In today’s Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family®” series installment, contributing writer Beth Hallstrom interviews one very special couple about their past and the difficulties that challenged the love they shared.
As the history of the LGBT community is written, 2015 will be remembered as the year marriage equality became the law of the land, when arcane adoption laws were reconsidered and transgender celebrities became cover models for mainstream media. But, as the movement moves forward, it is important to remember those trailblazers who were once forced to endure closeted lives of secrets and shame.
Arlene and Jeanne have been together more than 35 years. Now 71 and 68, respectively, this couple celebrates their roles as grandmothers. Married in Massachusetts on their 29th anniversary, both agree it was love at first sight and say they never thought they would live to see the freedom and openness LGBT people enjoy today.
"I'm still trying to believe what's going on out there," Arlene said. "Our grandkids are growing up in a different world. We're living it, but it still totally blows my mind."
Arlene and Jeanne, who reside in Pennsylvania, have chosen not to use their last names for this profile. They are not ashamed of being gay, just intensely private people who live a quiet life devoted to their faith and family. Their story is amazing and inspirational.
Growing up, both knew they were attracted to women but didn't realize their feelings had a name or how that would affect their lives.
"I had never heard the term 'lesbian.' When I was in college, I went to the library to look it up and I had to ask for a key to a special locked bookcase that contained all the abnormal psychology books. Back then, being gay was considered a mental illness,” Jeanne recalled.
Arlene added, "I was 16 before I knew what a lesbian was. My sister had a neighbor who was gay and I realized she was like me. Until then, I did not know there was such a thing."
A retired special education teacher, Jeanne said keeping her sexuality a secret was paramount because she could have been fired on the spot for being gay. She could have also lost her pension because homosexuality was considered criminal activity. Despite her precautions and secretiveness, suspicions still swirled around her because she remained single.
"I taught at an inner-city school where the students came from very bad home situations. I played the guitar and taught some of my students to do so. For a period of time, I took several teenage girls to church with me on Sundays so they could play guitar at folk Masses.
"I found out years later that the girls had been interrogated by school officials because it was brought to their attention (by one of the abusive parents) that I took too much interest in the girls' lives," Jeanne said.
Arlene told a similar story: "There was a teacher I looked up to very much in high school. After I came out, my cousin went to the school and said I was gay because of her and she was investigated. It was truly the definition of a witch hunt."
Arlene herself was the target of another inquisition by U.S. Air Force officials when her then-husband reported to her superiors that she was homosexual.
"If I said I was gay, I would had been discharged, no ifs, ands or buts. There was a group of four of us who they brought in for interrogation. We were questioned day after day for months and our security clearances were pulled during this time. They didn't succeed in breaking any of us, but we went through hell for a very long time.
"It is unbelievable to think that now, in the military, you can have a spouse, be it two men or two women and have children -- all the things only so-called normal people could have before," Arlene said.
By the time Arlene was 35 years old, she had been married and divorced several times. She was, as she put it, supposedly happily married to a man when a cousin introduced her to Jeanne. She left her husband two days later and moved in with Jeanne. The two have been together, finally happy, ever since.
"I had been running from it for so many years. Until I met Jeanne, I never thought I would see the day when it would be OK. I'd been married several times and been with several women. Then I met Jeanne and haven't been with another person since. Like I said, it was love at first sight," Arlene said.
While they were happy and no longer hiding, Arlene and Jeanne still faced bias when they told their families. Arlene's mother disowned her for a long time and there was a period when Jeanne's mother refused to recognize her daughter's sexuality.
"I did not tell my Mother we were getting married, but she called on our wedding day and told me, 'I know what you're doing,'" Jeanne noted. "I think she actually became more accepting after we were married."
Arlene said her son also had problems dealing with her relationship with Jeanne, but the two reconciled and he stood for her when Arlene and Jeanne married on Martha's Vineyard six years ago. Jeanne's sister and brother-in-law, always accepting and supportive, were her witnesses at the ceremony, performed by a female Methodist minister at an Episcopal church.
"My son was only seven when Jeanne and I got together. It wasn't until we started attending R Family Vacations (a company that organizes vacation trips and events for LGBT people and their families and friends) in 2004 and he met different people and saw different viewpoints that he actually became accepting. He is very supportive of us now and of my granddaughter, who is unsure of her sexuality," Arlene said.
"My family is very much behind us. In fact, our grandchildren keep telling us we need to get married again in Pennsylvania so they can go to the wedding," she added.
Both Arlene and Jeanne agreed that the six trips they've taken with R Family Vacations and the 20 plus trips taken with Olivia Travel for Women have positively influenced them, their families and the many people they've contacted while traveling.
"The positive presentation of LGBT people to the world through travel has immeasurable ripple effects. They have been major players in 'normalizing' our lives to others,” they noted.
Arlene and Jeanne also appreciate the support of their church family and especially The Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania.
"We are active with the sisters and they are our examples of how they are called to 'love all without distinction,'" they said.
Arlene and Jeanne noted that, although Catholic Church law has not changed, they are encouraged to hear Pope Francis say, "Who am I to judge?" when referring to LGBT people.
"Our main focus is the Lord. That is who's kept us together," Jeanne said, adding both are Eucharistic ministers active in prayer groups and other ministries.
"Seldom has anyone ever challenged us or commented on our relationship," Jeanne continued. "I believe it's because of how we live. It is not our relationship that defines us. A lot of people feel they need to announce their sexuality and demand acceptance. That is not us. We ask that you accept us for who we are. Our sexuality is just a little part of us."
She said they believe their approach is a key to further advancement of the LGBT community until, one day, there is only one community of people.
"It is all well and good to have rights but you cannot push yourself on people. That is not how things change. They change by people getting to know you as a person. It's the person first and not the lifestyle. That is how we will all come to accept one another.
"We both agree we are all God's children and He loves unconditionally and equally. May he guide us to do likewise," Jeanne added.
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