Death of a Reluctant Lesbian - Ode to my mother
I said goodbye to my motherʼs physical form five months ago exactly - ironically today is also Gay Pride Parade day in NYC. It's a double anniversary of sorts, as Mama passed on another very auspicious occasion, my sonʼs 11th birthday. Despite not having parade kind of energy today, I still wanted to do something to honor my mother, and our family.
Having just returned from the second cross country flight since her death, I found my bed littered with the "things" I collected from my recent trip. My mom's partner of 28 years, Sue, had graciously brought me home for a respite from my recent months' challenges and sorrow, and so that I could help sort through items of precious memory: photographs, remaining copies of her self-published poetry books, and yes, a rather substantial gay pride t-shirt collection.
Maybe I should have gone to the parade. After all my mother rarely missed one in the days we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and later, West Hollywood, CA. I affectionately called my mom the most reluctant lesbian you'd ever meet. Her reticense was not owing to any self-loathing at being gay. On the contrary, over the years her pride grew with every passing parade; hence the overflowing t-shirt drawer. But let's just say her Higher Self had a long hard struggle with her ego-construct and inner demons she battled throughout her life, which made it difficult for her to stand up for herself - and not just in ways of defining and defending her choice of whom to love. In the end, she did create the life she wanted, craved for and fantasized about. And in the process she taught me to identify, elevate and celebrate my core essence.
Mama, was a mildly more reserved but nonetheless strong and proud lesbian. My self-professed nickname of the "Spiritually Sexy" Diva Mama is due in part to the inspiration she has provided me. Our shared history has shaped the woman I am and it's only fitting that on this day of celebration in NYC honoring the openly passionate, proud and strong, I honor my mother, and all she has taught me about the pursuit of truth, creativity and happiness.
Mama was a published poet and writer, a dreamer, a dedicated mother and partner, and one of the most authentic souls anyone who knew her had ever come across.
Ignoring my still open and overflowing suitcase just hours ago, I decided to wait on the unpacking of some of the treasures I have now inherited. Instead I re-read a copy of a printed article she had given me just three days before she passed. A yellow edged copy, slightly crinkled and tucked behind her Masters Diploma; it was a piece published in the Gay News, March 22, 1984. I won't reveal the pseudonym, because some of my family members wish for me to protect her privacy (and so again rises the image of a "reluctant lesbian ghost").
Yet I knew the author's heart and honesty before any of my siblings, biological or the later adopted two; even before her beloved Sue, partner of 28 years. I didn't have a second mom back when the article was written. I had a father who slept in a separate bed and preferred his Ivy League office to our noisy home bursting with five kids and a dog. But I was old enough to remember when - and why - my mother wrote it. Even now, I can flash back to a single conversation, in Mamaʼs writerʼs room, where she shared that she had created a pen name. "Why?" I asked. Her answer was simple: “Because some people just wouldnʼt understand.”
And that was true - then. In the mid-80s not everyone understood or accepted, much less celebrated these kinds of lifestyle and identity choices.
But I did. Always had. My Mama came out to me when I was 12, and though her life wasn't always easy, and often it was difficult, Mama was a true pioneer, even though she never saw herself in that light. Mama didn't want the spotlight, but somehow, at least for all of us in her circle, she was our star, our beacon, our rock. It was with quiet strength, dignity and an internal fortitude unmatched and unmitigated that Mama led her life.
It is therefore, with great honor and pride, that I share her story, in her own words under her real name, Shelley Adler. Today I celebrate her true identity and the rights she and all who have reluctantly or otherwise gone before, fought so hard to secure.
Laying Claim to Our Own Identity
I donʼt know whose clever idea it was for us to “claim” our own names, for us to call ourselves gay and lesiban, faggot and dyke. It bothered me at first, for about three years. But I worked at it. I called my friends and I called myself those names, and they donʼt hurt anymore. I donʼt know why it happened; I donʼt care. I call myself those “awful” names and sometimes I laugh and sometimes I donʼt, but I feel good.
Now after all that time and all that work, somebody is trying to take my names away from me. Maybe one of “them” found out those names donʼt hurt “us” anymore, found out we like those names; so now weʼre not entitled to those names anymore. Weʼre not even supposed to talk about “them”and “us” anymore. But there are differences between them and us. Iʼm glad there are those differences. Theyʼre the ones who want us to pretend weʼre all the same! We are not. We are different. I am not like them; often I do not even like them. I know many of them do not like me. Who would want any of us to really believe we are all the same? Our leaders, our doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs have enough to do to keep busy protecting our national, historical, cultural, social or whatever group welfare. They could not and should not pretend we are all the same, we are all equal, we are all free citizens entitled to our rights under the law. (There are just a few problems that still have to be worked out concerning jobs and housing and freedom from fear of homicidal homophobics, a few details . . .) They will protect us from the kids on the street corner who call us names and throw stones at us; but if weʼd just behave a little more decently, you know, dress more properly, walk right, act straight, they could do their job so much better: those kids wouldnʼt know who we are!
What happened to “weʼre all the same, weʼre all equal?” Admit it. There is a “them” and there is an “us”. I donʼt know who “they” are. I donʼt know who most of “us” are. Most of us are still in hiding. I do know to be careful of the kids on the street. Iʼm just now getting smart enough to watch out for those, whoever they are, who want to take my names from me.
I began to learn in a (nameless) therapistʼs office about “them” and “us”. He told me I should lie to protect myself, but he had no need to lie. He was definitely one of them, but I didnʼt make such distinctions then. I didnʼt think it was necessary. I was upset about a lot of things (who isnʼt?). I did not have enough of the doctorʼs experience, education, or expertise to know what to do about whatever it was that was really bothering me. I just knew there was one secret burning question that was driving me crazy: What? I a lesbian? I couldnʼt even say the word. Every time I did mention my “issue” he told me that wasnʼt the issue I had to deal with. I never did find out what the issue he wanted to talk about was. I didnʼt care, or care why he didnʼt want to talk about my issue. Was it all so simple? Was naming myself and accepting the name, the beginning of my “cure,” the end to my “illness”? He didnʼt seem to want me to find out; but I did.
I left my therapist. I went to my local clergyman, in my case, a Rabbi. I told him my dreadful secret. He said I was confused, I was naughty, but I was not a lesbian. He said there was no such thing.
I went to my husband. He said it was a phase, that I did different things for about three years and then got tired of doing them. He said I would get over this too and go on to the next thing, and he would try to wait. But this time, he said, I did get him angry, and he was running out of patience with me.
I wrote to my parents, a short, painful, to-the-point letter. A few weeks after her and my own agony, my mother wrote to me: they were “not pleased with my news.” She included a check and a brief reminder that my job, my responsibility, was the well-being, physical and emotional, of my children. She sent love from both of them to all of us. My father said and wrote nothing. Nothing has been said about my “issue” since. The name lesbian has not been mentioned again, not by any of them.
I do not think there is a “conspiracy.” There is just their silence. I know that the trials of my life so far have been far less harrowing than most have had to endure. I have heard some “stories” with far more pain. My gay and lesbian friends tell me I am luckier than most of us are, and that I should not be “too brave” and name myself in too many places. If I am to manage to get along, to get a job and have a decent place to live, I should be quieter about who I am and be content to be known by just a few, trustworthy friends (who are, of course, also homosexual). I trust these friends and know they are far wiser than I will ever be, and braver; they have already suffered years of exposure - not just the sticks and stones of children, but the “slings and arrows” of homophobic adults. I listen to their warnings and I am afraid. I write with many names, rarely my own. And I am afraid I will lose myself in their and my own fears. I do not like being afraid. I do not like being lonely.
I am often lonely. I do not want to be socially isolated. I know when they call me names they do so to isolate me, to separate themselves from the likes of me, so they need not fear being contaminated, seduced or intimidated by me. But what are they afraid of from me? Do they fear my, our, daring to be different, to be who we are (for whatever reason!)? I question their motives and their fear and their labeling me. I am no threat in being who I am. Does the continuation of civilization depend on their need to label me? I do not advocate the downfall of my country, the disestablishment of my religion, or the dismemberment of my own or any family. I am for all those things. I wish they were for me. But I will not be labeled by those who fear me.
I will name myself: I am not “sick” because I am afraid. I am not a sociopath because I am lonely. I am not a martyr, nor should any of us be. We not need wear pink triangles in the street or lavender buttons from the local bookstores unless we choose to do so. We need not march in the street together, today. We have the right to be who we are and to name ourselves with pride when and how we choose, without fear of reprisal or intimidation from anyone, especially from those we love. I would not hurt them. Why would they allow others to hurt me?
I cannot live at peace with myself in a closet in my own home. I do not know if I will have a home to live in if I break down that closet door. Like you, I want to live as freely as I can without losing everyone and everything I love. I am still afraid. I am also aware of the danger to me not just of those who call me names but of those who will not allow me to name myself.
I may be a good person or bad, a hero or a coward. But I am who I say I am. I am whatever name I choose to give myself. I have the right to exist without fear of them. They may scorn me or hate me. They cannot legally hurt me.
If they deny I exist, they lie. I do not have to lie. I am a lesbian. I do exist.
Written by: Spiritually Sexy Diva Mama Shira Adler!
The voice to elevate, celebrate and illuminate!
Watch Shira & her family on the debut episode of Bravo's new docu-series! #ExtremeGuidetoParenting premiering Thrs. Aug. 7th, 9:30/8:30c
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