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I Played It Straight for Decades, But Then Finally Married My Wife

My journey has been a convoluted one.

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Two women smiling in car, just married
Dr. Mills
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I am a daughter, an educator and a lesbian. My convoluted journey from sexual hiding in my youth to now — married to a magnificent woman — is chronicled in my new book Coming Out: It Only Took Fifty Years. I knew I was gay by the age of eight. While playing outside with neighborhood kids, one of them called someone else a “queer.” 

I entered our kitchen where my mother was preparing her signature City Chicken, and blurted out, “What is a queer?” Without looking up from her elaborate culinary construction, mom replied, “That is when a boy likes only boys or a girl likes only girls.” She spoke calmly, but the feeling I got was that being gay was a bad thing.  I thought, “That’s me!” … but I could not say those words.      

Starting that day, I believed I had something to hide and I was not honest with my mother for the next fifty years.  Though she carried memories of tragic family deaths and a possible lesbian relationship and my father led a free-wheeling life, raised by a band of circus performers, both were Methodists who believed homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings. And, so my double-life began.      

Looking back, I see that hiding my truth was the worst decision I ever made.  It meant leading a complicated, stressful, secret life. Though, if I told my mother I liked girls at age eight, it might have seemed like an innocent phase. Not so innocent, if I had added that in second grade, I already had a crush on my teacher.      

Portrait of author Janis E. Mills in high school.
Portrait of Janis E. Mills in high school.
Courtesy of the author

During the spring of my junior year in high school, “I kissed a girl and I liked it”, as the Katy Perry song goes. That kiss turned into my first love affair and lasted until I left for college. We sneaked handholding, stolen kisses, and more. Maddie and I believed our relationship was safely hidden until one morning, after a sleepover, our secret was discovered by the worst person it could have been outed to. My mother walked into a scene of two girls hugging in bed. Before she could sound an alarm, I told her that Maddie was crying about her boyfriend.  it was obvious that my mom who interrupted a snuggly twosome did not believe my feeble explanation.       

My boyfriends were used as props but I learned that Maddie’s were real when one guy gave her the ultimatum to choose: “her or me?” She chose him and I was heartbroken. That brush-off was debilitating and hurled me into sexual hiding for all my college years. I went on fake dates, and even had make out sessions with boys. Hearing gossip and snickers about a few sorority sisters supposedly engaged in same-sex rendezvous, I knew there would be no chance of coming out, in this repressed era of the early 1970s.So, after graduation, I left my college friends, and with my conservative hometown of Western Pennsylvania in the rearview mirror, I fled for the big city of Washington, D.C., a gay-friendly town. Thus began my triple life.        

I was a polished educator in a business suit by day, an emancipated lesbian with a secret life in the Washington gay bar scene at night, and always an elusive, long-distance daughter.

At age 29, I had an intimate conversation with my mother that provided a missed chance to unveil my truth.

We were chatting in my D.C. living room, sipping strawberry daiquiris. Halfway through her drink, my mother’s expression grew dark and fearful. She then asked the question that wrenched my gut: “Do you have normal feelings toward men?”      

For a fleeting moment, I thought I would come clean. Though, before I could get one word out, she continued by saying, “Because if you don’t, I’ll blame myself and I don’t know what I’ll do for the rest of my life.” Thinking she might take her own life, I replied to this person I loved more than anyone, “Of course I do, mom.”      

Sadness and regret lingered within for days after that conversation. Disappointed in myself, I felt spineless. 

How different those times were before the celebration of Gay Pride and the emergence of the LGBTQ culture. Being in the closet was playing it safe. After all, I was a teacher, then a principal and I believed I could lose my job — and my family.       

After three decades of a successful career, numerous short-lived gay relationships, a few flings with straight girls, and bartending and dancing at the best DC gay bars, I finally met Lori. This is the beautiful, green-eyed blonde I married in September of 2013, on a flawless afternoon in Annapolis, Maryland.       

The gazebo overlooking the South River in Quiet Waters Park was flanked with billowing, white lilies standing on porcelain pedestals and the seats were padded with puffy white satin pillows.  

The sun glistened off the water as I watched Lori walk toward me until we joined hands, both wearing long white dresses, to walk the last few steps we would take as single women. The small crowd included a few who did not outwardly endorse a same-sex marriage. At least they were there, especially our mothers, who sat in the front row with expressions that were both loving and slightly wary.       

After too many years waiting for my real life to begin, there I was, marrying the woman of my dreams. Though our attire was formal, we felt wildly free, unleashed at last.      

Mine is a story of hiding, playing it straight, and finally living my truth. Had I been born decades later,  I could have proudly and loudly lived my Gay Pride. I applaud this generation of youth making it increasingly acceptable to embrace the words of William Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”

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