‘Do Ask, Do Tell’ (Stories from Gay Women)

Hetty Gingold introduced the program by saying that the silence concerning sexual preference bothers her, and she is delighted that WTB has decided to open a conversation about it. Hetty read our “safe place declaration,” which is particularly important as we discuss this very personal topic.

Hetty reviewed the recent history concerning homosexuality. Until 1973, the American Psychological Association defined homosexuality as a mental illness, even prescribing shock therapy to “cure” the “problem.” The military has recently repealed its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And marriage-equality acts are being debated in many forums.

To make our discussion clear, Hetty reviewed the terminology in common use:

      Sex is the scientific term for biological differences between males and females. Sex is identified typically at birth, on the basis of identifiable genitalia; but in the case of some babies, there are anomalies that make the determination difficult.

      Gender refers to the socially determined characteristics of each sex (such as hairstyles, use of makeup, gestures, etc.).

      Gender identity refers to how people perceive their own internal sense of maleness or femaleness. Thus, transgender persons feel that their birth sex does not match what they feel to be their true sex.

      Sexual orientation describes us in terms of whom we fall in love with or are sexually attracted to.

Hetty enumerated the aspects that all of us women want in our lives. First, we want to self-define our gender roles. We want to decide for ourselves whether we wear high heels, whether we’re tomboys, whether we prefer to wash dishes or mow the lawn, whether to be parents. Next, we want meaningful careers—and today, more options are open to women than ever before. Unfortunately, salaries of women are still lower than those of men. Women expect equal protection and equal rights, but these are frequently not granted to lesbian women. Gay partners were given legal visitation rights in hospitals only as recently as 2004. The marriage-equality act is stalled in New York State, effectively depriving homosexuals the legal benefits conferred by marriage: spousal insurance, joint tax filing, and Social Security and pension benefits, among many others. Married women are proudly identified by wedding rings and the title “Mrs.,” but homosexuals are expected to “Don’t Tell.” Recently, Florida overturned its anti-gay adoption law. Many churches shame or shun gay individuals who have grown up in their parishes. Although all women want support from family, friends, and community, the fact is that up to 65% of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) seniors live alone versus 33% of seniors in the general population. And recently, there have been at least six suicides of gay teens who were being harassed by their peers.

Hetty showed a YouTube video of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking against the bigotry and hatred that is sometimes directed against gay youth. Speaking specifically to these teens, she told them that, “Your life is important.” Ms. Clinton said that America is the story of people tearing down barriers against religious, ethnic, and racial minorities, against women, and now against LGBT individuals. Ms. Clinton urged teens to take heart from this country’s past progress and to have hope for their own futures.

Hetty explained that six women would tell their personal stories of coming of age and becoming comfortable with their lesbian orientation.

Rose Miller began, wiping her eyes after the moving YouTube video. She began by saying that she had found it hard to choose what story to tell today, because her identity as a lesbian ties into every part of her life. So she chose to tell a story she called “Loss and Religion.”  As a child, Rose lived with her grandfather, an Italian Catholic immigrant. At age five, Rose was enjoying pilgrimages to religious sites; at age seven, she kept a scrapbook about Pope Pius XII; at age 10, she was scrapbooking a new pope, John XXIII; at age 16, she worked in a Catholic hospital and attended mass six days a week.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, no TV shows had gays or lesbians, who were widely known as “perverts.” In her 20s, Rose fell in love with a woman and recognized a conflict with her religion. When she discussed her confusion with a priest, she was counseled to remain celibate and not to get involved with a woman. Rose felt rejected, but over the years she continued to try other churches and consult other priests. The Catholic prohibitions against homosexuality also caused alienation from her family, crossing generations. Although she had been very close to her nieces and nephews, they rejected her in the 1970s when they became aware of her sexual orientation. Her oldest nieces refused to see her, stating that accepting her would be sinful, and that her presence would be a bad influence on their children. Rose is heartbroken that she will never know these younger family members. One of her sisters visits her regularly but doesn’t want her friends to know that she has a lesbian sister. Rose’s brother prays for her.

Our next speaker was Suzanne Gilmour, who spoke about “Voice.” She asked us to raise our hands if our parents had high expectations for us. As most of us raised our hands, she traced the path that those expectations had put on her: primary school line leader, active Girl Scout, church youth leader, girls’ sports organizer. Suzanne described these accomplishments as giving voice to everyone in the groups she led—but no voice to her as a lesbian. She called this “human doing” rather than “human being.” She eventually had an impressive resume but no “personal side.” Her inner core had not been addressed, at least until she was much older.

Diane Johnson started by agreeing with Suzanne, that she too had been clueless about herself. She was in a convent for 7½ years, then married, had a daughter, then divorced. Finally she met Joan, with whom she had a loving relationship for 20 years, until Joan’s recent death. Diane recalled that in their early days together, she and Joan went to a party of homosexual people, most of them women. Although some of the women stood out as “lipstick dykes,” she realized that most of them were as average as she and Joan. More recently, Diane has attended Services Advocacy for LGBT Elders (SAGE) meetings, and again, most of the people she meets there are like herself. Diane explained that she had not planned this part of her life, but with Joan she found love and companionship that she had found nowhere else. She wishes for us that we all are partnered with someone we love.

Lois Needham described her upbringing as lower-class Irish Catholic. She had five sisters and was always different from the rest. She was blonde instead of dark-haired, wanted to play outdoors, hated dressing up, and for Christmas wanted a gun-and-holster set. She hated makeup, proms, and dates. Lois felt like a foreigner but didn’t have words to talk about her profound loneliness. In ninth grade she tried to kill herself at a school picnic. In the 1970s Lois self-medicated with alcohol and drugs.

A tenth-grade teacher who wore no makeup, wore a men’s sports jacket over her mandatory dress, and spoke and laughed loudly became a role model for Lois. She is not surprised that this teacher soon lost her job. When Lois was a senior in high school, she had her first girlfriend, a girl as confused and searching as Lois herself. Lois has now been with Rose for 16 years. She said her struggles have made her more compassionate. She is glad today’s LGBT kids have role models.

Kim Dill works at SAGE Upstate. As a kid she always felt lonely and had no guidance. In her early 20s she “came out,” but she knew of no organizations that she could turn to, wasn’t aware of anyone else who was gay, and knew her family and friends would not accept her once she “came out” as lesbian. When AIDS surfaced, hysteria and prejudice became rampant. Although as a child she knew that she wanted to have children, she let go of that idea because the ‘80s was not a good climate. Instead she became politically involved. In 1997 she met Amy, and they now have 2 children, an eight-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. Kim and Amy are proactive and open with teachers and other parents about their children having two moms. Happily, this has not been a problem.

Kim has been a director at SAGE Upstate for seven years. She explained that older LGBT individuals have been through many changes in the social climate and are less likely to have family support or children they can rely on. Although they lack these supports, they are less likely to reach out to services for fear they will be treated unfairly. SAGE Upstate offers support groups, health programs, education for providers, and social activities to help older LGBT people come together and create support networks.

Barbara Crawford is the straight mother of Kim’s partner, Amy. At the time her daughter revealed her sexual preference, Barb had been priding herself on being accepting. However, reality brought fear. People had always thought of Amy as a person who was fun to be with. Barb was concerned that no one would see “Amy” any more, but instead would just see her orientation. Barb went to the support group Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Barb explained that because parents don’t know how to discuss this issue either, it is widely agreed that, “When kids come out of the closet, the parents go in.” The support meetings were a blessing, because Barb met and talked with people that she wouldn’t have met otherwise. Barb said that formerly she was meek and quiet, but in support of her daughter she has become an outspoken activist. The family recognizes that the rights that most people take for granted are denied to Amy. When Amy’s sister, who is straight, was getting married, she was sad that Amy was not allowed to marry the person she loved. Amy has fewer rights than do her mother and her sister. Amy’s and Kim’s children also have fewer rights, including Social Security benefits if the “other” mother dies.

After our speakers finished, we broke into smaller groups to ask questions and continue the discussion. Dialogue was lively, concern was genuine, and laughter was frequent. At the end of our discussion time, we reconvened in a circle to sing a song, the chorus of which is,  “I see your true colors shining through…and that’s why I love you…” along with a video of Cindi Lauper.


American Academy of Pediatrics (http://www.aap.org)
American Psychological Association (http://www.apa.org
Empire State Pride Agenda (http://www.prideagenda.org
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (http://www.thetaskforce.org
PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) (http://www.pflagsyracuse.org
SAGE Upstate (Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Central New Yorkers as They Age) (http://www.sageupstate.org)

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