Helen Bonser – Identity and Awareness

“It was like a knife going right through me.”

[Before my oldest daughter came out to me as lesbian in 1981, I had really no awareness of LGBT community matters.] In my family, we never talked about gay issues. I didn’t know what a lesbian was until I went to college and there they were living in the dorm. I was very shocked, but my roommate was a year older and wiser and explained to me that that was the way life is. [She said that] I shouldn’t go to the head of the dorm and complain or anything like that, that there are women who love women, and men who love men, and I should just get used to it. So, she was a big help. I’ve always been thankful for her. Really, I didn’t think much about it. It just wasn’t a part of our lives.

My daughter growing up was pretty much an androgynous kid. She loved to play with boys, play trucks and cars, and do the things the boys did. She was an active athlete. She also had girlfriends and played with girl toys some. We just thought of her as kind of a tomboy. When she was catcher on the baseball team, it was scary because she had that mask on and was always behind the bat. But we let her do all those things and just be herself. I still treated her the traditional way [young girls] were treated in my family: dressed her in girlie things, taught her the womanly arts just like I had been, and all of that. She went along with that. I remember she went to her first dance when she was in 6th grade with her little boyfriend upstairs. I’ve still got pictures of her and him going to the dance.

Then, as she matured, about the 7th grade, she rebelled against all the dresses and everything. I said, “It’s time to go school shopping.” And she said, “But we’re not going to shop for the same things we usually get. I’m going to wear jeans and work shirts”—those blue work shirts that the men wore. That was kind of the uniform for kids then. They had these wide leg jeans and these blue work [shirts]. We just bought a whole bunch of those, and that’s what she wore.

Then she was going to college at Eastern [Washington University] and working at Spokane Public Library. At the library she met—I think one of the maintenance crew—an older [woman], maybe 14 years older than her, named Annie.[1] I always gave Easter dinner at our house. [In 1981] my parents came, my brothers and sister came. The kids could always bring a friend. So, she brought Ann. I just noticed that day that there was something very different about their relationship. For one thing, Ann was very masculine-looking young woman. They sat side-by-side at our big dining room table. And the way they looked at each other . . . I think one of them had spinach on the tooth, so the other one got it off. It was very intimate, very different. I felt kind of uncomfortable about that relationship. When the other kids all ran off with their friends, Annie, Terri, and I stayed in the kitchen and had dessert. I think we were playing pinochle or something.

Then, finally everybody left and I went upstairs to bed. I woke up, for no good reason, after I’d been asleep for a little while. I could hear voices still from downstairs. I went to the top of the stairs, in this three-level house, and yelled down to the second level. I said, “Terri, is Annie still here?” And she said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, tell her to go home. I want to talk to you.” So, she did, and she came up. I said, “I want to know what’s going on with you and her.” We both tell the story a little differently, but Terri said, “No, you don’t.” [Laughs.] And I said, “Yes, I really do. I want to know what’s going on with your relationship.” She said, “No, you don’t,” again. And then, the third time [I asked] she said, “Well, I’m in love with her.”

I remember that what I felt was just fear. It was like a knife going right through me. I was so afraid of what would happen to her, because Spokane in 1981 . . . We had the John Birch Society out in Mead. There were no minorities to speak of. I worked for the city library and did the demographics. There was like 0.02 percent black people and stuff like that. . . . I was really scared of what would become of her. That’s the kind of questions I asked [her]. Well, all the stupid questions, and ignorant ones, too. I said, “What if you change your mind and later you marry a guy, and then you’re going to have to tell him you were in love with a woman?” I said exactly that. Or “maybe you’ll get over it. Maybe it’s a [phase].” These are the kinds of things parents always say at first.

I was really mostly afraid, and didn’t know where to turn or who to talk to. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anybody in my family, so I didn’t. I actually just kind of went in the closet and stayed there. Even in the library, where I worked, there weren’t any books about it. There was nothing in the 300 section, or anything about gay issues. I didn’t have anybody to talk to. Eventually did talk to [Terri’s father]. I think we went to breakfast or something, and I told him. And he said, “Oh, if she wants to be lesbian for a while, that’s okay. It’s probably just a phase.”

When my daughter came out to me, my dad was very upset. We had one gay cousin that we knew of, but he wasn’t well regarded for that in the family. Then, my stepmother’s family were totally condemning, and the religious right part—which is my brother and his family—were worse than condemning. They were judgmental, caused problems, and all of that.

But my mother’s family, . . . my Aunt Helen, the person I’m named after . . . We went to visit her in Arizona. I’m pretty much a truth teller, so, I thought, “I’m not going to hide anything, just because she’s in her 80s.” When we were talking about everything, I was open and honest. I said, “You know, my daughter, Terri, is gay.” And Aunt Helen corrected me. She said, “Do you mean she’s a lesbian?” I thought, “Well, where does this come from?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Well, that’s really wonderful.” I have all these movies about gay parents and everything. And [Aunt Helen] had one. I forget what it was called, but she had a whole little library of them. [She said,] “We should watch these together, in case you’re having any trouble.” . . . So, I think it wasn’t as unfamiliar a topic to that side of the family as I had thought, but I don’t know where that came from. That was nice—not to have somebody get all upset about it and everything.

After a while, I got really tired of being in the closet. I asked Terri, “Who can I talk to, to get my questions answered?” I had lots of questions. It was actually Ann, the woman that [Terri] was with. She was very wonderful and patient. We were spending a day out at Long Lake, I think it was. Terri went off in the boat with some people, and [Ann] just stayed and talked to me. She did tell me maybe books I could read, about the Court system,[2] and how gay people have their little underground—because here it was a very much an underground community, and she’d been involved in that. [Ann] did answer my questions and it helped a lot.

Then, the next year, in 1982, EMCC Church, the [Emmanuel] Metropolitan Community Church, started a church here. Austin Amerine was the pastor. Ann said, “You ought to go talk to him.” So, I did go talk to him. He knew of a lady named Katie Urbanek, who’d just moved to town and was going to be starting a PFLAG group. He’s the one that hooked the two of us together. But . . . my first public appearance out with gay people was in the church. I went to Easter Sunday services with Terri. That’s where I saw the most handsome, best smelling, best-dressed men I’d ever seen in Spokane. [Terri] still laughs to this day, because she said I kept asking her, “Are you sure they’re gay?” They were, but they were very dear, very friendly, and brought me cups of tea. Mothers, in those days, if they did show up at all, were very well received. People would compliment you for coming and for being there, and say they wished that I was their mother. Those things were very touching to me: very tender and kind of sad, because so many people were separated from their families. That was the beginning of my consciousness-raising about all of those issues.

[I wasn’t at the PFLAG meeting] in January [1984,] when it first started, but Katie and Harry [Urbanek], and their daughter Rebecca [Sinclair], were building the group, finding out where the parents of gay people were, and where the gay people were. It must’ve been a big job in this town. But in September I went to [the Urbaneks’] home, where they were having the meeting. It was hard to go up to the door. I went up there, and then I went back to my car. And then I went up there, and then I went back to my car. I was just still afraid. I had carried this fear for those three years about my daughter. It wasn’t unjustified. She had been treated badly, within our own family.

The third time I knocked on the door. When I came in, that’s when I found the parents [and also GLBT people]. That very first day when I sat on the couch, I cried and I said, “You know, I’m just so ashamed, because I’ve been an activist for civil rights and equal rights in every movement since I was a child, but in this one I was as ignorant and prejudice as all the other people that discriminated before on these other issues. I feel really badly about that.” The lady sitting next to me was a lesbian woman. She put her arms around me, hugged me, and said, “Well, you’re here now, and I wish you were my mother.” That was real, real special . . . that night.

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There’s one group I would like to mention that are still the least understood and the most struggling people of all, and that’s the transgendered people. They’re still living in the Dark Ages compared to gay and lesbian people now, because, when it comes to gender, I think the biggest fear of all that I’ve ever seen—and the biggest denial and the biggest, “Please, don’t talk about that kind of stuff,” is in the area of [trans]gender.

In the 1990s PFLAG became more aware of that and put out a whole book of materials that they had pulled together about our transgendered brothers, sisters, and family members, and encouraged all the groups to reach out to them. I got training in the ‘80s to work with them as a counselor. My master teacher was Rebecca Sinclair, the Urbaneks’ daughter, when I went to graduate school. She was my supervisor. Then she moved to go to Portland, so she left me. She said, “You’re going to find some of my clients different than the ones you’re used to working with, because I’ve been working with the transgendered people.” One day, one of them called me up and said, “Becky and I used to go to lunch together, so I could be dressed up and be safe with her.” I said, “Sure, I’ll go to lunch with you.” I got trained by them—the transgendered people themselves. They told me what books to read. They told me their stories over and over, and I learned their issues.

There was no other place to go for training. No school had gender issues or gender differences anywhere in their curriculum. It’s just, “We’re all men and women, and that’s all there is to it.” If you’re a hermaphrodite—which is the word they had for it then—or some kind of mixed gender, then [people thought] there’s something wrong with you. “These tranny people are just drag . . .” All the information was wrong. I learned from [them]. Some of the most wonderful, sweetest, bravest, dearest people I ever met are these transgendered people and their families.

I’ve gotten to be so privileged to watch them make a journey across the gender barrier. To see people come [to a counseling session] as a really uncomfortable man and end up a gorgeous woman! And see women come in all unhappy because they’re supposed to be boys, and end up as—I call them “my little men” [laughs]—because they’re not usually as tall. In fact, I used to always have them at my home when I lived in town.

My neighbors were wonderful, because the goings on in my house were different. They finally would ask, because they’d see these really dressed up [women]. You know, big hair and big shoulder pads. Or maybe the shoulders would show, and the high heels, and all this stuff. They’d just say, “Who are all those big [i.e., tall] women? [Laughs.] What are you doing in there?” So, I explained to them and educated them. “I work with transgendered people, and we’re helping them learn. They’re getting together to share their stories and share the resources in the community, so they can be more comfortable. This is part of my practice. This is what I do.” It was so much a part of our life. These people were running in and out of our house all the time.

It has been a wonderful experience to see. One of the things I get to do after I’ve seen them for a while is recommend them for hormone therapy. The minute that the brain and body get synchronized, I always open the door and I always see a different person. [Laughs.] I see a happy, smiling person with shining eyes.

 

[1]“Annie/Ann” is a pseudonym.

[2]Imperial Sovereign Court.

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Source: Interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 14 March 2013.