I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while, mainly out of fear. Fear that I will be misunderstood. Or, even worse, understood and rejected. I’m an old, white, cisgendered, heterosexual man. I’ve been happily married to the same woman for nearly 40 years. Yet I write fiction about characters with different sexual orientations and non-binary genders. Is that even allowed? To tell this story, I need to provide as context my experience of LGBTQIA+ issues growing up.
When I was a teenager, my family lived in a rural community in Southwest Michigan that was extremely hostile to literally anything non-traditional. As a short, pudgy, bookish, non-athletic teen, I was terrified that someone might label me as “gay” because, if the label stuck, it would guarantee endless harassment and torture at school. The rural kids were unceasingly cruel to anyone perceived as different with taunts, verbal harassment, and constant threats of physical violence.
My first experience with transsexualism was probably in high school. A woman at the place where my mom worked (and where I worked during the summer) transitioned to male. I remember my parents talking about it, with acceptance, but including a mixture of trepidation and mild horror. How could that even work?
As I went through puberty, I discovered that I was not strictly heterosexual. For the most part, however, I suppressed that part of my personality and buried it deep. In the end, I married a woman and our nearly 40-year partnership has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life. But I’ve always known that it could have gone another way. But it’s hard to me to publicly admit that even now.
My next LGBTQIA+ experience was meeting up with a friend from high school who was one year older than me. He had been tagged with seeming too gay — he was somewhat effeminate — and I was fully aware of the harassment he had faced in school as a consequence. After graduation, he had moved to the West Coast and come out in San Francisco living the gay lifestyle. When he came back he was flaming. To see how happy he was in his own skin was a delight to me.
But as a back drop, it’s important to understand that this was in the depth of the AIDS epidemic which was in full swing at this point. I was aware and fully horrified by the Republican response to AIDS which was, “I hope they all die.” My friend almost certainly caught AIDS during this period of time, although we never spoke of it, and he has since passed away.
In one of my first jobs out of college, I worked for a company that marketed educational programming to schools. I performed educational assemblies about astronomy for the first year on the east coast and, for a second year, on the west coast. The person who was my contact and did my scheduling was named John. But as I was getting ready to leave for my second year, I was invited to lunch with the owner of the company and my scheduler. At lunch, they explained that John had decided to become Joanna. And they wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be a problem for me. I was mildly surprised, but it was not a problem for me.
While I was traveling in California, a distant relative — let’s call him an uncle — contacted me and invited me to visit for a few days. When I got to the door, I was surprised to be met by a young trans woman, about my age. I’ll call her “Mary.” She was living with my uncle and we spent the next several days together. I was shocked because she was the epitome of a “drag queen”: huge cartoonish breasts, heavy makeup, over-the-top clothing. I would have been equally surprised by any person who dressed and acted that way. But she was really very sweet. And we had a lovely time together. We went to a number of the local scenic attractions. She did not, however, go with us to the redneck steak house — probably a wise decision given the times.
When I moved to the Pioneer Valley after graduate school, it was like walking into an air-conditioned building for the first time. I had never realized how oppressively conservative everyplace I had lived before had been. Northampton had been the lesbian capital years before I moved here. As the national culture changed during my career, for the first time I met an openly gay man, then my state senator came out as a gay man, and he led the charge for the constitutional amendment that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. It’s been a headspinningly rapid cultural shift. I never could have imagined it while growing up the backwards wilds of Michigan.
I also became close friends with a colleague who was non-binary. She used female pronouns at work, but male pronouns privately. But she acknowledged that neither gender was a good fit for her. I had simply never imagined such a thing. But coming to see the world through her eyes — and coming to recognize the challenges she had to deal with — were transformative for me. These experiences, more than any other, helped shift me from being unopposed to being an ally.
Since then several other friends and colleagues have transitioned some male-to-female and others female-to-male. Seeing their struggle first hand has been inspiring to me: to have even some understanding of the challenges they were facing.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t made mistakes. It’s been a long road for me and I’ve said and done things I’m not proud of. But life is about trying to learn from one’s mistakes and to move forward.