Like (Closeted) Mother, Like (Closeted) Daughter

Erin Judge

I identify as bisexual. It’s a fun fact I tend to trot out quite a lot. I’ve announced my sexual orientation on blogs and podcasts, on Comedy Central and NBC. I’ll admit it: I drop the b word every chance I get.

I also talk about growing up in a gay household, with my mom and her female partner.

But I rarely talk about the fact that my upbringing wasn’t exactly a smooth transition from gay family life into well-adjusted queer young adulthood enabled by two pioneers of lesbian parenting. The truth is, my mom and her partner weren’t always honest with me about their sexuality. In fact, they hid their relationship from me, even though we all lived in the same house for five years.

My mom and dad split up when I was little, and, a few years later, Mom fell in love with another woman. When I was 9 years old, the three of us moved from New York City to Plano, Texas, because if you’re gonna go gay, you might as well go hard. And the north Dallas suburbs in 1990 was basically the Octagon for lesbians.

Only I didn't know that they were together. They never told me. And they slept in separate beds.

Eventually — very eventually — the situation started to seem strange to me. As I entered adolescence, I became aware of certain signifiers. Mom and her “friend” really did listen to an awful lot of k.d. lang. And Mom’s “friend” sure did have a … well, she kept her hair short on the sides and longer in the back. Also, their female friends all seemed to come in pairs, and it always seemed like one of them kept her hair short on the sides and long in the back. Always.

There were no lightbulb moments for me, just a growing sense of dread. Because I was starting to have a stronger and stronger hunch about my mother. And I was starting to have stronger and stronger feelings for other girls.

I knew in my heart that I was bi. But I promised myself I would be satisfied with guys and never, ever indulge my desires for other girls. I tried to like my boyfriend more.

Right around this time, I stumbled upon a gay publication in my mother’s bathroom. I rationalized that she’d picked it up by accident, and I tried to forget.

Then one day, in ninth grade, I was sitting with Mom in the living room, and she turned off the TV. “I want to talk to you about something,” she began, and my stomach sank. I knew what was coming. She told me that she and our roommate were in a relationship. I asked if it was intimate. She said yes. After that, they started sleeping in the same bed.

And I started having panic attacks.

Mom never told me explicitly that I shouldn’t talk about her relationship with my friends or our family, but it felt clear to me that I was supposed to keep it a secret, as they did. I had zero desire to blab this news all over my homophobic high school. I decided to pour my energy into plotting my escape from north Texas via college, far, far away in magical, liberal New England.

And so off I went, to college in Massachusetts, where I broke my promise to myself. Vigorously. I kissed girls. I kissed them everywhere. I fell in love with women. I got bolder. I started to rebel, hard, against the culture of secrecy that ruled my parents’ household. I came out to family members my mother never came out to. It felt more and more incomprehensible to me, unconscionable even, that Mom could keep such a monumental fact about herself hidden from her loved ones for so long.

Then I became a comedian. Stand-up comedy is essentially a cult of compulsive public honesty, and I was an instant convert. I came out on television: first basic cable, then network. I was a juggernaut of public declarations. I was out and I was proud and everyone had better be listening.

Somehow, between countless nights spent ranting into beer-soaked microphones, I managed to meet a man, fall in love, and get married. Marrying a man exposed me to a whole new set of misconceptions about bisexuality, so I continued my mission to subvert the heteronormative paradigm through the power of my punch lines. And, like, funny accents and stuff.

I was on tour with three other comics in North Carolina when I met Jenny. She’s a comedian too. We started flirting pretty intensely. Then I kissed her.

Let me back up for a moment: My husband and I have an open relationship. It’s been that way since the beginning. Both Jesse — that’s his name, Jesse (and yes, Jesse and Jenny are very similar names, I realize) — both Jesse and I have had various hookups and flings during the decade we’ve been together, and some of those have even come with a high degree of emotional intensity.

But what happened between Jenny and me had no precedent. I kept seeing her. She’d travel to meet me in cities where I had a gig. We couldn’t get enough of each other. We were falling in love. And after some big conversations with my husband and some bumps along the road at the beginning, it started to feel like having a real relationship with her might actually be possible.

The next thing I knew, I had a husband and a girlfriend.

And although both my relationships felt fantastic, the optics of the whole thing made me very uncomfortable. I didn’t identify with any of the polyamorous folks I’d met. They tended to be touchy-feely and over-sharey, the kind of people who would give you an ear massage without asking. And I feared people would worry that my having a girlfriend signaled the demise of my marriage. I didn’t want to have to defend myself, to deal with everyone’s shock and horror at what felt to me like good news. I just wanted to be happy.

So I started to get kinda cagey. I told jokes on stage about wacky European miracles and how I’m built like a fishwife. I stopped volunteering so much about my personal life. For the first time since high school, I was playing it close to the vest.

Then one day, more than a year into my new relationship, I was on the phone with my mother, and I mentioned that I was planning to hang out with Jenny.

More precisely, I said that I was planning to hang out with Jenny, my “friend.”

And the moment I heard myself hedge like that, the moment I used that particular euphemism to avoid telling Mom the whole story, suddenly the choices she herself had made decades earlier started to make a lot more sense to me.

I realize now that my mom and her partner left Brooklyn because they wanted to get away from the stifling, insular Catholic neighborhoods they grew up in. They didn’t want to go through the whole rigamarole of coming out, dealing with rumors, defending themselves to family, fighting battles, educating everyone, combatting stigma, yadda yadda yadda. They just wanted to be together.

I'm figuring out how to talk about my relationships onstage, slowly but surely. It might not be instant comedy gold, but, like all good stuff, it comes from a place of truth.

Erin Judge X200
ERIN JUDGE is a comedian and writer whose first novel, Vow of Celibacy, was recently released. Follow her on Twitter @ErinJudge.

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