Recently, my blogami, Marc, posted an entry that touched me deeply entitled, “Strong Black Women I Have Known.” It is an honest exploration of a moment of clarity, when he internalized one of life’s best truths, that people are people, regardless of seeming external differences such as race. In response to my comment left in his blog, Marc stated that he “… would be intrigued to know when a black woman from your time and place first became aware of gay people, and what inner hoops (if any) you had to jump through to get to comfort and acceptance….”
It’s a good topic and one that I think is particularly appropriate as we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, a man who challenged us all to evaluate people based only on the content of their character. I will be participating in a celebration for Dr. King’s life tomorrow afternoon. My sister’s husband, Bobby Moody, an accomplished musician, is playing sax as a part of a performance that is part music and part spoken word. The director of the program needed someone to recite Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and my brother-in-law volunteered me for the gig. We had a rehearsal today, and as I recited the familiar words, I felt a sense of exuberance and connection with humankind that infused me with joy.
I didn’t know that I knew any gay people when I was a child. The word that people used was “funny.” I was a quiet child and managed to get away with a great deal of lurking about when adults were talking. I can recall hearing the grownups speaking cryptically about one of my cousins being funny. I was somewhat puzzled, as I didn’t see that cousin William was any funnier than my other cousins; he was really lousy at telling jokes.
By the time I was in ninth grade, I understood that some girls liked other girls. There were whispered rumors that our gym teacher was a lesbian. I didn’t know if she was, but I knew that she was my savior, encouraging me to do my best in gym class in spite of my rotund physique and general clumsiness. I wasn’t quite certain what lesbians did but I figured that it couldn’t be too bad because Mrs. Gilchrist was so nice. But I did know that it involved sex and that people thought that being a lesbian was unnatural. Knowing very little about sex of any sorts, I was still at the age where I thought that all sex was unnatural.
My first meaningful confrontation with the issue of sexual orientation came about because of my ninth grade French teacher. She was in her 20s and she was white. The student body at the school that I attended was still segregated but the faculty had been partially integrated in 1970, my first year in public school.
My mother had elected to send me to the Catholic mission school, St. Alphonsus, when she learned that the segregated grade school that I would have been assigned to was overcrowded, understaffed, and only offered a half day of education for elementary students. From kindergarten throough eighth grade I attended St. Alphonsus. The nuns that taught at the school, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, were all women of color, mostly African-American, one Cuban. I loved St. Alphonsus and I thrived there; it was with some trepidation that I began public school in 9th grade.
My French teacher, Ms. Foltz, was a lifesaver. She was a wonderful teacher and I had a natural affinity for acquiring the language. She took a personal interest in me and offered to take me on a visit to her alma mater, Salem College. The school was in Winston-Salem, about a three and a-half hours drive from where I lived and the trip involved an overnight stay. I was thrilled and went home to tell my mother of the invitation. I wasn’t prepared for my mother’s reaction. She was opposed to the trip and when my father came home, they discussed it in hushed tones. It was years later before I fully understood their concerns.
It was a convoluted mix centered on my parents’ estimation of my lack of value and their mistrust of any one who would be interested in me. They assumed that Ms. Foltz had nefarious intentions of a sexual nature; why else would she want to take me anywhere? My parents intimated that Ms. Foltz was “funny” and that it wasn’t proper for a young girl to go off with an adult woman who was not a relative for a weekend. They had no basis for this other than suspicion of her motives for wanting to do this kindness for me.
I don’t want to be unfair to my parents. They loved me then, as they do now, but in their world, no one did anything for you without wanting something in return. They couldn’t trust that this unknown white woman had a healthy interest in me, that she simply believed that I had some special potential that needed to be nurtured. The world that they lived in, had grown up in, was not a world where white people typically did anything to help black people. Ms. Foltz was both a stranger and in their eyes, strange,; they couldn’t imagine anything good in her intentions.
There was a happy ending of sorts. I had maintained my relationship with one a nun that had been one of my grade school teachers and I confided in her about my parents’ refusal to allow me to travel unaccompanied with Ms. Foltz. She volunteered to go with us, and so Ms. Foltz, Sister Assissi , and myself set off to explore Salem College. I didn’t end up going to college there but I learned a lot from the experience.
I don’t know if Ms. Gilchrist or Ms. Foltz was gay. It didn’t and it doesn’t matter. What I do know is that each of them gave me the nurturing that I was so desperately in need of at that time in my life. They made me feel special, as if I mattered. They were good people who reached out to a lonely, insecure girl and taught me that there was more to life than being pretty, thin, and popular. I don’t recall consciously deciding that sexual orientation was irrelevant when it came to whether or not people were good people. I just know that these two women gave me a sense of self that allowed me to grow into the person that I have become and that I love them for it.