Two Decades in Coming-Out Stories

1998: Marisol at 7

From the back of her mother’s minivan, she makes her announcement:

“When I grow up, my husband’s gonna take my last name.”

The words must hit her mother like a slap.

The 25-year-old woman in the driver’s seat knows what it means to fear for her children. She has known that fear since the day that Mari, her eldest, was born.

But today she comes face-to-face with that other, additional reason that she fears for the future. Mari is her ace, her mini-me. What does she already understand about her little daughter? The pair have been fighting over dresses and jerseys, Mary Janes and sneakers since Mari was a toddler. Mari’s mother must know, in that moment, that the fighting over how Mari will dress, how she will speak, how she will play with her brothers, has barely begun.

Mommy answers.

“You might change your mind about that when you’re older.”

“No,” says Mari. Innocence is clarity. “I won’t.”


2004: Pauli at 12

I don’t understand why I am no longer welcome at the lunch table.

I hadn’t been afraid. I’d realized I was bisexual, and then I’d told my friends. I don’t think it’s any big deal, and neither do they.

Except for one, that is. Her name is Amy.

First Amy tries to convince the friend-group that a bisexual girl does not belong among them. When that doesn’t work she starts to maneuver them against me, one-by-one. She gauges into each girl’s insecurity with precision. She tells one that I ridicule her weight behind her back. She tells another that I call her poor, mock her for the size of her house.

On it goes until she’s worked her way around the table. Within a week, not one of them will speak to me. Not one of them will look me in the eye.

Suddenly friendless, I retreat into the closet. I claim to have been confused, seeking attention. I am not into girls.

I will never admit to being into girls again. The next time I assert my homosexual attraction, it’s to women.


2005: Marisol at 15

She opens her history notebook to a blank page deep in the middle. She begins to write.

I’m gay, she writes. I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay, until her revelation covers the page.

She looks it over.

The terror of seeing it ignites behind her eyes. She flips the page. Conceals the evidence.

She glances to her left, to her right. The kids in the adjacent desks are attending to the lecture or staring into space. No one is looking at her. What to do? How to get out of this?

The trash can is no good. Her handwriting is too identifiable. Even the sound of tearing out the page could draw notice. Could incriminate her, sitting with her truth splayed out before her in blue ink.

When class ends she shoves the notebook in her backpack, hustling it out the door like a live bomb.

She will go home, shred the guilty page into a slew of tiny pieces, and flush them down the drain.


2011: Marisol at 20

“I’m gay,” she tells her boyfriend.

They look at one another.

“Okay. Cool,” he answers.

They look at one another.

“So…” he asks. “What does this mean for us?”

He looks at her, eyes pleading. He’s in love with her. She’s the girl he wants to marry.

She looks back.


2013: Pauli at 20

My father picks me up in his white car in the dark. My 98-year-old grandfather rides in the passenger. We’ve barely gone a block when my Dad asks me if I’m seeing anybody.

“Uh huh. Yeah. I am. A basketball player.”

“Oh no kidding! Is he tall?”

“No, not really. She’s a point guard.”

My Dad taps the brake in the middle of the traffic, then accelerates. My head knocks forward, then knocks back. “She?! You’re dating a woman?!”

“Yes, Dad. Her name is Marisol.”

“Huh! A woman. Wow! Is she Jewish?”

“No, Dad. Her name is Marisol.”

My father reaches to his side, taps his father on the leg. “Did you hear that, Dad? Pauli has a girlfriend. She isn’t Jewish.”

“Ha!” my Grandpa answers. That’s the end of it.

I tell my little brother next. We are passing a bong between us in the grunge of our mother’s basement. I mention my girl. He tips back his head, eyes closing to the fluorescent light as if to bask in sun. He raises up a fist in triumph.

“I knew it! I KNEW it. I can’t WAIT to tell all my friends.”

And that’s that. I tell my mother last.

She’s heartbroken.

“How long have you known?” she asks me.

“That I’m bi? I’ve known for a long time. Since I was a kid.”

She stiffens. Her eyes open like wounds. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. We’ve always been so close.”

I am sorry. I am so, so sorry. She deserved my trust. I have kept her out for too many years.

I am arriving late. But I am here.


2018: Marisol and Pauli at the Altar

It is a celebration that extends outside of us.

We marry outdoors in the heart of downtown, as the sun is setting on a crisp September night. We are so spelled by one another that we don’t even notice it– our relatives and friends will tell us later. All around us, strangers gather. What is this scene they have happened across? Wedding guests, white and Black intermingled in the aisles. Two women in stilettos underneath the Chuppa, an old white Rabbi and a young Black minister standing sentinel behind.

Before, we were nervous. Ours was the first gay wedding in either family. We braced for the pushback, the tearful phone calls, the slew of no-shows.

But the pushback doesn’t come.

The family shows out in force for us. One hundred on her mother’s side alone. They sparkle in their finery. They radiate their joy.

Her father, stoic as always, walks her down the aisle to me, then sits down in the front row, fighting tears. By the end of the night, he and I will exchange our first “I love you.”

In the end, there is only one no-show. Mari’s uncle will have to stand in for him on the altar, at her side.

It is her brother who does not show up.


2020: Marisol at Home

She swears it: her family will never know.

I dropped it on my own family more than a year ago. Surrounded by my cousins, my brothers and their girlfriends, my wife at my side, I casually mentioned my boyfriend. Titters and grins made their way around the circle. My brother’s lady socked him in the arm, saying “Why don’t we do that?!” He shot me a glare, and that was that.

But my wife has no intention of revealing it to her family. They’ve come so far since we met, struggled against their Catholic ethics to accept her marriage as equal to any straight one. Why push our luck by telling them that marriage is non-monogamous, too?

For years, she holds the line. Then she meets a girl.

She falls in love, and it changes. First she tells her brother, the one who did stand beside us at our wedding. He laughs. “Yeah, no shit,” he says. He knows. He clocked us years ago, but had the grace to keep it quiet. “I knew you’d tell me when you felt like it,” he says. Simple as that.

Then she decides to tell her Mom. She asks her out on a walk just the two of them, saying she’s got something to talk to her about. And they talk about it.

“It’s strange to me, my daughter,” Mommy says. “I just hope that you protect your marriage. What you and Pauli have is sacred.”

“It is, Mom. I know. But this is a part of what we have. This is who we are.”

“Well my daughter. Whatever makes you happy.”

And that’s that.


Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Slamming on the Brakes at Our Intersection

This conversation is becoming a weekly ritual. Next month she turns thirty. I’ll be close behind. And we still can’t seem to make up our minds:

Do we want kids?

We trudge through the usual debate points and musings. “We’ll have to eat dinner at 5:30.” “We’ll be broke. We’ve barely got the money for the sperm.” “If we don’t, who will take care of us when we’re old?”

Then, suddenly, she calls up a different kind of trepidation. Says,

“You think I’ll make them hate being Jewish.”

Screeeech! Hit the brakes. Where did that come from?

“Baby,” I say. “No I don’t. You’ll be a wonderful Mom to Jewish kids. You already know the most important blessings…”

“No. I won’t be.” She pauses, considering something. “Maybe it’s just… it’s them having an identity that I won’t have. It’s too much. Being Black is hard enough, but Black AND Jewish… It’s a scary intersection.”

I blink. “It’s our intersection.”

She nods, slowly. “Yeah.”

She’s got a point. Would we be cursing our future children by deciding to have them? Is it fair, to put challenges onto our children that neither of us have faced ourselves?


On the coffee table in front of us a copy of The Color of Water by James McBride lies open, near its end. I have almost finished reading McBride’s telling of his mother’s story, in which she flees from her Orthodox Jewish family, marries a Black man, and raises twelve Black children. She overcomes the divide between the two communities that hold her life by destroying the Jew in herself, and never looking back. She changes her name, comes to Jesus, starts a church.

In my own family, I see the same pattern reflected. My eldest auntie married a Black man in the 1960’s and faced the rejection of her family and community for years. Though she never converted to a different religion, though she reconnected with my grandparents before I was born, she did not raise her son Jewish.

I remember my shock when I overheard her on the phone with her grown son in the week leading up to Rosh Hashana, explaining to him, “We eat apples and honey to celebrate a sweet new year.” My forty-year-old cousin didn’t know this simple tradition that was second nature to me by preschool?

One generation later, my aunt sends me pictures of her grandson lighting a menorah for Chanukah and reading picture books with Jewish themes. She is teaching him to take pride in his Jewish roots, and to understand that the history of the Jewish people is his history, too. But embracing one’s Jewish ancestry is not the same as being Jewish. I don’t know how my little cousin will identify as he grows. Will our traditions become his?

My wife and I have long since decided that, should we have children, we will raise them Jewish. They will be Black, of course. That part will most likely be determined by phenotype; it was never a subject of debate. We will raise our babies to be proud of their Blackness, to celebrate their heritage as descendants of the African diaspora. So why, I used to argue in the earlier days of our commitment, should the children we bring up together reflect her culture, her people, and not mine? Over time, she relented. It was a decision we reached before we married, and a condition of the marriage itself.

Our children will be free to reject Judaism if it does not suit them. Up to 70% of Jewish kids outside of the Orthodox community choose not to live a Jewish life when they grow up. And our babies will have more reason to reject the religion than does the average Jew. A wide majority Jewish communities in the US are white-dominated, and they harbor the same diseases as other white enclaves. It is unfortunately likely that the congregants of the synagogue where we enroll our children in Hebrew School will alienate them with racist comments, harassing them with questions like “how are you Jewish?” and “are you adopted?” Maybe our kids will want out of all Jewish spaces by the time they reach B’nai Mitzvah age at around 12, going through the sacred rite of passage into Jewish adulthood only if we force them, and withdrawing from the community immediately after.

And on the other side, how will their Black cousins and friends who are not Jewish shape their views of themselves? Will the same ugly conspiracies that have led me into tearful fights with my inlaws worm their way into my babies’ ears? Who will be the first to tell them that the Nazi Holocaust is a big lie, that their white mother is not a real Jew, that white Jews stole the religion from its Black rightful owners? Will it be family, a cousin they look up to? If those conspiracies don’t erode their sense of connection to their Jewishness, it may be that their Catholic elders will convince them that they are bound for hell until they come to Jesus.

None of these outcomes would surprise me. And there’s not a lot my wife or I could do to prevent them, or to protect our future children from the bone-deep confusion of belonging to two communities and feeling out-of-place in both– not a lot, beyond deciding not to have children at all.


For tonight, we run out of steam for the debate. She heads to bed, and I flop onto the couch to finish The Color of Water. In an afterward included for the 10th anniversary edition, McBride reflects on his family’s story with these words that feel uncannily apt, tonight:

I have met hundreds of mixed-race people of all types, and I’m happy to report that– guess what, folks– they’re happy, normal people! They’re finding a way. … The plain truth is that you’d have an easier time standing in the middle of the Mississippi River and requesting that it flow backward than to expect people of different races and backgrounds to stop loving each other, stop marrying each other, stop starting families, stop enjoying the dreams that love inspires. Love is unstoppable. It is our greatest weapon, a natural force, created by God.

James McBride, The Color of Water

I want to wake her. To rush into her quiet, shake her, tell her, “See! We won’t be failing our children by raising them. Our children can proud of who they are.”

“We will raise them in love and safety,” I want to tell her. “They’ll know a struggle that’s familiar to neither of us, it’s true. But they will know a peaceful home– they’ll know joy and healthiness that was also unfamiliar to us. We made it through our childhood hurts. They’ll make it through theirs, too.”

“Our children, our Black and Jewish children, if we have them, are gonna be okay.”

Instead, I resolve to show her in the morning. I tuck myself beside her, press my skin against her back, and join her sleep.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels