Subversions. I like the way the word tastes on my tongue.
Subversions. As in, ways to act subversively. As in, small erosions of The Way Things Are. In the Online Etymology Dictionary, a “subversion” is a “physical destruction, demolition, ruination; [an] overthrow of a system or law.” The word comes from the Old French for “downfall.” As in, after these subversions, the world will never be the same.
I don’t look like a subversive person. Walk into my classroom where I teach English in a large city high school in Colorado, and observe me: I’m tall and big-boned like my German ancestors, I dress in too much brown, I’ve neglected to buy myself new shoes for years, and I need a haircut. I look like just another earnest English teacher trying in vain to cajole teenagers into caring about punctuation and literature.
Except, like most of us, I’m not all I appear to be. Some of my more observant students notice the photograph on my desk of me smiling beside a woman and a little African girl. Is that your sister, Miss? some of them ask. No, I tell them, still practicing bravery, she’s my fiance, and that’s our daughter. And all the assumptions about how I seemed to fit neatly into the acceptable system fly out the tall historic classroom windows.You’re gay, Miss?
I didn’t set out to be subversive. For the first twenty-eight years of my life, I worked hard to follow the rules of the system into which I’d been born, though I never felt comfortable. The rules for being good: grow up on a quiet, orderly farm in eastern Iowa, learn to be a good girl, attend a good Lutheran college, marry a nice Lutheran man. I was very good, if that was the rubric. It’s true that I squirmed in the church pew and asked too many questions in confirmation class. It’s true that, like Eve, I often stood on tiptoe and tried to peer outside the Garden into which I’d been born. But I walked straight down an aisle. I behaved.
And then, in a sort of storm at age twenty-eight, I shattered all the expected patterns for my life (or life shattered them for me): I fell in love with my best friend, who was a woman. Another friend asked me on the phone, “Do you think you’ve realized you’re lesbian?” and I gasped. “Lesbian? But I have long hair!” Nothing in my life had prepared me to be subversive. I didn’t want to be. I wanted to have children and nest into a cozy home like my gram’s; I wanted a secure life. Suddenly, all I could hear was wild wind.
Suddenly, I was twenty-eight and divorced. And a lesbian. Same brown sweater, same bad haircut, but I stood hip-deep in the shards of What Had Been Expected.
It’s terrifying to become subversive.
It requires courage.
You’re gay, Miss?
Yes. And here is what I won’t tell you, Student, because it’s too much in this small moment in a classroom: I’m gay, and that means that when I still wanted to be a mother, I had to travel halfway across the world to Ethiopia to adopt my child. I’m gay, and that means that when my former partner died five years ago in Alaska, her ashes were mailed to her ex-husband, and the obituary failed to mention me. I’m gay, and that means that every day I teach, I have to decide whether it’s safe to be out. I’m gay, and that means that my fiancé, Meredith, and I don’t hold hands or kiss in public unless we’re certain we’re surrounded by accepting people. I’m gay, and that means Meredith and I only won the right to marry each other legally last June.
I’m gay, which means my life itself is a subversion. The System was not constructed for me, and so every act of mine threatens to overthrow it. Meredith and I walk hand in hand into the elementary school Open House picnic with our African daughter’s hands in ours, and the law of “this is a normal family” shudders. We send out wedding invitations with graphics of two brides holding hands, and the ancient system of marriage trembles. We snuggle into bed at night, our arms around each other, and we rewrite the old rules about who protects and who is protected and who is nurtured and who nurtures. As a writer, I write about women who love women, forcing the old narratives, which never contained our names, to shift aside. Here are all the little subversions. The demolition of an old system.
Evidently, I wasn’t supposed to live a safe life as a straight wife in a small Midwestern town. I was meant to learn about discomfort and grief, fear and discrimination. I was meant to learn about the surprising joy of being different, of the certain slant of beauty in stories the system never imagined.
I’m still afraid. The systems hate to be shaken, and they do not wish to be destroyed. But the few of us who have glimpsed other narratives, other avenues, other worlds — we are speaking. We have always been speaking, though sometimes we have been required to whisper. Listen. Listen, and maybe you’ll become a little bit subversive, too.