by Carole Fults
Mom escorted me into the emergency room and whispered, “You tell them what’s wrong with you. I don’t know how to explain it.”
A nurse showed us into an exam room and soon after an intern in a white jacket appeared. “What’s the problem?” he asked.
Ignorant of the word lesbian I said “I’m a homosexual.”
“But why are you here? That’s not a medical problem.”
My mother answered on my behalf.
“The psychiatrist I called said to bring her here and have her checked into the mental ward.”
“Well, I have to examine her first. I can’t just check her in.” He got out his stethoscope, took my pulse and blood pressure and shined his little flashlight into my eyes.
“Her eyes seem to bulge a bit too much. I’m going to check her thyroid,” and he left to call a nurse to draw my blood.
maybe it’s her thyroid
maybe it’s her other hormones
When he was gone Mom looked at me. “This might just be something as simple as a hormone problem,” she said. I was hoping she was right, but I didn’t think my eyeballs bulged.
My thyroid was fine so I was checked into the psychiatric ward of Hurley Hospital in Flint, Michigan.
It was 1968 and the Midwestern all girls’ Catholic college where I had been a freshman expelled me when they discovered I liked girls – an orientation shared by many of my classmates. Unfortunately, I did not share their finesse in keeping myself hidden. It was my first lesson about the value of the closet, and it would remain with me for a long time.
In 1968 homosexuality was considered a mental illness with its own International Classification of Diseases (ICD9) code – 302.0 – ego-dystonic sexual orientation. So I was mentally ill and being gay (I don’t recall this word being an option at the time) was a disease.
it might be how she was raised
maybe she was scared of her Dad
maybe she’s afraid of men in general
maybe she hates men
maybe she thinks she’s a man
maybe she wants to be a man
maybe she should have been a man
there is definitely something wrong with her
On the psych ward I was medicated as were the other patients. No one, in fact, was fully conscious. We were easier to handle that way.
I was there a full three weeks before the psychiatrist saw me. When he finally did come he gave me some Sodium Pentothal, a drug commonly known as “truth serum” which makes patients more compliant and talkative. It made me unconscious, so I don’t know what I said to him, but when I came to, he said I could go home in a week and see him in his office until a cure was achieved.
A week later I went home but Mom said I couldn’t live there – she was afraid of me. So I went to live with friends. I saw the psychiatrist for some months before deciding to lie and tell him I had a boyfriend I was in love with. He announced I was cured and wrote a note to the college saying I could return. The college responded that no one could be cured that quickly and they wanted a second opinion.
It takes a long time to cure a lesbian.
So off to another psychiatrist I went. A year later, this doctor also said I was cured – after I created yet another fictitious boyfriend. This time the college let me back in. I quickly returned to my old ways, but lived in a very deep dark hidden place, making sure I dated some guys and invented stories. I also carried on my romantic frolics with women while listening to Cris Williamson and Meg Christian. Their music may have saved my life.
Learning to live in the shadows did not come easily to me, but I was frightened enough to see the worth of the closet. If I didn’t volunteer information people usually assumed I was straight. But over time, the lies and subterfuges became increasingly burdensome and difficult to maintain. I gradually lost interest in maintaining a double life, becoming more involved with women and shunning the heterosexual life altogether.
In 1978 I moved far away to Florida so my mother and other family members wouldn’t know what I was doing and I could have some semblance of my own life.
I wish I could say I became a great fearless activist or even that I stopped being afraid, but I didn’t. The reflex for self-protection was too strong, although once away from family, I began searching out my tribe one lesbian at a time. First my house mate, then a girlfriend, then a new friend here and there – usually met at a bar or the local Metropolitan Community Church, a church founded by and for gay people. Eventually I had quite a clan of kin for support. I rarely confided my gayness to my straight friends.
She told her friends
one by one
her voice a slow persistent drip
eroding the face of hardened culture
creating a womb in the rocks of ages
where she could incubate,
cocoon her heart
prepare her soul
for the coming light
and when the light came
she returned to the world
for the miracle
someone else’s bravery had made.
When I moved to New York State in 1989 I found the Women’s Building in Albany as well as the Pride Center where the atmosphere among the gay population was one of celebration. They flaunted their uniqueness, their beauty, and their right to be. I began to join Pride Marches and attend art exhibits at the Center. I became more openly gay, although still nervous about being “out”.
I borrowed boldness from others and soon became as brazen as the rest. I went to Provincetown and experienced the joy of walking the streets while holding my partner’s hand.
Yes, things had changed since I left home. More gays were marching and acting politically. Straight people were becoming more tolerant. Some of my comrades, however, (of the male persuasion) were dying from AIDS. Matthew Shepard had been killed. Stonewall was a memory, 302.0 had been removed from the list of mental illnesses in the DSM. Gays were a huge presence at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Holly Near sang: “We are a proud and gentle people and we are singing, singing for our lives.”
When the Supreme Court threw out the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), I thought we had arrived at real legitimacy. For a few years now it has been a happy task to write “married” and my female spouse’s name on forms in the doctor’s office, something that once would have gotten me sent to a psychiatrist.
Surprisingly, my family changed and accepted my gayness and partner rather than lose my presence in their lives.
Since the recent election, however, I’m worried. Is the struggle for freedom, fought by so many brave people on my behalf, about to be invalidated? Will the times be rewound to fifty years ago?
I remind myself that the advancements in consciousness may not be as easily undone as legislation, for once consciousness has been raised I do not believe laws can repress it.
Now as I talk to young people about “being gay” I am both heartened and discouraged to see the almost blasé attitude many of them have about same sex relationships. To them it seems normal. My step daughter often says “I’ll just wait and see who I fall in love with.”
But many of the younger folks have no knowledge of the struggles their elders underwent just so the next generation could be cavalier about gender and romantic choices. I want them to know their history – the struggles, imprisonments, discriminations and deaths that were the stones walked upon to acquire our current freedom. Without knowing our history I wonder how they will defend it.
As for me, I will be in a silent closet no longer.