It’s International Women’s Day, and there are so many excellent letters from fathers and mothers to their daughters currently trending on the interwebs. Reading them, I realize how much of what I might say to our daughter reflects ME: my struggles, the lessons I’ve learned, the dreams I still have for myself.
Recently we visited with a young mom who is in the process of coming out, and struggling with her conservative faith background. It’s been twenty years (wow!) since I came out, and what I remember most is the fear. I was afraid I wouldn’t survive.
Like so many women of my generation, I excel at people-pleasing and self-negation and here-let-me-squish-myself-into-this-mold-to-make-you-love-me. I knew my desire for women was old, beginning at least as early as third grade. But I figured that everyone had those feelings, and we just ignored them, to do what the church told us to do. Also: I was terrified of losing God.
This blog has been a place where I say things I am not supposed to, a place where I challenge my self-censor. So I will tell you something that I don’t usually tell people, because it is painful and I am afraid you will judge me.
When I made the decision to come out, it wasn’t because I believed in a woman’s right to define her own sexuality. (I would, later, but I hadn’t yet found Marilyn Frye or Audre Lorde.) I was 19 years old.
When I came out, it was to save my life.
In December 1993, I was violently sexually assaulted by a man on the very long train ride from Los Angeles to Salem, Oregon. I didn’t fight back. I was tired. Also: I had lots of practice letting things happen to my body that I didn’t choose. I’d been trained in that, as surely as I’d been trained that girls like boys and men are stronger than women.
I was 19 years old, and I failed to protect myself. I was tired, so very tired, of letting things happen, of the shame and ick and scalding hot showers afterwards.
I knew that I was the only one who could protect myself. I had to claim my body as mine, as beloved and worth the work to defend and cherish.
Here is where I worry you will misunderstand: that you will think that I came out to avoid sexual violence. But I know (perhaps more than the average woman) that being with women doesn’t ensure safety. It wasn’t the gender of the perpetrator, it was me: something in me that I hadn’t been able to hold on to.
So I stepped out to figure out what it might mean to say NO. No, not just to violence, but no to all of it: to everyone’s expectations of who I should be and whom I should desire.
And as I did that, as I stood up for myself, it slowly stopped mattering what others expected or said about God’s ability to love me. Once I stood up for myself, I got to choose. What did I want? That I knew…had always known.
This isn’t a story I am ready to share with my daughter. Perhaps not for a long while, if ever. I want time – years and years – to teach her the good stuff before she learns about the violence, about the reasons we still need a Women’s Day, and feminism, and gender equality.
I want my daughter to learn that her body is hers and no one else’s…that her needs, feelings and desires are important and require no apology or sanction. I want her to be affirmed of what she already knows: that she is beautiful beyond measure and worthy — to her soul’s core — of love and respect.
Writing this now, I realize that the stories I want to share with my daughter are the ones that I rarely celebrate: the day I signed the lease for my teeny first apartment, the outfit I chose for my first date with the woman who would become my wife, the summer I flew to St. Petersburg, Russia alone and backpacked through Eastern Europe solo for eight weeks. My first time preaching, the way my hands shook, and the way I knew — wholly and without question — that God, Holy Mystery, loves not only me but everybody (and my work might just be helping people to see that too).
On this Women’s Day, my wish is that our old stories of what we survived may fall away and the stories of how we thrive may rise up to shine — vibrant, courageous, and true.