by Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, DSW
(Editor's Note: This article was written on June 26, 2015, after the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark decision that same-sex marriage is legal in all states of the U.S. Danna Bodenheimer is the author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.)
On this day of great progress for our country, I can’t stop thinking about my coming out story. The idea of a coming out story is sort of weird, because there is not a clear beginning, middle, or end.
My “beginning,” though, was when I was in kindergarten. To think of my kids, one who will be in kindergarten soon enough and another who is well past it, feeling the pain that I felt then is so terrifying to me. I remember playing some game on the blacktop at the Harrington Park School and wanting so badly to hold Susan’s hand. But Stephanie held her hand instead, and I was so jealous. Jealousy is a terrible emotion. It feels so insidious and desperate. But for me, the jealousy became quickly adjoined with this horrible fear. What did it mean that I wanted to hold Susan’s hand so badly? I felt sick to my stomach. I can remember even feeling fascinated by her when I was in preschool, maybe three. It was not a regular fascination; it was powerful. It wasn’t sexual, but it wasn’t friendship, either. I knew that I was moved by it and I knew that I needed to get rid of it.
What did it mean that I wanted to hold Susan’s hand so badly? I felt sick to my stomach. To try and deny internal states at such a young age is so psychologically dangerous, but I very clearly knew that was my work.
I liked having girls for friends, but I preferred boys. It was just easier, less complicated. I didn’t have all of these intense feelings with every interaction. That is why I loved playing with Evan and Justin so much. But I was sort of left out there, too. In some ways, there was no place that I didn’t feel left out. Because I was always leaving myself out, when interacting with myself. It sounds confusing, but it is true. My own relationship with myself set the pattern for long standing feelings of isolation and feelings of difference.
I remember when girls started to like boys and I developed the capacity to fake it. I would assign myself a part, the part of the girl who liked this boy or that boy. It was so random, though, I didn’t have a type, none of it ever really made sense. It was so poorly played. It reminds me of the Indigo Girls line from Least Complicated:
The boy and girl are holding hands on the street
And I don't want to but I think you just wait
I thought: I will be the girl who likes boys, but likes to take it slow. I faked a crush on one boy and pretended I was hurt when he started dating a friend of mine. I faked a crush on another boy who seemed somewhat gay to me, so I thought it was safe. Nothing could ever come of it.
I ensconced the intensity of my feeling for girls in the compelling narrative provided by the acronym “BFF.” But the feelings I had were so much more intense than that. My god, I took best friendship seriously. I feel so bad thinking about that little girl self. Waiting for the one person to show up to a birthday party or come to a playdate or sit near me in lunch. I know all girls feel this way. But trust me, it was different.
I was always talking to myself and to others in code. It was hard to even figure out what I meant after a while. It reminds me of the Indigo Girls line from Fugitive:
I'm harboring a fugitive defector of a kind
And she lives in my soul, drinks of my wine
And I'd give my last breath to keep us alive
Are they coming for us with cameras or guns?
We don't know which but we gotta run
And you say this is not what I bargained for
So hide yourself for me
All for me
I remember sneaking a peak at any encyclopedia I could find searching for “homosexuality” and desperately scanning for the words “normal” or “phase.” I remember when a Newsweek came out in the early 90s with two lesbians on the cover and spending all my time in the bathroom reading it with my heart racing.
I remember trying to have high school boyfriends and needing to be drunk for all of it. I remember saying to Lisa, on a hammock one day, that I probably was gay but that I wanted a life and a marriage and a family enough that I could hide it for the sake of having those things.
I went to college at UVM my first year, trying so hard to come out to my group of powerful women friends who I loved so much (Jess, Eden, Amy, Molly). I couldn’t do it, though, because I couldn't stop playing games with myself. I couldn’t just surrender to my truth. I would sit in Women’s Studies classes, often high, because I couldn’t handle the envy that I felt for the professor and the TA, both out and strong lesbians.
I don't even know what it took for me to apply to Smith. Another student at UVM who had just come out was transferring, and I thought that it would be a good idea for me. I had no intention of coming out. I was just magnetized toward this application. I wonder if a neonatal version of myself penned it, a version dying for birth, for freedom. It reminds me of the Indigo Girls line from The Wood Song:
No way construction of this tricky plan
Was built by other than a greater hand
With a love that passes all our understanding
Watching closely over the journey
And then I got to Smith. I met Jen. I feel like having Jen near me was such an incredible blessing, one of the greatest gifts of my life. She occupied her identity with such power and grace. It was the bravest thing that I had ever seen. Jen, along with the entire sensation of the campus, eased me out in the smoothest, most exciting way. It was just so obviously there and so easy to access. My parents thought it was a phase. I knew everything leading up to it was. This was the end of a phase and the beginning of a life...the life that I have now, with a wife and kids and all the things that I told Lisa that I couldn’t have.
We were having Shabbat a few weeks ago and I was joking about something related to being a lesbian, and Emerson, who is 7, asked, “What’s a lesbian?” She had never even heard the word. Not because it isn’t an important word, but because lesbians have just been part of the fabric of her reality in a way that she barely noticed. Just like there was compulsory heterosexuality, our children are now witnessing compulsory change, shift, and acceptance.
Kira and I got married almost 10 years ago. Today doesn’t feel much different. Except that it does. I had felt buoyed by the support that we received on our wedding day for every day of marriage. Whether it was when I was in labor or Kira broke her hip or we realized that Levi had a funny hand…all the things that make you want to run; the witnesses to our commitment that day hold me steadily in place. Now we have more witnesses, a whole country of them. Some want to be witnesses and some don’t. The fact is that I really don’t care about who does and doesn’t want to see us, see me. Because this marriage, this life, this right is legally mine now. And I’ll take it.
It reminds me of the Indigo Girls line from Power of Two:
Now there's steel bars between me and a promise
Suddenly bend with ease
And the closer I'm bound in love to you
The closer I am to free
Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, DSW, splits her time between teaching at Bryn Mawr College, a private practice in Center City Philadelphia, and writing. She has published on topics related to love in psychotherapy, eating disorders, and the history of relational social work. Clinically, Danna’s practice focuses on issues related to GLBT identity formation, trauma, and addiction. Danna received the 2011-2012 Award for Excellence in Teaching from the University of Pennsylvania. She was also selected as a fellow for the American Psychoanalytic Association for 2012-2013. She is the author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way, a book on starting out in clinical social work.