She looked to me first, "my name is Ally, um, let's see, I just finished my last class, well no, this will be my last class.And...it sounded interesting?". The girl next to me pushed back from the table, half slammed her hand on the table and said "My name is Brenda, I'm a lesbian". Nods from around the room, a welcome from the teacher and then next, a very quiet voice "my name is Beth. Um, yes, hello, I'm a lesbian. Oh! That's the first time I've ever said that!". Applause, cheers, a real self help group welcome for Beth; I clapped madly, so very proud of this woman I had never before met.
It was all because of math. Having dropped basic algebra three times, I finally passed the torturous and mentally grueling Math 101 at a community college the summer after graduation. Congratulations said the University, but your last credit hours must come from us, back to school please. The choices were limited, given that I was willing to put very little effort into a post graduation required but not specified class. Whittled to German Cinema, Insects in Your World and Gay and Lesbian Studies, the decision was easy.
The rest of the introductions were similar: a young man who had not yet told his family he was gay, a woman (who looked oddly like my mother) who had just come out to her husband and three children (wherein she promptly discovered her youngest son was gay), and a woman who had been out for years and was thrilled to be in a classroom of her peers. This left me, the only one in the room not coming out, coming in or otherwise moving about.
We met once a week, in the evening, in what quickly shifted from a classroom to a support discussion group. My role emerged as the voice of straight America, an interesting shift to the absolute minority. On the nights when the crowd got going it was my job to raise my hand and point out that my choices were also limited, as a single woman, at which point someone would often yell "well get married then" and we would move on. An informal survey found that I was the only one in the class who had not considered what having this class on my transcript might mean at a job interview in years to come, it had not even crossed my mind.
Beth brought in lesbian music, so named said Beth "because I like it", as did I. Brenda brought in the Beastie Boys which I liked then as much as I do now, which is to say not at all; the Beastie Boys just do not serenade as background music when working to understand the true symbolism of the rainbow. The lesbian masquerading as my mom brought great snacks: samosas, hummus, guacamole and tapenade. Clearly the past few years had been spent in a closet well stocked with ethnic cookbooks and for that we were all grateful.
"Cleaning Closets", "When I Knew", and "Is It a Choice?" were tops on my summer reading list. My friend Megan and I became regulars at a local gay friendly book store, stocking up before heading to the pool for the afternoon. Even my dad pitched in, picking up lesbian literature from a bar he errantly walked into after his weekly card game at the downtown club. An unmarked manila envelope left for me in the top left drawer of his desk, not with the secretary, and not with my name on it, but full of information about upcoming gay themed events in Kansas City.
Our final assignment was to be a full length paper on our own coming out experience. Meg, the teacher, went into great detail, going around the room offering suggestions and ideas to personalize our efforts . It was agreed that Beth had the best story to tell as she had used the class as a jumping off point and had spent the summer coming out to her friends and family, all well received, and she was certain the camaraderie in the class had allowed her to do this. Meg stopped when she got to me, "what will we do with you?". She suggested I interview someone, about their experience, but the only gay person I knew, at 22, was the guy who cut my hair and even he hadn't been terribly forthright, although he dressed as a cowboy each year for Halloween. There were others, I had my suspicions, but calling an old friend out of the blue to inquire about their coming out, which none had actually done, just didn't seem like the thing to do to secure a lifelong friendship, perhaps I was wrong. I considered snooping, writing about everyone else in my class but that was invasive and odd. Had I known how to get in touch with the guy from college that I bumped into that summer in a gay bar, the one who almost fainted when he saw me and then mumbled something about "well now you know everything about me", I would have called him. But then what I really wanted to ask him was why was he so nervous when I too was dancing around like mad to "In the Navy".
In the end I wrote a long and colorless research paper on the state of coming out in the U.S. Dull, dull, dull, full of boring details and information that no one really cared to read, robbed of the most important and enlightening thing we did all summer, all because I was the minority in a class full of people who had spent most of their life feeling that they were. It seems fair now really, I suppose. What a wonderful summer.
I originally wrote this to post last Monday on National Coming Out Day, but in a busy week it was just never finished. My hope is that my alma matter, and other schools around the country continue to offer such courses, and that my former classmates celebrated a wonderful day with those that they love.