March 27 , 2006
Lynne huffer is professor of women's studies
When I was in college, my mother came out as a lesbian.
For 25 years, she’d been a stay-at-home mom, a dutiful wife, a Girl Scout leader. Married to my father in 1957 right out of college, she did what many women of her generation did: put aside her own interests, got pregnant and raised a family. You can see the fruits of her efforts, nicely framed in a family photograph taken not long before I went away to college. There we are, the classic all-American family—respectable, white, heterosexual. Each of us had our role to fill, and we played our parts well, for a while.
I won’t go into the details of my family’s transformation. Lots of things happened after I went off to college, including my mother’s realization that she was attracted to women and had been for as long as she could remember.
My parents got divorced and, as families do, we all scattered. My mother dated women for a while, and eventually settled down with her partner, Gillian. My father remarried and had two more kids with his second wife. My brother went to China for a year and came back married. My sister had a daughter whom she raised as a single parent. I went to college. In graduate school I got married, and by the time I had a job as an assistant professor in the French department at Yale, I was well on my way to getting divorced. By the time I was 30, I was single again and, just like my mother, becoming queer.
Some people say to me: It must have been easy coming out, since your mother was already a lesbian. But, in fact, the opposite was true. Like a lot of girls, I needed to assert my own identity as part of the process of growing up. If I became a lesbian I’d be just like my mother! I would feel amorphous, undifferentiated, trapped in the maternal space of childhood. So it wasn’t until my 30s, after a failed marriage and lots of pain, that I took the plunge and “came out.” I started seeing women. I said to the world: Yup, I’m queer. Just like my mother.
The word “queer” itself is deeply fraught and misunderstood by lots of people. When I tell folks outside of academic or progressive activist circles (my aunt in Birmingham, for example) that I’m currently teaching a graduate seminar on “queer theory,” they usually respond with a blank look that barely masks a deep discomfort.
“But what is it?” they ask, in a squeaky voice. “Q… q… que… queeeeer?”
And so I explain. “Queer” has been used as a put-down, a term of derision, a weapon aimed at people like me—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersexed, two-spirit, questioning (queer!)—those of us who no longer (did we ever?) neatly fit into the mold of the all-American family. Reclaiming the term “queer” is a strategic act of political empowerment that exposes a history of intolerance, reminding us of how words have been used to shame us: “You queer!”
At the same time, the word “queer” celebrates the courage and the radical creativity of those who refuse to conform to rigid conceptions of what it means to be a person and to be in relationships with others. It becomes, instead, a speech act of defiance: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”
Today, both the work I do and the life I lead outside the University reflect an ongoing process of becoming queer. This process began, even before my mother came out as a lesbian, with my own vague perception that there was something big and important missing from my mother’s life. I sensed somehow, even in high school, that she was not fully living, not fully there. I think that’s what originally propelled me, as an undergraduate in the early 1980s, to become a women’s studies major. I wanted to figure out what was wrong with my mother’s life, and that led me to look at the lives of women more generally, throughout history and across the globe.
As I pursued a career learning about feminist struggle and feminist thought, both I and my work were gradually becoming queerer. When I wrote my first book (Another Colette) in my late 20s, I didn’t realize how queer my subject, Colette, really was.
Indeed, I too was queerer than I knew, but I hadn’t yet allowed that dim intuition to take the form of realization and action. Married to a man, I spent my 20s writing, teaching and wondering how I might eventually balance children with a demanding academic career. I didn’t want to make the sacrifices I’d seen my mother making. Yet in some ways, I was still trying to bring back that all-American family I had lost.
But like my mother, who finally came out and painfully, hesitantly, left my father, I woke up one day and realized I just couldn’t breathe anymore in the life I had been told was normal. I suddenly experienced my own marriage, like the family in which I grew up, as airless and constrained, not only because of its rigid heterosexuality, but also because of the (unspoken) middle-class norms of whiteness and Americanness it silently but stubbornly upheld.
Today, my family embodies very few of the norms with which I grew up. I have no image that captures us, all together, this queer family, because we can’t be captured. It can’t be done. But I know we’re happier than those five people in my traditional family photograph. Sure, in the photo we’re smiling. But I also know that we were barely breathing.
With age, I’ve learned that my family was not the completely airless coffin my dramatic mind sometimes makes it out to be. Nobody died of asphyxiation. Sure, we had our problems, and the stability promised by our being a “family” was an illusion. But I’ve also learned to re-embrace us—both in the past of who we were, and in the present of what we’ve become. I’ve learned that all of us have always been just a little bit queerer than we might have thought. We were always more than the photograph.
This essay first appeared in the Spring 2006 Women’s News & Narratives and is reprinted with permission.