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Growing up poor in the Midwest, there was nothing I desired so much as a home to call my own. From the moment my parents divorced, we were nomads — and achingly poor nomads, at best.
While my mother lay in a hospital, inching closer to death last year, I tried to distract myself with counting the number of times we skipped out on rent mid-month, or slept in the car, or couch-surfed with friends of my mom — and gave up at 47. Most of my baby photos were lost in a house fire at one rental property, my baby book was left behind at another; from these mishaps I learned that possessions were sentimental and meaningless and that there was no such place as home.
The constant reliance on the kindness of others had a negative effect on my life. I learned that doing exactly what our hosts told us to do (clean everything, cook dinner for everyone, and even babysit both their kids and my siblings so that my mom and her friends could get wasted) meant another month or two of a bed and a roof over our head that hadn't been manufactured in Detroit. I wanted to please everyone, no matter the cost to myself.
On top of all of my other problems (poverty, mental illness, a neglectful and abusive mother), I realized that I liked girls a lot more than the local churches thought I should. At 15, I moved in with my grandparents and then deep into the closet for another 15 years. My uncle was kicked out of their house for being gay, and I was determined that the same fate would not befall me. My grandparents were the only family I had left, and I was desperate to please them.
Conversations in Kansas about homosexuality at the time can best be summed up as, “no one is really gay; they could find happiness in a heterosexual relationship if they tried hard enough.” Deep down, I knew that wasn't true, that homosexuality wasn't something anyone chose — at least when it came to other people. I convinced myself that if I tried hard enough, I could change.
I dated boys in high school, copying the behavior I saw in other couples at our school. After high school ended, I dated my best male friend, and five years later, I married him.
We moved to Arizona, and I tried with all of my might to love him in the way he loved me.
I'd saved quite a bit of money over the years, and when the housing crisis hit, we jumped at the chance to finally own a house. We looked at more than 67 houses before finding one that he liked. I hated the property on sight. It was stucco in a disgusting shade of melon with a huge weed- and cacti-filled yard. Trees loomed over the back of the house, half-dead and skeletal. Inside, the ceilings were low and covered in "popcorn," the rooms were oddly shaped and closed off, and the flooring was bubblegum-pink shag carpet stained every few feet with God only knew what. Nothing grew in the backyard; every single thing I planted there withered and died within weeks.
The only positive of the property for me was the price: $86,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a two-car garage. Even at that price, I could not love the house. But like so many other things in life, I gave in to avoid making waves.
Whenever I see news stories about someone coming out as gay after being married to an opposite-sex partner, there is always someone commenting about how the gay person should have come out before and saved the pain for their spouse. People who have never been in the situation believe that the gay person isn't aware of the pain that they're causing. There was not one moment I was unaware of his possible pain; my desire not to hurt him kept me trapped. Every day, my depression grew stronger until I was unable to leave the house or even the bed for days at a time.
At a certain point, I started feeling like I was choking on the words “I'm gay.” Every time I opened my mouth, I feared they'd slip out and destroy everything. Then one day, I woke up and realized I could not take the life I was living anymore. I sat down with my husband and said, “I'm gay.”
He stared at my face and then shook his head.
“You're not. I would know.”
That was all that he'd hear on the subject. For the next several months, every time I said, “I want a divorce,” he'd shake his head and say I was confused. Even when I checked myself into a mental hospital because of overwhelming suicidal thoughts, he refused to hear what I was saying.
Through it all, the house began to feel like a tomb. When we bought the house, it was with the intention of fixing it up together, but he never lifted a finger to make an improvement. If you've ever tried to replace a light fixture, or fix a sprinkler system, or remove popcorn from a ceiling, then you know how hard it is to do with two people. Imagine doing it by yourself while someone else sat off to the side, only watching. The house was filled with reminders that no matter how hard I worked on my home or my life, I was doing that work alone.
I couldn't afford a lawyer for a divorce. At the time, he made more money than I did, and I was in danger of losing my job. If forced to sell the house, I'd be stuck paying part of the mortgage and rent on another place or resort to sleeping in my car until it sold. At night, I'd lie in my bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark, desperate to find a way out.
One day, I realized there was another option. In the cave-like living room, I sat across from this man I swore to love, honor, and obey and took a deep breath.
“I'm a lesbian, and I want a divorce.”
He nodded, frustrated with me, and I could see him opening his mouth to respond, but I didn't give him the chance.
“I'll give you the house, free and clear.”
For a moment, he said nothing before nodding. In the end, the offer to give him the house was what convinced him that I was serious and not confused.
The next day, I sat at my computer and filled out divorce papers on the Maricopa County website. When I left my job, I paid off the joint credit card so we wouldn't have any shared debt and waited for the divorce to be granted. I moved into a bedroom in a friend of a friend's place and paid $400 a month for the privilege. My first night there, I looked around at the light, open space of my room, sat down on my bed, and cried.
Once our divorce was final, we met at a coffee shop near my new job so I could sign the mortgage paperwork granting him the house. When I walked in, he was sitting at the table looking happier than I'd ever seen him, next to the woman who is now his wife.
A little awkward chit-chat, a signature, and then I left to the townhouse where I lived with my fiancée. Like the bedroom I'd lived in upon first moving out, this place was bright and sunny. We've since moved to sunny San Diego. Our new place is less than 600 square feet, but it has hardwood floors and a living room lit up by the sun. When I put together a bookcase, stain a table, or replace the sod in the backyard, I know I'll no longer do it by myself.
Although my friends and family don't understand it, I don't regret giving up the house to get divorced. If I have any regrets about the house, it's that I agreed to buy the house in the first place. Waiting for the house to sell was never an option for me — giving it up was well worth the price of freedom.