VQ Comes Out: Polly Pagenhart

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailOur last VQ Comes Out installment closes out October and LGBT History month. It’s been quite a journey, with nine different stories. We all have come out in a huge variety of ways – slowly and painfully, quick and painlessly – yet with some fascinating commonalities.   Gathering them together here is  testament to  the power of out. Thanks for taking the journey with us. ~ The Editors


When did you come out (or how many times, if it’s been a multilayered process)?

I began having crushes on gals since playing on a girls’ softball team in my fifth through seventh grade years, but I was utterly oblivious about what all that internal torture meant. Also, unfortunately, none of these were returned, or at least not enough to penetrate my awareness. I also had a severely close relationship to a girl I will simply call “Darla” in sixth and seventh grade. But she dumped me as BFF without explanation in eighth grade (retroactively, I surmised that we were too close for her comfort). I was lonesome and love-lorn for a year. Again, without exactly getting why or adding it all up.


Nearly as excited about being one player away from #11 as I was holding my All Stars trophy.

I came out to myself, very slowly and painfully, over the course of the first year of my first relationship, my sophomore year in college. I really was not at all expecting or understanding that the feelings I was having for my best friend added up to: lesbian. And when I busted the proverbial move, I was still hugely uncertain whether or not she returned the same sorts of feelings for me, or simply conceded because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. It was a very murky time, and my first year in love was also riddled with enormous self-doubt and self-hatred. I was nineteen. It was the 1980s, and no lesbian was out in public culture except Martina Navritolova. Ellen, Rosie, kd: all deep in the closet, and only vibing to those of us whose gaydar went off. All our culture was utterly underground, and sub- at the time, invisible to the untutored eye, notably in this case mine, just one bridge away from the global queer epicenter in San Francisco.

I came out slowly to friends, and later to family. I would count as a second coming out the dawning of my understanding of my gendered self, in particular, my butch-of-center self. That operated on a parallel but not identical track as my understanding of my object choice, and it evolved much more slowly. (Effing with gender feels like a way more heinous crime than effing with object choice, if I were to hazard the risky game of comparison…) Ultimately, it took ten years into my adult selfhood to finally recognize and proudly acknowledge the complexity of being a gentlemanly gal.

What got you out?


NOT a mullett.

Who: Rebecca T. Ramirez, the above-mentioned best friend. She and I were the last remaining virgins we knew, when we met each other in college. We sat around the co-op where we lived and wondered aloud: “Huh. Everyone else went out with guys in high school, and here we are, scrappy tomboy athlete gals whom no one has ever asked on a date. Huh.” We spent a lot of time cocking our heads to the side and gazing off in the distance and wondering about that, going, “Huh. Funny.”

The summer before my best friend and I stopped being the Oldest Living Virgins we each knew, I had read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and it was a quiet revelation. I was so deeply compelled by Celie and Shug Avery’s relationship. That one could actually do this – two women, choose each other for lovers – just boggled my mind. I knew no out lesbians at the time I came out, and neither did my sweetie, so other than Alice Walker, it really was the sight-impaired leading the sight-impaired. Rubyfruit Jungle, the beacon that illuminated the path of many a ’70s and ’80s babydyke, came after we realized what we were up to. A hip straight friend took us to our first lesbo bar, Ollie’s, in Oakland, ol’ school butch-femme. Recall that in 1982 I hadn’t yet invented the internet, thus no Googling “why am I in love with my best friend?”

How long did the process take ’til you were out to family/ friends/ world?

Years. Becky and I were closeted to all around us for the whole first year we were together (we were together five-and-a-half years). Then one by one, we began to tell several friends who had spent their junior year abroad. I remember the first person I came out to was the woman who would eventually become my kids’ “special aunt”: her husband is our donor. It was 1984, she and I were on the Paris metro, and I was haltingly trying to tell her in French, since somehow that seemed easier. She had been sending letters throughout that year that seemed to be hinting enough about her own adventuring, and I felt she’d be supportive. She was deliriously so.

After friends came my sister, who was miffed that it took me so long to come out to her when she had known, so she said, before I even did (why yes, she’s my older sister, how can you guess?). My dad and mom came slower, though my dad had begun to try to hint at me that he’d be okay if I told him. My mom, less so. He had more of a point of personal experience, he obliquely indicated, from which to form an understanding of me. Though he still regarded it as a phase for like the first 20 years. I always attributed this to a combination of misogyny (who in their right mind would choose a woman over a man?) and presumption that I would follow the course he did, and regard (and repress) this element of myself as immature, incomplete. Rather than the opposite.

What’s easier about your life now that you’re out?

First I’ll note that “out,” to me, means not just publicly legible, but at peace with my gay self. And that has been priceless. Before I realized what was up with me, I felt oddly present-but-not-present, an imposter of sorts, a hanger-on at the edges of things. Dissolving the tension between my pretend self and my actual self pulled so much in focus. Even if that process was protracted and involved working through mass amounts of abstract, deeply internalized self-hatred in the process.

All that work to get out adds up to invaluable self-knowledge, very hard-won. I think most every out queer person has done work on themselves to get to the peace they’re at (presuming they’ve arrived at some peace). This sort of work bears fruit (pardon the pun) all over the place. I underestimate its power, and I realize only every so often, when I see its effect, that it sets most queer folk apart from their straight counterparts.

What’s harder?


No, I can think of something, give me a second.

OK: being so out, I basically know that most anyone else would know I’m a lesbian, and so when people are inexplicably rude to me, I officially never know whether they’re being random assholes or specific homophobes. Not that it would make a huge difference, I suppose. But that not knowing always gives such exchanges an undertone of paranoia to me.

How are you out in a whole new way with kids?

I’d been very out for a very long time before having kids – over 20 years – and had taken my hard-won ability to move in queer-only or queer-friendly spaces for granted. But with kids, you can’t be as selective: we go to the best playground or school or doctor or you name it because it’s the best such we can manage, and only sometimes do we have the luxury of factoring queer-friendliness into that. Queer onlyness comes in those special, rare times when we socialize with a group of other lesbian or queer parents. That’s sublime.

I also find, only intermittently (which makes it all the more striking when it happens), that parenthood can be an implicit heterosexualizer in the eyes of others. My gender presentation is fairly clearly legible as butchy, and  to me that implies I’m likely a lesbian, and therefore a lesbian parent, to others. But when I’m with the kids and not my partner, I find I can be naturalized as heterosexual, which floors me. One woman, in line at a café in Berkeley (Berkeley!) asked, “And what does your husband do?” I was speechless and my mind went blank for a moment, before I said “I’m the husband, but my female partner is a theater director.”

Finally, I had to re-think the coming and being out process from the vantage point of my kids, and what I could imagine their emotional needs would be around my (and by extension then their) outness. But when you remove shame from the picture, and allow the young people’s curiosity and comfort level to become your guides, it all gets a whole lot simpler.

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  1. That, my friend, is a mullet.

  2. The dread 8am school bell. Kickin’ our arses since Kindergarten.

  3. Love this. Thank you for capturing what it was like to be coming to an awareness of babydykedom in the 80s. Man, we really had so little representation. So, so different. All hail Martina! And your epic hair. I don’t think it’s a mullet though. I’m going with “Shag.”

  4. Pingback: Hey, folks, I’m a lesbian! | Lesbian Dad

  5. Mullet/Shag whatever. It’s that beautiful calming face that makes everyone around Polly, feel like they count. You are one in a million, and I’m so lucky to know you.

  6. Having never experienced the queer-onlyness you mention, I just do my best to find the queer-friendliness when it comes to doing things with the kids (doctors, schools, activities). That has definitely been an interesting part of the whole coming out process for me, especially since when they were babies I was married to the kids’ dad. Talk about two totally different experiences.

    Thank you Polly for sharing your story with us!

  7. In BERKELEY?! Also: How could anyone be rude to you ever? Your niceness is like kryptonite to meanies!

  8. Since my partner and I are 13 years apart in age, people often suppose we are three generations when we’re with our kids. This of course, freaks me out on every possible level.

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