Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Someone Else’s Closet

Today the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional. Wow. I know some of you reading this out there are celebrating with me. Others of you are lamenting the decline of our country’s values. Some of you, perhaps, are ambivalent—it doesn’t really affect you, and you don’t have strong feelings one way or the other. Wherever you are on that spectrum, I meet you with respect, and even understanding. Coming from my own fundamentalist upbringing, I have intimate knowledge of the discourse and rhetoric that produces certain worldviews/faith beliefs. But for me, this move toward the recognition of *my* status as a real, human citizen of this nation, one who may be in the not-so-distant future entitled to all of the rights afforded to others…well, it’s a big freaking deal.

This topic was already on my radar to blog about because of the course of events in my life this past week. My Korean uncle, my mom’s only sibling, came to visit this week. So what? Well, I haven’t seen him in since high school, and he didn’t know until a few hours before he got on to the plane that I am a lesbian. Thinking about the many closets in my life, I remembered Eve Sedgwick’s discussion of coming out experience in Epistemology of the Closet. She writes that the coming out process isn’t a one step process; there’s always more than one closet in the life of a GLBT person. At this point in my life, I’ve opened all the closet doors that I have the keys to. My partner and I have been together for 13 years, and we have a beautiful 21-month-old little boy, so there really isn’t room in my life for secret lives or closet-living. Unfortunately, when other people are involved things get complicated.  How do you get out of someone else’s closet?

When I went into labor prematurely almost two years ago due to some serious health issues and gave birth to my son seven weeks early, my mother rushed from Korea to be with us. She visited my son with me in the Special Care Nursery; she cooked and cleaned; she held him when we came home so that I could sleep or shower. Of course she doled out lots of advice, too—some of it welcome, some of it not so welcome, but that’s what mothers are for, right? Our relationship had been strained for some time and it was the first time in a long time that she gave herself over to mothering me in the way that I needed her to and that I was able to open myself up to her to accept her gifts. When she came, however, she brought her closet with her. Upon telling my uncle, who lives in California, that she was here, he guessed that she’d come suddenly to the U.S. because I’d had a baby. She agonized about what to tell him. She even half-jokingly-but-not-really suggested that she might tell him that I’d had a drunken one-night stand and gotten knocked up. (That’s right, move over David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs. I’ve got plenty of complicated family angst and I’m not afraid to use it.)* But when he advised her to have me just “marry the guy if he was half-way decent” and offered to pay for the wedding, she simply told him that she didn’t know anything about the guy (which technically, I suppose, she doesn’t).

*Okay, that’s a lie. Actually, all of this truthiness makes me really nervous.

So this past week as we prepared for my uncle’s arrival, I asked my mom every few days to please tell my uncle about my sexuality and relationship status before he arrived. I’ve had too many unpleasant coming out experiences, and I really didn’t want to have to navigate one of those in my home with my son, niece and nephew in tow. Finally, just hours before he was set to board his plane, my mom called and talked to him. And he was just fine. In fact, it was the easiest coming out that I’ve had with family members thus far. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to heap any more stress or pressure on my mother. Maybe he just didn’t care. Whatever the reason, the experience was a far cry from the hypothetical scenario that my mother always claimed it would be: one laden with confusion, lack of acceptance, and disapproval. And just maybe, it was eye-opening for her, but probably not.

When it comes to my parents, there are lots of closets. Until very recently my grandmother didn’t know that she had another great-grandchild (and she only knows now because she can’t remember anything).  No one in my parents’ circles—friends, church people, etc.—know that I’m gay, that I have been in a loving relationship for over a decade OR that I have a son. With my mom, I’m working against religion and culture. And while, on the one hand, I understand where she’s coming from, it doesn’t change how incredibly infuriating, painful and frustrating it is to be rattling around in her closet alongside those other skeletons—shame, guilt, fear—that she’s hung up so neatly. My parents love my son, of this I’m sure. And they love my partner. But that love isn’t big enough to combat the rhetoric of judgment and shame that meets them daily in their lives…because this problem isn’t just a private or personal one. So many sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, etc. are locked in closets of someone else’s making; they are smothered by the closets of religiosity and “normative” discourse; they are stifled by the closets of nations that refuse to own them and acknowledge them. Too many have already lived fear-filled or unfulfilled existences there; too many have already died in those closets; too many have died because of those closets. In my house right now, there’s not a lot of room for forcing people out of their closets or demanding that I be let out of mine. But today, as the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, I hope that closet doors are swinging wide open, airing out the shame and fear, and making new space for dialogues about what love is, what family looks like, and what it means to be human.