Friday, October 29, 2010
It Gets Better . . . With Age
I'm working on a project today that is consuming a bit more of my time than I intended. I hope to post it later today or tomorrow.
In the meantime, please take five minutes and fifty-two seconds to watch this clip of some LGBT elders in Boston who can attest, with great authority, that "it gets better."
A few of them talk honestly about surviving their suicide attempts. One of them is Sheri Barden, one of my "Mama's," the other being her partner/spouse/wife - formerly, as we used to say, "significant other" - of forty-six years, Lois Johnson.
"Listen to me," says Barden, "don't do it. Don't do it. You know what helps? A sense of humor. Have a sense of humor. Laugh about things."
She's right, of course. She most often is, but, sheesh, don't say that too loudly in her presence. She'll be impossible to live with for DAYS! (Love you, Mama!)
I can honestly say that when I discovered that I was a lesbian, I never entertained a thought of suicide. Ever. But, that's because I first discovered love in Ms. Conroy's eyes. The love I saw there was miraculous. With her love for me, I discovered I could learn to love myself.
When I discovered that there was a word for that love, I was horrified. I only knew about the word "lesbian" from the medical and nursing books that were available at the time. I knew, somewhere deep in my soul, that "lesbian" as the books described it at the time, was a lie.
"All love is of God." I learned that in scripture. That's what I chose to believe instead of the medical books.
Actually, the only time I ever considered suicide was when I knew my marriage was a lie and I didn't know how to get out of it. I didn't know, then, why it was a lie. I didn't know that I was a lesbian until a few years later. I just knew that I had not fallen in love with the man I married. I had fallen in love with love and the idea of marriage - not this man. And that lie was killing me and him.
I was desperate and despondent and felt trapped. The only way out - out of marriage, out of the judgment and condemnation of my parents and my religion which told me divorce was not an option - seemed to be suicide.
Somehow, I found the strength to choose divorce anyway.
That's not to say that there weren't times after I came out that I didn't feel desperate and despondent and trapped. But, having found myself, knowing that I was loved, knowing that God loved me, knowing that "all love is of God", made me feel more alive than I had ever felt in my whole life.
Discovering myself in the fullness of my being - and not wanting to hide that or live a lie anymore - gave me a reason to live.
One of those dark moments came shortly after a telephone conversation with my father. He built his case very carefully. Poor man. He built it on the only thing he knew which was ignorance and fear.
"Elizabeth," he began, "I used to smoke. Then one day, the doctor told me I had a touch of emphysema. That, if I didn't quit, I would die. On the way home from the doctor's office, I threw that pack of cigarettes out the window and never smoked again."
Raising his voice to make his point, he said, "Why can't you throw that woman out of your life? For good?"
"Dad," I said, "this is not an addiction. It's not like smoking cigarettes. I know you don't understand this, but this is love."
Undaunted, he continued, "Elizabeth, when I was in the army, I was once on detail in the Philippines. There were a few men who were discovered to be homosexuals. They were put in the brig - which was a hut surrounded by barbed wire. My orders were that if any of them tried to escape, I was to shoot to kill."
Again, he raised his voice and said, "This will kill you! People will want to kill you for this! I'm your father. My job is to protect you! Do you want to die?"
"Dad," I said, trying to keep my voice calm, "This is not a war. I am not committing a crime. This is love."
He sighed disgustedly and continued what would be his final attempt to talk some sense into his dissident, wayward daughter. "Elizabeth, when I was on the farm as a young boy, sometimes a female cow would jump another female cow. I would ask my father, 'Pa, why do they do that?' My father said, "They're just overheated."
His voice was near hysterical, "Love? This isn't love! You're behaving like an overheated cow!"
I apologized to my father for not being able to continue the conversation. Told him I loved him. Told him I was sorry I had disappointed him. Told him maybe one day he would understand.
After I hung up, I was hysterical. Crying. Sobbing. I was inconsolable.
I called Sheri and repeated the entire conversation, punctuated by hysterical sobs and blowing my nose. She knew the dark path I was on and, having been there once herself, she knew where it could lead.
She tried gently and calmly to explain that my father was just a man of his time. That he really didn't know any better. That he may not ever change his mind, but that, over time, as I got stronger, it would get better.
When I got to the part about the cows, Sheri did the only reasonable thing. She started to laugh. "Overheated cows!" she said, incredulous. "Lois, Lois, listen to this! He said lesbians are overheated cows."
"Moooooo," she said, laughing hysterically, "Mooooooooo!" I could hear Lois laughing in the background. So did Ms. Conroy, who was listening in.
And, wonder of wonder and miracle of miracles, I started laughing. As I did, I could feel the weight of judgment slip off my shoulders. With each laugh, my body felt lighter and lighter and I could feel my soul settling back into the place of wholeness and holiness I had just recently discovered.
The next time we went to Boston to see Sheri and Lois, we rang the bell on the intercom outside her door. "Sheri, we're here," I said.
And, over the intercom came, "Moooooooooooo!"
There we were, on the street in South Boston. Right there, in front of God and people who were passing by who could hear the "Moooooooooooo!" followed by hysterical laughter.
Ms. Conroy and I just looked at each other and them and shrugged our shoulders, trying to ignore it. But, the moment was too wonderful to be ignored. And, we laughed and laughed and laughed until Sheri came down and let us in, and we fell into each others arms, laughing and laughing and laughing.
Later, when we were in their home, Barden presented us with a lovely picture she had framed herself (She's a professional museum-quality picture framer). It was a lovely, pastoral scene - of cows cooling themselves by a stream.
I have kept that picture all these many years later. It has always hung somewhere in our home. It hangs here, now, in Llangollen. Whenever I'm feeling the need to be inspired to "keep on keepin' on", I take a look at it. And, I laugh.
It really is the best medicine.
Now, Sheri will hate it that I've told you this story about her. She'll try to tell you that I've exaggerated one point or didn't get something exactly right.
It's what mothers do, you know? But, I tell you - hand to Jesus - that this is not only a true story, but that this is one of the stories that has kept me alive.
Not from committing suicide because I'm a lesbian. Rather, the story of the overheated cows and Sheri and Lois' love and laughter act as a shield against harsh judgment and cruel words that, if taken in, can kill the soul.
It does get better - with age. And Sheri is right - it helps to have a sense of humor. Learn to develop a sense of humor as your first line of defense against ignorance and hatred and bigotry.
What I learned in the midst of the AIDS crisis - what those brave, brilliant young gay men taught me in the early 80s - is this:
"Laughter is the greatest statement of faith."
If you can laugh in the face of death, then you know that there is a loving God.
So, laugh. Yes, laugh, children. Guess that's why they call us "gay".
And, when you find it hard to do - because, I won't lie to you, sometimes it is - just think of the story of Sheri and the Overheated Cows as my gift to you and say, right out loud, in front of God and anyone who happens to be passing by at the moment: