Women lead my way

Illustration/courtesy of Getty Images

by Steve Harrison | Special to the Courier

I love women! It’s really surprising for a 67-year-old gay man to come out as a woman lover, but watching the Grammys celebrate women, I am struck by how lucky I have been to have had some inspiring women in my life.

During my youth, Petula Clark, Cher, Karen Carpenter, Mama Cass, Janice Ian, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Carole King wailed my emotions into reality. I’ve never done drag, but I can appreciate wanting to inhabit the skin of those you love and admire.

Of course, it started with my mom who, though emotionally reserved and frightened by life, provided a model, first as a reader and then as a survivor. My paternal grandmother was really my role model and inspiration. A simple woman, limited by her era and poverty, she moved to California because of my birth. I could do no wrong in her eyes. She taught me how to make a loving home and dinner table, how to dress and how to love. In a time when celebrating a gay child was remarkable and little known, she was the first person I told that I had met my person at 21.

She loved my husband John like a son. We laughed, watched “Dallas” together, and I’m grateful she was able to sit at our dinner table, seeing my complete world that she helped me find.

As a teenager, I loved Joan Baez, her fight for nonviolence and equal rights, her love affair with Bob Dylan, her confessions to same-sex love in an early Playboy magazine I surreptitiously read while hiding a Playgirl. And I discovered Georgia O’Keefe in an art history class and used her belief that we could all fill a space in a beautiful way as a guiding principle for building a material world.

In life I came across my first mentor in high school, miss Holland — an English teacher and a bit of a pariah, who nonetheless saw me as someone who had insight into literature, a voice, and encouraged me to become a teacher.

Then — ironically in a bonehead college English class — Anita Obler, a young hippie chick emerged from her orange BMW 2002, waltzed into class, picked me out of the crowd and asked me if I was gay. It all came pouring out. Many years later, after me thinking she had committed suicide, she reemerged into my life. I was able to tell her all the ways she had impacted my world: I’d become an English teacher, had a house in the hills, a BMW, and a college professor husband. She paved my way.

Later, I had the privilege of having a remarkable American studies teacher, Karen Lystra, who changed the way I saw the world. She put into words and theory the inkling I had that we were the way we were because of the world that imprints itself on us. She gave it a name, along with the work of Clifford Geertz, and suddenly opened my intellect by giving unformed ideas a vocabulary, a structure, a tradition. Education brought freedom.

All of these women made me feel much less alone.

A gay boy in the 1960s and ‘70s in parochial Orange County, I was isolated and had no idea how to break free. During this time women were learning how to do just that. Their model, courage, compassion, and their encouragement helped me overcome my fears and gave me a path forward. Some guys did it by following in the path of sports figures or rockstars, fathers, or best friends. I found it in an array of moms and goddesses who gave me life.


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