Gay and Grateful: On the Crooked Path to Crooked Letter i

When I was 20, away at college full of hope and terror, I confronted the fact that if I revealed too much about my real life, my stepfather's sexual and physical abuse, or my deep attraction to other young women, I could lose the life I was trying to build.
10/06/2015 09:45 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2016

When I was a girl I understood that my life, my true life, what I really thought about, dreamed and hoped for -- all that was a secret, indeed had to be a secret. I feared most of all losing my mother's love, or of shaming her or even adding to the difficulty of her life by telling her something that would frighten her or make her see me as more endangered than I was.

The larger world outside my somewhat embattled family was another thing altogether. I feared it, of course. I knew that my family in particular was held in contempt for being poor, disreputable and minorly famous for uncles who occasionally went to jail but more frequently simply engaged in acts of public drunkenness or sudden unexplained violence -- mostly visited on other members of my family.

Then there were all my female cousins and aunts notorious for invariably arriving at their own weddings with bellies swollen with the babies that would arrive shortly after their minimal honeymoons. We were the disreputable poor, rednecks with bad attitude, crooked by definition, outlaws by declaration. Even I, the high-achieving "good" student hid a caustic attitude behind my relatively respectable demeanor. But that was a secret like almost everything important about me.

When I was 20, away at college full of hope and terror, I confronted the fact that if I revealed too much about my real life, my stepfather's sexual and physical abuse, or my deep attraction to other young women, I could lose the life I was trying to build. I could be cast out -- literally expelled from college or sent off to a mental institution. I had seen another young woman, a gender outcast who so far as I could tell was not really a lesbian, but dressed like one and was in continual revolt against the gender expectations for young women at our nominally Presbyterian private college. Her family appeared in the middle of the night to arrange to have her taken away by force to a facility where, it was expected, she would be fixed.

How would she be fixed? I dreaded the answer to that question and learned with great terror that she had been subjected to electric shock therapy, insulin injections and continual meetings with determined therapists who led her to renounce all she had been and become what the family wanted her to be. She reappeared a year later, a shadow of whom she had been, head down and hands trembling. She had been vibrant, outspoken, whip-smart and fearless. This new version of that girl was none of those things and she did not remain long in the dorm, disappearing on another terrible night after trying to take her own life.

I remember thinking that it was all terrible. I left my dorm and climbed up on the roof of the library. I stayed up there all night worrying and grieving. I had barely known that girl but I had known her all too well -- her anger and her hopes.

She thought her life was her own.

I had never truly believed that. I had always known I was in some terrible way property -- that I belonged to my family in both wonderful ways and terrible ones. My mother's hopes and dreams for me were as heavy as my stepfather's contempt and lust. I was the one who escaped, but who really escapes? Would someone come for me in the night? Would my tentative feminism and carefully concealed lesbian desires doom me before I had done anything I hoped to do?

In this new wondrous age with Supreme Court decisions affirming gay and lesbian marriages, and gender being redefined as nowhere near as rigid as it has previously been defined, I sometimes wonder if anyone knows what our lives were like at the time when I was a young woman, trying to figure out how to live my life honestly in the face of so much hatred and danger. Who are we if we cannot speak truthfully about our lives? How did we come to this new age in which we can take our lovers home or to church or walk hand in hand down the street without lies or pretense or a carefully crafted fictional stance to protect us?

Speaking truth to power was a tenet of the early women's movement. We would change the world by the simple act of declaring our truth and refusing to back down or lie no matter how virulent the response.

How virulent was the response? Take a look at the coming-out stories shared in Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South (NewSouth Books). You will see the internal evolution of people who wanted simply to be themselves. It was not easy or simple or even a matter of confronting prejudice. Most of these people's deepest struggles were with themselves, their families and their faith, their most personal convictions.

Confronting the enforced silence of manners and social expectations, we claimed our lives for ourselves. Was it heroic? Was it audacious, marvelous, scary and day by day painful? Of course. Did we change the world? Look around you and marvel.