Coming out is rarely easy. But if you grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line in the ’70s and ’80s, it was next to impossible. I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, where sweet tea, grits, church and manners were a normal part of our daily routine. You did what you were told and you finished it up with a “yes ma’am,” “no ma’am,” “yes sir” or “no sir.” Like when we were told, “homosexuality is wrong; it’s not agreeable with the Bible.”
“Yes ma’am… yes sir.”
These things have deep roots in the South. Like the thick, humid heat on a hot summer evening, they take hold and don’t dissolve or blow away that easily.
When I was growing up, the much-needed civil rights movement was still heavy in the Southern air, which left little room for another fight over social injustice. But by the time I got to college, more and more people were coming out of the closet. Gay rights affected everyone regardless of color or ethnicity, and we were slowly moving into this new era of sexual freedom.
But whispers, name-calling and finger-pointing still took place and I wasn’t brave enough to come out as a town crier for gay rights, so I latched onto a man and stuffed my lesbian desires away. I hid behind the façade I created that would slowly eat away at my heart and teach me who I was and whom I was not. I got married, had two children and buried myself in the love of taking care of a family while he was diligently studying medicine. We moved north during this demanding time where I learned that not all rules are set in stone and some are made to be broken.
After 16 years of keeping my mind in a straight marriage, I met a woman and she pulled me out again, but it was a closeted affair, and neither one of us were strong enough to break our families up and leave. My husband finished his internship and residency and we were headed back south. This was the perfect time to try to do a better job of hiding, but hiding is not easy. One lie leads to more lies and it becomes an exhausting spiral.
Two years after moving back to North Carolina and trying to save my safe straight life, I finally decided it was time to be true to myself. I asked for a divorce and dealt with the shattering pieces that fell one by one over a period of years as I came out. Everyone chooses to come out differently. Some come running out of the closet, kicking and screaming with their newfound freedom. Others slowly inch the door open with quiet cries. This was especially true for me and being back in the South didn’t help matters.
As I pushed the door open, there wasn’t a luau going on in my mind. It was more like a sailboat in the middle of a sea storm. Even after I was divorced, when I thought of discussing my sexual orientation with my sons, the churning in my stomach took away my voice in order to do what I thought was right — protect my sons from my gayness. In no way did I want to hurt my family by embarrassing them or putting a heavy burden on their shoulders to carry. I lost family members and friends, some for good and others for varying periods of time before they came back into my life.
There are things I can’t give up about the South, hence why I’m still here. I love the taste of honeysuckle or a blackberry right off the vine… cornbread, barbecue, cobbler, being thankful before eating, dogwood winters that I feel deep in my bones come springtime and yes, I do like saying “ma’am” and “sir” to show respect.
There are still what I call safe zones, and I’m lucky to live in one in Asheville, North Carolina. Venturing away from Asheville can bring more frowns, so I often remain anonymous when traveling elsewhere in the South. But I want to be able to say I love my wife or partner and not experience the short pauses or strange looks I often receive before the conversation continues. With that awkward pause, I begin to question: Are they on my side or the other side?
I realize that to change attitudes, we must make ourselves visible and teach people how to embrace our differences rather than misunderstand them out of fear. We’ve made some toddler steps toward acceptance, but there is still work to be done. Moving forward, I’m choosing to overcome fear and anger with love and understanding.
Author: Carrie Highley’s debut memoir Blue Apple Switchback (She Writes Press; June 7, 2016) chronicles her journey of coming to terms with her sexuality in the South as a mom, writer and cyclist.)