When You Lose Your Voice.
“Military wife, huh?” my new coworker asked me with a grin. She had just learned that I spent my adult life in California, Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky… everywhere but here—rural Missouri.
I moved out of Speedtrap when I was seventeen, not yet out of high school, not because I’d married some uniformed military man with a buzz cut who called me from boot camp every night to plan a wedding.
I’d left Speedtrap because someone tried to kill me for being queer.
But I didn’t say that to the kind coworker who was sharing her lunch with me. I just smiled, maybe a little too amused, and mumbled something to the effect of being a wanderer.
Today is October 11th and it’s National Coming Out Day, and I’ve been some kind of out since 1998, and I haven’t really lived in Speedtrap for any of those years.
Sure, I’ve been here holidays and summers working to save money while in college and for a good five week stretch while my father was slowly dying in the Veterans hospital. But other National Coming Out Days I have spent in other cities or on college campuses handing out t-shirts and buttons slick with rainbows.
I left Speedtrap because a young man gunned a truck at me and squealed tires as he rounded the curve and swerved into me, yelling “Queer!”
He yelled it in the accent that I lost on purpose when I was five. It’s parents’ home-voice, which some sorts of coastal liberals cannot distinguish from hate. The sound that comes from my home: the place that people label on maps “Tornadoes and Jesus.”
That teenage boy’s truck had a little Confederate battle flag in the rear window, somewhere under the chrome roll-bar with the spotlights, and its horn played the first twelve notes of “Dixie.” It had a shitty gray paint job, but he spent money for chrome.
He laid on that Dixie-horn when someone he didn’t like crossed in front of him in the high school parking lot to watch them jump. He didn’t like lots of people, and lots of people didn’t like him. And he really didn’t like queers.
And people saw that ignorant, hateful bigot and his Confederate flag and his truck when they heard my father’s voice at my college.
My classmates didn’t see the correct man at all. They didn’t see the man who taught me the meaning and importance of the Civil Rights movement. He was the man who told me about the shame of our country’s Japanese internment camps when my textbooks and teachers were silent on them. He was the man who preached the deep responsibility that our society had to support people with disabilities—not as charity, but as fellow people.
The man with the cowboy hat and the drawl was the last person whose opinion on my sexuality truly mattered. Everyone else has been matters of practicality. Safety. Money. Comfort.
And the man with the drawl? He struggled at first. It hurt, but I was strong enough to remind him that I was exactly the person he had raised me to be: honest.
It wasn’t my father’s accent that was the problem. It wasn’t Jesus. It wasn’t any sort of flag or ideology that he stumbled over. It was fear for his child, pure and simple. I hadn’t told him or my mother about the day in March 1998 when a boy tried to kill me.
It wouldn’t have helped, I told myself. In reality, it was the shame of the sound of that word keeping me captive. The shape of “queer” in the mouth of hate.
My father’s acceptance came all at once—a movie earning an Oscar nod. Dad had watched as men in suits he saw as hypocritical moralizers took up the banner of homophobia, making people like his daughter the new national wedge issue. I think that would have moved him eventually. Glacially.
But then then his younger daughter died.
I believe he realized, once the pain abated enough to let him punish himself with new imagined regrets, that if he never mended that fence, I might die thinking his love was conditional and incomplete. That he would never have a chance to tell me he was proud of me for being exactly who I was.
So he let me know that that wasn’t true, that he loved me no matter what. And when I told him I had protested in front of Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church at the Millennium March on Washington, he grinned behind his perfect mustache.
Dad’s rants about LGBTQ equality made me all the prouder for the country in his voice and the twang in his words.
Today I walked the length of street where I jumped out of the way of that truck. The road looks the same—cracked and gray. The grass is vibrant from today’s late season rain. It’s still green around the fire hydrant and the street signs, but I can smell autumn in the earth—things beginning to give way and rot. And the air is chillier than yesterday. It’s as if today is October and somehow yesterday wasn’t. Today I can believe in Halloween and hauntings and the past.
I remember my father’s change of heart and that boy’s truck and my coworker’s assumption and my lie of omission. I remember that the last person whose opinion I truly wondered and worried about has left this world with nothing on his heart but love. My mother knows and sees me and never misses a chance to tell me she’s proud of me.
It’s a quiet day, absent rainbow t-shirts and slick buttons. But I’m here. I’m queer. I’m not ruled by fear.