Dr. José Beth Smolensky is a classically trained musician and artist, but before her vast success and a life with her partner of 33 years, she was a young wife living with four children and a controlling, cheating husband. Excerpted from her new book, Hide and Seek: Out of the Darkness and Into My Life, Smolensky recounts her life as she was recognizing her lesbian identity.
Parents Without Partners, I thought, would be like belonging to a club or a church group. It could provide examples of folks helping each other out. Maybe, even potlucks. My trip to Florida had proven a big disappointment with that hope of family togetherness. That idea started to fall away soon after my arrival there. I truly am not certain as to the reason this occurred. My sister certainly jumped in to help me in that horrible situation of being locked up with my children gone. “Come to Florida” was her suggestion where she and her husband could fill their roles as “aunt and uncle” to my little ones.
It didn’t happen. So, I was forced to find “family” in a different way. After a meeting or two, it seemed more of a find a NEW partner group rather than just community. Not that this was a bad idea for many of the people I met there were lonely. One nice man asked me to go out to dinner with him and we did that a few times. I guess it was going on a “date.”
One evening in any attempt to show me something he said I would find funny, we drove to a nightclub on Alton Road in Miami. Nice place, we ordered some drinks and I think some appetizers. Soon I noticed that most all of the patrons that night were women with women. My escort Harold kept poking me slightly to check out this one and that. He thought it was hysterical. That is not what I was feeling. It was fascinating to me. It was awakening some feelings from somewhere in me I always had buried in the “that’s a crazy thought” part of my brain.
I went back to the Alton Road club the very next evening and several following. But not with that sweet man Harold. Parents Without Partners presented me a truth that certainly in the 60s, I was not likely to acknowledge. Was I gay? That wasn’t a common word in my past circles of schooling, marriage or family. For my dad, the word was pervert. My ex-husband often said: “It’s an incurable mental disorder” and other friends quietly referred to that condition as “queer.”
Fortunately, the world of music, both classical and popular just accepted those differences without criticism or comment. One example I can recall is when I was playing in those little orchestras for Liberace and also Judy Garland, it was a “known thing” but not discussed. One evening when Judy asked me to have a drink with her in the hotel room after the show, now it is in my mind, I should have said “yes!” I instead explained that I must get home to my four children.
Teaching was my new pursuit at this time in Florida. It was, and is still not a profession in which this personal part of anyone’s life was discussed, so for me, it was not dealt with. There were issues always to be considered: fear of losing a job, fear of losing custody, fear of being locked up for mental instability, and the very real fear of being an immoral woman in my own mind.
It was always important to me to follow the rules, obey the law, be the good wife, do what was expected, and not give myself over to anything other than that. Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt who knows! I had a good batch of whichever or whatever it was in me!
Meanwhile life went on; my children now would have me home in the evenings with school teaching as my work. I did find out soon, and many times thereafter, that the programs that are cut when school budgets and bonds fail are music and art. So, for my little family, looking for the next position was always on the horizon.