I was raised to be a racist, by kind, generous, well-meaning parents who didn’t know any better. When the schools were integrated in my 5th grade year, it took less than a year to realize that everything that I had been taught was a lie. My parents had been taught the same lies. But exposure made the walls tumble down.
I cannot fathom the bravery and courage it took for those black students and teachers to move to the oppressor’s school. But their presence caused most white students to wake up to how we had been indoctrinated and misled. Yet, some of our parents tried to keep those walls up; even protesting (wait for it) the school electing a black homecoming queen. Parents demanded that the homecoming queen be white, so for several years, we had the ridiculous solution of separate black and white homecoming queens.
The segregationists got it right, race mixing is thriving. And now, I see more and more different colors in America. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the 4th of July!
But I never heard my parents’ views on homosexuality. Our family had no “funny” uncles or spinster aunts. Our large family was pure cis (for those who don’t know what cis means, it is a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex at birth).
I was a bookish, introverted, scared teenager. I was afraid of the opposite sex and concerned about not fitting in, especially not dating. I never learned the language of extended eye gazes, winks, smiles, and flirtatious body movements. I didn’t even know that I was pretty until my college roommate informed me of it. I believed that she was an idiot, but I wasn’t going to dispel her of her uninformed opinion.
To deal with my insecurities, I mostly “dated” gay teenagers who were also hiding. It was a perfect solution for both of us, no pressure for sex, just two people having a good time, serving as each other’s beard. One summer I went away to an advanced Spanish program at the University of Kansas. I immediately latched onto my gay “boyfriend.” We enjoyed each other’s company so much and developed such a trust that he took me to an illegal gay bar. In the 1960s, surreptitious illegal bars catering to gays and lesbians were known among the LBGTQ+ community. The police knew about them too and periodically raided them, arresting the patrons and printing the names of arrestees in the newspaper. The famous Stonewall uprising that occurred on June 28, 1969, in Greenwich Village served as a turning point for those mass arrests. The LBGTQ+ population fought back, and the world was never the same again.
Going to that illegal bar was a life-changing experience. In my wide-eyed naivete, I must have insulted them in every way possible. But they were gracious, and each told me their stories. I kept saying (cringeworthy, I know), “But you look so regular!”
Fortunately, they were entertained by my innocence and acceptance and a maybe a little proud that they were able to conceal their identities so well. Many were middle-aged men and women; couples getting the chance to go out and enjoy themselves. I talked to a schoolteacher and librarian lesbian couple, who smiled at my naïve questions about how they could live their lives in such secrecy. A group of men proclaimed that I was going to make my “boyfriend” heterosexual. We all laughed at that. (That was back in the days of “the love of a good woman…”) Everyone insisted on buying me a drink (yes, I was underage, but that was the least of their fears). I left a convert. I adored them. I admired them. Exposure.
But what I didn’t see was the price that these wonderful people were paying. While I was enjoying myself, expanding my world, they were hiding theirs. If there was a police raid on the bar, they would have been arrested, their names displayed in the paper. They would have lost their jobs, their families, and some of their friends and colleagues if their secret was exposed. So, they had to live pretend lives. Lives that I found so charming were actually desperate attempts to “fit” into a society that painted them as evil.
Several years ago, I watched a play about Casa Susanna. American Experience recently released a documentary about this unique 1960s motel. Casa Susanna consisted of a series of bungalows owned by Marie and Tito (Susanna) Valenti in the Catskills. It was a place where crossdressing men, their wives, and transgender women came to spend a glorious weekend out of the shadows. They dressed in typical 1960s housewife attire and even put on some shows.
Casa Susanna was run by a husband and wife team. Susanna (Tito) married a progressive woman who wanted to help this community. They met while he was trying on wigs in her wig shop.
In the documentary about Casa Susanna, American Experience profiled two transgender women and relatives of men (including Susanna/Tito) who were crossdressers.
In that happy place, the lies, the sadness, the feelings of not fitting in didn’t check in. In Casa Susanna they could bask in acceptance; something that we take for granted. But after they left Casa Susanna, they had to live their lies, not lives, in the shame of not being “normal.” And those lies created a profound darkness that constantly shrouded their lives. Living in the shadows.
The documentary was meant to be upbeat; celebrating a place where people got to be themselves for a weekend. But the pain of their ostracism was ever present. Two transgender women spoke of trying to make their early marriages work (their wives married them knowing their secret). The cost of living the lives that God gave them was heartbreak. One transgender woman was never able to have children. The other had three children during her first marriage, but two refuse any contact with her. In the 60’s, it was achingly hard to live in the shadows.
Not all cross dressers became women, some feared the painful and expensive operations. Others preferred to be men in a binary world. But trying to assimilate in a world that punished them for who they were came at a high cost. One man hated himself so much that his daughter reported that he was a moody, self-loathing, cruel father and husband.
Today, some people are trying to bring back those times; banning books, protesting a male library clerk wearing makeup, putting in anti-LBGTQ+ laws, allowing shops to discriminate, and boycotting businesses that feature an LBGTQ+ character in their advertising. To date, there are over 650 new proposed laws that qualify as anti-LBGTQ+, many target transgender youths. In 19 states there are bans on trans youths participating in school sports. In 7 states, trans students are not allowed to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.
Why? Because these people don’t want their children exposed to them, or maybe they are even afraid of the LGBTQ+ community. They learned the lessons of integration. Exposure = acceptance.
Netflix has a series called Glamorous. The lead character, Marco, wears makeup, earrings, crop tops, jeans, and heels. It is a story of how he learns to negotiate the world and maintain his identity. In the beginning, I found his appearance a little unsettling. But by the middle of the series, when he stopped wearing makeup to appease his boyfriend, I began thinking how he didn’t look as cute without his makeup and heels. I wanted him to return to his style. That is what exposure does. (Note: the actor, Miss Benny, has since come out as a transgender woman.)
Some of the opponents of the LBGTQ+ community are Christian fundamentalists. As a Christian myself, it frustrates me when people use Christianity to punish people who are different. The Bible has over 50 references admonishing adultery, even banning adultery in the commandments. Yet, there are only 7 references to homosexuality. Which does the Bible think is more important?
Let’s face it, for all of us (myself included), the Bible is a “pick and choose” document. It tells stories of rape, slavery, polygamy, animal sacrifice, stealing a brother’s birthright, very restrictive dietary laws—and these are the good guys. Those behaviors are not acceptable today. So why decide that homosexuality is worse than say, adultery?
We know why. Adultery is something that we can relate to. We see someone who commits adultery as a good person who made a mistake (love the sinner, hate the sin). We know these people.
However, if these anti-LBGQ+ groups can keep a distance from the LGBTQ+ community, they can be comfortable legislating against them, and condemning their “sins” because they are “other.” Imagine if we had the same laws for adulterers that we are proposing against the LGBTQ+ community?
As a mother, I also understand. Some parents are convinced that these differences are a choice and are concerned that their sexually insecure teens might be influenced by exposure to the LBGTQ+ community. Science and personal histories prove that this is NOT a choice. We also have an example in our recent history that negates that hypothesis. I remember when gays and lesbians were banned from teaching; based on the fear that they would influence their students to become homosexual. That fear turned out to be just that, a completely groundless fear.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Kinsey Institute revealed that sexuality is not as set as some members of society want it to be. In fact, sexuality is fluid for a large number of people: many are interested only in the opposite sex, others are only attracted to their own sex, many are interested in both sexes, and some are born questioning their gender identity. The only thing that has changed since that time appears to be the ability to bring it out in the open.
And listening to the stories of those transgender women made me realize how overwhelming the trans urge was and how painful it was to keep it closeted. Those transgender women had to be willing to give up everything to live their lives without torment. And despite all of their losses, they knew that they didn’t really have a choice, at all, they were women.
Hearing their stories made it abundantly clear that if we continue down this path of putting people back in the closet, a lot of people will suffer.
Let’s not go back there.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.