By Lacey Louwagie
I heard from a very credible source (OK, it was actually an episode of Queer as Folk) that our sexual orientation is determined by the time we are six years old. Th is makes me think of receiving my sex education from my older sister when I was five, complete with a definition of the word gay. Th at education also included a peek at some naughty calendars: one with erotic pictures of women, and another with erotic pictures of men. When I was alone, I’d sneak peeks at the calendars, equally fascinated by both of them. I didn’t have the words for my fascination, and I wasn’t old enough to judge my curiosity as perverse. It simply was what it was
Now that I’m an adult, kids have become an important part of my life. I’m godmother to twin girls whom I adore. They just turned seven. They seem so young that it’s hard for me to believe they could possibly be old enough to know anything about sex, let alone have a definitive sexual orientation. Yet, my own memories paint a different picture of childhood than the one I feel comfort-able projecting onto kids as an adult. When my sister and I cleaned out our old toy room a couple years ago, one of my goddaughters eagerly adopted all the female Barbie dolls, but refused to touch the males with a ten-foot pole—even after much urging from her mother. As someone who sees so much of the world through a queer lens, I couldn’t help but wonder.
Although I’ve always been bisexual, I came out late in life – at the age of twenty-two – after I’d been living alone in a new city for an entire year. Having no friends or family around projecting their expectation of straightness upon me was key to my ability to accept who I really was. One of the benefits of coming out so late in life was that I had the confidence – and the security, since I was no longer dependent upon parents or other adults – to be out in most areas of my life. I came out to my closest friends a month after coming out to myself; I was out in my workplace, to my sisters, and to my mother within a year. I have no qualms about checking “bisexual” on dating and social networking sites – in fact, I won’t use dating sites that don’t allow me to check bisexual – or letting my sexual orientation slip into conversation with new people I meet.
Yet, when it comes to kids, my internal homophobia rears its ugly head. My goddaughters’ mother doesn’t know I’m bisexual (although I think most of my extended family could guess that I’m not the straightest stick on the tree if they gave it a little thought). I haven’t come out to her, even though she’s one of the most important women in my life, because I have a nagging fear that she wouldn’t trust me with her daughters if she knew. Although I worked with kids as part of my job for six years, I was never out to them. I wasn’t afraid of rejection from them; in fact, we worked very hard to create a space where homophobia of any type was not tolerated. Yet, that wasn’t enough to wash away my own internal homophobia. I couldn’t bear the thought of parents taking their daughters out of the program if they knew I was bisexual.
When I was first coming out, I read Free Your Mind by Ellen Bass and Kate Kaufman, paying special attention to the chapters about working with kids. Although I was on track for the most part – I didn’t allow homophobic jokes, didn’t shy away from the subject of sexual orientation, proactively created a GLBTQ safe space – I didn’t rise to the challenge of one of the most important parts of creating a safe space for GLBTQ youth. I didn’t come out and give them the opportunity to see a successful, happy, adult bisexual woman.
I realize that I’m not being fair to the kids I worked with, or their parents, or my goddaughters’ mother. I don’t have a shred of evidence that the adults in these kids’ lives would cut me out if they knew I was bisexual. In fact, I have evidence to the contrary: the parents I worked with expressed nothing but support of our efforts to build a GLBTQ safe space, and the mother of my goddaughters once said that she “wouldn’t mind” if her daughters ended up being gay. Still, my fear remains strong. Perhaps it comes from awareness of the stereotypes and assumptions that people attach to the word “bisexual,” and my weariness to be an ever-present “educator” about “real” bisexuality. Perhaps it comes from my inkling, not entirely unfounded, that being gay is OK but being bi is not. (When I was a child, an important adult in my life told me, “Th ere is nothing wrong with being gay, but those bisexual people will sleep with anyone.” Perhaps that has something to do with my self-imposed celibacy). Perhaps it comes from watching too many TV specials in the nineties about teachers who were fi red because of their sexual orientation. Perhaps it comes from reading too many homophobic letters from adults in response to anything that exposes kids to the reality of various sexual orientations.
Still, I like to dress my fear up with nobler causes. My mother, a public health nurse, tells me that all it takes is one adult who cares about a child to give that child a chance at success. I’ve extrapolated from that that the more caring adults a child has in her life, the better. I’ve had the opportunity to be a caring adult in the lives of many extraordinary girls. And although my guilt over remaining closeted with them is strong, my fear that I’d be cut out of their lives is stronger. It’s unfair that we live in a world where sexual minorities are viewed with fear and suspicion, but it would be more unfair to deprive a child of an adult who cares about her. I justify my closeted state in this way.
Last week, I went out to lunch with a girl I used to work with who has now grown into a confident, brave young woman (they have the habit of doing that). Without preamble, she told me how difficult it was for her and her girlfriend to be the only out lesbians at her school. Although her stories “outed” her to me, it was so clear that it was not a calculated decision on her part, that she wanted to share what was happening in her life with me, and being an out lesbian in high school was part of that. Th ere was no dramatic, “Oh, and I’m gay,” just the thread of that reality in every story she told. I felt affirmed that, even though I hadn’t been out to her when we worked together, she still knew being out with me was safe. And in the course of the conversation, I shared with her my own experiences of coming out. I know that this is also the choice I would make if my goddaughters ever came out to me or asked me about my sexual orientation outright. In the meantime, I’m working hard to foster a relationship where they understand that my love for them is unconditional, and I’m staying aware that there may come a time when coming out to them is the only ethical thing to do. Although the closet door is still closed, I refuse to lock it.
Lacey, 27, lives on the shores of Lake Superior and is a freelance editor and writer. In her free time, she likes making mix CDs, devouring books, cuddling her kitties, and pondering God.