It was Spring Break during my senior year in college. I’d just flown back from Portland, OR where I spent the week visiting my older brother and sister for the first time since they moved to the West Coast. We did lots of non-Midwest things to celebrate me being out of Chicago traffic for a few days. We went hiking, we climbed mountains. We raced the tide at the ocean. I told them I was gay. Everything went very well.
But now I was back in my hometown of Very-Small-and-Sometimes-Close-Minded, MI with my 13-year-old sister, Elizabeth, in the car. As of the trip to Portland, the rest of my family now knew about my being queer, and it was important to me that my youngest sister was also in the know. So I had to figure out how to talk about women.
You have to understand that I grew up in a conservative, religious, traditional household and similar town. Lots of pro-life bumper stickers and Christian churches. You couldn’t find a free condom within 15 miles because the best protection was, of course, abstinence. To this day, when I visit, I still have a hard time finding tempeh at any of the grocery stores. “Exotic” in our town was waking up one day and deciding to part your hair on the other side.
I think the first time I heard the word gay was in middle school, and I had to look it up in the dictionary. No one talked about queers. Between Elizabeth and I, we knew a total of one non-straight person in the whole city – a family friend who had cheated on her husband with a woman who was also cheating on her husband, and who had been wrongfully accused of child abuse and was now in prison. That was our entire exposure to the LGBT community. So homosexuality was not the most accepted term around my house. The conversations with my parents about being gay had been challenging enough, but now I had to explain myself to my kid sister? The one whose Sesame Street diapers I used to change? I was supposed to out myself to the girl who had shared bunk beds with me for five years?
Plus, Elizabeth and I are eight years apart. We’d never really been very close. At the time, we had almost nothing in common. She was the youngest of five kids, three of whom (myself included) had moved away to liberal cities and become atheist hippies. My parents sheltered her and babied her. My mom had actually politely suggested that I not tell Elizabeth about being queer because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to handle it. But I thought, “She’s my sister. We’re both girls here. She might not understand today but maybe she would later on.” And in the meantime, she was stuck in the car with me, so the worst that could happen would be that she jumps out of the car when I slow down at a red light.
But I had worried about this conversation for months. What if she hated me? What if she assumed all kinds of strange stereotypical things about me – like that I cheated on my partners and had AIDS and was going to chop off my hair and wear men’s boots – because her entire knowledge of the LGBT community was likely formed through watching clips of “Rent” on Youtube when no one was home? Or worse, what if she didn’t even care? I had experienced a variety of reactions from my family members, and I was tired of coming out so many times to so many people. My mom had cried, my uncle had made a joke, one of my brothers thought I was kidding and the other one took a long pull off a joint and said, “Righteous” before exhaling a stream of smoke. No one had been mad or anything. But I didn’t know what Elizabeth would think. Partially why this was so hard was because I was protective of her, too. Not in the same way as my parents; I didn’t want to protect her from anything different or non-traditional or exotic – I wanted her to know about those things. I saw so much of myself in her.
Up until college, nobody told me anything. It wasn’t until undergrad that I learned about divorce or sex or drugs or heard about sodomy or incest or gay people. I refused to let that happen to Elizabeth. I refused to let anyone say, “Oh, you’re so naïve” to her face. I had had enough of those moments to last her lifetime and mine.
My freshman year of undergrad, a few folks in my dorm began to tease me about my scarce knowledge of sex. When someone stumbled in from a late date night and wanted to share the gory details, someone would usually glance at me and give me a condescending look. “Earmuffs!” they would shout with a grin and place their hands over their ears, indicating that whatever was about to be said was too much for my innocent mind. I would like to say that the earmuffs joke was a silly freshman thing, but it lasted long after graduation. One afternoon, I remember an ex-girlfriend calling out “earmuffs!” to me before telling a roomful of our friends about a sexy night with an ex.
“Really?” I wanted to say. This was a girl I’d been sharing a bed with for six months and suddenly my chaste childhood deemed me unsuitable to hear about some old love. I hated the earmuffs.
And I hated the conversations I had in college where I’d realize here was yet another thing I knew nothing about. You could have asked me about algorithms, organic compounds, The Civil War, the AP Style Guide, The Beatles – I would have been 100% in the know. But threesomes, open marriages, male reproductive organs, queers, any and all slang for “vagina” – I was clueless.
I wondered if anyone else from my hometown was running into the same humiliation. Did others from my graduating high school class have to prove themselves to their dorm? I hated that I needed to grow up later than my undergrad friends, just because my hometown had more religious centers than out-of-the-closet gay people (not an exaggeration). I didn’t want that experience for Elizabeth.
So I did the logical thing that day during Spring Break: “Hey bud, want to come with me to JCPenny? I have to return a sweater.”
Elizabeth shrugged and got in the car.
Okay, this was it. We were alone and we could talk. Her and I. Sitting in the car. By ourselves. Just my sister and me. Bring it on! Let’s do this! Go for it…yep, go right ahead…any time now…
I kept psyching myself up to say something, but I didn’t know where to start. We talked about meaningless stuff. Suspenders. Food. Episodes of Boy Meets World. Her cross-country team. We joked about how funny the car smelled. Inside the store, I desperately looked around for help. Any magazines I could use to segue? Or photos of Ellen DeGeneres? See any ladies with short haircuts? And damn it, where’s a rainbow scarf when you need to jumpstart a coming out conversation with your little sister?! I finally returned the sweater and we got back in the car.
She looked so calm and sweet in the passenger seat. She was wearing this Superman t-shirt and was re-braiding her hair into a long braid off to one side. She looked peaceful, like nothing in the world bothered her. Why was I about to ruin that? Why? Maybe I wouldn’t say anything after all. You know, we didn’t really need to have this conversation right now. Today was not the day Elizabeth needed to know that Angela, the girl I kept bringing home with me, was not just someone I knew from Playwriting class. Maybe tomorrow we’d talk. Or next week. Or next year. Hell, we never had to have this talk.
Then Elizabeth reached over and turned on the radio.
“Oh I love this song!” she said and started drumming on the dashboard. I know absolutely nothing about pop culture and had never heard that song, but I wanted to be supportive. I started nodding along to the music in a way that I’m sure looked just like my mother when she’s trying to be cool.
Elizabeth glanced over and burst out laughing. “I love you, sometimes, you big weirdo.” She shook her head and hummed to the music.
“Only sometimes?” I asked, half joking.
She rolled her eyes. “Always,” she responded. “I love you always.”
“Even if I was a professional clown?” I asked. She nodded.
“Even if I stole all your money and bought a yacht?” She nodded.
“Even if I changed my name to ‘Harriet’ and went around sleeping under peoples’ porches and convincing myself that I was an international spy?”
She rolled her eyes and nodded. “I mean, I guess.”
I paused. “Even if Angela was more than a friend?”
She didn’t respond. We drove. I tried to play it cool, but really, I was panicking and trying quickly to backpedal, too flustered to come up with a punch line. Too much time had passed for me to make a joke. So I panicked some more. What should I say? Do I turn the radio station? Do I start reciting a poem? Do I pretend like I was quoting a movie? Oh my God, she hates me. This was a terrible idea. Run away! But Elizabeth finally looked over. And smiled.
“Yeah,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. “Yeah?” I asked. Was she responding to my question? Did she realize what I was asking her?
“Yeah.” She looked back at the road and we continued another few blocks in silence.
I cleared my throat. “Do you, um, have any questions or anything?”
“No,” she said. “You like her and she likes you, right? That seems pretty simple.”
I swerved the car a little bit from shock. Not a single person from my family had reacted that way. No one had just accepted the truth because it was the truth. I like Angela and she likes me – at the heart of it, that’s what I had tried to explain to everyone and no one recognized that. Of all the things I had expected from my sheltered 13-year-old sister, understanding was not at the top of my list. But she was the only one who got it. I looked over at her as she grinned this wide grin that looked so much like mine.
“Plus,” she continued, “Angela has great taste in music. You better be dating her.”
I burst out laughing. Somewhere along the way, I realized, I must have missed it. Somewhere in between moving to school and changing my career path and fighting with my parents and having my heart broken and coming out and realizing who I was, Elizabeth was doing the same. She was much taller now than before I left for college. She was dating this really amazing boy and was preparing for high school. She wasn’t the little girl from the bunk beds. Maybe she’d even avoid those dreaded earmuffs. Elizabeth had grown up. We both had.
We drove home in silence, sitting next to each other, grinning like idiots. And if any cars had passed us on the road that night and looked inside, they wouldn’t have seen two girls having a conversation; they would have seen two women, just enjoying one another’s company.
About the Writer
Catherine Smyka is a writer in Seattle. She is the Editor in chief of T(OUR) Magazine, and a freelance writer with The Stranger and elance.com. Catherine performs non-fiction narratives with Fresh Ground Stories and the national storytelling organization, The Moth. Her work has been published with NPR's WBEZ, The Q Review, This I Believe, and Firbolg Publishing. Look out for Catherine's upcoming memoir, The Rules of Being a Lesbian.