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Ingrid Rivera-Dessuit

This story was printed from FindArticles.com, located at http://www.findarticles.com.


March, 2001
"Why I Am A Lesbian".
Author(s): Ingrid Rivera-Dessuit

I am a lesbian. I am a mother. I am a woman of color. I am real and visible. I wasn't always--visible that is. I am visible now because at age 20 I chose to come out--out of the closet. Out of the box that was created for me. Out of the idea that straight is normal and any other sexual orientation is deviant, perverted, and sick.

For years that idea ruled my life and almost destroyed it. Because for years I accepted the message society sends us about who we should be, about what it means to be a man or a woman, about what is "normal." No one wants to be viewed as deviant, and I was no different. And so, like millions of gay men and women, I made great efforts to fit into the heterosexual box. There is safety, if not fulfillment, in the familiar. But the physical safety of my familiarity finally became unsafe for me emotionally. After years of suffering and struggling, I could stand it no longer. I jumped out of the closet and into the light. I came out! Out of the idea that men should and would take care of me. Out of a haze that was once too thick to see or recognize my own reality. Out of a denial that almost destroyed me. Coming out was one of the most important choices of my life. Despite oppression and fear of physical harm, I felt it totally necessary to honor my feelings and begin the process of knowing who I am.

When I was a young girl I had no idea what a lesbian was. I have always had crushes on women. Most of my childhood sexual developmental play was with girls. I allowed myself to feel those feelings because it felt right and good. As I got older I realized that "it" was not the right thing to do. All of my friends either had boyfriends or longed for them. I did not. I longed to have the normality of my peers, thus a boyfriend would have to do. I did not hate boys. I had nothing against them. I even enjoyed their company and made long-lasting friendships with ex-boyfriends.

The crushes, the fantasies, the need to be closer to a woman in a way that I could not explain was so far from the reality of my life that I could not see a way to ever fulfill them. And so I settled. I unconsciously decided to settle for relationships with men and the dreams that girls are supposed to dream of. I met an older man and, at a very young age, left home and became pregnant. Life with this man was unfulfilling and burdensome. The energy involved in maintaining a facade was draining, debilitating, and eventually too much to bear.

Throughout our relationship, I continued to have feelings for women. Deep feelings. Feelings I could not ignore. I didn't know what they meant or how I could process them. As a result, my relationship with my boyfriend began to unravel. While drug, emotional and physical abuse all played a part in its destruction, the driving force was my need to be myself and love a woman. Although the situation was unsafe--not just for me but for my unborn child--I stayed long after I should have left. This was the life that I was told was right. The life I was told was "normal." As bad as the abuse got, I saw no way out. I could not see a way to escape the lie I was living. Soon, feelings of confusion, anger and bitterness consumed my very existence. Thoughts of ending my life crossed my mind daily. Some days they were so intense my body would go limp. Limp enough to numb the nameless--but all-consuming--pain, but not enough to end it.

A slow process of education and self-empowerment driven by my need to care for the child I was about to bring into the world helped me leave the lies and abuse. But when you're pregnant and 17, it isn't easy. And so I took small steps. First I got my GED and took Lamaze classes at an adolescent center providing support, education and health services. The experience helped me to realize I needed a change and gave me the courage to make it. I left my boyfriend and began the process of understanding who I was. Having no place to go, I ended up living in shelters. My journey to self-awareness led me to leave the mean streets of New York and to a new life in Massachusetts. As a single mother on welfare, I found a cheap apartment and enrolled in community college. It was the beginning of my transformation. At college, I met diverse people, people who by their very existence dispelled years of invisibility. For the first time, I met gay and gay-friendly people. People who accepted my sexuality. My socially constructed push toward relationships with men ceased and I was a new woman.

I finally began to accept who I was--a lesbian. One day I just came out. First I came out to myself. I said it out loud in the mirror. I shouted it. "I am a lesbian!" Then I came out to my daughter, friends, teachers and family. After all those years of questions and praying for death, the simple act of my self-acceptance gave me inner peace. I prepared myself for the next step--social and family acceptance.

Telling my mother was a difficult task. She took it very hard. While she ensured her love for me, she said she could not understand how I was a lesbian. "You have dated men and you have a daughter," she said with a perplexed look on her face, not fully understanding what a lesbian is. "I cannot accept that you are a lesbian, but you are my daughter," she reluctantly assured me, and I felt lucky. I had spent my entire life running from who I was, but I was determined to stay and face reality. My parents tried to get me to see a psychiatrist, but at least they remained in my life to an extent.

While they knew I was gay, I was never able to talk about it. "Why must gays push their lives into our faces?" my mother would ask. She took for granted the many times she has told people that she had a husband, thus identifying her as straight. She didn't understand that every day was a day I had to choose to either "push my life into someone's face" or hide my life. "Are you married?" my gynecologist would ask, then scold me because I didn't use birth control. Strangers told me that I needed to find a nice young man to help me raise my daughter. Every day was a struggle. Every day I came out to someone. Every day I educated someone.

I'm proud to say my best student has been my 10-year-old daughter, Amanda. She has been at my side in this struggle. She has also been hurt deeply by the inability of society to accept that her mother is gay. She feels the pain of homophobia. She must decide whether she can tell her friends. Will they accept her? Will their parents let them come over? She has lost some friends and a baby-sitter because of prejudice.

Determined to educate myself so that I could educate others about the horrible effects of this prejudice, I earned my bachelor's degree in human studies and a master's degree in sociology. I was able to get off welfare and move back to New York. I was so happy to come back home. I enrolled Amanda in a Brooklyn public school and was very excited to have her go to school where she would be among her peers. My excitement was short-lived. The reasons were many: The classrooms were overcrowded, the teachers frustrated and underpaid, and the school was a clutter of chaos, and lacked in accountability. Worse, other children hurled taunts of "faggot," "dyke" and "nigger" on a daily basis. Not only was homophobia a problem but racial issues were as well. My daughter felt threatened and hurt by her peers. Going to school every day was a struggle and she began to isolate herself.

Fortunately, I found a school with which I am very happy. Before enrolling Amanda, I met with the principal and explained our dilemma. I was pleased and comforted by assurances of my child's safety. My daughter's first day was exciting. We hiked up the long flights to the top floor--out of breath and somewhat disappointed. "Not again," I thought, noticing that my child was the only Black child in the class. A repetition, I thought, of her Massachusetts school days. As we watched child after child walk in I saw her face light up when she saw a familiar face--another Black girl! Then two others came along with other children of color. Now my daughter is a happy, healthy, well-rounded, educated and socially aware individual. When she is asked about her parents, she proudly says, "I have two moms!" Gayness is not an issue for her, societal ignorance is.

I met my partner Shantal four years ago during Gay Pride Weekend in New York City. We fell in love instantly. After going on several dates and traveling back-and-forth from Massachusetts to New York to be together, we decided to move in together. In the second year of our relationship, Shantal and I had a commitment ceremony. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Although we do not get the same rights as heterosexual married couples, we felt the need to share our love with family and friends. Our ceremony was unique. Shantal, Amanda and I recited vows to one another. We felt strongly that our commitment was a family commitment, which included our child. We all exchanged rings that have three women symbols interlocked, showing our commitment and unity. Shantal's last name is Dessuit, and Amanda's and mine is Rivera. After our vows to one another, we decided to hyphenate our names. We are the Rivera-Dessuit family.

Barriers of society and institutional oppression constantly stump us, but we educate ourselves and learn along the way. When I came out about nine years ago I began my life's mission for equality. In college I started a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) social group and club. Since then I have worked for numerous organizations to promote gay rights, and now I head the Racial and Economic Justice Initiative at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: Policy Institute. This initiative seeks to add economic and racial-justice priorities to the agendas of mainstream LGBT organizations and to educate non-gay civil fights groups working on race and poverty about their LBGT constituencies. I will continue to work in any capacity to ensure that my family, young and old LGBT people and society in general are free from all types of oppression. I strive to show my family the importance of linking all struggles and discriminatory acts. With time comes change and, at times, understanding. Society has a long way to go in the struggle for LGBT human fights and it has made some accomplishments. Until we can realize the connections and how oppressions work to conquer and divide society, we will never be a united liberated front.

Asking me why I am a lesbian is like asking me why I have brown eyes. Because that's my reality. Because that's who I am.

NOTE from Ingrid Rivera-Dessuit:  'WHY I AM A LESBIAN' ESSAY IN MARCH ISSUE OF EBONY MAGAZINE Hello all Just wanted to send out this e-mail so all of you can check out the March issue of Ebony Magazine. A POC (African American) straight magazine has published an Essay of mine. In fact Ebony called me to do the article. The article is entitled "Why I am a Lesbian". The magazine is running a special annual women's issue and I was very happy to have been included. Please e-mail or write to Ebony letting them know that they need to have more of our voices included in their magazine. People need to know that GLBT people are everywhere and we are of every racial/cultural/ethnical background. Thank them for venturing out. If they get a lot of positive responses--who knows what could happen :) Thanks all. Ingrid Rivera-Dessuit Womyn of color/ activist/ mother/ lesbian

This article and the above email can also be found at:  http://www.angelfire.com/pa4/nlgjaphiladelphia/notes0302.html

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