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My 81-year Journey: A Reflection on Pride Sunday, June 11

My 81-year Journey: A Reflection on Pride Sunday, June 11

By Janet Cramer

When I was asked to speak about being the parent of an adult daughter, Alison, who has declared herself to be Lesbian and who lives in a long-term wonderful relationship, the first thing I did was to ask if this was OK with her and her wife, Meg. The response: “as long as you talk about yourself, not me.”

So that is what I will do this Pride Sunday — take you on the journey I have traveled in my 81 years, from complete ignorance to discomfort, to learning, to working toward understanding and, I believe, now, a real celebration of my daughter. But not only her — all the people whom we know who have discovered that love does not have a gender, but does have a commitment for caring and affection. St. Michael’s has been very important to me in this journey. We called a 29 year-old gay man — Thomas Brown — and celebrated his union with Tom Mousin. There are many couples here, women together and men together, who have helped me see their strength and joy and to openly embrace them as they embrace each other.

Growing up I was familiar with two unmarried women living together – my mother’s older sister Ruth and her friend Mildred, her stepmother’s cousin. They had a dachshund that Ruth taught to bark without making a sound. There was never a thought about sexuality; not only was that not in my young vocabulary, but it was a little like the “color blind” options we are learning about in studying racism. By not acknowledging difference, one isolates rather than invites understanding and dialogue. Indeed, many years later as my mother stayed with her older sister in her final illness, she learned Ruth’s greatest fear was that Mildred would be kept from seeing her if she went to the hospital as she was dying. The gift of my mother’s being there was that Ruth died at home – and I received some learning about the tensions of being someone considered “other” in this culture.

By not acknowledging difference, one isolates rather than invites understanding and dialogue.

I was probably already in college before I encountered the word “homosexual.” I was the youngest and only mem- ber of my generation in a four-generation household, so I didn’t have peers who could help me learn things older generations were uncomfortable with. Public media, if they covered gay life at all, made much of the promiscuous behavior of the few. That made being gay feel disgraceful, dirty and something one did not want to associate with, to say nothing of to accept and honor. Actually, most of the gay and lesbian couples were quiet, perhaps in the closet, but not visible to those of us who didn’t know how to see them.

The culture began to open up with the challenges of the AIDS crisis and a few public figures being open about relationships. Yet it was not until 1985, when Alison was turning 25 and I visited her for her birthday, that she told me of her intimate relationship with her college friend. After their graduation in 1982, they moved together near San Francisco so my dancer daughter could study contact improvisation. I remember my “gulp” at this unexpected knowledge – Alison had had boyfriends and had not spoken of sexual questions to me, at least, so I was not prepared to hear what she said. I remember trying to affirm this middle daughter. What I wanted to say, I think — and I hope I did –- was that I wanted her to feel loved and to be able to make the most of her gifts and skills. Who she loved and how they lived together were secondary to her being the most she could be. Other family members worked through this knowledge in their own ways. I remember especially the grace and acceptance from my mother, Alison’s grandmother. She simply added her girlfriend to the people she enclosed with her love and caring.

During that 1985 visit with Alison, I also learned that the “in your face” expressions of lesbian and gay sexuality that made me and others so uncomfortable were, by some, seen as deliberate efforts to desensitize a culture that behaved as I did — not noticing and not consciously wanting to know. I wasn’t ready to know that my aunt and her partner might have an intimate relationship, not just a practical one. I have now come to understand that behavior that used to make me uncomfortable is “normal.” It fits all relationships without assigning gender to what is OK or not. My much beloved mother-in-law, Marjorie Knauth, born in 1897, used to say “people talk about anything these days, as a matter of fact they don’t talk about anything else.” That quip usually brought forth giggles. I suspect it may not now. Sexuality is open for discussion, though I suspect there are still many important questions of meaning and authenticity for all ages and genders.

Sexuality is open for discussion, though I suspect there are still many important questions of meaning and authenticity for all ages and genders.

While I worked at the VA, I had another lesson in the differential ways we treated people based on who they loved. I met two wonderful old men, one a Russian émigré and one descended from the Hessian troops who came to fight in the Revolutionary War.  My  Russian client was 10 years older than his partner and was deep into the distress  of dementia, with “sun downing” where the person sleeps or is quiet during the day and is awake and agitated at night. This keeps the caregiver up night and day and we wanted to intervene to help the caregiver. If they had been a heterosexual couple, their combined income would have been accepted as “family income” and they could have qualified for supported help at home. Instead, they were considered two unmarried men with such low limits on their income that it made them ineligible for help. Just when they needed it, Vermont passed the civil unions law. I had the honor of being present when these two, ages 80 and 90 who had lived together and supported each other for so many years, had their union honored – and they got the services they needed!

I have been challenged to see differently and to use language differently. I had the privilege of working as a clinical social worker with a couple whose son identified after he was 21 that he had always felt like a girl/woman. Sitting with them as they voiced their love and confusion — grieved what they thought they knew and didn’t – was a time of pain, yet gratitude and grace. I remember when they tentatively began to use “she” rather than “he” in talking of their adult child. Perhaps it is those most directly challenged who may be given the blessing to grow and change, or maybe I have just been fortunate in the people life has allowed me to know in these unclear times. Part of this couple’s pain was that their adult child was excluded from family events and eliminated from conversations about family things. What a difference it makes to acknowledge the discomfort but be open to continue relationships. All of these experiences have gone into my own growth as Alison’s mother.

What a difference it makes to acknowledge the discomfort but be open to continue relationships.

When I was a social worker at White River Junction VA Medical Center from 1992 to 1999, it was a pretty “macho” culture with not infrequent barbs about “homo” or “queers.” Usually I would stay quiet, though uncomfortable. Then I reflected on my husband Al’s comment that Alison and Meg probably had the best relationship of all my three daughters — and he as a stepfather and a marriage and family therapist, as well as a priest, was in a position to make that assessment. Occasionally I would venture such a comment with my coworkers. What happened always surprised me – they would mention a sister or a cousin or brother who also was lesbian or gay and sometimes doing well or sometimes not. But they acknowledged the relationships and toned down their taunts. One of the social work trainees I supervised even brought a pink triangle for my office. It indicated this was a safe place and I was a supporter of LGBTQ individuals, though those initials were not much in use then.

Probably the most important experience in becoming comfortable with divergent sexuality was the SARS – Sexuality Attitude Readjustment Seminar – my supervisor insisted I take before I could qualify as a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. This was in 1993; I spent a week at Guelph University in Canada meeting transgender people, cross-dressing people, lesbian women and gay men and other people whose expressions of sexuality were unfamiliar to me. This was prior to the adoption of “queer” as a positive term, rather than hate speech. It is hard to believe how quickly our dialogue and our exposure to areas unspoken of — unimag- ined –- have changed in the years since that time.

I promised I was going to talk about myself, not my daughter, but I would like to share the experience of being at the commitment ceremony Alison and Meg had at their home in Halifax on September 1, 1991. It was a time of awe and joy. As I said, Alison was a dancer. She and Meg performed the most equal, graceful, and beautiful visualization of their pairing I have ever experienced. Alison, who is taller than Meg, both lifted Meg and was lifted by her. Though they did have words of commitment, that all of us who were there signed as witnesses (remember this was prior to civil unions), but the most meaningful part for me was being present at their pairing in dance.

Meg’s father wrote a poignant piece for the New York Times about his experience of NOT being invited to celebrate their ceremony. He voiced his anger but then went on to explain that Meg challenged his homophobic comments and invited him to admit the extent to which he was both sexist and homophobic before he could become a safe person to her and to Alison. That’s not something that happens quickly, if it is to be reliable. He went into therapy again building on the work he had already done. And gradually he recognized that he was again “falling back on the safety, the old safety, of silence.” If he were going to come out in the open against the repression shouted by some political parties, he needed to come out of his own safe closet and talk about his daughter – and mine — with his closest friends. And with this beautiful article he, indeed, opened their relationship and his growth to a wider world. I used to jokingly say that Meg was my daughter-in-spite-of-law. I am grateful for the legal changes that now make it possible for me to call her my daughter–in-law. The law has at last recognized that love, commitment and honor know no gender.

The law has at last recognized that love, commitment and honor know no gender.

I have not addressed traditional Christian objections to same-gender relationships because I do not find them valid in the light of the charge from Jesus to love, support, and honor all people. It appears to me that my difficult journey from discomfort, to exposure, to exploration, to validation and affirmation is the same journey the church has been taking. I feel blessed by the examples I see every day here at St. Michael’s. I am uplifted as I continue this journey to grow beyond my earlier views to being the parent of a daughter I both admire and love. I could have no deeper pride as I see how her life has unfolded with the woman she loves.

About the Author: Janet Cramer is a member of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Brattleboro, Vermont.

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