The other day, I picked up the most recent issue of Boston’s Stuff magazine, one of those free events magazines put out in most big cities. Hanna and I tend to pick up Stuff occasionally because we like the read Jeannie Greeley’s “Sex” column, the title of which pretty much says it all. We don’t always agree with what she has to say, but arguing with her when we don’t can be equally as enjoyable on the morning commute as talking about how on-target her observations are.
This week’s column, “Are The Kids All Right?” is definitely the former rather than the latter. It’s a meditation on the fact that Greeley, though in a relationship with a woman and out of the closet in most areas of her life, is not out to two sets of folks: her grandparents and her nieces and nephews. She explains the situation this way:
As we relish in this month’s Pride celebrations, there are a couple of things of which this outspoken queer is not so proud. Regrettably, I’m not out to two populations – my elderly grandparents, who’ve been deemed too set in their ways (and a bit too intuitive) to need telling, and my six nieces and nephews, who’ve been deemed too young to comprehend the topic. The former are easy to navigate because their status doesn’t change; the latter, however, only grow more inquisitive and insightful with time.
“Do you live together?” my eight-year-old niece asks, looking up at me and my girlfriend and seeming astute enough to know exactly what is going on. “Where is her bed?” she says a moment later.
“She’s a bat that hangs from the ceiling,” I joke, trying to avoid a cold, hard lie.
Suddenly, these subtle deceptions remind me of the ones I practiced with my friends and family back when I was 18, struggling to come out the first time. It was a torturous tango that I don’t wish to perform again.
But tweens are tough, man. And my sisters and I touch on the subject of how and when my sexuality will be revealed without ever coming to conclusions.
Where to begin.
I recognize that every family and life situation are different. I have no idea what Ms. Greeley’s life is like, and since she doesn’t write about the reasons behind her decision to keep her relationships with women secret from some of her family members due to their age, I don’t have much to go on judging her decision. Possibly she’s made the right decision for her, her partner, and her family.
But I’m troubled by the central premise of her implied argument for keeping her sexuality from her niece and nephew: that somehow they will be “too young to comprehend” that Greeley loves someone, or shares her life with someone, the same way their parents do (or did). The same way as do all of the straight partners — and in this day and age, likely, queer partners! — whom these children meet at church, at school, at the supermarket, at their friends’ homes. It seems to me like Greeley and the other adults in her extended family are doing the next generation a disservice by somehow treating Greeley’s relationships differently than they would hetero relationships: evading questions rather than just introducing Greeley’s significant other as her girlfriend. Covering up her relationships implies there’s something secretive or shameful or baffling about intimacies that, if shared by people of different sexes, are perfectly understandable to young people.
Growing up in the 1980s and early 90s, I admit I didn’t really become aware of homosexuality as a concept until I was maybe nine or ten. A friend whispered the term at a slumber party, giggling, and wouldn’t explain what it meant when I asked. Frustrated, I hauled my mother into the room (yes, I was that kind of child) and demanded an explanation. She was basically like, “it’s when two people of the same sex fall in love.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, thanks.” My friends were left rather red-faced, but other than that it failed to make a dramatic impression.
What, after all, is all that outlandish about two (or more?) people in love?
A few years ago, when I realized I’d fallen in love with Hanna, I was very clear from the beginning that — for her sake and for mine — I needed to treat this relationship the same way I would have treated a heterosexual relationship (I say “would have” because I’d never been in any relationship, so the whole thing was sort of theoretical). What I mean by this is that I made a conscious decision to act as if our relationship would be understood socially, and judged by the same standards, as a heterosexual relationship. If certain public displays of affection would have been socially acceptable in situation X for a heterosexual couple, I was going to operate under the assumption that the same action would be acceptable for us. If the relationship got to the point where we thought of ourselves as a couple (and it did), then I would introduce us as such … to everyone. I had no interest in playing the game of “in the closet here, out of the closet there, in the closet with G, but out of the closet with R.” If nothing else because I have a shit memory for whom I’ve shared personal details with — and it would all go to hell in pretty short order!
Not that I ran around telling everyone I was lesbian/bi/queer or that I was in a sexually-active relationship. I figured since I wouldn’t have felt the need to “come out” as straight if I’d fallen in love with a man, or explain to folks the precise level of our sexual intimacy, then it wasn’t necessary in this situation either. Yes, I had the identity conversation with a few family members and close friends — sometimes for my sake and sometimes for theirs. But I didn’t feel compelled to have it with everyone, and in fact with most people I’ve avoided putting a specific label to who I am. Instead, I talk about having a girlfriend or having a partner and about the pleasure of building a life with someone as if these things are remarkable only for the preciousness of their being, not for the shape of the bodies or the gender of the individuals involved.
And (remarkably, it sometimes seems to me in this era of high-level anxiety about sex and gender!) I have been received with warmth and affection. With the exception of a few tense exchanges in blog comments, mostly with folks I only knew online or not at all, those around me and Hanna have hardly blinked at the revelation we’re a couple. Including my grandparents. Including children under the age of ten. The experience of my peers who grew up with openly LGBT family members support my own observations that young people who are introduced to queer folks early on and by adults who treat the identities and relationships as completely acceptable are likely to see it as, quite simply, normal if not normative.
Again: Every family is different, and maybe there are concrete reasons why Greeley feels unable to be open about her relationships with the youngest (and oldest) members of her family. But I can’t help feeling that she and the other adults in her family are losing a precious opportunity to, well, be the change they want to see in the world. To live their lives as if same-sex relationships were as unsurprising as heterosexual ones. And by doing so, they might raise a generation of children who helped bring this world more truly into being.