The Size of My Secrets
The president of the organization approached the podium and launched into reading the bio I had provided:
“I’d like to introduce Sarah Stevens, Executive Director at Lead(h)er. In 2016, Sarah left her career in corporate healthcare for work that better aligned with her sense of passion and purpose. She found that work in the startup nonprofit world ….”
Familiar as I was with my own story, I allowed my mind to wander, running through the presentation I was about to give. As he began approaching the final sentence, I pushed my chair away from the table and stood to take my place at the front of the room. However, I paused on my way to the microphone when I heard him write a different ending to the details I had prepared for him.
He finished my introduction by saying, “When she’s not making matches with Lead(h)er, you can find her practicing yoga or walking the streets of Rock Island where she lives with her husband and three children.”
Now, I have no idea if my face betrayed what was running through my mind, but if it did, then it was a definite “what the fuck” face.
My husband and three children? My bio didn’t say “husband”. It said “spouse” I hadn’t been a wife to a husband in over a decade. I am all the way out in every single circle that matters to me.
And it rattled me to be known that way. Or rather, to be known as something I’m not. I left that behind when I stopped swallowing the secrets that turned into this truth that had been trapped in me.
And funny thing about truth…. it tends to take up space wherever it lands. If it has center stage, it often roams freely and does no damage. Confine it and discover that it can suffocate a person with its weight. And, you see, I am far too familiar with feeling suffocated. I felt that way from the first time I kissed a girl when I was 13 and every day forward for 20 years, until the day I said it out loud:
“I’m not dating a ‘he’. I’m dating a ‘she’. I’m dating a girl. I am gay.”
At the time, my confession cost me more than I really imagined I could endure. One of the most trusted people in my life responded to my coming out by telling me it would be better if I had said I was dying.
Yes, that’s right.. DYING.
But before you start to slaughter that person on the altar of “who the fuck says something like that”, just know that she was only saying out loud what I had always been harboring inside of myself. I, too - and many other LGBTQ folks like me - believed it would be better to be dead than to be different. I mean wasn’t that how I ended up in the middle of this mid-life disclosure in the first place? I certainly knew the truth long before I said the truth, but to say it felt like death to me.
Until I said it. And then it felt like freedom. And I never really looked back.
The truth takes up space wherever it lands and from that day forward, I chose to let it roam pretty freely.
I am out in every space that matters to me. I hold my wife’s hand no matter where we’re walking. I am proud of the life we have created.
But then, from time to time, I find these pockets of people who still don’t know, who assume my straight-passing appearance means I must be straight, and inadvertently convert the word “spouse” to “husband” when they introduce me. And in an instant, I can find myself back in a place where I feel like I have a secret and the stakes are higher than I can handle.
Which isn’t true, of course. The stakes aren’t any higher than they were 10 seconds before anyone said anything about my martial status, but when you spent most of your life swallowing secrets that only seemed to expand in size, it can be tricky to remember that the truth is already outside of you.
And the truth is I am not a wife to a husband. I am a wife to a wife. I am a queer woman who loves women, but who also has an ex-husband, three teenage kids, a degree in Catholic theology, and a hell of a story about how I got here.
A story I fought hard to tell. But I’ve also begun to realize that it’s a story I still sometimes silence when I’m afraid of who might be listening.
Like when I write an intro for a professional presentation and fail to name my spouse as my wife.
Or when I pass on marching in Pride parades because that is an act so visible it cannot be undone.
Or when I pull my hand away from wife in public as we approach someone I used to know from the church of my childhood.
In small ways, I suppose I am still orchestrating an appearance that isn’t quite the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. I like that I’m straight-passing because it lets me choose the exact second a stranger gets in on the secret. I still find safety in the practice I’ve had with acting straight because it provides a bit of cover, allowing me to decide whether or not you deserve to know the truth about me. And worse than all of that is the reality that I couch my proclamation about being “out in every circle that matters” as if it’s about me asserting my own agency when it comes to disclosure.
It’s not. If I’m being honest, it’s actually a chicken-shit way of saying that there are still circles that scare me.
But since chicken-shit is just not the way I get things done these days, it’s time to tell a little truth. The truth is that there is no such thing as being “out in every circle that matters” because every circle matters. The ones that treat me kindly and the ones who question my competence because of who I love. The safe circles and the circles filled with friends from college who just might drop into my DMs with some platitude about my eternal salvation. They all matter. And not so much because of what they think about who I am, but because of what I think about who I am. I am tired of hustling for self-worth, adapting the story to suit the audience and providing a palatable version of the woman I’ve become. The whole story is the whole story, whether you find it appealing or not. And that applies both to my circles of safety and to every priest, youth minister, teacher, preacher, bigot, straight dude with an opinion about dykes, and member of my family who still thinks this is a phase. The story will not change.
The only change you will find here is to the size of my secrets.
Today is the last day of June, World Pride day, the final day during a month that is all about shrinking the size of secrets. During the days when I was deep in denial, I would roll my eyes in religious indignation at the queers who insisted on marching and making a spectacle of themselves. This is a hard secret for me to say today because “those queers” are … well, they’re me. And my wife. And my very best friends. And tons of people I love with my whole heart. And now I roll my eyes at the folks who don’t understand that Pride has nothing at all to do with making a spectacle.
Instead, it is about knowing that we are no longer willing to swallow our secrets. It is about knowing that the truth takes up space wherever it lands. It is about refusing to let it stay stuck on our insides for one moment more.
So, happy Pride to all of my people.
Wherever you are, whoever you are - gay or straight, ally or foe, my best friend or the person who is still praying that I will see the error of my ways - I hope that you’re able to shrink the size of your secrets today. I swear to you, freedom is waiting for all of us on the other side.