Straightland, A Family Emigration Story

12/20/2016 07:06 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2016

I was born in Rochester, New York, but when my mother expatriated, by extension my brother and I did as well. I was three, maybe younger, so I do not remember the actual trip. She was thirty-three, divorced, her parents deceased. Maybe she was older or I was younger, it’s fuzzy to me. Leaving Straightland was easy, we just had to walk through the closet door.

I’m not sure that I noticed when we left Straightland. My toys didn’t change and I still wore leotards that snapped at the bottom. I didn’t even notice that my cousins were no longer around, but then, they were adults, and when you are too young to go to school grown-ups are relatively interchangeable. It wasn’t until I started kindergarten that I learned how different my life had become. That was when my brother and I learned to code switch, to speak around pronouns, and to never, ever, say who we were.

Code switching with acquaintances was easier due to my stepmother’s androgynous name, and I learned to manipulate words with a deft hand. I called Pat my step-monster when I was mad at her, my parental unit when I wasn’t. I learned the art of misleading people early, though sometimes, when they learned the truth, my friends accused me of lying. I never called Pat by a male pronoun, I just didn’t correct their false assumptions.

At home our extended family was primarily formed by a group of women who laughed and tickled my feet and came over every Christmas and New Year’s Eve. These were the people we could not speak of to all the regular kids with regular parents and difficult questions.

Who was this woman that lived with us?

“If anyone asks, Pat is your aunt, or your Godmother. Or you can say she is our housemate,” my mother said. Housemate sounded dumb to me.

“Not housekeeper,” Pat clarified, as if that helped any. We knew the word lesbian, but were never allowed to say it.

“We could lose our jobs,” they explained.

I did my best.

“She’s my Aunt.”

“She’s my Godmother.”

“She’s my Aunt and my Godmother,”

“She got divorced and moved in, it just seemed easier.”

Where did she sleep?

On an Army cot in a dummy bedroom, created at my request.

Why did we have so many naked female statutes in our house?

The female figure has long been a subject of great artists, and Pat is a great artist.

Why did everyone in the house have a different last name?

Divorce. (Ignore the fact that my mother’s maiden name was different from her supposed sister’s. Don’t let them think too deeply. Change conversation to something else.)

Why didn’t my mom shave her legs?

She’s a feminist.

Once straight people cracked my code the questions were harder. I hadn’t been prepped for them.

Can I look in your windows?

No one wants to see my parents naked. Trust me.

Did you ever think you’re a lesbian? Are you a lesbian just like your mother? Did you ever think you were a lesbian? So you’ll grow up to be a lesbian just like your mother? Have you ever kissed a girl? Do you want to kiss girls? If you kiss a girl can I watch? Have you ever touched a girl?

Never. I have a boyfriend. (Note to self: make sure you always have a boyfriend. Do not mention that you are terrified that you will wake up one day at have turned into lesbian in your sleep. Do not mention the vivid dreams where you turned gay and can never go back. Do not mention the tingle you feel when you look at scantily-clad supermodels.)

I do not fault my mother for leaving heteronormative society. Her visa had expired; it was time for her to find her own kind. Like us, she also had to commute back and forth, pulling panty hose over her unshaven legs to pass in Straightland. As my brother and I dodged questions on the playground, she evaded questions in the break room at work. We were crossing the border at the same time, but in different places on the divide. She could not come with us—my brother and I had to navigate on our own.

It wasn’t until I graduated high school that I had to fully emigrate. Queer society did not have a place for me. I was a child of lesbians, but that’s not visible. I looked like any other straight girl at the gay bar or gay church, and although these people had always felt like my tribe, it was clear that I no longer belonged to them. The term ally was not yet in vogue. I still didn’t feel like I fit in with Straightland, even though I was married to a man, and not just any man but a manly-man, a biker who lifted weights for fun and yelled at me too loudly.

When I moved to Key West as a divorced woman, I found an air lock between my two disparate worlds. Gay and straight people sat next to each other at restaurants, walked openly down the street holding hands, and went to each other’s dance clubs. The waves soaked through labels until the ink ran. Here, there were many permutations of family. No one cared who raised me and I no longer had to make up stories about the people I came from. I left that hyperbolic chamber sure of who I was and where I fit. I no longer felt out of place in either dimension.

Once my parents freed me from the family secret, I could be “out” as their daughter. I moved to Kansas and kept a photo of my two moms on my desk at work. Someone offered to pray for them, and I said thank you, then increased my donation to GLBTQ charities. When I stopped having to protect my moms, I was able to find my own voice. I was no longer afraid.

Moving from Kansas to Cleveland, I brought that surety with me. I was now shocked by other people’s discomfort—I had forgotten that the straight world still was not used to gay families. But it didn’t matter. I knew who I was—a straight child of lesbians. I knew where I fit—in Straightland, but with the ability to always go back home.

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