Valerie-Curtis-Newton-2_CreditJoanneDeGeneresOriginally presented on Saturday, May 17, at Rainbow Expansion Unit: Parts 1 and 2, our second event in THE ANGELS PROJECT, co-produced as part of Washington Ensemble Theatre’s Six Pack Series and Velocity Dance Center‘s Speakeasy Series.

My Two Closets

by Valerie Curtis-Newton

Before I get started. By show of hands, how many of you have ever seen that South Park episode in which Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet? I love that one. Hilarious, right? And something a lot of us can relate to. Closets. We all have them, right? I mean identity closets. Everybody has at least one and everyone claims to want out. There is even a website called “Empty Closets” coming out resources and a safe place to chat.

Like the closets we put our clothes in – identity closets seem to me to fall into two categories. They are either super organized, California closets neatly arranged and color-coded or they are like the exploding closets in cartoons. Bursting at the seams in a total jumble. Think about every comedy you’ve ever seen where the closet door gets opened and ton of crap comes crashing down on you. I think most of us hope that we can manage to get one of those California closets but end up standing in a ton of crap.

Me, I‘ve done a lot of closet stuffing in my life. You know, how they say that when you finally figure out that you’re queer everything in your past makes a kind of sense. It was sort of like that for me. Not that all of the clues weren’t there in the open all the time. I know now that I have been bi-sexual since before I had words for it. I mean… I wore chukka boots and a skully hat for two years. Hell, I played softball for Christ sakes. But I also liked shopping and makeup and flirting with boys. (And pining over girls.) So, my closet stuffing started pretty early. When you’re a bi-sexual, Christian, you spend a lot time trying to figure out where is safe, where you fit in, where your tribe is.

I remember when I was 12 I had these overwhelming simultaneous crushes on a boy named Michael Patterson and a girl named Aleta Crews. Michael Patterson was 12 too and lived in the house three down from mine on McGuire Air Force base. He had cocoa colored skin and the most beautiful hazel eyes. He was quiet and played sports and had bowlegs which for some reason really turned me on. All the kids in the neighborhood would gather at the park or on the quad to play. Usually, it was kickball or sometimes touch football. Mostly because the boys wanted to feel the girls up during the game. And I was the most athletic girl in the group. I could throw a ball with the best of them. But I digress.

Anyway, I was crazy for Michael Patterson and he didn’t know that I was even alive. (Which I found completely hard to believe. Cause if I’m honest, I stalked the poor boy. I staked out his locker. I stood near him at lunch. I would watch him and his dad playing catch in the front yard from behind the curtains of my bedroom window.) One day, I was sitting on my porch waiting for him to come home from baseball practice with his dad. Eyeing him as he passed. Hoping against hope that he would say “Hi”. He just gave me the nod. You know the one. Who the hell ever invented the nod? I’d really like someone to explain it to me sometime. Anyway, on this one day, Michael Patterson’s dad, who always said “Hello” to me, stopped and said. “You really like my son huh?” I was completely embarrassed. Wishing the ground would swallow me up, I nodded.

Then he said, “Well, if you want him to like you, you need to stop throwing the ball so good.” I told you the clues were there. But I was 12. I didn’t know that throwing the ball so well made me ineligible for Michael Patterson’s affections. And now I had a real dilemma. You see, I had to throw the ball well because my second crush, Aleta Crew played… you guessed it: Softball.

Now, Aleta Crews was the exact opposite of Michael Patterson. She was older, 15, and tall and blonde. Like Scandinavian blonde and she played shortstop and her double play move was a thing of beauty to behold. I’d watch her from the bench – not in an “I’d love to kiss you” kind of way, more in a “looking at you makes me smile” kind of way. I kept hoping she would smile back. But it was a lost cause – Aleta Crews had a boyfriend.

I never told anyone about my feelings for Aleta Crews. It didn’t seem right. So at night when I got home from practice – now this is a huge stepping out of the closet for me – I would sing show tunes – yes, show tunes – and put her name in them. My favorite was “Maria” from West Side Story. I would put the record on and sing at the top of my lungs “Aleta, I just met a girl named Aleta”. You laugh. Ok, but I can tell it is a laugh of recognition. You’re not fooling me. I know I’m not alone. Hey, I told you bi-sexual from the beginning.

As I got older the stuff in my bi-sexual closet changed. You see, I went from hiding my “I Like Girls” stuff to hiding my “I Like Boys” stuff when I discovered that Lesbians don’t like bisexuals. Some don’t even believe we exist – we’re apparently on the continuum on the path to lesbianism, or we are posers unwilling to give up heterosexual privilege. Promiscuous. Indecisive. Blah blah blah.

So as I moved into the Lesbian community I added the “I Like Boys” stuff to the “I Like Girls” stuff already in my cluttered identity closet. If there was a woman I wanted to date, it was sometimes easier not to mention the “I Like Boys” stuff too early. Always before sex but not usually on the first couple of dates.

How am I still in the bi-sexual closet? I think it’s because my wife and I have been together for 17 years, so folks make assumptions. I am with a woman in a monogamous relationship – that makes me a lesbian, right? No, actually it makes me faithful. Even my beloved struggled with this early on. When we first decided to be monogamous, she declared me a Lesbian – with more than a little relief. (If I were a lesbian, she wouldn’t have to break her pledge never to get involved with the dangerous, will-leave-you-for-a-man-one-day bisexual.) Anyway, when she clapped the L Word on me I said, “nope, still bi”. She said, “But you’re in a lesbian relationship so that makes you a lesbian.” So then, I had to break it down for her.

“Babe, I am a bi-sexual in a lesbian relationship. I live largely with in the lesbian community but I’m still bi-sexual.” The quizzical look on her face was kind of precious so I went on…. “You were in an interracial relationship for 4 years, right? Did that make you interracial? No, you were a black woman in an interracial relationship. Make sense.” She got it. Though I’m out to my wife and now all of you, most of time I just roll with the assumption that I’m a lesbian. After all there is nothing wrong with being a lesbian. I mean there are way worst things to be than a Lesbian…. like a Christian, for example.

DAMN, more stuff for the closet. Living in a time when the word Christian offends so people, this may be the toughest closet to navigate. A religious practice is supposed to bring you closer to god and the people, As an organized religion, Christianity is often strident and judgmental and flat-out mean. It’s no wonder that so many queer folks of faith are closeted. Church may just be the largest walk-in closet of them all. From pastors to deacons to choir directors to Sunday school teachers, church is full of queers.

It’s true of all churches to some degree but black church has it own special flair. Not just those men in yellow suits with matching shoes and hair fried died and laid the side. Or all those single women church secretaries with their – “roommates” – who sit together in the same pews next to each other for decades. I mean, come on, the gays are all up in the church. And why not, people go to church looking for their tribe. And many of us find it there. Often it’s no more dysfunctional than our families.

You know, before moving here to Seattle – 20 years ago, I contemplated going to seminary. I’m really not supposed to come out like this but…It’s true. I diligently went to bible study, prayed, fasted, preached, spoke in tongues and holy danced in the aisles. Yep, all of that. You’re not supposed to do or say any of that if you’re a woman or queer. After all, religion these days reeks of patriarchy and misogyny and homophobia, right?

In the church’s closet, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is in full effect. The telling comes at a very high price. When I got involved with my wife and moved out of the closet at church, I lost a lot of friends from the “faith community”, folks who “loved the sinner” but hated the sin. Who could no longer come to our house or have us at theirs. It was tough.

The other shoe is that when I say that I’m a Christian in the gay community, my queer family sometimes moves away just as fast. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. Then again what’s the point of running. I’m not a literalist or a fundamentalist. Yes, I believe in God. I believe in Christianity as a philosophy. I live in its contradictions and find comfort and wisdom and peace in it. In it’s mysticism, it’s rituals, it’s optimism, and it’s community. I believe in its call to be our highest, best selves. I believe in faith and kindness. But the fear of rejection in the church and in the world makes it too easy to stay silent. Overstuffing the closet.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a not great screenplay about a woman who leaves her husband for a woman and has a spiritual battle with her preacher father and in the penultimate scene on the script, as she is being driven out of church by her father’s preaching, she’s rescued by that “gay guy” in the yellow suit – the one brave out person in every church. He tells her, that God is with her; that he sent her to that place for a reason. He says, “In this moment, right now. You might feel lonely and beaten. But God is here for you. He brought us here to this place for a reason. Our being here means change can happen.” Change can happen. She finds the courage and peace to hold her place in the church as an out person.

So, that’s what I’m doing, trying to be brave enough to push open my closet doors. Out in the open is where all the good stuff is: all the laughter and the sharing, all the responsibility and the expectations, all the intimacy and the community. In the open is where all the love is. So, you know, maybe it’s not so awful when our closet doors burst open and the crap comes crashing down… And as crazy as it can look sometimes, here I am standing on my pile of crap: bisexual, Christian, and most importantly out.


Photo Credit: Joanne DeGeneres