Op-ed: Holding My Head Up in Small-Town Arkansas

For two southern educators and their son, life is about dodging whispers and not holding hands in public.

BY Audrea Johnson

October 25 2013 6:20 PM ET

Audrea Johnson and her family

Being in a lesbian relationship has its difficulties anywhere in the country. Although some diverse populations are changing with the ever evolving world, some are not. My family lives in a community that is still run by old, conservative, points of view.

We reside in relatively small town in Arkansas and work both as educators in an even smaller neighboring town. The Bible Belt is known for judgmental, Christian values, and those are experienced daily here, especially as a teacher. Why would anyone want their child taught by someone who is so sinful in nature? I’m sure that type of behavior rubs off on impressionable children.

What makes our family even more non-traditional is the biracial son we are raising. For the first 33 years of my life, before meeting the woman of my dreams, I was "straight." I had been plagued with three bad marriages and one failed attempt at a relationship that, two years ago produced a child. He ended up being the North Star in my night sky.

Now in my small town, dating black men was unacceptable. You were lower than sin; you were disrespecting not only God but your family. To bear a child in the horrid act was unthinkable. In the end it would be the least of my problems.

After raising my son for a year as a single parent and working full time as a teacher, I started to settle in to the idea that it was me and him against the world. I knew the thought of finding happiness was slim to none. I had already attempted marriage(s) and it just didn’t seem like the thing for me. I could never connect with men, only the ‘idea’ that it was what I was “supposed” to be doing with my life.

I was friends with a woman at work, the music teacher. She was gorgeous and I had been very attracted to her personally and physically. Finally around Christmas break, I approached her out of school. Over the holiday, we spoke often and I found out that she was a lesbian. The thought alone, increased my attraction and perpetuated my need to become close to her. Fate's hand played its role and at the beginning of the New Year. We were together.

She, more than I, understood the desperate need to keep our relationship in seclusion. Not only were we co-workers, but the idea of being in a lesbian relationship in this town, was probably grounds for lynching (in theory).

Our secret wasn’t kept for long. The longing looks in a crowded room and captivating smiles between one another didn’t go unnoticed. Four moths later, our names were on the lips of everyone in town, not to mention our school district. We were the gossip of every dinner table, general store, and teacher prep period. The feeling of walking into a room where everyone stops talking will bring back junior high emotions, in seconds. The biggest problem with our spotlight was the students. As educators we were forced daily to hear kids whisper and repeat, things they'd heard not only from their parents, but other faculty.

In the beginning we assumed that living 30 miles outside of where we worked would be a benefit, but we were proven wrong. Everyone from that town comes to the town I live in, to hang out. Whether it is the grocery store, the mall or the local movie theater, we're constantly surrounded by whispers.

Where most couples can walk around parks or stores, cuddling or sharing a quick kiss every now and then, we cannot. We are forced to walk a safe distance from one another and make sure that the public considers us just friends. As an educator, the students recognize you, long before you know them as a student. Luckily for us, our contract was renewed for another year — I’m sure based on fear of a lawsuit. I just wonder how the actual working conditions will play out for the next nine months.

Forced to live in a silence, I can’t shout to the world she is mine. I can’t brag to my friends about my love for her. I cannot simply exude happiness, or proclaim how I've finally met someone that I can connect with on every level. Instead we walk around town dodging looks, whispers, and rumors. I can’t even cut my hair without being marked as a lesbian.

Even those who see us as a couple assume that our child is adopted. Doctor visits for our 19-month-old invite questions like, “When did you get him?” It feels like they're really asking me when he was purchased — as though one of us were incapable of carrying him. I know the idea is foreign to most, but the question always forces me to breathe deeply and count to 10.

And then there's marriage. The right to marry is only possible in a handful of states, and Arkansas is not one of them. Even if we went to another state, which we considered at one point, it would not be legally binding in our place of residence (and employment). I worry constantly about whether our legal rights may be eventually at stake, or what would happen to our son if something happened to either of us. Could my partner take legal responsibility for him?

Hopefully, before we are hit with questions like that in reality, our state — and country — can sort out the range of uncertainties, questions, and hoops to jump through so that we may all be truly free. I can't wait for the day when my love for my son, and my partner, can be seen as equally as any other family's.

 

AUDREA JOHNSON is an educator from Arkansas.
 

Tags: Commentary

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