In the spring of 1984 my single mother started having sleepovers. I noticed because I was seven and we shared a bedroom in our small rented apartment, so I could see a new person sleeping in the bottom bunk. Her name was Carol and she taught fifth grade in a nearby rural Arkansas town.
As the months went by we saw a lot of Carol. Then, when the lease came up on our apartment, my mother told me we were moving into her rustic house on a section of an isolated women’s commune 10 miles outside of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, far from water mains and electricity. I was excited for the adventure of endless trees, creeks and animals, but I had no idea what two women living together in mid ’80s Arkansas ― an hour’s drive away from Ku Klux Klan headquarters ― actually meant.
I wasn’t told about the true nature of their relationship; as summer neared its end and Carol prepared to go back to work, she and my mother sat me down and said that if anyone asked about them, I should say that they were cousins. Otherwise, Carol could be fired. On the first day of school the bus driver asked. I told him, and he shook his head.
Many more people asked after that. Through the questioning my seven-year-old awareness became more sophisticated and intuitive. I picked up on the homophobic comments and verbal abuse that was slung around my school, as it is in many small town schools in America, and elsewhere. I picked up on words like “faggot” and “gaywad” ― and the malice behind them ― and I froze. It had never been voiced but it was clear now that my mother was gay, and gay people were hated.
My mother slept in a bed with a woman every night and didn’t pray at the local Baptist or Methodist church like most of my peers’ families. And if I let anyone know about it, not only would Carol lose her teaching job, but actual harm could be done to them. Equally terrifying, I could be singled out at school.
In his book “Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II,” historian Daniel Rivers explains how gay parents in the ’70s and ’80s lived in constant fear of losing custody of their children. They either had to publicly challenge the perception that they were harming their children or couldn’t raise them properly in a gay household — or go underground in closed communities to lives of secrecy.
Exposure in areas of the U.S. that were less tolerant was potentially life-threatening. In our case, we didn’t have to worry about my father trying to separate me from my mother. He had died suddenly a year before she met Carol, and before his death he and my mother had been separated. But there were people whom my mother feared would try to take me away, if they knew about her life.
So I zipped the secret up tight, cocooned myself in it and didn’t let any of it peek through the cracks. To maintain this level of secrecy I had to create stories— many stories — to explain to my friends why they weren’t invited to my house despite my frequent visits to theirs. One of these fictions involved a pack of killer guard dogs who hated strangers and couldn’t be called off. It must have worked because my friends stopped asking to come over and, years later, my boyfriend didn’t complain that he had to drop me off a half mile from home.
But the trouble with a secret as big as this one is that it produces a deep shame, and it doesn’t contain itself to just one area of your life — it is a shame that mutates and spreads and infects everything else. By keeping their relationship hushed to the outside world, I learned that it wasn’t OK to be gay — a belief that took decades to undo. I learned to suppress any burgeoning romantic feelings I might have felt for female friends, to play it cool and keep my guard up at all times.
When I eventually did share with friends that my mother was gay, long after I had left Arkansas and moved to more liberal climes, it was always as dinner party fodder. I’m ashamed to admit that I used phrases like “my mother and her lesbian,” instead of “my mother and her wife,” because making a crude joke abruptly ended the conversation and was easier than being open and answering questions.
As in all prejudices and bigotry, the underbelly of homophobia is fear. It is generational and only changes when there is conscious and deliberate education and awareness. It comes down to language and arming children with ideas and words they need to explain things to themselves and defend things to their peers.
If parents don’t help them find the language, they’re forced to find their own from the examples they see before them, or they appropriate someone else’s language. I had no one to talk to about it, so my language was internalized. And eventually, yes, I saw my mother’s identity as a barrier to my wider acceptance and I resented her for being a lesbian. I begged her to end the relationship and move back into our small rented apartment in town. To find a boyfriend.
The trouble with a secret as big as this one is that it produces a deep shame, and it doesn’t contain itself to just one area of your life — it is a shame that mutates and spreads and infects everything else.
Living with this secret at a young age was a blessing as well as a burden. It gave me greater awareness of other people’s differences, of insecurities that made them hang back from a group. It gave me a huge amount of empathy for others in almost every life situation I have been in since — something that has helped me to parent my two young children. But that empathy didn’t extend to my mother until years later. As I grew into a teenager I was rude, talked back, showed my mother little respect and Carol even less. I felt emboldened by their hidden life, as if I could lord their secret over them. I’m not proud of this.
I know now, and somewhat understood then, why my mother couldn’t be open about her life. Despite Eureka Springs being home to a quirky mix of artists, writers and creatives — many of them transplants from California and New York — these groups weren’t represented in the commerce or governance of the town.
The bank manager who gave my mom and Carol the loan they needed to buy land and build a house couldn’t know the truth about their relationship. A trip to the nearest cinema in Berryville meant that I had to sit between my mom and Carol, and there was never hand holding or kissing. At the school where she taught, Carol faced constant prying into her life from fellow teachers, parents and the administration. I see now that they also had to put on a mask, to pretend, to hope that no one asked deeper questions. As a couple, they weren’t allowed to just be.
I recently turned 40, and am now older than my mother was when she started her relationship with Carol and changed her life so drastically. It strikes me how brave she was to have made this decision. I’m amazed at the risks they both took at a young age and I wonder how many sacrifices they had to make because of it. How many times they were forced to accept something inferior, second rate. What was the interest rate on their bank loan and did the lumberyard give them a fair deal when it came to build their house? How did Carol, who didn’t have children of her own, feel when I refused to let her attend my school events, to sit in the bleachers while I cheered on the basketball team.
I would like to think that children raised by gay parents in 2018 do not face the same crippling isolation caused by secrecy. I wonder whether growing up in that small town with that huge secret would have been easier if, as today, there had been a range of support available both online and off. If I could have searched the hashtag #gaymom and found some friends on Instagram who understood, and laughed about our parents and shared stories the way kids do. “Normal” kids.
Over the past decade I have watched powerful movements of people who publicly stand up for their equal rights, for marriage equality, and the artists and writers who beautifully and routinely portray alternative families in their work. By doing so they give children a chance to see themselves in art and culture, and chip away at the otherness of being raised by gay parents.
It is clear to me now that the greatest impact I can have on my children is through the language I use to explain things to them. My children might assume their friends also have three grandmothers like they do, because the language my husband and I use to talk about my two mothers has been warm, familial —no different than how we speak about his straight parents.
This need for clarity and understanding and precise language stretches far beyond explaining sexual orientations to children. Teaching children these skills when they are young will shape their capacity for resilience and tolerance and their confidence and pride in where they come from. I wish I had felt empowered, through language, to be unashamed of my family and of myself.
In a few years my children’s questions will expand and become more specific, and I will have the chance to give them honest answers about same-sex relationships. They will instantly have many examples of people close to them to reference — other gay couples who are in our lives, and their two grandmothers in Arkansas. Their world is wide open, unashamed. The way it should be. Some secrets — small ones — are fine. But secrets that cause unnecessary shame have no place in childhood.
My mother’s relationship with Carol ended when she met Rebecca, who she married 23 years ago in a hot air balloon field — determined that her second relationship with a woman would be public, unafraid and proud. At age 17, I was embarrassed and surly during the ceremony, “accidentally” losing the rings in the grass.
It took having my own children in my 30s to understand the sacrifices my mother made and the daily bravery that was needed to live her life. I’m proud of her now. Over the years we have talked about how her life impacted me, and I have tried to tell her it wasn’t so bad, even though, at the time, it was. She has apologized but I don’t need to forgive her because there is nothing to forgive. By living her life, she has taught me the importance of living mine.
 Name has been changed to protect privacy
Elizabeth Elford is a writer, public libraries advocate and mother. After growing up in rural Arkansas, and spending nearly a decade each in Moscow and London, Elizabeth now lives in Lugano, Switzerland, with her family. She received her MA in Creative Writing from City University London. She speaks fluent Russian and is now working on her Italian. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @ElfordElizabeth.