In Kentucky At the Breeder’s Cup

A DYKE ABROAD: Earlier this month, I went back to Louisville for the first time in 13 years. My mother still lives there, as well as my father, his second wife, and my oldest sister’s family. My other sister came in from Colorado with her husband and kid.

I set the “reunion” as far as possible from the landmine holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas — when everything’s supposed to be so happy-family and lovey-dovey that people all over the country have to get drunk to stand the sight of each other, and more than one gun goes off before you get to the pie. I wasn’t going to give them a queer to aim at — even if things have changed, kind of.

As in most of the US, the state of LGBT folks in Kentucky varies from region to region, city to city, and house to house. In Louisville, one teenage girl I met, lured into the ROTC by promises of rock-climbing trips, passed a semester or two arguing with her colonel, defending gays in the military and women’s rights.

Across town, another young girl spent several weeks circulating a petition to preserve Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and she’s not even in the ROTC yet. She wears bits and pieces of her brother’s uniform, and the two do drills when they’re bored. She’s my niece, and everybody says she’s exactly like me. And despite herself, she liked me.

Then there’s my mother. When my cousin picked me up at the airport, she told me she’d been lecturing the old dame to be more accepting or, failing that, bite her tongue. “I don’t know how I’d feel if one of my kids had made that choice, but you still have to love them and welcome them into your house. And their companions, too. They’re your kids, even if you don’t agree with their lifestyles.”

She meant it kindly, but I would have turned around and headed home right then, if I hadn’t taken half a Xanax. Still, whatever she said to my mother worked. Mom didn’t exactly ask after my girlfriend of 17 years, but she did button her lip, and because I did, too, we passed our visit together in a relative truce. We went through pictures, and like the pro reporter I am, I asked leading questions and let her chatter about whatever crossed her mind until she approached a dangerous subject.

It was what I was there for — to visit parents aging at an accelerating rate. To show my face. Which is the literal truth, especially for my mother, who can’t stand the rest of me, in particular the rebellious brain packed with a lesbian lifetime.

I stayed at a hotel the first few nights where the lobby was deluxe and the rest under construction, with its long dark halls nearly deserted until a slew of visitors arrived for the Breeders Cup at Churchill Downs. What synchronicity. I ate a hamburger at the Dairy Queen and huddled in bed. My girlfriend emailed me a post-election article celebrating the victories of “out” politicians, including Jim Gray, who was elected mayor of Lexington. I was glad things were changing in the state, even if not in time for an exile like me.

The visit with my father was calm. When I was done smiling and nodding to almost every surviving relation in Kentucky and the neighboring states, I went to stay with an old classmate who wasn’t at all put off by reconnecting with a big dyke. She has one for a sister-in-law, in fact, and tells a queer-themed story about bonding with her husband-to-be at a Presbyterian youth event. After some homophobic kid mouthed off, the two exchanged glances, asking, “Do you agree with that?” When both shook their heads no, a heterosexual romance was born.

I talked politics with her husband, who teaches social studies at a high school for “at risk” kids. He said the girls were incredibly open, going around arm in arm, declaring they were lesbians, partly to provoke, partly to experiment without knowing entirely what it meant.

Queerish boys were more reticent. And with cause. When one kid from a troubled family came out as bi, his family gave him a lot of crap. A couple days later, he disappeared from school and hadn’t been heard from since. Maybe the school was blamed for putting those notions in his head, and they sent him somewhere else. Maybe he got the crap beat out of him and can’t leave the house.

That’s the world we live in, moving forward, sideways, and back.

In 2009, at least 22 people in the United States were murdered for being LGBT. Most were transwomen. Four out of five were people of color. November 20 was Transgender Day of Remembrance.