This story was printed from
"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
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
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
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:
COPYRIGHT 2001 Johnson Publishing
in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart. COPYRIGHT 2001