‘By the time I came out, I was 41, married almost 21 years, and full of guilt and shame.’: Woman shares journey accepting her sexuality, embracing vulnerability

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An Upsetting Conversation

“I was stirring a cup of tea as we sat around the kitchen table at the end of a family dinner that Sunday night when the topic of same-sex marriage came up.

‘I don’t understand it. Why do they need to get married?’ asked my mom.

‘They’re just regular people who should have the same rights as anyone else,’ I said. ‘I don’t get why it has to be a debate. The last thing marriage needs to be defended against is love.’ As I listened to the conversation unfold, I drank my tea slowly and reverently, gripping the spoon as if it was the axis on which my whole world turned in that moment. I watched our two kids dipping cookies into their teacups, oblivious to the conversation. No words could explain what was going on in my mind. Or, in my heart.

‘It might just be easier for all of them if they stayed in the closet,’ someone else said. A decade later, my recollection of that evening, and that conversation with my family spread out around the dinner table, is so thin it might break entirely if I touch it too much. I remember those few hours in roughly the same way I remember the moment when the funeral director first opened the door to the room where my oldest brother lay in his casket in the fall of 1996. Like I’m floating somewhere above myself, watching a movie unfolding below me. Most of my family wouldn’t know for another two months, in casually discussing the rights of gay people at dinner, they’d been talking about me, too.

Woman sitting by window in a cafe
Courtesy of Jana Miller

At home that Sunday night, lying in bed next to my husband, I recounted that evening’s dinner conversation out loud, lamenting over how it made me feel so sad. ‘You’re still thinking about that? Why is it still bothering you so much?’ he asked.

Right then, the truth collided with my future at a velocity powerful enough to fuse them together, and all of my efforts to keep this part of myself in the dark suddenly crumbled away. This question, from the boy who first kissed me over the handlebars of our bikes in front of the Francis Furniture store when I was 13, was a door. And once it opened, I couldn’t close it again. I fought hard to shine the light of words upon the truth that night, knowing everything about the family I loved so fiercely hung in the balance. The conversation stretched on for hours. Words I had vowed I would never need to say to anyone were spilling out of my mouth and disappearing into thin air, faster than soap bubbles in the sun.

‘Just a few words, and I’m not going to be the same person to you anymore,’ I eventually said through tears, admitting I was suffocating; trapped by the weight of everything I couldn’t say. ‘I’ve wanted to tell you this so many times before now, but I didn’t know how. I’m just so sorry I’m not who you need me to be. But I can’t live with this inside of me anymore.’ The truth is a beautiful and terrible thing. It still cuts like jagged glass, even a decade later, to try to put into words what it’s like to tell a truth about yourself that will crush the hearts of everyone you love, and yet heal your own soul. And there is a hard, high wall around my heart when it comes to recounting the agony of telling a necessary truth to your children — the shatter of which is so great that, once it’s out in the night air, the world no longer has any sound.

Coming Out Journey

I’m not someone who knew my whole life I was gay. So many people find that hard to believe because we like nice, neat explanations for life’s most mysterious bits – love and sex and death among them. But there were no signs. I didn’t have girl crushes. I didn’t get married thinking I could probably just live a comfortable lie. Growing up in a small town, I did what I’d seen everyone around me do all my life. I met a boy, dated him for years, married him, had kids, and bought a little house. I never once questioned that life. Until I did.

When I realized, in my 30s, I was attracted to women, and that attraction was growing, I immediately found my way to a therapist’s office. Every other week, I would sit next to her sagging bookshelf, on a couch that had seen better days, and unlock my incarcerated self. ‘When people sit on my couch during a first therapy session, I want to know not just why they’ve come in, but why now,’ she said. ‘Why, on this particular week, did you pick up the phone and call me?’

‘Because I don’t know what’s wrong with me and I can’t live with that anymore,’ I said, as the tears came. ‘What’s happening to me? I have a husband and two kids I love so much, and I just want to be with them.’ Each week after, I was hell-bent on having her tell me how to bury this seismic secret I didn’t understand. But, over time, I would learn you don’t bury secrets. They bury you. I lived with this scream building inside of me for years after that initial session. And I would eventually learn for myself the very real physical and emotional toll those weary years of hiding the inconvenient truth about myself would take. I learned that, in or out of the closet, there would be a heavy price to pay.

Woman sitting outside wearing sunglasses
Courtesy of Jana Miller

By the time I came out that night in June 2012, I was 41, married almost 21 of those years, and I was full of guilt and shame. People think guilt and shame are empty, but they’re full. They’re a weight. Guilt and shame are to the spirit what pain is to the body. They’re a source of sorrow that strangles you from the inside, and they left me standing at the border of where I literally wouldn’t survive, so long as I kept living in the fear of judgment of others and of destroying the world as my family knew it.

So, I finally conceded the truth to my husband that night. And, in doing so, I finally conceded the truth to myself. And every day after, for many years, I told myself that, now and forever, we would all be incomplete somehow. Because you can’t really just split a family down the middle – mom on one side and dad on the other, with the kids equally divided between. It’s like when you rip a piece of paper in two: no matter how hard you try, the seams don’t fit together again. Because of what you can’t see. Those tiniest pieces that got lost in the severing.

I would eventually learn, though, that not all families are like fine glass vases that go from treasure to trash the moment they’re broken. Something else sometimes happens to them. We pick up our pieces and help others gather theirs too, and we go on in a new way. Maybe not so much broken as broken open. ‘You don’t seem like you were yearning for a way out of your life or your family,’ another therapist said to me in the years that followed my coming out. ‘Maybe you were really yearning for a way into it.’ Those words have always stayed with me.

Falling In Love

Not long before I came out, I fell in love with a woman who lived a few blocks away in our small town. Charlene and I had known each other peripherally for several years. As kids, we’d grown up about ten miles from each other. We’d gone to the same high school but traveled in different social circles. Unbeknownst to me, she played in the orchestra for countless live theatre productions I’d loved. More recently, our boys were playing on the same hockey and baseball teams as they were growing up. It was an unlikely love story, if only because neither of us had ever dreamed of any other life than the one we’d each had as straight, married, small-town, hockey moms.

Over the years we, and countless others, have wondered often how a friendship between two women turns to love. Even behavioral scientists don’t seem to know the answer to what attracts some of us to a person of the opposite sex at one time in our lives, and then to someone else of the same sex at another time in our lives. Only the heart knows what the heart knows.

Two mothers smiling together with champagne flutes
Courtesy of Jana Miller

Charlene and I came out together, but separately in our own homes, that Sunday night in June 2012. Later that summer, in the first tiny apartment we shared, we would sit on the tree-camouflaged balcony night after warm night, counting sorrows and blessings, as we weathered the nuclear fallout of gossip in our small town. What our town didn’t know is no one was going to be harder on us than we were on ourselves – as women and mothers and wives.

Over the decade since, we’ve witnessed each other’s journey through divorce and families broken open. We’ve shared grief and guilt and shame and sadness, bounded on the other side by happiness and joy and crazy love. We’ve raised our four kids, who are now adults, with an example of how truth and authenticity are so important to happiness. We’ve mended relationships with loved ones, and let other ones go. And we’ve continued to relentlessly create the lives we want for ourselves.

In 2020, we finally left that small town. Just before we did, as a symbol of hope at the height of the pandemic, and a last act of love for the house which had sheltered us for five years, we got married in our backyard, surrounded by the kids, one cool October evening.

Two gay women outside limo on wedding day
Courtesy of Jana Miller
Wives at wine tasting
Courtesy of Jana Miller

Living With Vulnerability

‘When I live into the fullness of who I am, and I support you in the fullness of who you are, we invite others to do the same,’ Charlene said to me in her vows that night. In that spirit, in August of 2021, we decided to tell our coming out story, and the story of our journey through this last decade together, more publicly through The MeaningMaker Podcast, which launched the next month. Coming out at any time, but particularly in middle age with a marriage and children in the mix is, many days, a very difficult and lonely place to be. For so long, when I was closeted, I had searched the faces of other women — at the mall, on the street, driving through a neighborhood — for any sign they might share a story like mine.

Introducing the podcast supports our deep belief stories connect us and help us not only to see the humanity in one another, but they help us to feel less alone in the world. It has us to make some meaning of the events of the past 10 years, too – beyond the world of therapist’s couches. And it has pushed us to continue our own hard emotional work to turn the stories that haunt us into the truths that accompany us.

Wives at pride in rainbow flower necklaces
Courtesy of Jana Miller
Gay woman wearing a pride shirt
Courtesy of Jana Miller

We’ve been unprepared for the deep healing that has occurred as we’ve held some of the most painful and vulnerable events of our lives up to the light once again, over the past 20-plus episodes. It has been a stark reminder that, while the truth of this situation was not effortless, it pushed us to make life-changing emotional and psychological shifts about who we are so that we can become the women we’re here to be.

Above all, it has shown us how living with vulnerability and authenticity in this world creates opportunities, not only for us to live our truth, but for others to walk out of the darkness and into freedom, too.”

Wives smiling together, one holding their white dog
Courtesy of Hilary Gauld Camilleri
Wives smiling together
Courtesy of Jana Miller

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jana Miller and Charlene of Ontario, Canada. You can follow their journey on Instagram, Spotify, and their blog. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more stories from the LGBTQ+ community:

Mormon Woman Married To Man Comes Out As Gay At Age 35, Proves It’s Never Too Late To Live Your Truth

‘We hid under the guise of ‘best friends.’ Suspicious, my roommates logged onto my Facebook. They exposed our romantic messages to mutual friends and strangers.’: LGBTQ+ woman details brave ‘coming out’ journey

‘Hey, Miss Samantha. Where’s your husband?’ I was home alone. ‘My GIRLFRIEND is on her way.’: Lesbian couple urges they don’t ‘need any help’ from a man in their relationship

‘Today my son’s friend said, ‘My family doesn’t hang out with gay people, so I’m not going to hang out with you anymore.’: Mom to LGBT son urges ‘this is why moms like us lose our children’

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