Coming Out Again at 71
An assignment to write 100 words for a virtual college reunion provoked reflection
I was disappointed when my 50-year college reunion was postponed because of the pandemic. I'd graduated from a small Catholic women's college in New Jersey and the class of 1970 was slated to be honored at the school's annual homecoming weekend.
Then I got a request from my alumni association asking me to describe my life since graduation — "Fifty Years in 100 Words" — an update that would go out to my classmates. Yikes! If I wanted them to know me now, I needed to come out again at 71 years old. Hard to believe that, at this age, I was still strategizing about the best way to come out. This process never ended.
I was surprisingly anxious. I didn't want to be censored, although maybe that was an unrealistic fear. After all, it was 2020. But this was a Catholic school where the homecoming always included a Mass at Rosary Hall. I did not recall ever seeing any same-sex marriage announcements in the alumni bulletin.
I did not recall ever seeing any same-sex marriage announcements in the alumni bulletin.
We were having a virtual reunion and creating this blurb was part of it. What did I want these women to know about me? I looked at the sample statements the alumni office sent us. One woman talked about how her Catholic faith had gotten her through the death of her husband. In other samples, people mentioned their careers or listed the names and ages of their children and grandchildren.
I had been single for over a decade and had no kids or grandkids. I was living alone, childfree and retired from teaching. What did my life add up to now?
I was no longer a practicing Catholic, although I had joined a social justice church that welcomes LGBTQ members. Unlike some of my classmates, I was not wealthy or a world traveler. I did not winter in Palm Beach and was not leaving an endowment to my alma mater.
Since I dated men during college, I definitely wanted my classmates to know I had become a card-carrying lesbian, although the ones I'd stayed in contact with already knew that; I'd hung out with a few of my sorority sisters 10 years ago at our 40th reunion, skipping the Mass at Rosary Hall.
After leaving the campus then, we had our private party at my friend's condo, eating delicious Italian food and drinking wine. We went through the yearbook laughing and regaling each other with stories. I felt comfortable with this small group of women.
But now, that information would be going out to everyone on the email list, including that super sarcastic blonde bully. I had to figure out the best way to work my queerness into my entry. No wonder I was nervous.
Everyone wanted their classmates to see them as a success; whether that meant producing books or babies, raising children or mentoring students. I didn't have any children, but I had grateful students who thanked me every semester.
My Life Summary as A Challenge
Many of my students were recent immigrants or first-generation Americans and the first in their family to attend college. I'd done important work in New York City for over 25 years. I helped my students improve their English and guided them through post-graduation plans. I encouraged them to become citizens and register to vote
I approached this impossible life summary as a challenge. I decided to start at 1975 when I came out and moved to New York; I felt like my independent adult life started then. I didn't include anything about post-college life in New Jersey in the early '70s. While many classmates married right after graduation and started families, I was living with roommates in a big house on a lake, playing guitar in a garage band and teaching high school English in my hometown.
Even if I'd wanted to, I could not say I was married and divorced because my 26-year lesbian relationship ended before same-sex marriage was legal. I did not miss the irony in that. I was left broke and broken-hearted, but I rebounded and created a happy life.
Like a modern queer version of "It's a Wonderful Life," I realized I was very lucky.
My religious parents were initially upset about my being gay. Yet both came around over the years, especially my widowed mother, who really helped me after the devastating breakup. No way to fit all that drama into 100 words.
Grateful for My Full Life
It seemed too obvious to state how my bachelor's degree in English gave me a good foundation for my careers as a writer and teacher. I mentioned my graduate degree and listed my two main jobs since I moved to New York City: teaching creative writing as an adjunct at NYU and teaching full-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
I proudly included that I'd published a queer memoir. (That was how I subtly got in the fact I'm gay.) I gave the title and noted that my book was available on Amazon (a not-so-subtle plug to buy it). If they wanted info about my personal life, they could read my memoir. I included my website. I ended by saying that I was grateful to live in Westbeth Artists Housing in Greenwich Village.
I proofread my thumbnail autobiography, did a word count (101 words) and hit send. Days later, I got the copy back from the alumni office staffer who is editing this project. My piece was running basically unchanged, under my name and college yearbook photo (which she loved). My attire captured the era.
In this black and white photo, I'm in the local park sitting on a rock. I'm wearing bell bottoms and a pea coat. I look very young. In 50 years, I'd come a long way from writing music reviews of Jefferson Airplane and Joni Mitchell for the college paper. Looking back, I found my calling while working on campus as student journalist in the late '60s.
Like a modern queer version of "It's a Wonderful Life," I realized I was very lucky. I had my health, good friends and a loving family. I had supportive colleagues and caring neighbors. I had a beautiful rent-stabilized loft in a lively artist community. I had a full life and felt grateful. I looked forward to reuniting with my classmates in 2021.