Advice / Life

Dear Ms. Radcliffe: Coming out in the Bible Belt

Gay Cowboys

Dear Ms. Radcliffe,

We used to live in Boston, but recently had to relocate to a small town in the Midwest for my job. We have a five-year-old son. My husband and I have been fighting since we arrived about how out we should be. He thinks that, for our son’s benefit, we should be out there holding hands and telling everyone we’re gay. I maintain that, for our son’s benefit, we should be a bit less in everyone’s face so that he doesn’t have to be confronted daily with negativity. He is starting kindergarten in a few weeks and my husband is planning to make sure every parent there knows our son has two daddies. Help!

Signed,

Arguing in Arkansas


Dear Arguing,

First, take a deep breath. Then give each other a hug. You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and it’s scary. Moving across the country, especially with a child, would be stressful enough, but you’re also both experiencing crazy culture shock. It’s all too easy to let stress divide us, which is why it’s so critical to be vigilant about listening to each other and empathizing.

You both have points worth hearing. But you also need to be able to fully interpret what is being said and understand the fear behind it.

Your husband, who probably left claw marks in Boston on his way out, does not want to surrender his identity in addition to his place of residence. No doubt, he worked hard to be an out-and-proud gay man and he doesn’t want to have to go back in the closet because you got a better job in the Bible belt. For some of us, being closeted feels like being erase and, in this case, it is the person closest to him, the person he most trusts with his personhood, who is asking him to make himself disappear.

You are scared, too. And with good reason. In a small town in Arkansas, not everyone is going to greet your ruby slippers with a smile and an invitation to brunch. You know that, tragically, violence against the LGBTQ community is still too common, and you fear that, somewhere in your new neighborhood, lurks the crazy homophobe who is going to target your family. Even scarier, it is your husband, the person closest to you, the person you most trust, who is advocating to put your family in harm’s way.

When we are afraid, we go to our most primitive place. It triggers our “fight or flight” instincts and, when pushed, we attack in order to defend. If you and your husband really try to understand the fears behind your positions, you can stop arguing about who is right and start coming up with a solution that works for both of you. Reassure your husband that you are not trying to shove him back in the closet or rob him of his hard-won identity. Tell him you love his passion and his pride, because, truth be told, it’s probably what attracted you to him in the first place. Tell him you understand what he’s afraid of. Then ask him to understand your fears and to reassure you that he isn’t throwing all caution to the wind, that he will be smart about being out, that he won’t engage the town’s biggest homophobe, who spends his days polishing his shotguns, in a debate about LGBTQ rights.

Next, it’s time to face an important fact: Now that you have a child, being out isn’t really a choice anymore—unless you plan to tell people that your wife died in childbirth and your husband is really your live-in manny. That may be a good premise for a 1980s sitcom, but it won’t wash in 21st century real life. People in town are going to know. Parents in your son’s kindergarten class are going to know. Although many of us learned early on in life how to hide in plain sight, that loveable little scamp you’re raising is your living Pride flag. You are two men and a baby, my friend. The jig, as they say, is up.

That being the case, you want to start teaching your son how to be proud of who he is. If you hide, he will learn to hide. This is where you may be forced to wrestle with your own internalized homophobia and stretch outside your comfort zone. When you and your son go to the grocery store and the friendly cashier asks you if you’re “giving mommy a break,” you need to be ready with your answer about his other dad. Because saying, “Mommy went to the liquor store and never came back” will be confusing to all parties. Show him how to respond casually, even playfully, but honestly. Those lessons will serve him well when he faces his own bullies on the playground.

Don’t feel you have to do this all on your own. Gays are everywhere, even in Arkansas, and connecting with others will help you feel less like trapped survivors on an island surrounded by swimming sharks. The Center for Artistic Revolution is a nonprofit LGBTQ organization in Little Rock. If you’re not within easy driving distance, send an email asking for resources and they may be able to connect you up with other LGBTQ folks in your area. It may be worth a day trip to meet with them and get some input from other Arkansans about how to put your best ruby slipper forward in your new town.

Most importantly, be kind to each other. You’re not really on opposite teams, although it may feel that way at times. You both want what’s best for your family. You just need to come together to achieve it.

FEATURE PHOTO CREDIT: VINTAGE GAY MEN

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One Comment

  1. I have anxiety sweat reading this. How is everyone faring?

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