The first person I came out to was myself. It was a surprise, even though it had been a 35-year process, if you start the clock at age 15 when I was wearing men’s military pants and pining for my camp counselors. The next person I came out to was my best friend. He didn’t seem surprised. “Great. Glad you know. Now let’s not tell anyone else until your divorce is final.” Yes, somehow, I’d gotten through 17 years of marriage and two-thirds of a divorce without knowing. But that’s a whole other story.
After the divorce was final, I started dating women—a terrifying prospect at 40, after almost 20 years of being in a relationship and identifying as straight. It took me a while to read clues that would have set off alarm bells for LTLs (long-time lesbians). Like, for example, when a woman you are dating organizes her whole life around feeding her cat three hot meals a day. Then there’s the U-Haul that overstays its welcome. That’s when your girlfriend still co-owns her house with her ex-partner—and the ex lives on the top floor while your girlfriend lives on the bottom. Think Downton Abbey without the starched pinafores. Granted, it makes shuttling the golden retriever between households a lot easier. But it also starts to feel like you are in a relationship with your girlfriend and a mysterious woman who lives in the attic…. Mrs. Rochester, anyone?
After learning the kind of relationship lessons most dykes had learned decades earlier, I started dating a woman who I met through one of my closest friends. It began as one of those exciting, charged friendships laced with the possibilities that dance just below the surface. Then one day she drove down to Brooklyn from her New England farmhouse and swooped me off my feet.
This one was the real deal. It also meant that the real coming out moment had finally arrived. It was time to tell the kids. My daughter was fourteen; my son was eleven. Since they were still reeling from the aftermath of the divorce—an unnatural disaster they would be recovering from the rest of their lives—I had kept my previous ill-fated experiments under wraps. But now, it had become a secret too big to keep—and I wanted to introduce them to my new love.
Talk about terror. It wasn’t the fact that I was gay, but the questions behind it. When did you know? Is this why you got divorced? Why did you marry Dad? How can you have been married for 17 years and not know? Is our whole family a sham? I was terrified that they would blame me for the wreckage, and that the bonds we had—the love that defined my world—would be forever broken.
From the moment each of them was born, I loved them with a fierceness that will forever be my anchor on this earth. The joy of small moments, like holding those little hands on the walk to school, was greater than anything else that had come before. And, conversely, the first time they experienced heartbreak, mine broke a thousand times harder. I’m sure that the fear of damaging that love is what kept my own heart– and self-awareness– cloaked in darkness for many years.
The first conversation was a strange, awkward affair. “I loved your father for years, and then we got divorced, and now I’m dating a woman.” They stared at me and seemed to take it in stride. Years later I found out that I had not avoided setting off those parental landmines that leave lasting scars. Like when my son asked why our marriage had ended, and apparently I had answered, “Sometimes love just runs out.” Wow. What a great way to comfort an eleven year-old searching for security.
I never quite managed to feel comfortable around my kids with my new partner. She’s now my ex-partner and definitely doesn’t live upstairs. It’s taken a good ten years to feel comfortable around myself with the new me. But my children and I have forged a new family dynamic—one that is stronger, closer, and more honest than ever before. It turns out that risking the loss of love by sharing the truth can have the opposite effect.
My son, now twenty, came out last summer. I am watching him wrestle with all that entails—no matter how supportive the environment, it is still a road filled with treacherous turns. I hope that he feels both of his parents’ unconditional love, and that maybe my own journey to find and live the truth can make his a little easier. At the very least, I can warn him about the cat food situation.