Standing Firm on Coming Out

March 27, 1994|By E. J. Graff

Not until I was standing in line at the produce market did the consequences of my domestic victory occur to me.

It had taken a long time to get Marilyn to agree to a joint account for groceries, relieving us of squabbles over who paid for the milk.

But as I approached the cash register, I realized that joint checking meant coming out to my grocer's. There it was, big as life on the check: Marilyn D. and Ellen Joan Graff. One address.

Queer.

But I'm funny about things like that. Funny stubborn. Once the thing was on the check, I sure wasn't going to back down.

So I'd leapt before I looked. I wasn't going to leap backward, no matter how much I sweated in the checkout line.

But Jim didn't even glance at the check before tucking it into the register. He's helped me pick out too many cantaloupes over the years to look at my checks anymore. In his mind I'm a "nice girl" who would never bounce a check. And he's right.

The next week, though, I had to go through the other line, run by the pinched-faced woman with the dyed black hair. She asked me to write my phone number on the check, grinning at the boy who stocks and bags. As if she hadn't taken my checks without question for years! I couldn't quite interpret their grins as snickers, but they were close.

Apparently, it was another example of what my friend Cynthia calls the double-bed principle of social change.

One night, on vacation in New Mexico, Marilyn and I drove for an hour through the desert looking for a motel. When we finally found one, Marilyn waited in the rental car. The man asked if we wanted one double bed or two. Not eager to spend an extra $10, I asked for one, nonsmoking.

To my astonishment, he began sputtering that he had to find his wife. He didn't know about nonsmoking. Wait, wait, wait.

I looked around the office stuffed with Easter lilies, 3-D postcards of the Blessed Virgin, an elaborately thorned cross, and a big window showing Marilyn in the car.

The wife was stern. She stared at me, then out the window at Marilyn. At me. At Marilyn. At me.

Heart pounding, I did my best nice-girl imitation. I asked what time Mass was at the local church. I joked about being out and about past 2 a.m., East Coast time.

After showing me the room, the wife dropped the key in my hand as if my skin were contagious -- that gesture of willed distance every despised minority knows by heart.

We barred the doors with chairs, beset by visions of vigilantes.

Like any lesbian or gay man, we know dozens of stories: The two women shot (one killed) while hiking the Appalachian Trail; the man in Maine thrown over the bridge by schoolboys; the two women killed on an Anguilla beach.

But nothing happened.

Later, I told our friends Cynthia and Joni about our adventure. Joni has been my inspiration ever since the time -- on a South Sea island untrafficked by Westerners -- she insisted that she and Cynthia be moved from a room with two single beds to one with a double, while Cynthia stood quaking in the lobby.

In our endless search for a house, Marilyn and I seem to be testing Cynthia's double-bed principle on every local real-estate agent.

As we talk numbers and sizes of rooms, we watch their eyes for that moment of understanding or discomfort. It doesn't arrive. They're not stupid, but they don't want to alienate our money.

Nor do we want to be the lighting rod for a neighbor's antagonisms. We tote up the Plymouth Voyagers and strollers as if we actually believe that having children means adhering to a right-wing Republican's definition of family values.

We know we're staring at the wrong clues. But buying a house may be more like joining the military than like buying cantaloupes -- you're stuck with the community you get.

I don't kid myself that my polite smile and reliable checking account will sway bigots disgusted by desires different from their own.

Change requires the whole range of participation -- lobbyists, activists, demonstration. Law without the living spirit of human agreement is dead ink on a page.

Maybe our moments of quietly, stubbornly being visible do add up. But it doesn't make those moments easy.

In my five years at my job, I've painstakingly examined each co-worker's face and conversations before allowing myself normal comments about my life, my housing search, my vacations -- topics that might bring up the need for a pronoun, or worse, the dreaded question, "Are you married?"

Some co-workers find a way to let me know they know. But publishing on this subject is like asking for one double bed: Who knows what the consequences will be?

But as I said, I'm funny that way. Funny stubborn. Once I had the idea, I couldn't back down. The more I ask for that double bed, the more it seems, I get to ask for it again.

E. J. GRAFF is a free-lance writer.

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