The balm of perspective

Memoirs from the evolution

M. G. Lord ’77  teaches memoir and science writing at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, Discover, and the New Yorker. Her most recent book is Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science.

1977 <i>Yale Banner</i>

1977 Yale Banner

M. G. Lord ’77 in her senior yearbook photo. View full image

Last summer, in the innocent months between California's recognition of gay marriage and the abrogation of it by Proposition 8, I watched many same-sex couples exchange vows. There was a lot of pressure in Los Angeles, where I live, to do so. Friends kept saying: to be gay and unmarried is the new smoking.

This was supposed to shame me, I think, because I am single. But secretly I was pleased -- having been pathetically inept at the old smoking. I tried it once at a college party. Wearing a black turtleneck, affecting coolness, I accidentally set the rug on fire.

I was not good at being gay back then, either. As a surf-hating, book-loving teenager in Southern California, I had not been prom queen material. But unlike boys in high school, Yale men found smart women sexy. And because I enjoyed this novelty, I spent my undergrad years as the belle of the heterosexual ball. In fact, when Libby Halstead ’00MBA asked if I would represent the 1970s on a panel at the GALA reunion, my first thought was: can't you do any better? I mean, I was married to a man for 14 years. Libby, however, assured me that "B" -- as in bisexual -- was part of the LGBT acronym, and my story was probably as emblematic as any.

In preparation for the panel, I made notes on cards. I envisioned a cerebral presentation, charting my odyssey from Roman Catholicism to secular humanism. I expected the other presentations to be dry and intellectual.

But they were heartfelt, and powerfully so.

As the first panelist invoked the cruel invisibility of gay life in the 1950s, I thought of Remembering Denny, a memoir by Calvin Trillin ’57 about a classmate who never lived up to his potential. Denny was the boy everybody thought would be elected president. As it happened, Denny was also gay, and he killed himself at age 55. This would have been sad, but Trillin makes it awful. He combs through Denny's gay past as if it were a locker of dirty gym clothes. For all its good intentions, the book was a homophobic horror. Yet thinking of it made me brave. I resolved to tell my story -- because I didn't want some well-meaning classmate writing it after my death.

I dropped my cards and told a roomful of strangers what had happened. I had not intended to fall in love with another woman in my early 20s. This was not part of my goal-driven game plan -- or, for that matter, hers. For all the feeling that had brought us together, a social stigma tore us apart. In the 1970s, this relationship was frowned upon. And just when we had achieved a sort of resolution, a few days before my 25th birthday, she was shot and killed in a random crime.

There is more to tell -- and someday I will tell it -- but the short version is this: I associated my sexuality with murder. I locked it away. This association, though, seemed almost a sign of the times. In 1978, Harvey Milk, an out gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was killed by a fellow supervisor who essentially got off by blaming processed sugar for his mood swing. Recoiling, I married a man who was kind enough to shepherd me through my grief -- but not so kind some years later when the marriage ended.

AIDS, of course, changed everything. In a world where "silence = death," people threw open closet doors. At the reunion, I learned how Yalies had defiantly proclaimed, "One in four, maybe more," and how "co-ed dorms," that controversy from the 1970s, had become quaint. The issue now, according to a transgendered recent grad on my panel, is "gender-free" dorms.

I soaked up this new Yale with awe, amazed by its diversity. Many attending the reunion were people of color, and 20 percent were women. No one followed the same path. Far from renouncing faith, a panel of religious professionals talked about "queering" it.

I wanted to observe everything, but I had to leave before the final dinner. I was most sad to miss remarks by Bruce Cohen ’83, producer of Milk, a poignant movie on the San Francisco supervisor. It had opened all my old wounds -- then healed them again, with the uncanny balm of perspective.

Thirty years ago, Harvey Milk fought Proposition 6 -- an amendment to the California constitution that would have banned gay people from teaching in the public schools. An amendment of outrageous bigotry. Not unlike the current Proposition 8, which I hope will soon be overturned. Because you never know: I may just want to give up smoking.  

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