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Coming out, gay or queer — you would think, in this day and age, it was no longer an issue. You think: Younger generations are so accepting, and they don’t seem to care. Lesbian, gay, trans, queer — we’re all part of the mix. Or are we?
I would say this. We care. We are still vulnerable and fear the risk of being physically attacked or bullied.
So … why now, after all these years of being out — to family, friends, work associates — should I feel this sudden agitation? I’m a known lesbian. I live in Mt. Airy, one the most accepting of communities in the country. Arleen Olshan, my wife, was co-owner of Giovanni’s Room and a leader in the early gay rights movement in Philadelphia. Why now? The answer is in that word “wife.” We just got married.
What’s in a name?
In August when the door opened (for a blink) in Montgomery County for same-sex couples to wed, we ran through that door and officially tied the knot four days after our license was issued. We had been together for 15 years, and for us it was a no-brainer. We were thrilled to finally become (and will fight to remain) a legally recognized family in Pennsylvania.
Within 24 hours, we had an experience that turned out to be an early hint of trouble. Arleen introduced me to someone as her partner instead of her wife. I wondered: habit? Internalized homophobia? Was it intentional? So we talked about it. Straight couples don’t even have to think about marriage or how to talk about their spouses. They expect it; it’s their reality. So why was this so different for us? It seemed as if we were self-censoring. We wondered if we were allowing fear of homophobic retaliation pressure us to renegotiate ourselves.
So we decided to make a point of using the word “wife” when to referring to each other. We felt it was our responsibility to teach by example; we were standing our ground for equality. Our Mt. Airy community embraced us, as did both our biological and chosen families.
Yet, friends and family, and later strangers we met on our honeymoon, began to chuckle: “Who’s the Mr. and who’s the Mrs.?” and “What do we call you now? Mrs. & Mrs.?” Some people appeared to be supportive of our marriage in the abstract but embarrassed in the concrete. It was only a warmup for what lie ahead.
We had a glorious honeymoon in Vienna. We were treated like royalty by our hosts. And on our return to the United States, at JFK airport, in the land of New York City, we were disrespected as a family and insulted by the first American we saw, a gentleman in Customs.
Homeland Security separates individual travelers and families upon re-entry into the country. We approached the gate as a family, with my 93-year-old Mom in a wheelchair, and Arleen by my side.
Customs: Who’s the family?
Me: We are the family. Here is my mother, and here is my wife.
Customs: Wife? What wife? What’s going on here? I SAID: WHO’S THE FAMILY?
Me: As I said, this is my mother, and this is my wife.
Customs: [staring at us, shaking his head, clicking his tongue loudly]
Me: [leaning over the counter] You are aware that under New York State law same-sex marriage is legally recognized. Are you saying you do not obey the law?
Customs: [stamping passports] Go, just GO!
I reported him.
So then, why write about it? To open up more dialogue — about vulnerability, about acceptance, about freedom.
The urge to self-censor
For so many, the act of “coming out” continues to be a daunting proposition. Blogs and articles abound, expressing all the fear and hope that comes with it. But I’ve got news for you. No matter how old you are, you never stop coming out — to yourself, to your coworkers, to your classmates, to your friends and family, to the new caretakers at your senior community — and you constantly have to renegotiate.
We still feel the urge to self censor. Why? Because we’re applying for a job, we’re up for a promotion at work, we have a student evaluation coming up — or just plain-old we’re getting married.
Coming out is only the first step. But it’s a journey my wife and I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.