A couple years ago, I was living in Australia when I met a wonderful American woman on the Internet: Let’s call her Claudia. We started talking on a feminist mailing list, and started mailing flirty emails back and forth, eventually moving up to phone calls -- of the four-hour-long kind. We shared the same feminist Left politics, sci-fi nerdery and goofy sense of humour.
Conversation by conversation, we began, improbably, to fall in love from across the world.
After a few months of this, I maxed out my credit card, hopped a plane and traveled the 36 hours from Perth, Western Australia to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was a world away from the secular city I knew -- full of megachurch billboards and intimidatingly huge crosses.
On one of our many long phone conversations, Claudia had confessed that her parents were in fact fundamentalist Southern Baptists. Pro-life, anti-gay, Republican-for-life washed-in-the-blood-of-our-savior fundamentalists. Forced to choose between outness and having a family, she made the choice common to a lot of people still in the South -- to live in a glass closet, an unspoken intruder into her family’s violently heteronormative world.
To ease her parents into the idea of us a couple, Claudia thought it best I meet them first as a friend, so that they could get to know me as a person without the baggage of being The Lesbian Ruiner of Their Child’s Virtue. Though she had, however, told her mother that I was queer, hoping to prime her for our relationship.
So we drove several hours into the country, turning off the interstate, and traveling through windy dirt roads until we finally came to her parents’ farmhouse. As we walked into the living room, I was confronted by a wall full of stuffed stag heads. On the other side of the room lay a open cabinet, full of rifles.
“Claudia,” I said, in a strangled voice, “I’m going to die here.”
Now you must understand that most Australians live in the suburbs, and we have strict gun controls. I didn’t know anyone who owned a gun, and tales of gun violence were rare, mostly involving the motorcycle gangs who run Perth’s brothels and nightclubs. I’d seen handguns occasionally on the hips of police officers walking the street, and looked at them with the fascination one tends to reserves for brightly colored poisonous snakes at the zoo. It was as foreign and shocking scene to me as a BDSM nightclub would be to the fundamentalists whose house I had just entered.
Claudia’s mom came into the room from the back of the house, greeting her daughter warmly with a hug and a kiss, and then to my surprise, did the same to me. She talked animatedly, offered a blur of hearty Southern and cajun food and beverages, and then quizzed me about Australia, cooking and my writing.
This was not the reaction I’d expected. Maybe Claudia had misjudged her parents?
The first signs of the fragility of that congeniality came at the end of the night, when Claudia’s dad asked if “the girls” were going to share the double bed in the spare room.
“Emily can sleep on the couch,” her mom replied, frigidly. Claudia snuck to the couch give me a goodnight kiss, and said that her mom had decided not to tell her dad about me. Too shocking, and there was a lot of guns there, after all.
The next day, as we hugged goodbye, I remarked that it was amazing we had got on so well despite our differences. And then it came, like a slap to the face, the judgment as solid as a brick wall. Her mother said, “I like you, Emily, but I don’t approve of you. I’m a proud fundamentalist; I’m hardcore.” And then she smiled, waved us goodbye and we were on our way.
After another year, we got engaged. Claudia told her family about our plans, and that I planned to move to the U.S, which with some patience and a lot of money I managed to do. We created a cosy lesbian haven with our four cats and apartment full of books, after a few months, were married in a small ceremony unattended by her family.
But her family didn’t simply cut her out of her life. They love her. They give her every chance to give up her “sinning,” while persistently assuming the worst possible interpretation for my every action and statement. Every few months, she receives an email full of disappointment at her supposed failures, and afterward, I hold my wife as she cries.
We’re told that we’re welcome in their house, so long as we pretend not to be a couple, but it’s not true. Even if Claudia goes to see her family by herself, she gets only the cold response I received at the end of my visit. Claudia has invited her mom to see our apartment, but even with the promise of my absence, she won’t deign to enter our Sapphic den of iniquity.
It’s hard not to be angry at my in-laws, when they’re hurting my partner, or when they accuse me of something new. And it hurts to be rejected as a daughter-in-law, and doubly so that they tell me I have ruined their family.
But like it or not, they’re Claudia’s family, and that means they’re mine too. I’ve stopped hoping that things will ever improve, that their love for their daughter will ever win out over their hate. And so I don’t expect things to ever change with my in-laws, now that the glass closet is forever shattered.