Five letters. Two syllables. Is there another declaration in the English language both smaller and bigger than this one?
My 17-year-old son says momit’s no big deal. No one, he surmises, should have to “come out.” Just be who you are. He says this to me on the porch over plates of pasta, just before we discuss whether or not to walk to Trimmers, at the end of the village, for ice cream. And his words feel to me, even in their wrongness, like rainbow sprinkles on chocolate swirl. Like love.
I’m gay. I’m also 59, a mother of two, a sole breadwinner, and a public health biologist who believes science is a public servant. I fight hard and often against the oil and gas industry. I’m an adoptee without a medical history and a cancer survivor full of scars who undergoes colonoscopies without narcotics, who once stayed up all night to finish a white paper on endocrine-disrupting chemicals before heading to the hospital to have my ovaries removed because I can sleep under anesthesia. Six years ago, my husband Jeff suffered a series of unexplained strokes and is disabled. I will always, always care for him. If I’m gay, it’s a big deal.
My student Mahad texts me. I’m incredibly proud to see you coming out publicly. It’s a hard-won right to come out and it takes a lot of courage Sandra and I’m just so happy for you. These are the words that are helping me write this essay.
I didn’t choose to be gay, but, out of all the possible words I could claim from the sexuality spectrum, I choose the most parsimonious one. It’s all I can do for now.
First, a statement of being, like the beginning of a hymn, like the oboe that tunes the orchestra.
And then the back-of-the-throat, open-mouthed truth.
I didn’t just find out I’m gay exactly. The finding out began in December 2015 when I left the U.N. climate talks in Paris and traveled to another conference where I found myself thinking often of a fellow climate activist and trusted friend who had also been in Paris. And when I thought of her, I was overcome with a strange falling feeling. As if I were falling through space outside of my own body. It occurred to me I had a brain tumor. It occurred to me I was falling in love. Once home again, I figured it out. I kept my own counsel.
Until I didn’t.
Her response to my confession was a confession of her own.
Thus began a complex process that involved self-discernment, therapy, many long, difficult conversations, but also wonder and awe. This has taken time. The only way I can explain the transformation is via a series of as ifs. It’s as if I saw the world in black and white and then an unseen molecular signal triggered a cascade of epigenetic changes and, behold, I have color vision. As if color were joy.
It’s as if a Rube Goldberg-style chain reaction has been set in motion—a lever is pulled and a ball rolls down a ramp, knocking over an umbrella that spills a bucket that swings a pendulum into a toy car that lights a match that shoots off a rocket that pulls a string that opens a closet door . . . and there she is. A biologist in a closet. She’s been there all along. She is me, and I am her, but I am also the careening ball and the tilting bucket and the igniting match.
It’s a destabilizing discovery at a time in my life when I value ballast. After some research, I learn that other women in middle age who discover they are gay report similar feelings: It was like I was watching a movie about myself but unable to control what was unfolding. Everything fell apart.
Jeff, somehow, feels the truth of my experience and offers kindness and grace. And also grief. Which I share. It’s unthinkable that I would scatter this family after so many years of holding us all together. Colleen and Jeff and I meet. We take a long walk together. A plan emerges. Colleen rents a small apartment near our house, and so does Jeff. He and I can take turns spending nights in our house, and the kids can stay put. When Jeff is at the house, I’ll stay through the evening to help with dinner and homework and then walk to Colleen’s to spend the night. But before this plan can be revealed and phased in, I need to find loving, truthful words that allow me to come out to my kids, who are both in high school. This is a very big deal. Scripts are drafted, rewritten, revised, scrapped, rewritten again.
I always knew I was adopted. In the generation of which I’m part, illegitimacy was shameful and adoption surrounded by silence and deception. Accordingly, I possess a falsified birth certificate that names my adoptive mother and father as having given birth to me in a hospital they’ve never seen, in a city they have never lived in. It’s the only documentation of my birth that I have. Which is to say, in the 1950s and 60s, the disclosure of truth about an adoptee’s origins was largely left up to the discretion of one’s adoptive parents—if indeed they themselves were provided truthful details by the adoption agency. Although practices varied from state to state, identifying information about one’s birth parents was almost always pulled from the public record and sealed.
My parents were progressive for their time. They told my sister and me over and over, starting at an age before memory, that we were adopted. I never didn’t know.
This is not the case for many other adoptees in my age cohort whose parents chose non-disclosure. But adoption is a secret that wants to come out. Often, adoptees who don’t know they are adoptees stumble upon the truth later in life. Based on my conversations with them, these adoptees have a harder time of it. But some also report that the discovery of one’s adoption validated a long-standing suspicion, a precognition of difference and unbelonging that lay just under the surface of consciousness. A truth almost, but not quite, in plain sight, that, when revealed, explains a lot. Either way, it’s destabilizing, and the whole story of one’s identity has to be rewritten, revised, scrapped, rewritten again. Lies have to be unraveled. This is a complex process that requires years.
As for discovering I’m gay: it’s as if I’m holding in my hands a copy of my original birth certificate. Unsealed at last. This is who I am.
Colleen has always known she is gay. She can’t remember a time before this knowledge. She refers to herself as a lesbian now—a word that was not available to her at, say, 16. We are more or less the same age.
Her long-standing self-knowledge does not, however, mean that she came of age within the LGBTQ community or that she was seen, heard, and accepted as a lesbian within her family. Silence, secrecy, and deception were the watch words. After high school and a first attempt at college, she entered the military—and stayed there, first in the Army and then in the Air Force, at a time when gays and lesbians were barred from serving. Per U.S. Department of Defense Directive 1332.14, January 1981: “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.”
Along the way, she spun stories about imaginary boyfriends. Her date to the military ball was the brother of her then-girlfriend. Like falsified birth certificates that allow adoptees to obtain passports, the presence of an apparent male partner for a lesbian soldier or airman provided cover and the appearance of legitimacy at a time when gay servicemembers could be discharged under other than honorable circumstances if found out. The higher she rose through the ranks, the higher her security clearance and the higher the stakes.
That was a place of shame for me because I knew I was lying. Telling lies is hard. Maintaining those lies is harder. I got good at it, but every lie creates fear that you will be found out.
Her last two tours of duty were in the White House and in the Pentagon at a time when the Defense Department was actively gathering data on gays and lesbians with the explicit intent of pushing back against efforts to lift the ban, an effort that would eventually result in the equally disastrous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in October 1993.
On April 25, 1993, Colleen, still enlisted and carrying a LIFT THE BAN sign, joined the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, one of the largest protests in American history. It was a daring choice that came with risk of disclosure, and it was a point of no return.
The March on Washington was huge for me. It was my coming out. The personnel office in the Pentagon where I then worked was targeting gay and lesbian servicemembers. I myself was a target. Shortly after the march, I accepted an early retirement from the Air Force, and when I left that environment, I was done hiding.
Colleen now organizes Veterans for Climate Justice. It was through our shared work on climate change that we met. She sees the climate crisis as a national security crisis. I see it as a public health crisis. We’re a good team.
We didn’t know that we would fall in love, both of us entering our 60s. Despite our different histories, we are each still discovering our place in the LGBTQ community.
The first time I lay in her arms, I wept. I didn’t know that things like this existed on this planet. Which is the truest thing that I have ever said.
Why I didn’t figure this out sooner, reason 1.
My freshman year of college, I made a friend. She was also a biology major, a year older than I. We studied the intricacies of the Krebs Cycle and Friedel-Crafts alkylation together, and we shared a love of modernist poetry, which was rare in the organic chemistry and invertebrate zoology labs.
I do not remember anything leading up to this moment, but during one late-night study session on my bed, I looked up at her and said I’m in love with you.
She said, in words that I can’t recall, that she did not share my feelings and then got up and walked out. I remember her brown hair against her back as she left the room.
The next day, we both pretended that this never happened. And I was relieved, so relieved, that she would still be my friend.
Why I didn’t figure this out sooner, reason 2.
At the end of my sophomore year of college, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Of all human cancers, it’s the one most likely to recur—in 74 percent of cases it comes back—and so, once diagnosed, a bladder cancer patient leads a highly medicalized life forevermore. Over the past 40 years, I have logged countless hours in hospitals and procedure rooms, wearing paper gowns, and backless blue cotton gowns, many of those involving my legs up in stirrups.
The medical profession has a name for the fear that is triggered by cancer check-ups. They call it scanxiety. Which is clever, but wrong. It’s trauma. I cope with medical trauma by disconnecting myself from my body during any sort of medical procedure—like, say, a cystoscope or transvaginal ultrasound—and living inside my head until it’s over. I’m good at this, I have a high pain threshold, and I’m also just fucking brave.
My case was made complicated by my adoption status and lack of family history to help guide medical decision-making, which meant erring on the side of caution via ordering extra tests. Between 20 and 25—the age where many people focus on sexual discovery—I was living in a different world.
Why I didn’t figure this out sooner, reason 3.
My book, Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, is dedicated to Jeannie Marshall, who died before the book was published of a rare spinal cord cancer. She is also a character in the book. A cancer activist trained in engineering, Jeannie was investigating an alleged cancer cluster near her hometown south of Boston, which is how we met, and when she suffered a massive recurrence in 1994, she bequeathed her research materials to me.
We were also lovers of sorts, although I do not disclose this fact in my book, nor did I tell more than a few close friends at the time, nor did she. Jeannie was not out to her (large, Catholic) family, and her identity as a lesbian was mostly a secret that she controlled. She was also partially paralyzed with a terminal diagnosis and understandably angry about both. Our relationship was necessarily focused on caregiving. She refused hospice. She died in my arms in the Mass General Hospital and in the presence of a former girlfriend—who was the big love of Jeannie’s life and who happened to walk in at just the right moment, for which I will be forever grateful.
At the funeral, I kept our secret. After the funeral, my grief buried it further. Twenty-four years later, I’m revealing it.
Mahad Olad is a 21-year-old Somali immigrant from Minneapolis. He’s also an American citizen. He’s also gay. He is also a student of mine who wrote a paper for my class on the impact of climate change on social conflict in Muslim-dominant nations. Before he came to Ithaca College, he was my daughter’s friend from a high school writing workshop at Carleton College. Mahad sometimes stays at our house during school breaks when the dorms are closed.
Two years ago, shortly after the end of the semester, my daughter received a text from Mahad, and she came to me saying mom I think he’s in trouble.
He was. Having fled in the night from a hotel room in Nairobi, Mahad was at a gated compound at the American Embassy, under the temporary protection of a U.S. counsel. When I got him on the phone, he explained that his family had taken him from Minneapolis to Kenya on false premises. Once there, his mother confronted him with personal essays that he had published in our student newspaper about his intersectional identity as gay, black, immigrant raised in Muslim culture, and she revealed the real purpose of the trip: to deliver him, against his will, to a gay conversion camp run by Somali religious leaders and known for abusive practices.
Throughout the Memorial Day weekend, I worked with our State Department and with Ithaca College to make arrangements to get Mahad out of Kenya and back to campus, with housing, a summer job, and a security detail to keep him safe. All kinds of people collaborated to make this happen. On May 31, 2017, after three days of travel, Mahad arrived at the Ithaca airport, where I found him sleeping on a bench by baggage claim. Since then, he has told the story of his experience to the BBC, The New York Times, and has thrown himself into activism. From his own column in The Ithacan:
Similar to the practice of gay conversion therapy in the United States, there are those within the Muslim community who utilize abusive tactics as a way of policing what they consider to be “deviant” behavior. Even though my mother “asked” me to go, I knew that it wasn’t really a choice . . . .I know that I want to do everything I can to prevent this from happening to others like me.
I was not out to my students, including Mahad, in 2017. During the long hours I waited for him to arrive back in the United States—and especially during the harrowing moments he was detained by Kenyan security for additional questioning at the airport, and I didn’t know if he would be permitted to board the plane or not—I vowed to myself to come out in a more public way. I wanted my LGBTQ students to know they had an ally and mentor. And so here I am.
Today, July 5, is LGBT STEM Day, which intends to showcase and celebrate the lives of LGBTQ+ people in science, technology, engineering, and math around the world. It’s also a day to recognize that barriers in STEM to diversity, equality, and inclusion still remain.
And, of course, you want to know the logic behind the date. The numerical translation of July 5 is 705, which in nanometers, is the wavelength of the color red, the color of life. And for everyone else in the world, where it’s 5 July: 507 is the wavelength of the color green, which is the color of nature.
I’m an adoptee who takes the Darwinian Tree of Life as my personal ancestry. I’m a biologist in love with photosynthesis. It’s a good day to say I’m gay.
Header image by Visions-AD, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Sandra Steingraber with portrait of biologist Rachel Carson (by Rob Shetterly) at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Maine, by Colleen Boland.