Friday, October 7, 2016

Jenny (Part 1): Grown-up Happy

Monday night, in a walk through West Philadelphia, Jenny called herself "grown-up happy." It's not the giddy happiness of our first relationships or the inspired happiness of a newly discovered art form. There are fewer firsts, but greater calm. Occasional satisfaction.

Jenny and I met on OKCupid in our mid-twenties. We were both new to any kind of gay community and ready to get out there. I'd already suffered my first major heartbreak with a woman but would date men again; Jenny had just broken up with her boyfriend of two years because she was gay. 

Romance was never in the cards. We both needed a like-minded friend more than we needed anything else. We hung out weekly in those early years, and the friendship blossomed into one of my closest adult friendships. Before Sonia and I moved in together, Jenny and I lived together for a year. 

She agreed to be my first blog interview. After seven years, I still had plenty to learn.

Last Friday, I arrived at Jenny's third-floor apartment and we settled at her circular, dinette table -- the one I'd left behind when I moved out. She prepared a peanut butter treat for her white pit bull mix, Snow, so the dog would leave us in peace.

We'd shared dozens of meals over the same table but this felt different, more formal. We started with religion, family and community.

Religion played a peripheral role in Jenny's experience of being a gay person in the world. Although her mother's family was secularly Jewish and her father's family Christian, Jenny said, "both parents explained it: people who believe in God are silly, and God doesn't exist."

Easy enough. Or not.

Even being religion-adjacent can be tough for LGBT people. The atheists have an easier time with it, but even atheist parents are still parents. 

Jenny explained, "My mom, who grew up atheist, her uncle came out as gay back in the 70s. She and her parents had already gone through this. But she was very adamant that she know -- 'you can't be bi, you can't be questioning' -- she needed to know, 'because I need to know what your future is going to look like.' Besides that, she was very accepting."

The Christianity on the other side of the family was a little tougher to navigate. 
My dad didn't really believe me for a while. He wanted me to go to therapy. He wouldn't let me tell his family, and that's where the religion part plays in. He thought his dad would view it as this moral dilemma -- either disown your granddaughter or accept something that you completely disagree with and hate. So he basically said, "Don't tell him until you're going to marry a woman." In his mind he was thinking [my grandfather would] be dead before that would happen. 
When I finally did tell [that side of the family], I was in my first long-term relationship with a woman and I wanted to bring her to my cousin's wedding. I told my cousin, and asked her what my grandfather would think. She [disagreed with my dad], and she was right. 
My grandfather took a few days to respond to my email and said, "this isn't what I would have wanted for you, but I still love you and accept you." Even now, if I'm single, he'll ask me if I'm going to date a man. I'm glad he'll say things like that rather than just not talk about it at all. 
I certainly felt this huge weight lifted once I was able to come out to that side of the family...I was watching my cousins get married and have babies, and to their knowledge I hadn't dated anyone in years. That was so weird and dishonest, so once that didn't have to be the case, I felt so much better.
Whatever chosen family and communities we can build up around ourselves as gay people, there is no denying the import of the love and acceptance of our family of origin.

Despite her religion-adjacent traumas with religion in her extended family, Jenny explored her own spirituality in different ways throughout her life.

"When I was a teenager, I started going to synagogue with my best friend. I connected a lot to her family's ritual around Judaism, and the community that they had around Judaism, and how it brought so much warmth to their lives." 

What if these were our standards for religious communities: warmth, inclusivity, richness and support? 

Jenny's personal spirituality matured when, in her mid- to late-twenties, she worked in hospice as a music therapist. Despite her resilient personality, I remember sitting across from her those years -- usually on someone's porch with beer or wine in-hand -- and noticing a new weight and intention in her approach to daily life. 

It's not easy to be around death all the time, even if the dying are older folks who led long and relatively healthy lives. Not all of Jenny's clients were that lucky, though. There were too many rough days without a supportive supervisor or administration. She had to find the answers for herself. 

"What I realized then was that music was my larger-than-self form of expression and form of connecting," she said. "I was very attached to music since I was five, so maybe there was always a part of me that was using music [to connect to spirituality] without even realizing it." 

I learned a few things through this first interview, and I'm so grateful I could run this experiment with one of my dearest friends. I learned that transcribing an interview takes a hell of a lot of time, and that I need to ask interviewees to trust me, rather than offer to let them read the post ahead of time. There's an urgency to blogging that will keep me engaged, and I lost it for a moment this week. 

Strangely, this interview with Jenny felt more like our first intimate conversations than it did our more recent, more comfortable friendship. The stakes were higher: to listen carefully, guide the conversation in a worthwhile direction and be true to her words. I'm grateful she's a key part of my community. 

Jenny's also been thinking a little bit about her communities lately, those she shares with her girlfriend and those they navigate separately.

"Moving to West Philly in the past year or two," she said, "I've developed a really strong queer community. I go to a party with some of these people, and the minority of people are straight couples. When I was first coming out, this was the kind of community I craved. It took years for me to find it, and now it feels so normal and so good. It helps me to interact more openly and honestly in my other communities."

From our first times dipping our toe into the pool, nodding across the bar and whispering to one another, "do you think she's gay?", to our now mostly-LGBTQ friend groups, Jenny and I ran toward queer adulthood arm-in-arm. I couldn't have asked for more thoughtful or kind partner in crime.

Perhaps because of that, there's a lot more interview to share. Stay tuned for Part 2. 

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