Shaley Howard
Shaley Howard

A Butch’s Journey To Coming Out And Self-Love

Her name was Mrs Agerrah and she taught 5th grade. And….she was SO beautiful. I spent every morning secretly making sure my clothes all matched, my buttons were all buttoned correctly and my hair was perfect….well as perfect as a Mary Lou Retton tomboy bob could be. The problem was whenever she called on me I froze and my face turned bright red. Most of the time I could barely remember my name, let alone the answer to whatever question she was asking. I was completely unable to make eye contact, certain she would see right through my façade into my desperate love for her.  My parents probably thought I had a learning disability as my grades plummeted that year. And Mrs Agerrah probably thought I hated her. She never got to see my notebook filled with A + S heart doodles.

Most people have similar stories of their first crush when they had no clue what to do or say.

The difference is mine was a same-sex crush back in the late 1970s when no one was openly gay. And even though it was never discussed, I knew at a gut level that it was not ok for me to like other girls or female teachers.

It’s hard to convey the isolation and sheer loneliness of being closeted back in the 70s and 80s. Almost every night I would cry silently in bed wondering why I was born this way. I knew even back then that it was never a choice but I didn’t understand why someone like me, so loving and sensitive would be brought into such a cruel and unwelcoming world. Every day I put on my cloak of homosexual invisibility and try desperately to fit in. Pretending to like boys, trying to pass. I questioned whether I would ever have or even deserved happiness and someone love me the way I loved her.

Then one day in the mid-1990s in college, I met Amy. She was a scrawny, sarcastic, wicked smart southerner with big opinions and a presence that made me blush uncontrollably. She was perfect. Both of us being closeted however made things a little challenging. Not knowing how to communicate that I was head-over-heels, I resorted to my oh-so successful adolescence behaviour. I found myself trying to woo her by essentially following her around and insulting her. Then freak out and run away internally screaming, “I LOVE YOU”!

Given that I never had the chance to practice flirting openly with anyone, I had serious arrested development in the art of love. Straight kids have multiple opportunities to express their awkward prepubescent romantic crushes. They’re allowed the grace period of falling on their faces. Me? I was just starting at the age of 24. Needless to say, I was a bit stunted in my wooing abilities.

And I was scared to death of confessing my true feelings sure that if I did, Amy would cringe with disgust and my life would be over.

Then it happened.

One night while in the dorm room watching Fried Green Tomatoes, we kissed. Well, really she kissed me. As if I was woken up from the longest, most deep sleep ever, my body and spirit lit up like it was the 4th of July. I had found nirvana and her name was Amy. For the first time it happened, I was loved. Now, there was someone else drawing A+S heart doodles.

Being with Amy finally gave me the courage to come out. Even though I came from a large family of super open-minded, loving, liberal Unitarians, I was still terrifiedEvery single thing in our culture, even in the 1990s, the “don’t ask don’t tell” era, made homosexuality wrong.  My family of course were 100% ok with me being gay. I also think by the time I finally came out they were relieved as I’m guessing they had known for years and were thinking, “fucking finally!”

My mom told me words I’ll never forget. She paused in the middle of my coming out to her and said, “Shaley, no matter what, don’t waste your time on ignorant people”.  At that moment I was full of hope, relief and inspiration. But living an out life as a butch lesbian in our culture is easier said than done. Even though I had finally found the love I had longed for, I also unconsciously put on my armour. It was the mid-1990 and instead of me being a passive witness to homophobia now all of a sudden, I was the target. And was I a big target?

It’s difficult trying to put into words what it’s like carrying the weight of always being on guard and at the same time wanting so badly just to fit in and find acceptance.  All my life I’ve been told that I was abnormal. That there was something wrong with me and the way I looked. And I get so tired of being in the spotlight simply for being me, a butch lesbian.  It’s a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons. It’s a kind of aggressive attention as if you’re a gazelle living amongst lions. And even to this day, there’s always something that reminds me that I’m different.

Coming back from an exhaustingly long flight, I went into the bathroom at the Dallas airport. A woman followed me in saying….”Sir…sir…this is the women’s bathroom”. To which, I said, for probably the 12,000th time in my life…” I AM a woman”. Due to my sleep deprivation, my sensitivity chip was MIA so I grabbed my breasts and added, “And I’m more of a woman than you’ll ever be”!

After my inner applause subsided, I did realize that prior to this interaction, I was so tired I did fully walk into the men’s bathroom before realizing I was in the wrong one and then walking over to the women’s. So if she did see this, it might have confused her. But either way, who made her the bathroom police?

Growing up butch in this culture is like death by a thousand paper cuts. It’s a glance, a grimace, a laugh a sneer. Like so many of you, I am definitely the other in this heteronormative society. Every day I make a choice; to boil over with anger and resentment or take off the armour and let love take over. Because love is my source. It has always been my source. From that scared little girl longing for a love story to a grown woman surrounded by friends, family and a beautiful partner, I know I am loved by many and I love. I am a beautiful butch.