Identity is a funny thing. Sometimes we think we will be known a certain identity, only to find out that is not the case, as a recent encounter with a neighbor reminded me.
First, some background. My family and I were profiled about two years ago for the Whole Foods Market’s northeast regional quarterly magazine. The company wanted to show it attracts a diverse clientele, and we were happy to oblige in the name of LGBT visibility.
Fast forward to a couple of Saturdays ago, when our phone rang unexpectedly. I didn’t recognize the number from the caller ID, but could see that it was someone in our town. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Susan Walsh. This is going to sound strange, but I saw your family in Whole Foods’ magazine.”
Cool, I thought. I know where this is going. How nice to have another lesbian couple in town. Also: Wow. She’s pulling information out of two-year-old magazine. I wonder if she’s newly out and just now worked up the courage to call us.
“I read in the article that you like to cook with tomatillos,” she continued.
My brain blinked. That wasn’t at all what I had been expecting. The interview for the article had been so long ago, too, I didn’t really remember what I’d said. Tomatillos, the tart, green cousin of the tomato, sounded probable, though. I think the interviewer had asked something about what kinds of things I liked to get at Whole Foods that I couldn’t always get at other supermarkets. And I do sometimes make a mean tomatillo salsa. I mumbled something vague and affirmative.
The woman said, “I have about two dozen tomatillos from my garden that I’m not going to eat, and I don’t want to see them go to waste. Would you like them?”
I agreed, not wanting to look a gift tomatillo in the mouth, and pleased by this unexpected kindness from a neighbor. She lived across town, but delivered a bag of perfectly ripe, washed tomatillos later that day. She mentioned her husband in passing, so I knew that coming out to us had not been the reason for her call. I thanked her profusely for the produce, then made a salsa.
There was a lesson in that, I thought to myself later. Sometimes, as much as we wrap ourselves in one identity, it is not necessarily the one that others choose to see. It was clear from the Whole Foods article that my spouse and I were, well, spouses. Our neighbor could care less. Our identity as tomatillo eaters was of greater interest.
I thought of identities again the day before Thanksgiving. I spent the first part of my morning sautéing leeks for our son’s school Thanksgiving feast, to which they could only bring foods that the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people might reasonably have eaten in 1621. (Mini marshmallows on sweet potatoes were a no-go.) By the time I signed up, leeks were the only thing left—so I took myself to Whole Foods and bought some, which I duly sliced and cooked. Later in the day, I used the same pan to fry latkes, the potato pancakes traditional at Hanukkah—for this was the year of “Thanksgivukkah,” the once-in-a-lifetime conjunction of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.
I was feeling several intertwined identities that day. I was a mother, cooking for my son. I was an American, a citizen of a nation founded in large part on Pilgrim ideals. I was the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who shared not only the Pilgrim’s desire for religious freedom, but also the Native Americans’ history of experiencing genocide and diaspora.
At other times, I am also a lesbian, a spouse, a daughter, a writer, a geek, and various other things. It can sometimes be hard, though, not to let myself be defined by only one of those identities, and not to assume which one other people will see and respond to.
It can be equally hard, though, when one of those identities feels invisible. When my son was little and I was staying home with him, I would take him to playgroups and get annoyed that the other parents assumed I had a husband. I didn’t want to be defined solely as a lesbian, but also thought it was important to have a certain amount of visibility. I was tempted to shear my hair short and start wearing old Pride t-shirts—but realized that would simply reinforce the idea that a lesbian looked a certain way.
I also want to be careful not to let my identity as a lesbian define my son, even though I hope he takes pride in his family. I need to let him have the space to define himself and not be known solely as “the boy with the lesbian moms.” So far, I think we’re succeeding.
Most of us, I think, do a similar dance of identities throughout our lives, whether about our sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other characteristic. I’m thrilled, therefore, when my expectation of how people will respond to one of my identities is contradicted for the better. It reminds me that there is always more to learn about ourselves—and sometimes about the friendliness of our neighbors.
[“Susan Walsh” is a pseudonym to protect my neighbor’s privacy.]
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.
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