Sometimes it’s the mundane that illuminates the way
Anne Sutherland (Maryanne Beaumont Sutherland -1948-2010) showed me that I am only able to be at my best when I can be myself
Anne barreled into my life in 1980, and before I knew it, I turned my life upside down to be with her. A vivacious and playful woman, Anne loved sailing, horseback riding, camping, hiking, and, above all, opera and classical music. One morning, as she was driving to work while simultaneously conducting an orchestra playing on her car cassette deck, she knocked her head so hard against the window that she developed a substantial goose egg on the side of her head. Her supervisor, Clare, made her go to the ER to rule out a head injury before she allowed her to start work that day. Luckily, she was OK. While relaying the story to me that evening, all she could do was laugh. She thought it was the funniest thing ever, and I had to admit it was quintessential Anne.
Although we met in Massachusetts, we ended up in Michigan because a few months after we got together, the prestigious New England college where she worked as the Director of Student Life found out about our relationship and fired her. They told her that although her work was superb, she didn’t have the moral authority she needed to work with students. This was the second time in her career she’d been fired from an academic institution for being a lesbian. She was devastated. She had a master’s in counseling education from the University of Virginia, loved working with college students, and saw that as her life-long career. But that ended there. She wasn’t willing to try again.
As our relationship developed, we became the type of couple that other couples—gay and straight—looked up to as role models. Our friends described us as the perfect couple—compatible, kind, fun-loving, and affectionate. We belonged together. And in so many ways, we did. We loved the life we had created filled with friends and adventures.
It took everybody by surprise when, thirteen years into our relationship, I announced to friends and family that we were breaking up. In those days, closet doors thrust open with such frequency it was hard to avoid getting smacked in the face by one. Mine remained closed, even though the latch was now broken, and the door had started to warp at the edges. But I was still scared. “What will people think?” and “How can I reconcile my ‘lifestyle’ with God?”—questions hammered into me by my mother since she first learned about my “predilection for girls” sixteen years earlier.
The strong foundation Anne and I built began to crumble on the way home from a fun-filled weekend exploring the back roads and hidden-away places in Southeastern Michigan. It was our favorite way to spend a weekend. Alone, anonymous, and filled with adventure – three elements of a great afternoon for two women in love. Long before the days of GPS, we didn’t care if we got lost or if we traveled the same road a hundred times. The fun was in the journey itself, the hunt for something that surprised us. Maybe it was a field of sunflowers in bloom, a newborn foal searching for its mothers’ teats, a restaurant we hadn’t eaten at before, or a trail we hadn’t hiked. This had been one of those days.
As we headed home on the expressway, I looked over at a car in the next lane and noticed one of our co-workers sitting in the passenger seat. It was a woman neither of us liked very much, someone for whom a rumor was like one of those plastic sea monsters you put in water and watched grow to 600% its normal size. As soon as I saw her, my protective instincts kicked in and I shouted to Anne, “Duck! Duck!”, fully expecting her to slide down in the seat so the woman would not see us together. Anne interpreted my urgency in a different way--in the spirit of the day we had spent. Not wanting to miss something important, she lifted her head, pressed her face against the window, and shouted back at me, “Where? Where?”
When I heard the wonder in Anne’s voice and realized what she thought I meant, I laughed so hard I whipped the car across two lanes and on to the exit ramp so I could pull over. I was laughing too hard to drive. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation, I laughed at the beauty of Anne’s child-like curiosity, and I laughed at the absurdity of our attempts to hide our ten-year relationship.
“What? What’s the matter?” Anne asked. “What are you laughing about?” She smiled back at me but had no idea what had happened.
Before I could answer, I crossed that razor-thin line from laughter to tears. The old Smokey Robinson & The Miracles song, “Tears of a Clown” popped into my head. I felt like a clown covered up with make-up and smiles, playing a fool. My entire life was a sham, a farce put on to protect myself from being found out. An erasure of who I was.
When I finally told Anne what had happened, I said “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep living this double-life, hiding who I am – who we are. I love you and I want everyone to know it. I have to find a way out of the closet.”
Sometimes it’s the mundane that turns on the closet light and illuminates the door handle.
“I wish it could be different,” she said. I looked over at her, her back pressed against the window. I could see her concern in her wrinkled brow and her intense eyes, and I knew she meant it. Then she added, “What would we do if we both got fired?”
At that moment, I recognized how living in the closet had protected us and wounded us differently. She had been fired twice from professional positions when they discovered she was in a relationship with a woman. These terminations humiliated her and prevented her from wanting to take any more risks. I, on the other hand, was working overtime to keep my mother’s hope alive that I could still be straight.
That wasn’t enough for me to justify hiding anymore. Years earlier, I had had a vision of a different life for me, and if there was any possibility that world might one day become real, I had to seize it. I didn’t want to be stuck in a closet for the rest of my life. I had already wasted too much time laboring to keep who I was a secret. It was time to stop struggling and reach for the lifeline that could pull me out.
As with any relationship, many factors went into our break-up, but none screamed louder than my need to be public about my identity as a lesbian and our identity as a couple. Anne wasn’t out to her family and, for obvious reasons, wasn’t comfortable being out at work. I couldn’t blame her. At the same time, I couldn’t continue to live a dual life. I longed to be open in all aspects of my life, including my love for her. It took three more years for me to find the courage to leave her. Ironically, it was because of her difficulty in navigating our break-up that she finally came out to her parents.
Anne taught me many things, but most of all she showed me that I am only able to be at my best when I can be myself in all aspects of my life. I regret that we couldn’t be that together. I will always cherish the love we shared and am especially grateful we reunited as friends in time for me to help shepherd her through her death—yet another cancer victim taken much too young. I miss you, Anne, and always will.
Accidental Mentors is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.