We gay people have it so good these days. I'm thinking of Lee Coats from Waco, Texas. She died last year at age 85 after living a full life, almost 59 years of it with her lover.|
Her "lover," not her wife or partner or any of those respectable words that would have described a lifelong bond beyond the sexual, though there was that too...
"When we started sharing our lives we had NOTHING," Lee said. "We couldn't even get her clothes out of the cleaners. We didn't have a phone for the first five years (couldn't afford the 5 bucks and didn't really want to talk to anyone -- had OTHER things to do)."
They worked their way to a comfortable, if closeted, life. Later, and for years, Lee took care of her beloved, who had Alzheimer's disease. In an e-mail, Lee wrote: "Two days after her death I had to go back to the hospital, not to just take flowers and candy and say 'Thank you for your kindness' to the attending nurse, but to tell the nurse, 'She was not my sister, she was my lover'. [The nurse] put her arms around me and said, 'Don't you know I knew that.' Somehow it was important to me that she know."
Lee added, "I'm ashamed of humanity that we have to hide our love."
Like Lee, I hate living in an alien world where outside my windows women and men carry on their oh so "normal" lives and I can't walk among them without a hypersensitivity to their judgments and their power.
Although we are better off than Lee, history doesn't let go easily. In my knee surgeon's waiting room the morning after his State of the Union speech, I watched President Obama pledge, "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do."
I had nervously moved closer to hear that segment. As I returned to my seat, smiling, another patient looked at me with stern disapproval, or even revulsion, in her narrowed eyes. I don't know if she was mad at the president or mad gay people existed. The saddest part, to me, was my self-conscious hesitancy to go nearer to the TV for fear of invoking such a look. The fear never quite leaves.
At the x-ray lab, I sat in a small room where an old woman watched a show about World War II. She spoke in a frail voice and I sat next to her to hear. The woman told me that her husband had been with the "clean up crews" in Germany and that he'd brought back a story about a little girl at a concentration camp. The old woman said, "I don't know why they did that to those people." She looked at me and said with a quiet rage, "And are still doing it." She wore a cross. Did she know gays were in those camps too?
Lee lived through all that. Watched how we were treated in this world and must have felt powerless and voiceless. Yet, when I asked if she wanted her real name used she proclaimed in bold print: "You are always welcome to use my name -- I'm VERY VERY OUT."
And it was true; Lee Coats quietly wrote lesbian stories. She gave me 27 of them to get out into the world. She also wrote a novel. These are fascinating views of lesbian life in the 20th century, hidden by the curtain of silence Lee could not penetrate because of the twin poverties of education and acceptance. "What a kick it would be to see my work in print," she wrote, "but IT IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. And I hate to see IT die."
There have been centuries of women and men who wanted to tell their stories. Several months after her lover died, Lee was diagnosed with lung cancer. I promised I would get as much of her work to readers as I could through publication or archiving.
Thanks to the miracles wrought by the women and men who have created outlets for our writing, and thanks to lesbian editors who are touching up Lee's writing, the first of Lee's published stories will appear later this year in Women in Uniform, from Regal Crest Enterprises, edited by Verda Foster and Pat Cronin.
Lee Coats, with only a shred of hope of ever being heard, chose to end her silence and be visible. As a consequence, she was able to bequeath to us powerful stories of pre-Stonewall lesbian lives.
© 2010 Lee Lynch
Lee Lynch, Author of Sweet Creek from Bold Strokes Books