Monday, July 23, 2012

Contributions from the Closet

Here I am again, commenting on an icon's passing. Sally Ride, America’s first woman to fly in space, passed away today at sixty-one. That is so young. She had so much more to give and she gave plenty. Her Sally Ride Science programs have educated countless children. Her contributions to society were numerous. That’s why I was saddened to read a comment on a Facebook post concerning a Huffington Post article.
The article’s title: “Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space, Revealed To Have Female Partner Of 27 Years.” I won’t go into the article, just the comment I read. The comment stated, “Too bad she didn’t come out before she died. She could have helped so many.” That struck a chord in me. My first thought – What about the people she did help?
It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like to work in education, and at the core, that is what Sally did. Sure, there are districts that openly support all employees, regardless of sexuality. Amen to that. There are many more that outwardly support progressive anti-discrimination policies, and inwardly drive out suspected homosexuals with abandon. If they want you gone, they will find a way. It’s not just in education, but that is my focus here.
Yes, if you can live your life freely, be exactly who you are in any given situation, then halleluiah! Please, by all means, set positive role models for the community. Give these children someone to look up to. Show them there is nothing to be ashamed of, that it does get better.
But perhaps your contribution to the world involves teaching children. Trust me, as a former teacher; my sexuality was of no concern to the students. The parents on the other hand, were not so indifferent. I taught a lot of kids. I’d like to think I made a difference in their lives. I know I did for some of them. They have told me so. Some even credited me with keeping them alive through high school. My question is, was my contribution less important or meaningless because I was not OUT to the world? Had I been an out lesbian, I would have never been allowed to darken the door of my school. Who would have taken my place? Would the outcome of some of those children’s lives have been changed by my absence?
Too often I think we put so much passion into calling people out, we forget that many people toil in the closet because they have so much to give that would be taken away if they lived openly. I’m not talking about personal wealth. I’m talking about the lives they change every day just by being there. Yes, my sexuality is a big part of who I am, and I was always saddened that I couldn’t share my happy life with my students, but what I could share, I did. I am out now, and out of teaching, so I do know how wonderful it feels to just be me. I now live my life openly and I hope have inspired some others to do so as well, but I don’t see my time in the closet as less of a life, just a different one.
Sally Ride chose to keep her personal life out of the public eye. Yes, it is sad that she couldn’t let the world know she loved and was loved by a woman. Yep, too bad she didn’t come out, but yes, she helped many in the way that she could. It’s not as cut and dry as advocates would like to think. The “You’re hurting the community by staying in the closet” mentality does not take into account the many contributions made by people who remain closeted for whatever reasons. The universe may have put them where they are to save a soul, you never know.
I long for the day when these come out or stay in conversations are unnecessary, but don’t judge someone for keeping their closet door tightly closed. You don’t know the path they walk until you walk it. One day, when all the doors are open, the violence and discrimination over, a little girl will look to the sky while her mother tells her of the brave Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and all the amazing things she did. That kid won’t care who Sally was sleeping with. She'll just say, "Wow! What an awesome name for an astronaut!" 
Ride on, Sally, ride on. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Honky Tonk Angel

Kitty Wells died today. Some of you may not know the “Queen of County Music.” You should look her up. She was the first female to top the country music charts. Miss Kitty paved the way for Dolly, Loretta, Reba, and all the women of country music that followed in her footsteps. There would have never been a Patsy without Kitty. She has gone on now, joining her friends from the Hall of Fame, the innovators that made it possible for the young stars of today to live like kings and queens. These were the people that toured the dirt back roads of America, sleeping in cars, singing for enough money to make it to the next town or radio station, selling vinyl records out of the trunks of cars. When you’re talking about the roots of country music, you can’t have the conversation without mentioning the Queen, Miss Kitty Wells.
When I think of Kitty Wells, I hear the music of my childhood. My grandparents were quite good musicians and their house was always packed on Saturday nights with pickers and crooners – guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, if it had a string on it, I saw someone play it, and there were accordions, spoons, jaw harps, harmonicas, even saw blades made to sing like violins. Grandma banged out the tunes on an ancient upright piano. They shared old songs, passed down through generations. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was seeing and hearing American history in music. These were the instruments and songs that sang America into being. These were the songs of my ancestors.
Occasionally, they’d play a song I had heard on the radio. I sang along with renditions of tunes by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Ray Price, Johnny and June Cash. I learned to love Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Momma Maybelle and the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, but most of all I learned to love country music. I love the stories the songs tell, not only in the lyrics, but in instruments themselves. Musical instruments have carried the soul songs of the many cultures that have walked this earth. Guitars and fiddles have carried mine.
So when I read that Kitty Wells had passed away, I heard her voice clearly, singing her signature song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Another country music icon is gone, but her music will live on through the voices of the younger generations. I’m just hoping those country music stars remember to thank her and the others when they step up on those multimillion dollar tour buses. I also hope they remember folks like my grandparents and their parents, who kept the music alive before recordings, before radio, passing it down generation by generation. They were country, when county wasn’t cool.
Heaven might have a hell of a Rock and Roll band, but I bet the spirits will be pickin’ and grinnin’ at the old Ryman Auditorium tonight, welcoming home the Queen of County Music. Thank you, Kitty Wells, thank you for the memories.