A Resolution for the Real World of Twenty-Fourteen

I am usually not a believer in New Years’ Resolutions. It’s way too common for someone to set a goal January first, and forget about it by January thirty-first. It’s also a bit irritating that one can hope to wipe away the past years’ laziness with the turn of a new one. But as the clock ticks down to midnight on Twenty-Thirteen, I find myself setting one very honest, very serious goal.

A few weeks ago, one of my 7th Grade students came to me and asked if she could talk privately. I have acted as a kind of mentor to her for the last year or so. She had some major problems at home and her attitude towards elders and authority figures landed her in a lot of trouble as a 6th Grader. Last year, she ended up repeating Grade 6 – that was when I got involved. She began coming to me for extra help with homework, tests, projects, etc. She also began seeking advice from me about family relationships and some of her friendships. So, when she said she needed to speak with me, it didn’t alarm me – but I also wasn’t at all prepared for this particular conversation.

I knew something was up when she began to appear nervous. This girl does not get nervous. She is confident and strong – never nervous. I asked her if she’d rather write down what she needed to tell me and she nodded. She quickly scribbled a note on a post-it and handed it back to me. The note read, “I am kinda dating a girl.”

Yikes.

I found myself in a situation that I both feared and desired. I feared it because of the many ways this conversation could go South – or how my part of it could be misconstrued. I feared it because of the paranoia that she’d find out about me. But I desired it because this was why I became a teacher. This was what I wanted – to help kids. To be there for them when no one else seemed to be. To be the mentor and elder that they could trust.

She expressed her own fears to me – that she didn’t think she was gay and that she didn’t want people to call her “a lesbian”. I did my best to lend her my thoughts. It went something like this:

“I don’t exactly have a traditional view on sexual orientation and the labels that go along with it. To me, nobody and can label  you unless you give them permission to do so. If you do not consider yourself gay, then you’re not. However, perhaps you should worry less about the label and more about finding whatever it is that makes you happy. Your generation seems to be much more open about exploring gender identity and sexual orientation than previous generations. All that means is that perhaps you don’t know what makes you happy just yet – and that’s perfectly OK. I tend to look at humans like atoms – like in Chemistry Class. Atoms want to find others to bond with, to be happy. When they bond with another atoms, it’s because they have found balance. Maybe humans are the same. We bounce around, discovering the world around us until we find the atom that perfectly balances us. To me, the balance is all that matters – not sex or gender or labels.”

By the end of the conversation, I felt liberated. I was so proud of the fact that I was able to help her with that particular struggle. She thanked me for my help and left saying that she felt better about the whole situation. I figured that was the end of it. I was very wrong.

Later that week, that same student showed up with three more friends that had questions about their own struggles with identity. I sat there realizing that these 4 students are just the tip of the iceberg. I work in a school of 925 pre-teen adolescents. They have questions. They have fears. They have pain. There is a void in my school, and likely thousands across the country, where a safe place should be – a club or group of some kind to give these students a place to talk.

That is my goal. My New Years’ Resolution.

I did some research and found an organization called the “Gay-Straight Alliance”. To be honest, I can’t believe I didn’t get on this sooner. I feel ashamed that I have been a Lesbian Teacher for 8 years and am just now getting serious about something like this. If it weren’t for that particular conversation with that one student, I am not sure I ever would have gotten serious about it. But now I am. I am going to create a Gay-Straight Alliance Club.

Perhaps somewhere through the creation of this club, I can find a way to come out to my students. Perhaps by giving them a safe place to talk and discover, I will see that the best place for me isn’t in the closet.

Why the Country Music world broke my heart…

I grew up in California and, despite the grossly mis-informed stereotype the rest of the states seem to have about California, many of us are actually huge Country Music fans. Every summer since I was about 12, my sister and I would try and see every Country artist that came through our city. One summer we saw 12 artists in just 4 months!

When I was 13, I got a job working at the Iowa State Fair where my cousins lived and raised animals. During the weeks of the Fair, dozens of artists (mostly Country) came to play at the Grandstand, a huge outdoor facility that sat over 10,000 people. By the second or third year that I worked at the Fair, I had figured out how to sneak into the Grandstand to see the best artists. I knew it was wrong but what can I say? I was a mischievous teen!

One year, Country music artist Chely Wright came to play the Grandstand and I snuck in to watch her rehearse. I loved her hair and I remember wanting to look just like her. I never could have imagined, all those years ago watching her sing “Shut Up and Drive”, that I’d relate to her so much as an adult. Or that it would be Chely’s struggle in the Country Music world that would tear my heart to pieces.

Chely Wright

On May 3, 2010, Chely became the first commercial Country Music artist to come out as a Lesbian. I remember when she did, and I remember the minor stir it caused, but I guess I was largely naive to the real struggle Chely faced as she made the decision to be honest about her life. I recently came across the documentary “Wish Me Away“, filmed over the course of the 3 years prior to Chely’s coming out. It includes very personal interviews and conversations, as well as video diaries Chely took in the weeks before the announcement.

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As I watched the documentary, my heart broke little by little. It broke as Chely told her story about being afraid to come out to her Father, only to later realize that there was nothing to fear. It broke when Chely recognized that there would always be people in the world that wouldn’t get the choices she made. It broke watching her struggle with what “normal” is and how to just fit in. And, most of all, it broke when she spoke about the real possibility of being cast out in the Country music industry.

In one interview in the documentary, Chely talks about having dinner with a male Country star a few years back. Rumors of Chely’s sexuality had been circling and this unknown artist flat-out asked Chely, “You’re not gay are you?” After Chely denied it, he apparently responded with, “Well, good, because Country Music won’t have it.” One of her producers, Rodney Crowell, expressed his fear of her being “iced out” of Nashville because of the way the Country Music world views homosexuality. Author and Country Music Historian Don Cusic predicted that many fans might consider it “a betrayal”. While being interviewed by a Birmingham radio station, Chely was told by the DJ to just “Shut up and sing.”

For so long, I have adored Country music and the artists that create it. It breaks my heart to know that so many of those singers I’ve loved for all these years, can’t accept their fellow Country artist just because she’s gay. A few weeks after coming out, Chely appeared on Oprah, who asked Chely if any Country stars had reached out in support. Chely replied that only two had so far.

I refuse to accept that Chely’s brave decision is something that will end her career. I have downloaded each one of her songs on iTunes (even ones I already owned on CD’s) and bought her memoir, “Like Me” for my Nook. Maybe you aren’t a Country music fan. And maybe you’ve never heard of Chely Wright. But perhaps you can help spread the word about her courage. And maybe her story is one to inspire others out there to be as brave as she was.

Coming Out Again and Again

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What many outside the LGBT community don’t realize is that “coming out” doesn’t just happen once. It is not set and sealed after only one awkward conversation. And while each “coming out” conversation did get easier for me, it still had a way of making me feel like I was odd – like I had to clarify my life against the norm.

When I graduated from college and got my teaching job, I made the decision to not be forthright with my lifestyle right away. I was in a new state in a new setting. I did not know a single soul at the school and, to be honest, I was scared. I was afraid of what the other teachers might say behind my back. I was afraid that students would find out. And most of all I was afraid that parents would rise up against me, pitchforks in hand, ready to have my head. It wasn’t until my second year at the school, after I had made some good friends, that I came out. I didn’t even think too much about it. One day, the conversation offered up an opening and I took it. What was surprising (or perhaps not at all so) was that my new friends almost seemed bored with the news. Like, “Yeah, so? And I’m straight.” It was great! I didn’t feel odd. I just felt like it was normal. And that was when I started to realize that it is normal.

My sister once said to me, “Why would you ever hide being gay? I don’t understand why anyone would want to hide who they really are.” I explained to her that, while I agreed with her in my head, my heart fought back. Coming out to family can be difficult enough. But being out from the get-go to co-workers and strangers leaves the heart vulnerable. We put ourselves out there for ridicule, criticism and hate every time we step out from behind the closet doors.

That same year that I came out to my co-workers at school, another female teacher in my building brought in pictures of her new baby girl. I was pretty confused at first – I didn’t remember this woman being pregnant. I didn’t work directly with her and rarely saw her throughout the week, but I was sure I would have been aware of a pregnancy. As I flipped through the photos of the beautiful baby in the hospital, one photo made my breath catch. It was a picture of a woman in a hospital bed holding the newborn girl, while my co-worker smiled proudly beside both. She was gay! I was so exhilarated I couldn’t even speak. I learned a valuable lesson that day: Sometimes we step out of the closet waiting for the attack of the Monsters, but we forget to look for the company of a Friend.

“I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.” –Hermann Hesse

Coming Out

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Just days after my roommate, Jamie, and I admitted our feelings to each other, I was on a flight back home for the Summer. It was going to be so tough being away now that we had finally blurted out how we really felt. It was all brand new to me. I was excited and scared and nervous all at the same time. It never occurred to me at that time that I’d have to tell my parents. I was only 19. We don’t think that far into the future at that age – I had all the time in the world. Little did I know, that conversation was only weeks away….

Jamie and I talked everyday. It was a challenge because this was just before cell phones became a must. I bought long-distance calling cards each week at the drug store so I wouldn’t get caught jacking up my parents’ phone bills. When I think back, I remember feeling so stealth. I thought there was no way that anyone in my family could possibly suspect something was going on between me and my college roommate. I mean, she wasn’t even in the same state!

Well, I guess when you’re really in love, it seeps out of you. There’s no way to hide it. And I guess that’s how I knew right away that it was real and that it wasn’t a college phase. My Mom calls it Twitterpated – like from Bambi. When two creatures are so in love, they can only see each other, and they don’t care about the rest of the world. Last night Jamie and I were looking through some boxes of old photos of us. I found a stack of letters we’d written back and forth. Reading the letters made me feel like a kid again. The giddy, love-stained words were so honest…and completely Twitterpated.

In July, my father took my sister and I camping at the same lake we camped every summer of our lives. One morning while we were sitting watching the boats on the lake, he asked to take a walk. We found a picnic bench in the shade and sat down. I was feeling a bit uneasy, but I never could have anticipated what he was going to say. My father simply looked me in the eye and said, “I’d like to talk to you about Jamie.” I nearly died. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I had time. I was supposed to have all the time in the world. I tried to play it off by responding with, “What do you mean?”, but I knew he knew. My father knows me better than anyone else in my family, and I just knew he knew.

I hear horror stories of people coming out to their parents. Some get yelled at. Some get disowned. Some are even attacked. Since I hadn’t even contemplated coming out to my father yet, I hadn’t considered his reaction – but I should have known how it would go. He asked me if I was truly happy. My answer was simple: I absolutely was. And that was it. My father told me he was there to support me in anything I did and he has always kept his promise. From that point on, I didn’t hide my relationship from my family. It was difficult to actually say it sometimes, for fear of even the slightest bit of rejection. But my father proved something to me that day on the picnic bench. He proved that even if the entire world did not accept our relationship, I had family that did. It made me feel like the luckiest girl on Earth.

I do not ever take that gift for granted and I thank my father as often as I can for being such amazing Dad.