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Coming Out: She Had to Be Willing to Die Before She Could Live

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2012-04-16-130874320.jpg"The term 'homosexual' is really a misnomer when it comes to lesbians," Kristin Katalin told me when we sat down to talk recently. "The more appropriate term would be 'homoemotional.' For most of us, it isn't about sex so much as it's about emotional intimacy."

This made sense to me. As a straight woman, I've never been attracted to other women, but I can understand the depth of empathy, understanding, and love that two women might share, something that many woman just don't find in their relationships with men. I know a number of women -- older women, in particular -- who were married to men when they were younger but partnered up with women later in life. I asked Kristin to share her personal story.

So tell me your story.

The first 29 years of my life, I lived as a fraud. I wanted desperately to be "normal," whatever that is, just like everybody else. So I did the things that I thought others expected of me: I got an education and then a steady job; I found a very nice man, and we moved in together; I went through the motions of day-to-day living and tried to fit in. On the outside I looked just fine, just an ordinary young woman living an ordinary life. But inside I was seriously depressed.

From the age of 9 or 10 I knew that I was different. I was physically attracted to boys, but I was emotionally attracted to girls. This was back in the 1950s, so of course I kept my feelings to myself. In the 11th and 12th grades, I had my first romance with a young woman; we carefully guarded our secret.

I went to college at the University of Michigan, where I tried to date men. For a while I went with an English guy; he was the sweetest man in the world. And there were others, as well, some really wonderful guys. There was nothing wrong with any of them; it's just that I didn't feel that special something that I felt when I was attracted to a woman.

I finished college, then went on to graduate school to earn an advanced degree in social work. I got a job as mental health coordinator at a clinic in Cambridge, Mass. The irony in my career choice makes me smile today: here I was helping others with their mental health when my own was so precarious. "You are as sick as your secrets," we always say, and my secret was a big one.

It certainly was. Did you continue to have romantic relationships with men?

Yes, I did. I met a terrific young architect named Jim, and we moved in together. He was great husband material, but I just couldn't bring myself to marry him, no matter what he said or did to convince me. I couldn't tell him the truth.

Finally, when I was 27 or 28, I went off by myself on a trip to the Canadian Rockies. By now depression was so suffocating. I thought the only way out was to kill myself. I couldn't bear the thought of continuing to pretend to be somebody I wasn't for the rest of my life. "I'd rather be dead," I thought to myself.

I had $12,000 in my savings account (I'd always been a good saver), and so I decided to use that money to try to figure out if there was any hope for me. I committed to spending my money in the coming months and finding out if there was another way for me to live. If I didn't find an answer by the end of my $12,000, I would kill myself. So I came out of the Rockies, went back to Cambridge, quit my job, broke up with Jim, and moved out of our apartment. The coming months were to be "do or die," literally.

That's pretty intense. How did you go about your search for an answer to your dilemma?

I started taking workshops and exploring alternative therapies. But I still didn't come out; I kept hoping that perhaps I'd find a way to live that didn't require me to risk the disapproval and stigma of being a gay woman. I learned a lot in those workshops. The amazing teachers opened my eyes to a world of self-understanding and healing that I did not know existed. My training in social work had been very traditional, and all these alternative healing methodologies were unheard of in academic circles.

One day I was in a women's workshop and the facilitator asked, "Have any of you ever been in love with a woman?" I suddenly heard someone say, "Yes." Much to my horror, it was my voice saying it! "Ohmygod, what have I done?" I thought. I panicked, saw a blanket in the corner, and bolted in that direction to hide under the blanket. I was shaking uncontrollably.

I could hear everything going on in the workshop, muffled through the blanket. I cowered there waiting for the other workshop participants to do something -- laugh, taunt me, tell me to get out, or some such thing. But they didn't do any of that. Instead, the workshop leader said softly, "I think we should talk about what that experience was like."

I didn't budge. My fear was so intense that all I could do was huddle under that blanket and wait for the world to end; that's what I was convinced would happen if I ever admitted my secret. But the world didn't end. The workshop proceeded, and every once in a while, the instructor would walk over to the blanket repeat gently, "I think we should talk about what that experience was like."

I don't know how long I cowered there shaking -- an hour, maybe more. Finally, I was able to hear what the workshop leader was saying, "I think we should talk about what that experience was like." She was including herself in "we." With that realization, I was able to peek out from under the blanket and ask her, "You, too?" She smiled and nodded.

That's an incredible story, Kristin. What a powerful experience of literally coming out of hiding and claiming your life.

Yes, exactly. That was 37 years ago. I count that day as my new birthday; for it's the day I came out of hiding. For the first 29 years of my life, fear controlled me. It controlled my career, my personal life, my relationships with family and friends. Fear had me boxed into a corner so that I literally had to be willing to die in order to live.

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Photo: Getty Images. Used with permission.