As you know, I came out to myself at the age of 40, but I keep wondering if I should have known earlier in my life. I have asked many gay folks, “When did you know?” Most knew by the time they hit high school. So why didn’t I know then?
This question isn’t part of a straight person’s dialogue; they just know they’re straight. I was raised by two straight people, so I don’t remember any mention that we had the freedom to love anyone we wanted. I expected to marry a man and have kids — and that you were not to marry a woman. I did believe this and remember talking to friends about it when I was 25. I was already turning into a spinster — 25 and no kids, and not even dating!
I have talked to others that have known their whole lives. How did they know — and I didn’t?
Switching it off
When does the gay person become aware they are different from what is considered the norm? When do they figure out the “zing” that comes with attraction to a person of the same gender?
My coming out says I figured it out at 40, when I began questioning why I was still single. I have shared this with you before — it was that moment when the therapist asked if I had considered that I might be gay. She asked the right question to start my discovery into my true, unique self.
I have asked myself often: When did I “switch off” my gayness? I was not raised to believe I was unique, nor allowed to be gay.
Why did I not claim my differences? I wasn’t taught to embrace my differences. Because after all, I am wonderfully and uniquely made in God’s image.
I don’t remember hearing that I was unique. I don’t even remember if I knew any gay people or if they existed. I did hear that I needed to prepare myself for the world because it would be challenging. I had a role to play.
The underlying belief I was taught as a woman was that conformity would make my life easier. Songs like “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette were popular — but I didn’t realize how degrading I found that idea until years later. If your man is cheating on you, why should you have to stand by him? But that’s what they did in the ’60s when the song was popular.
How would I know?
Everyone has asked questions about their life and their decisions. We each ask “How do I know?” questions all the time. Some examples:
- How do I know I am in love?
- How do I know this is the right one?
- How do I know this is the profession I will enjoy the rest of my life?
- How do I know this sport is the sport I will enjoy playing the rest of my life?
- How do I know that this hobby is one I want to do, or is beneficial to who I am?
- How do I know I can preach?
- How do I know I am capable at writing letters home and sharing my feelings? (It ain’t easy.)
There are a lot of questions in this world we will ask ourselves. They change every day, every week and with each passing year. Life goals are set and changed as we find our niche in the world. Our parents try to prepare us for change and for the real-world problems we may encounter.
We don’t get to ask ourselves in an approving way why we love the same gender. We don’t get to ask ourselves why that feels so right.
For our generation, our mothers usually taught us how to clean, cook, and sew. Our fathers stereotypically taught us to defend ourselves, to shoot a rifle, hunt, fish, tend the lawn… how our cars work, and how to make repairs in our homes.
By the way, a fond memory I have of what we share: Dad showed us how to take pictures. He even showed us that we could take black-and-white pictures and also how to develop and print them. I must say, our parents made sure we knew lots that we could use later in life.
But they didn’t show us how to date, or how we would feel if we found someone that we liked a lot.
From uncomfortable to comfortable
So, did I have an experience in my past that turned on the “attraction meter” in my life?
I have one memory that should have given me a hint that I was gay: A girlfriend and I kissing while hidden away in her family’s motor home. I remember that she said her parents couldn’t know. It was in Ohio, so it was before we moved to Michigan the first time. I was around 10 maybe. Was this when I should have known I was lesbian? Or did her saying her mom couldn’t know scare me? I don’t know.
I do recall understanding that the whole idea of being close to a woman in any way was not good. Yet I honestly did not give being with a guy much thought at all.
I now know that I was uncomfortable with sharing a bed with another woman most of my life. I stayed at the edge of the bed when I had to share a bed. Nope, I did not suspect I was gay. I just didn’t like anyone touching me while I slept. It wasn’t even a thought that I might be a lesbian.
In college, I stayed in a female dorm. I liked that we had individual stalls for showers. But I do remember making sure I took an early shower before most of the women got up. I shared my dorm room with another woman, but we became friends and that was all. We each had our own beds, and it was just easier to maintain the look that I was heterosexual. I even dated men some.
After college I moved to the Chicago area, where being gay was still not on my radar. I wasn’t even dating. I didn’t want to date. I was concentrating on my career — a very acceptable excuse for a woman trying to get ahead. It was at a time when women were fighting for more rights — women’s liberation was in the air.
I got non-traditional jobs. I was the only female technician for an environmental company. Now, in hindsight, I consider those jobs were me being me — a butch lesbian.
Wonder why I didn’t know that? Of course, the message I was getting from society was completely in opposition to it, so I ignored my feelings.
Out and proud
I can’t say when I shut off my feelings, but at 40 I wanted them turned on. I wanted to date. I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted someone in my life who could be with me emotionally when things were bad (such as when our mother passed).
Now I know that I have been gay my whole life. I just didn’t know what to see or how to feel other than what I was told.
I liked looking at women. I loved the way they made me feel inside. I can think of times that if I had taken the clue and embraced who I was, how different things would have been.
My big takeaway from all these questions is this: I was always gay. I just didn’t have any examples in my life. It was assumed what I should be. I honestly didn’t know I could love a woman. People are denied what all the options are, all the possibilities.
However, now that I do know, I will never again shut down my feelings, thoughts or emotions around what it is to know myself, be comfortable with myself or affirm my life. Better late than never.
Love you bro.
The longtime Vicar of Education for Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta, Alyce Keener (she/her) has felt a twofold calling from an early age toward teaching and toward God. Her religious education started in earnest at her first vacation Bible school, which spurred the realization at a very young age of how important God and Jesus were in her life. She began to pray daily and later began studying the Bible in earnest in college, where she became involved with the Navigators, later taking classes at Moody Bible Institute. Born in Ohio, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Illinois, and was active in local churches, serving on a missions committee, helping develop a church library, leading educational programs and directing a young adults program.