I’m a ninth generation American homosexual.
Either that or there’s an amazing number of spinsters and bachelors in my ancestry. I count the potential for several in every generation on both sides of the family over the past 350 years.
Perhaps that’s why the stigma attached to being single wasn’t an issue in my upbringing. My father’s sister never married. And even though the topic of why wasn’t openly broached, my maternal grandmother divorced after her second daughter was born. She spent the balance of her life as single, in the close company of women.
I suppose you could misconstrue this as proof that it’s possible to be raised gay, or that I was. But you’d be wrong. I wasn’t raised to be sexual at all. Like so many of my generation, the subject of sex was taboo in our home. And even though I grew up with two sisters and three brothers, we never shared conversations of an intimate nature until we were all well into our forties. Even then, the conversations between us were strictly casual.
My father was as distant by choice as my mother was demonstrative by nature. It was she who showed us how happiness flows from doing good. We learned to be courteous, courageous, curious and kind. We were exposed to music, literature, art and theater. We were trained to respect language through oratory and debate. And while exploring the works of William Shakespeare, my mother implored us to hold dear the line, “To thine own self be true.”
So don’t think it took some long struggle with my sexual identity before I spoke the words “I’m gay” to my mom. Nor was it her fear of hurting my feelings that kept an exchange from happening before she reached 89.
It’s simply — believe it or not — most lesbians I’ve encountered don’t consciously categorize themselves as being such, per se. I know I don’t. I never have.
True, I avoided dating while in high school and remained chaste until halfway through my 23rd year. By then the family phone fêtes had my younger sister convinced I was a recluse while my older sister swore I must be on something (or should be).
Hence, when I called home from New York City that glorious March day in 1970 to tell Mom I’d be bringing a friend back for a visit, she was delighted. She didn’t question what the relationship entailed or which gender it involved. All that mattered was I’d finally connected with someone.
No one has questioned it since. Elizabeth remains the only love of my life. For the past 49 years, we’ve lived under the same roof sharing the same bank account, abiding by the same ethics, collaborating in the same businesses, supporting the same candidates, and demonstrating the same respect and affections for an array of animals.
We’ve never been purposely apart in all those years. Never taken separate vacations, or wanted to. Never appeared at gatherings alone. Never accepted an invitation unless the other’s name was included on the envelope. Never sent a birthday card, letter, or holiday greeting without our joint salutation.
We aren’t provocative or particularly political. There’s no role-playing, recognition-dressing, or exhibitionism. And, even though our choice to remain reserved is based on a nothing-to-hide-nothing-to-share ideology, you can’t exactly classify us as closeted.
The fact is, a rare few have ever asked us, “Are you gay?” Instead, we’ve been treated like any other two people who graciously appear as an extension of the other. But then, at age 89, Mom finally brought it up.
“Why now?” I asked her during our daily long-distance chat.
“I watched a biography on television last night about two men who had this great devotion for each other,” she recounted. “And I marveled at how wonderful it must be to know that kind of love. It made me think of you and Liz.”
My eyes welled.
“But they led such tragic lives in many ways,” she continued. “I hope no one’s ever been mean to you like that.”
I recognized a question masked in those words.
Mom and I were always close. She was a role model for the independent spirit I became, a mentor of uncommon good sense, and a show of courage in the face of futility. But there are things I’d never confided — mostly because they all occurred to me in retrospect, long after I’d missed the meaning of the stone thrown.
I recall I’d just turned 15, fresh from being voted the wittiest girl in my class and slated to become editor of the school paper, a forensics champion, pantomimist, and finally, most photographed face in my senior yearbook. Plus, some considered me cute to boot.
Yet I was never a team player. I rarely attended school events. I avoided pep rallies. I didn’t spend after-hours with classmates. I resisted temptation and defied intimidation, refusing to follow the crowd. And I simply didn’t date.
It’s not that I lacked opportunity. Indeed, my primary pals were male. But I was careful to keep boys at bay, preferring platonic relationships restricted to school hours or clustered occasions. Because my mind wasn’t functioning in the immediate present back then. It was clouded with illusions of running off to New York’s West Village to live as a Bohemian poetess and consumer underachiever.
One afternoon while stopping to pick up books for history class, I noticed a word scrawled sideways down my hallway locker, with letters the six-foot length and one-foot width of the door: Q-U-E-E-R.
It was 1961, at a time when queer wasn’t generically derogatory in small-town, Midwest America, and graffiti was mostly an anomaly. I pondered the purpose of the scribbling
for only a moment before shrugging, grabbing my books, and jamming the combination lock closed.
Then I glanced toward the far end of the hall where my best friend stood in the company of girls belonging to the most popular class clique. They seemed insidious standing there, watching me. Watching as I approached my locker. Watching as I read the message on the door. Watching while I prepared to leave.
So I did the unexpected. I waved, smiled, and walked away — oblivious.
Because right then, I hadn’t a clue the day would dawn when I’d look across a crowded room and fall in love with the woman looking back at me.
Although, apparently, they knew — those cowards with ‘pencils’ mightier than swords.
“No,” I said to calm my disquieted mother. “No one ever hurt me.”
It was such a long time ago and such a well-intended little lie.
But I think about it more often now that she’s passed on and I’m getting older. How the heartsore hasn’t healed much in the centuries since the first of my ancestors sought freedom here from religious persecution. How women are still raped and ridiculed, and men are still mauled and murdered in righteous retribution for being gay.
What has changed is an emergence of people demonstrating enlightenment, compassion, acceptance, and moral courage — albeit most of them parents, friends, and relatives persuaded by science and genetic codes.
Oh sure, I know there will always be conflict between those who flash a swagger as their badge of honor and those who flash a swish. But I’m thinking, someday, there might be three key identities from which to choose:
Heterosexuals. Homosexuals. And people who love each other.
The last one?
That would be me.
# # #
Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist, novelist, and animal rights activist.
This refreshed essay copyrighted by Marguerite Quantaine © 2002 first appeared in The St. Petersburg Times and will serve as the introduction essay in her latest book,
Seriously, Mom, you didn’t know? by Marguerite Quantaine
Available in paperback and on Kindle, May 13, 2019.