L is for Lesbian #AtoZChallenge

WARNING: The first several paragraphs of this post rely heavily on “Gay on MV,” a personal history that I posted here in June 2015. This post, in keeping with my theme for the A to Z Challenge, focuses more on me as a writer.

On Changeover Weekend in 1985 I moved to Martha’s Vineyard from the lesbian-feminist community of Washington, D.C., where I’d been active for eight years. People kept asking if I’d ever been married and whether I had kids. I’d never been asked these questions before.

Having been active and visible in a lesbian community for eight years, four of them working in a feminist bookstore, I rarely had to come out. My surroundings did it for me. I quickly discovered that it was hard to say “No, I’m a lesbian,” and it got harder the more obvious it became that this made a lot of people nervous.

The word “lesbian” was never said out loud, even by lesbians. Especially by lesbians: why would anyone say “lesbian” out loud unless they were one? Instead we said “the L-word,” long before there was a TV show of that name. Or used the ASL sign for L.

Naturally I gravitated to people who didn’t seem uneasy, and it seemed they were gravitating to me. This took a while, and required a re-orientation of my perceptions and assumptions. In D.C. I’d been lulled into the belief that “lesbian” and “feminist” were practically synonymous.

Ha ha ha. Wrong. Very few of the lesbians I met had heard of Adrienne Rich or Judy Grahn or Audre Lorde or Cris Williamson or Pat Parker. The ones who had were all straight feminists. They were the ones I wound up hanging with. Most of them were divorced, or the men in their lives stayed at a safe distance. When we hung out together, we were all single women with no men in sight.

The lesbian thing did, however, matter. I was recognized and recruited PDQ into island theater by the late Mary Payne (1932–1996). Island theater was like theater in most other places: a veritable hotbed of misfits and nonconformists, gay, lesbian, straight, both/and, and neither/nor. My people. Whew.

Having little personal experience of “the closet,” I was fascinated by closet dynamics. What I said out loud was very much influenced by the vibes I was getting from those around me. If someone seemed uncomfortable, they didn’t have to say so; instinctively I tailored my words to put them at ease.

My fascination was not shared by the editors of the lesbian-feminist publications I had written for. When I pitched a personal essay dealing with the challenges of coming out in a small town, the general response was that coming out was old news. (Now you see where the primary plot thread of Mud of the Place came from!)

In the winter of 1985/86, I was already beginning to realize that I was in between, belonging neither in the place I’d left nor in the one I’d arrived at. Out of that came this poem:

The Home Planet Vanishes

You left slowly, watching the world grow small
in the viewport. Children, poets, gathered there
wondering, as seasoned travelers never did.

It’s different now. Ships jump and planets fall
away. Remember the otherwhen and where
you left slowly, watching the world grow small?

In that once-upon-a-time you were a kid,
your parents up front, too involved to stare
in wonder. The seasoned travelers never did.

Then, safe return was not assured. Leaving called
for adult calm. They talked of work, fought nightmare,
left you, slowly, watching the world grow small.

Too young to know of danger, they thought. Doors slid
shut behind them. You weren’t. You knew, yet you stared
wondering, as seasoned travelers never did.

You dreamed. By minutes, by years, one by one, all
of us off-planet stopped recalling home, where
we’d left, slowly watching the world grow small.

An instant came when none remembered. The ball
vanished. No thoughts would call it back. No where
to leave slowly, watching the world grow small,
wondering, as seasoned travelers never did.

 

*****

One of ILGA’s two T-shirts: “No man is an Island Lesbian (and Gay Association of Martha’s Vineyard),” which for a very long time I only wore off-island.

In the early to mid 1990s, once Martha’s Vineyard finally discovered HIV/AIDS, hostility to “homosexuals” went public. I and quite a few others got braver. A full 26 of us, roughly half men and half women, came together to form the Island Lesbian and Gay Association. We got ourselves listed in the phone book; I was the female contact person.

It was around that time that the first inkling of Mud of the Place took root, in the form of a story called “Deer Out of Season,” which with some alterations became the backstory for Mud. Even as an outsider with nothing to lose, I had experienced and given in to the unspoken pressure not to rock the boat, not to unsettle anyone unnecessarily — and to set the bar for “necessary” very, very high. What then of someone who had everything to lose? A guy with a close-knit, conservative family, whose relatives and neighbors might have been among those declaring at public meetings and in letters to the editor that AIDS was God’s scourge of the homosexuals?

That’s where Jay Segredo came from. He manages to lead a double life — activist social worker off-island who doesn’t make a secret of being gay; local boy who made good whenever he comes home — until his father’s terminal illness brings him back to the island to live.

No spoilers here, but I will say that protagonist Shannon, the friend that Jay sometimes wishes would go away, plays a key role. I’m a Shannon wannabe. She’s braver and far more integrated into island life than I ever was or will be. But I’m the one who tells the story.

 

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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3 Responses to L is for Lesbian #AtoZChallenge

  1. Such a beautiful poem! And such an interesting life you have led (and continue to lead)! You are an inspiration…I am so glad we are finally moving out of the darkness with these “issues”… People deserve to live their lives pursuing love and happiness where ever they find it. And the last I heard, God does not make mistakes, but challenges for the rest of us to navigate…

    Like

  2. You rock! That’s all I can say when I read this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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