Carolyn L. Sherer’s photo exhibit of lesbian families in the Deep South really struck a chord with me. The photos are powerful in their own right, especially the ones where the women are facing away from the camera. But one photo in particular stopped me in my tracks and immediately transported me back to Jackson, Mississippi in the late ‘80s.
I was 24 years old and had just taken a job at The Clarion-Ledger. I had only been out of college for a year so I had no money and no resume, and had moved back in with my parents to save money for my own place. I’d spent my childhood in Mississippi, but not in Jackson, so I moved there to take this job not knowing anyone.
But this blog post isn’t about first jobs, it’s about coming out in the Deep South. We aren’t all lucky enough to choose our coming out scenario. I certainly didn’t get to choose mine.
I was still involved with a woman I’d met in college who’d taken a job in Boston. So as soon as I had saved enough for a plane ticket I flew there for a weekend to see her. While I was away my mother went through the drawers in my dresser and unearthed some letters from my girlfriend that I thought I’d hidden well. As it turns out, an underwear drawer is not as secure as one might assume.
My parents called me in Boston, told me they’d read the letters and demanded I come home immediately. Well, the weekend was ruined. But I decided to remain in Boston for the weekend and return home not knowing what to expect.
I definitely wasn’t ready to talk to my parents about being gay. I wasn’t even sure I had sorted out my own feelings about being gay. How could I be expected to defend a position I didn’t fully understand myself? But ready or not, I had to defend it.
As horrible as coming out experiences go, mine wasn’t the worst. My parents didn’t throw me out. However, after the initial intense conversations and arguments about it they pretty much gave me the silent treatment for about six years. Surprisingly, my father was better able to discuss things rationally, and he tried in his own way to understand. I think my mother was grieving a future she’d envisioned for me that she thought she’d lost.
The reason Sherer’s photos brought this all back to me with lightning speed and clarity is because one of her photos features a member of the clergy. This photo reminds me of the woman who may have very well saved my life. Having just moved to Jackson I had no support system, no one to talk with and my girlfriend was having a crisis of her own. Plus, it wasn’t as if we could afford a long-distance phone bill, and I wasn’t able to call from home.
In my darkest hours of loneliness and confusion, I remembered something from my college campus experience. I remembered that the Metropolitan Community Church had gay members and even gay clergy. I ended up finding out there was an MCC congregation in Jackson and I cold called their minister. She agreed to meet with me after work one night.
I was extremely nervous. I’d never talked with a stranger about being gay. I was emotionally raw from the past few weeks with my parents and the estranged relationship I now had with my girlfriend. I was a certified mess.
This woman was amazing. She basically talked me down from the ledge. She was calm and comfortable in her own skin. She thoughtfully responded to every question I had with compassion. She was the 1980’s embodiment of the “It Gets Better” campaign.
I wish I could remember everything she said. She was able to make me feel like a whole person. She made me believe I had a future. She was the light at the end of the tunnel and from that point forward everything changed for me. After speaking with her I knew I was not alone and that made all the difference.
Thank you, Carolyn L. Sherer, for your photos. It’s good to remember how far some of us have traveled in our lives. It’s also good to clothe ourselves with empathy for those who have yet to break free. Their journey is unfinished. They need our friendship and support.
Stay strong. Change is coming.