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Will Marriage Open the Closet Door?

What happened to Terry Mutchler? In her gripping memoir, Under This Beautiful Dome, the voice I hear is weak, barely audible. This isn't the woman I know as a friend and outspoken human rights advocate.
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What happened to Terry Mutchler? In her gripping memoir, Under This Beautiful Dome, the voice I hear is weak, barely audible. This isn't the woman I know as a friend and outspoken human rights advocate. Her professional accomplishments as a journalist, attorney, and former Director of the PA open-records advocacy program belie the searing shame and fear regarding her lesbian identity that she portrays in her memoir.

Terry captures in moving detail the story of her deeply passionate love for Penny Severns, a PA state senator whose campaign she was assigned to cover for her job as a political journalist. Their love affair began in 1998, prior to any legal rights for gays. She and Penny went to excruciating lengths to hide their romance, in essence their sexuality, for the duration of their five-year relationship until Penny's death from cancer. I was moved by her passionate love story. Yet, I could barely read about their deeply closeted behavior. I had to put the book down several times. Reading many of her vignettes describing lies, wounds, and poor decisions emanating from their fear of discovery made me uncomfortable.

Just 27 years old when she met Penny, Terry was a prisoner of deception. The couple's fear of discovery led to behaviors that at times verged on paranoia. Terry managed to survive her closeted lifestyle, but at a terrible cost.

Her family history and fundamentalist Christian roots help to explain her efforts to deny her sexuality to herself and the world. She writes,

When I visited her (Penny) I parked two miles from the house as a rule and walked the rest of the way, no matter the weather, so that my car would not be seen...We lied to everyone about where we were on weekends, where we were at night, where we were vacationing...we spent countless hours creating elaborate machinations to be sure we weren't discovered.

They saw no other option if they were to maintain the lives they had developed for themselves.

Fortunately, Terry occasionally softens her painful story of extravagant lies and deceptions with some very humorous situations. Such as the time she resorted to scurrying nude to hide behind the furnace in their basement in order to avoid discovery by sudden, unexpected visitors--Penny's parents.

Sadly, Terry ultimately was relegated to the status of invisible observer at Penny's funeral and memorial. She lost all the material wealth they had accumulated and all evidence of their shared lives. Most of her grief was in isolation. Was the cover-up worth it? Would they behave differently if this occurred today?

I wonder whether the rapid turn-around of gay and lesbian cultural acceptance in the past few years will change this type of hidden love that has been a reality for so many people in our LGBTQI community. Terry explains that the groundwork had been set for her desperate masquerade. Both women faced the loss of their jobs at the time they met. There were no legal protections in 1993. But, the explanation for why she or any of us hides goes far deeper than legal or cultural acceptance and isn't so quickly remedied.

Most of our religious institutions have yet to accept or come to an understanding of gays or lesbians, let alone transgendered people. Terry was a devout fundamentalist Christian and still is influenced by many of the values she was taught. Homophobia still lingers in the confines of family life for many people. Prejudice takes time to change...including the homophobia that is directed inward, becoming our own self-hatred.

On the online discussion site that I monitor for women who are married and coming out in mid-life, some women in our own community post angry messages disparaging those who don't come out publicly. These particular lesbians have made different choices and often resent the discrimination they suffered, which has benefited others. They question why closeted women are taking the easier way. Admittedly, I sometimes feel uncomfortable when I listen to people who have decided to systematically lie to try to protect themselves. Yet, the pain that Terry describes is so searing that I assume that closeted individuals would make other choices if they could see beyond their fear. Terry paid a dear price. Today she is an open advocate for gay rights and is using her memoir to publicly draw attention to a way of life that hopefully will become a historical story.

Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, A Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America, by Terry Mutchler, Seal Press, Berkeley, CA, 2014.