From This Side

Ginny McReynolds

One of my favorite things to do on Sunday morning is to lie in bed with a tall cup of hot coffee and read the “Vows” section in the New York Times. I pore over the long stories that detail how the couple met and show pictures of them dancing at their wedding, but I’m just as fond of the short, direct pieces that give only the facts. When gay commitment ceremonies started appearing in “Vows,” they were the first stories I read. Now that same-sex marriage is legal in several states, I’m so fascinated by the meticulous descriptions of these unions that I hardly ever get to the regular, run-of-the-mill heterosexual nuptials anymore.

The first person I slept with was a woman. It was 1972 and I was 21 years old. When I started spending all of my free time with her, my mother asked me if I was gay. I dodged the question enough to let us both off the hook, but two years later, when I was in my first serious relationship, my parents had to accept the fact I would not be getting married and having kids. My mother couldn’t leave it at that, though. Unbeknownst to me, she cornered my sister-in-law and made her confirm her suspicions. When I dropped by a couple of hours later, she was bereft.

“You’re choosing such a hard road,” she said to me between sobs. Although I was sure she was at least a little worried about the bigotry I might encounter, I knew she was mostly in pain because of how my sexuality might reflect on her. I stuck with what she said she was feeling, explaining that I wasn’t really choosing this and that what made it hard was the fact that she was crying about it. I had known this would be her response, though—that I would somehow be in trouble for something I had done to her. It felt as if she was profoundly disappointed in me because of something I had no control over, like having blue eyes. Still, her reaction reinforced the underlying shame I’d felt for years.

“Everybody I care about knows and is fine with it,” I lied to her to reassure her, and she took temporary solace in my confidence. The true story was that I made it a point not to tell people who I worried would have a negative reaction, creating an insulated little world that felt comforting, but not exactly expansive. My partner at the time—and for the next decade we were together—didn’t even tell her own family directly. They always put us up in the same room when we came to visit, but no one ever said words like “gay,” “lesbian,” or even “partner.” When I looked in the mirror I didn’t feel instant shame because I was gay, but when I saw feminine, attractive women with “normal” lives, I felt a kind of remorse about which I could do nothing. I wanted so much to look like them, have the promise their lives seemed to hold, but nothing I did made me another person. It wasn’t like I could lose weight or change my hair—and believe me I tried both of those things just to see if it would make me feel more comfortable in my own skin. 

No matter what I did—from physical transformations to years of focusing on nothing but my career—that one big, immutable fact was there. I was gay. I would always have to be a little bit secretive about it, and I would forever be in a kind of second class socially. That’s how it felt to me, but I’ve known a lot of lesbians who didn’t see their lives in this way. Some were so angry about having to hide that they refused to. They proudly wore big belts and flannel shirts and pretty much said, “Fuck you.” As the saying went, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” But that wasn’t me any more than “passing” was them. I don’t know whether it was my chagrin or my introversion, but I was never interested in drawing that much attention to myself either way. What I could do, though, was just not think about it too much. Regular life took precedence over my worries and, in a kind of parallel universe—thanks to TV shows like “Will and Grace,” and real people like Ellen DeGeneres—being gay gradually got more acceptable. 

Now, almost thirty years after my first partner and I broke up, I am happily involved with someone else. I sat in awe and near-disbelief this fall as an entire room full of faculty and staff from my college cheered when another of my colleagues announced that I had gotten married this summer. Co-workers congratulated me for the rest of the day, almost as excited to know a gay person who had been allowed to get married as we had been to do it.

The outburst reminded me of the day in June when the Supreme Court opened the way. I was on a train to the Bay Area the morning of the announcement, and I followed the Internet as people started responding. As thrilled as I was at this development, I also felt kind of skeptical. Obviously, I hadn’t dreamed of getting married, because it never seemed possible. Jodi and I had had a commitment ceremony six years before but, when California opened a brief window later that year, we didn’t follow it with an actual wedding. However, when the window closed abruptly, we made our next vow: If gay marriage became legal again, we would do it.

As my friends started posting Facebook cheers for the Supreme Court that morning, I was filled with emotion, but all I could think to say was, “I never imagined this would happen in my lifetime.” That sounded so clichéd that I sat silent for a bit. Then, finally, I went on Facebook and posted this: “Jodi Adkins, will you marry me?” My Facebook timeline filled almost instantly with lovely and loving comments—including Jodi’s acceptance of my proposal. When we got married a month later, though, I still had a hard time believing it was okay.

My self-doubt after coming out was nothing compared to the shame I felt before I did. As a “tomboy” and then a teenager who had huge crushes on my female friends, the world of romance and relationships always seemed like forbidden territory. I saw no one who looked like me, and the boys I dated in high school were more like brothers. I occasionally found myself actually attracted to one, but most seemed flat and one-dimensional. It was girls and women who had interesting things to say, who held some kind of magic for me. It wasn’t until the summer of 1970, when I was nineteen, that I met some real lesbians who had come to speak to a sociology class I was taking. I wasn’t attracted to any of them, but I sized them up to see if I could imagine myself in their club. I could, and that made me very happy, but I still felt a fat slice of shame about being different from so many other “normal” people. 

I felt big and cumbersome and uncomfortable, and I always imagined I felt that way because I was gay. Years later, when I was teaching and working with 18- and 19-year-olds, I finally understood that most people grow up feeling uneasy and awkward. I had always attributed my discomfort to being gay and was sure I was stuck looking and feeling like the person who didn’t fit in, who wasn’t doing the “right” thing in the world and who would thus never have a good and happy life.

Today the pendulum has swung so far the other direction that I find myself at odds in a different way. At a party this weekend the heterosexual hostess was excited to introduce me and my friends to some other gay people, almost boastful about the bounty of lesbians at her birthday celebration. That day-long attention to my marriage at my college this fall still put me in the “odd person” category. The president of the Academic Senate also got married this summer and, though I’m sure people congratulated him on finding the girl of his dreams, the applause for my wedding was much bigger than for his.

To say that I am grateful that things have changed would be putting it mildly. In part, I’m happy just to be able to move on from this issue. Plus, I’m thrilled for all of the young women and men who get to take people of their same gender to the prom and can be themselves for the most part without feeling like they’re going to get in trouble with their mothers. Eventually, they may never know that there was a time when it wasn’t okay to be gay.

But when I see feminine women at the hair salon look enviously at the same very short haircut that used to elicit judgmental whispers, I’m discovering that fitting in is what I’ve really always wanted. I’d like to go unnoticed for a bit, somewhere in the middle of the group. I like it that I can stand with my hands in my pockets as often as I like and that I don’t have to occasionally wear a skirt to work as I made myself do in my early days of teaching. It’s just that I don’t need people to applaud about it. It’s funny to be on this side of things now, a place I really never thought I’d occupy. I’m happy here, for sure, but just not quite as comfortable yet as I hope I’ll someday be.

Author Portrait

Ginny McReynolds is a writer and educator in Sacramento, California. After nearly a thirty-year career as a teacher and a dean in the Los Rios Community College District, she will retire in June of this year. She is a student in the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College in Maryland (something she would have done forty years ago, had she been more confident and self-aware).