately, I thought, “Sure, Dad. Of course it’s a choice. You made the right one.”
My next thought was, “Whoa! My father might be a repressed gay man. This could explain a great deal.”
Then, “Just what secrets does my father harbor? Why even tell me secrets exist?”
Instead of blurting out my explosive thoughts, I said what I had planned out in therapy office rehearsals. “Dad, all my life you and Mom have said you love me. I cannot believe you if you don’t know who I am.” He pursed his lips and shrugged. That was the end of our conversation.
In the airport the next day Mom and Dad said they would always be cordial, but I was not to expect a relationship with them in future because “we simply don’t have enough in common, do we?” True to their word, they are generally cordial during our phone conversations that take place about once every year or two. If I ever happen to mention my partner or anything related to homosexuality, I am given the silent treatment until I change the subject. Even if they say to me, “I love you,” which they sometimes still do, it’s hard to believe.
Telling my parents in person I am lesbian was the horrible experience I anticipated, but I am glad I did it because, when it was over and my flight back to Massachusetts lifted into the air, I also lifted. Although Mom and Dad’s voices of dogmatic doom echoed in my ears, I felt new freedom to be me without the gravity of impossible expectations and an urge to conform and keep secrets in order to receive a blessing I knew would never be authentic.