I recently saw the documentary, Wish Me Away, about Chely Wright. It was as outstanding as her memoir, “Like Me.” She’s definitely among my list of heroines who bravely fight the good fight. My favorite quote was, “I came out because I have a public capital. And this is how I’m using it. This is not about my career, this is about I see a wrong and I have the chance to right it. And I’m just going to do my part.” While a lot of the story involves her music career, which is not something that I can relate to, I definitely felt “like her” remembering growing up as a lesbian in a conservative Midwestern town.
I grew up in a town that was sandwiched between the steel mills and Lake Michigan to the north, and corn fields for as far as the eye could see to the south and west. A major branch of the Conrail Railroad system that used to be known as the Lake Shore and Southern Michigan Railway passed right through my town. In fact, the small half ranch house that my family of six lived in was so close to the tracks, freight trains would rattle the windows as they passed by. When I close my eyes, I can still see the town’s water tower rising up like a giant over the perfectly flat Midwestern landscape. There isn’t anything like a Midwestern sky unobstructed by trees. It’s something to be able to see for miles and miles.
Among the things that I loved growing up in my town was the sense of community. Everyone knew everyone and people really did look out for each other. I remember this really older gentleman who lived in my neighborhood. The older he got, the more people checked in on him or brought him food. After a bad storm or something like that, my father would always go over to make sure the man was okay. About my dad, he was a “jack of all trades” kind of guy. He worked in the steel mill, drove a truck and sometimes did carpentry. My dad is the definition of working class Middle America and I admire him for that. The best time of year growing up was 4th of July. Everyone in town came out for the parade and the smell of burning charcoal on barbecue grills filled the air afterward. To this day, I still get weepy at parades and feel nostalgic for my childhood when I eat a grilled hotdog on the 4th of July.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist household. We never missed church. In the early days, before I realized that according to the “God” of my parents I was going to hell for being a lesbian, I actually liked church. Everybody seemed happy, we always got to sing songs, and on Sundays in the summer time we’d have lots to eat after the sermon thanks to the church ladies. I’ve yet to eat chicken and dumplings that taste as good. Our church sat at the edge of an enormous cornfield. In the Midwest, that means one that is hundreds to thousands of acres big. We’d run around after church playing hide and seek in those fields while the adults talked about whatever adults talked about in those days. They were the best times of my childhood. I felt loved, secure and confident about how the world was supposed to work.
The rules in my town were simple. If I wanted to be a respected member of the community and go to heaven, all I had to do was be a good person, not tell lies, work hard, love god and take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Then the rug got pulled out from underneath me. There was an asterisk to that. If you’re gay, none of those things mattered according to my town, family and church. That was a deal breaker for them. It was a pretty shattering moment for a kid. My world had been built on my town, family and church. It was the ultimate betrayal to be loved and then hated for no other reason than that I was gay. I did the only thing I could. When I was old enough, I ran away to the military and found my new salvation in being who I was meant to be and who god made me to be. I’ll save that story though for another day because it’s not entirely simple.
I’m still working on being able to forgive the betrayal. A positive path that I’ve found to get there is to live such that my heart is open to being able to see the good through the bad. I have to give credit where credit is due. I still believe in those essential rules of humanity that I learned from my town, family and church, be a good person, don’t tell lies, work hard and take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. But, I’ve found “god” and heaven in other places than inside the walls of a church being lectured to by an angry preacher who has yet to fully comprehend what it means to be a good person. Goodness doesn’t come from a particular church, town or part of the country. It comes from the heart. My spirituality is as strong as ever, and I’m proud to be a lesbian daughter of working class Middle America, with its worts and all. No one can take that from me. Peace.