01/30/2013 07:02 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The First Time I Heard the Word 'Lesbian'

Growing up the daughter of a conservative Baptist minister, I was sheltered, to say the least. It was the era when Ozzie and Harriet still slept in separate twin beds on TV. When my mother caught my six-year-old sister touching herself, she made my sister wear boxing gloves around the house -- at the recommendation of the family doctor, no less. In our small town, nobody dared talk to me about anything that might get back to my father on any topic outside the bounds of religion, much less human sexuality. I was clueless about the facts of life. Intense repression on the subject of sex probably kept me from conscious awareness of it when I was little, and I certainly didn't connect it to anything happening in my own body.

It wasn't until I was 11 that I learned where babies come from, when my best friend Cindy Shepard told me you got pregnant by sleeping with a man. I imagined sperm creeping out of a man while he slept, probably lying on his back. The sperm would crawl across the bed and run into the woman somehow. It really would have helped for Cindy to be more specific about the whole thing.

It was the next year that Miss Brenda, the Sunday school teacher for senior high school girls at my father's church, asked me to join them to play the piano on a special field trip. It turned out that Miss Brenda had befriended Betty Lou, who was serving a life sentence in the state penitentiary for a serial killing spree she had gone on with her boyfriend. Miss Brenda assured us that Betty Lou was a nice girl who hadn't meant for all those people to die, but when she saw "the look" in her boyfriend's eyes, she just had to tie them up and hold them down while he murdered them. Miss Brenda had "brought her to the Lord," so Betty Lou had been born again, praise Jesus. Miss Brenda wanted us to minister to Betty Lou and her fellow inmates by singing hymns and reading Bible verses. Since God had forgiven Betty Lou, who were we to judge?

So with Miss Brenda leading the way, we gathered at the towering walls of the penitentiary, dressed in our Sunday best, cradling our Bibles and shiny patent leather purses on our arms. I had my special Bible where everything Jesus said was printed in red.

We were met by stony-faced guards armed with rifles. Wordlessly, they escorted us deep into the interior of the prison, surrounded by nothing but grey cinderblock and bars. Steel doors slammed behind us as we passed through each successive chamber. Our destination was a conference room, with a big steel table that had more than a dozen metal chairs around it. Everything was grey except our pastel dresses. The guards told us to sit; the warden wanted to talk to us.

After a few minutes the metal door swung open and a short man in a grey suit that matched the walls strode into the room. In my memory he looks like the warden from The Shawshank Redemption, about the same height and build, but with none of the good-old-boy friendliness the Shawshank warden showed outsiders. This warden looked mean. He stepped to the captain's chair, but he didn't sit down. He spread his hands on the table in front of him and scowled down at us.

I hated him immediately.

He welcomed us to the prison with absolutely no warmth in his voice. He said he knew we were there to see Betty Lou. "But," he warned us, "I'm not going to let you talk to her. She'll be sitting in the audience with the other prisoners."

That was bad news. We all wanted to meet her. I especially wanted to get close, to feel whatever it was that made her a serial killer.

"I can't let you single out one prisoner for special treatment," the warden insisted. "All the other prisoners will get jealous, and they'll beat her up."

Whoa! That seemed really mean and excessive. But we wanted to at least see what Betty Lou looked like, so we begged the warden to tell us how we could spot her in the crowd.

"OK," he said grimly. "She'll be sitting on the end of the third row on the left, next to her boyfriend."

I was confused. How could Betty Lou's boyfriend be there? This was a prison just for girls. Nobody spoke for a moment, and then our teenage girl voices erupted with questions, "What do you mean? How is that possible?"

The warden lifted a hand to silence us. His face screwed up with anger. And then he shouted, spitting out the words, "She's a LESBIAN. They're ALL lesbians. They're SICK. THEY'RE. JUST. ANIMALS!"

We froze, silence in the room. All the other girls and Miss Brenda looked like they were about to throw up. I had no idea why everyone was so upset. I had no idea what a lesbian was. All I knew was that if the mean warden was condemning it, it couldn't be all that bad.

We trooped to the stage in silence, nothing else to say. We managed to sing our hymns and read our Bible verses. But our hearts weren't in it. Though the auditorium had enough folding chairs for all the inmates, only a few showed up to see us church girls. I stared at the woman on the end in the third row on the left. That was Betty Lou, and she looked as bored as all the other women in the room. Nothing about her said "murderer."

After the show we gathered on the sidewalk outside the prison and crowded around Miss Brenda, who was practically hysterical. "I can't believe it! I can't believe it!" she wailed, over and over. "I just can't believe Betty Lou is a lesbian."

And so we all walked off to our cars for the drive home, me wondering what a lesbian was, and what about it had Miss Brenda so upset. Betty Lou was a serial killer, but Miss Brenda, like the Lord, forgave her for that. But a lesbian? Whatever it was, it was clear that everyone thought it was the absolute worst, most despicable thing on earth.

Later on, when I learned what lesbian meant, it didn't seem like such a big deal. I dropped the whole idea and forgot about it for many years, my sexual identity well buried while I struggled with more pressing issues of growing up. Never could I have imagined a world in which gay people in queen-sized beds would replace Ozzie and Harriet on TV and, after announcing his support for same-sex marriage, the president of the United States would win re-election to a second term.