Titled "My Mother's Vagina" before I sold it (and before I knew I'd be working with Bruce Gillespie, a fantastically cool editor), this longform piece represents my first serious attempt to plumb the narrative depths of my relationship with my mother. Writing it made me realize that there's more where this comes from—a lot more. In response to the numerous friends who've asked how I've kept the piece from my mother, know this: She's read it, she loves it, and indeed every time I mention that I'm writing something, she asks, "Is it about me?"
Some time before I was born, my mother made a piece of art in remembrance of an aborted pregnancy. It was called “Requiem,” a three-dimensional stuffed fabric vagina weeping a cascade of multi-hued satin tears. She built it a full 4 feet high, and hung it in a hand-carved maple frame. My mother is not one to understate.
When I was a teenager, I’d horrify new boyfriends by inviting them home to see my mother’s vagina. The thrill was heightened by the fact that the piece weighed easily twenty-five pounds and would unpredictably wrench its supporting nail out of the wall and crash onto my bed. I liked that it was shocking, but it was also a question asked of anyone I let into my room. Would they understand my mother? Would they understand me?
My mother is not one to understate.
My mother was a preacher’s kid, an only child who was moved from parish to parish throughout the southern United States with just her parents for company. When she finally got to college at seventeen—she’d worked desperately to skip a grade—she never looked back. It was the 1960s. She had sex, took drugs, got an abortion, enjoyed her first lesbian experience, raised her consciousness, and discovered feminism.
What my mother grew to understand, with more clarity and anger than anyone I’ve ever known, was that the simple accident of your sex at birth determines everything. As a girl, her parents had expected to her to grow up and marry. “They let me go to college for my B.A.,” she told me once, “but only because they expected that I’d also get an M-R-S.” But she refused to get married and she refused to apologize for it. It was the same with her abortion. She grieved, of course, but hanging her sorrow on the wall was her way of honoring the life that wasn’t, and it was her way of not apologizing for her choice.
When she became pregnant again, years later, she hoped for a girl. Of course, she knew she wasn’t supposed to care but she didn’t apologize for her preference. When I was old enough to discuss it, she told me that she hadn’t thought she’d know how to raise a boy and that she’d simply not wanted to try. In 1970, I was born—a girl—and from the beginning I knew two things: that my sex was significant, and that I should never apologize. And if you’re going to grow up to hang an enormous vagina on your wall, these are exactly the things your mother should teach you.
When asked to tell my coming out story, I often say I was never really in. When I was five my parents split up and my mother bought a renovated 1950s school bus that—geography be damned—she wanted to drive from Toronto to New Zealand. It broke down in the Kootenay Valley in British Columbia, so that’s where I grew up, in the mountains. I was a hippie kid. I spent my childhood naked; I was free to be. There’s an old picture of me running along the beach, my arms flung out from my body at the odd angles children achieve in their ecstatic states of play. The photo was used on a brochure for a 1975 conference entitled “The liberated child and the intimidated parent”. Nobody, those unselfconscious arms said, was going to tell me how to find joy.
Later, I went to an alternative high school where, as in the “free schools” of my childhood, I was encouraged to participate equally in the institution’s governance. In practical terms this meant that we called our teachers by their first names, and got in less trouble for smoking than our peers at the straight schools. There were only thirty of us in my class, and we all paired off and broke each other’s hearts and paired off again as regularly as any other teenagers. I quickly discovered that boys were far easier to bed than girls, so I had boyfriends. Sexual shame was low on my list of neuroses, but like all teenagers I harbored secrets. One of them was that I was constantly, painfully in love with my girl friends. All of them.
My eventual confession (in the mid-80s it was de rigeur to declare your homosexuality in the brave tone usually reserved for the podium at an AA meeting) was met with a collective shrug. My friends already knew or didn’t care, and the same went for my mother. Telling my father was more difficult. Though he and I had a loving relationship, I didn’t really know him. From the time he and my mother separated, we were almost never within three thousand kilometres of each other but I knew his voice well enough—I’d been calling him on the phone all my life. When I was a kid, it had to be on Sundays when the rates were cheap, or at least after 6 PM. By the time I was a teenager the rates had changed, but I still made this call at night, after dark. I wasn’t ashamed, but it was awkward to come out to a man I didn’t really know.
My father has a wonderful voice, a rich and gentle baritone. That sound had always been the string and he the kite, and I knew that to reel him in all I had to do was to pick up the phone. I told him what I had to say, and he said—I quote him exactly because even decades later I can—“I don’t care who you love, or how, as long as you have love in your life.”
Not everyone accepted me. Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh claimed, among many other things, that homosexuals had fallen from dignity, and he told his followers, known as the orange people, that we were not human. My step-sister, herself an orange person, greeted me on my next visit to her home with a spray bottle filled with rubbing alcohol and purified water to protect her from AIDS.
Ultimately, coming out was a relief but it only formalized what I was already feeling. Thus declared a homosexual, I was free to go about the messy business of defining myself—and for a while I was defined by combat boots and spiky hair and an undignified proclivity to pursue girls. Fuck the orange people.
It’s one thing, a proud thing, to walk in the Dyke March with your mother when she’s straight-but-not-narrow. PFLAG moms rule. It’s another when she’s gay.
When my mother came out, she was forty. Everything from her politics to her hairdo to her impressive collection of tools had hinted at it, but she’d always demurred. “Oh, I’d love to be a lesbian,” she’d coo and bat her lashes, “but I just can’t get it up.” This was my mother: direct, saucy—and straight. Until she wasn’t. She fell in love with a woman and I suddenly had two mommies. She was casual about it. It was the 1990s, and queers were here, but it was a problem for me. Oh, not politically of course, but personally: she was usurping some of my carefully-crafted identity. It’s one thing, a proud thing, to walk in the Dyke March with your mother when she’s straight-but-not-narrow. PFLAG moms rule. It’s another when she’s gay. When I came out, I dropped a pin outside of her radius. I loved how it felt to follow the pull of my own choices. When she came out our orbits collided.
Copyright © 2014 by Keph Senett. All rights reserved.