by Sarah Rutledge Fischer
These are not the coming out stories of adolescence and youth, full of parental disapproval and schoolyard bullying. These are stories of grown women confronting their sexuality in the midst of careers, heterosexual marriages, and families.
In 2010, a book called Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women, edited by Candace Walsh and Laura André hit the LGBT literary scene. The collection of essays was met with great success and even managed to snag a nomination for the Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Nonfiction. Now, in a second book titled Greetings from Janeland: Women Write More About Leaving Men for Women, Walsh returns with a new set of essays that are equally compelling and important.
What makes both of the books so remarkable is not the salacious details of lovers kept behind closed doors or dramatic departure scenes. Sure, those details can be found in some of the stories, but the essence of the book is something more important to both the authors and the LGBT community.
In her introduction to Janeland, Walsh talks about the stigma she felt as a lesbian who came out later in life.
“[W]hen you realize something so significant about yourself after having heteronormative relationships, it’s easy to ask yourself the invasive questions you’d never allow someone else to get away with: ‘How could I have not known?’ Questions that insinuate you either knew and kept it a secret, or worse, are too daft to truly know something so integral to who you are.”
The books respond to that stigma by tapping into a realm of coming out stories that had been, until recently, mostly hidden. These are not the coming out stories of adolescence and youth, full of parental disapproval and schoolyard bullying. These are stories of grown women confronting their sexuality in the midst of careers, heterosexual marriages, and families. These are stories grappling with the truth that there is no right time to come out to the world, and that any time is the right time to come to terms with who you truly are.
STORIES FROM JANELAND
Pregnant with Myself, by Cassie Premo Steele
“The true end of my marriage began months before I fell in love with a woman. It was Thanksgiving of the year before that I decided to go on the Virgin Diet. I eliminated wheat, dairy, soy, corn, peanuts, sugar, and artificial sweetener—which was meant to halt the inflammation caused by food intolerances, reset my taste buds, and rewire the way my body responded to food. I began to feel lighter. I grew tolerant of the feeling of hunger. I began to feel the life in the fruits and vegetables I ate. My body began to feel awake.
“Just as you cannot fully savor the crunch of a salad when your mouth is still reeling from the salt and fullness of a bag of vinegar potato chips, I did not know what desire was when I was with men. Yet as I kissed Susanne, as I moved my hands over the soft plane of her hips, I realized that the moves I made with men in bed were always a kind of performance.
“When Susanne’s body is next to mine and the only exchange between us is something equal—from our mouths, from our lips— it is as if I am finally having a conversation after being a student in a class for all my life.
“Because with each word that I utter and each sentence that I write, I feel myself growing lighter. I no longer fear famine. I am comfortable with hunger. I no longer live under scarcity. I am full, and I have more than enough. There is more than enough in myself and in the community I am helping to create. In my mind and body, belly and heart, I am finally good.”
Staying Strong Like Her: the story of Star McGill-Goudey
If Star McGill-Goudey could go back in time or cross those elusive barriers to communicate with the mother she lost to breast cancer in 2011, she would tell her everything.
She would tell her how, in the midst of a dysfunctional marriage that was becoming increasingly violent, she discovered beauty and truth in a desire for the love of women. How her first husband vindictively manipulated that desire to deceive and betray her. How, for the sake of her own daughter, she extracted herself from that first marriage. How she loved and dated beautiful women, some of whom were unavailable, and some of whom broke her heart. How she eventually found strength and enduring love in a man who would become her second husband—a man who is not threatened by her desire, and celebrates it as part of who she is. But most importantly of all, McGill-Goudey would say that it was her mother’s own strength—the strength of a woman whose domestic situation drove her to regular thoughts of suicide—the strength of a woman who nevertheless chose to endure in the life she believed was for her children—that strength inspired her to fight for a better life.
Instead of her mother, we become the trusted recipients of McGill-Goudey’s story through her essay, Strong Like Her, which is included in the book Greetings from Janeland: Women Write More About Leaving Men for Women. She was first approached about the book in the midst of an online writers group, known as the Wild Heart Writers. McGill-Goudey had never before shared her story in public, but the invitation grabbed her attention. Perhaps it was time.
She talked over the pros and cons with her husband, Bud. The risks felt high. She and Bud live in a small, rural Tennessee town with almost no LGBT community. McGill-Goudey and her daughter are part of a decidedly conservative home school group. Her husband is well established in his profession, but his work is public-facing. She worried that her family could be negatively impacted. She had already lost friends when they found out she was bisexual, and she knew that ostracization was possible.
What’s more, McGill-Goudey knew that she couldn’t tell the story of escaping her first marriage and finding her authentic self without talking about her mother who was never able to do so. She knew that her mother’s story was hers as much as anyone’s, but she had been raised to keep a perfect public face that never revealed the inner-strife of her family life. It was a hard habit to break.
Ultimately, McGill-Goudey and her husband asked themselves whether there could be other women out there in a situation similar to the one she had survived. What if even one of them read her story and found in it the strength to build a new life? They both knew she had to say yes.
By the time the invitation reached her, the book was only six weeks from the content deadline, so as soon as she and Bud made their decision, McGill-Goudey got to work. In some ways, the process was excruciating. She had never before made her story public and was still working to heal from many of the deep wounds of her past. But now she was putting it into words and working closely with editors to shape it into its finished state.
“There were a lot of times,” she remembers, “I just wanted to crawl back in bed with the covers over my head and not face the world. But I have a great support system at home with my husband, and I have a couple of friends that would talk to me and make it not seem so insanely personal. They told me to remember what it was like for me back then, and that quite possibly there’s another woman out there—at least one—who can identify with my story.”
So, she kept her nose to the grindstone, and then suddenly, it was complete.
These days, McGill-Goudey is a little nervous trying to gear up for the book release. She finds strength in her relationships with her husband and friends. She finds courage in her hopes for her daughter. She finds relief in finally having everything on the table. And she finds hope in the idea that someone in need of encouragement might discover her story.
“I’m stepping up to the world and saying, ‘Hey. This is my story. This is me, and I’m proud of me and how hard I fought. I’m happy and peaceful now, and if you’re reading this and you are encountering some of the same things, you can find that peaceful and happy place too. There’s hope.’”
No matter how different McGill-Goudey’s life has become from the one chosen by her mother, she knows that she inherited her mother’s strength and determination. At the end of the day, she still chooses to be strong like her.
McGill-Goudey with her husband, Bud, on their wedding day. McGill-Goudey says that she worried about the possible negative impact that public knowledge of her sexual orientation (bi-sexual) would have on him. Ultimately, the couple moved forward together with a plan to help other women coping with the same circumstances.
Star McGill-Goudey’s essay, Strong Like Her, appears in the book Greetings from Janeland: Women Write More About Leaving Men for Women, edited by Candace Walsh and Barbara Straus Lodge, published in the Fall of 2017 by Cleis Press.