After my junior year of college, I went to spend the summer with my mother at her home in Climax Springs, a tiny, rural town in southern Missouri that could never live up to its name. I arrived with my cut-off shorts, my rugby t-shirts, my guitar, a stack of stationary and my girlfriend’s address. It was 1990—before email, before the internet, before cell phones and texting. My girlfriend was at a summer program in Vermont and I couldn’t even call her until I’d received her first letter in which she gave me the phone number in her residence hall.
When I say the town was tiny, I mean the population was 91 and the only business within the town limits was a video rental store that also sold pizza. There weren’t many people my age, let alone any out queer folk. It was the land of God and guns and not a place known for open minds.
My mother and step-father were all that I had there and neither knew that I was a lesbian. I planned to keep it to myself until the end of the summer and then tell them right before I went back to school in case they didn’t take the news well. But I had only been there a week when my mother asked some probing questions about my life at college and my friends. “I hear you have lesbian friends,” she said casually as we folded laundry. My sister had visited me at school and met my friends; she must have mentioned them to my mother. I said that I did and tried desperately to steer the conversation to something safer like my mother’s ability to get her whites so white. But she kept at it and eventually asked me, “Are you gay?” and I took too long to answer which was an answer itself and not the one she wanted to hear.
She screamed at me. She threatened me. And eventually, she stopped speaking to me.
I spent my days in silence, writing letters to my girlfriend, playing the guitar, and working. I had a job as a “stock boy” at a grocery store in a nearby town but I didn’t fit in there either. Most of the employees had known each other their whole lives and didn’t know what to make of the quiet college girl who didn’t wear make-up and had a flat top. At night, after my mother went to bed, I would sit under the tool bench in my step-father’s workshop and call my girlfriend collect from the landline in the garage. But my mother caught me and told me I couldn’t call her anymore. After that, the only connection to the world outside of those rural backroads were the letters I wrote and the calls I made from a payphone in the parking lot at the grocery store during my 15-minute breaks.
It sounds bleak because it was and I couldn’t leave because I had little money and only had access to the truck to drive to and from work. It was the loneliest I have ever felt.
But one day, I was working when two women in their mid to late 20s walked into the store. I noticed them right away. I was drawn to their laughter and the way they leaned into each other and I wondered if maybe they were like me. I figured it was just wishful thinking on my part but I watched them as they made their way around the store. At one point, I was in the dairy case stocking milk and I could see them standing in the produce aisle. They glanced around, looked back at each other, smiled, and then started kissing. They kissed in front of God, the broccoli and me and then broke apart laughing before continuing to shop. I made sure I was front and center when it came time to bag their groceries and I walked them out and then watched as their car became a speck in the distance.
I can close my eyes and remember that day clearly — how my hands shook as I bagged their groceries with extra care, the glint of the sun on the hood of their car, the smell of the asphalt in the parking lot, and the way they smiled at me as they got in the car. I remember it all because for that one hour of that one day in that horribly long summer, I could see part of myself reflected in someone else and I felt less alone. I’d never seen people like me on television or in movies, had never seen lesbians outside my college campus except in dark, smoky bars. These young women reminded me that my circumstances were temporary and that I would be going back to school, back to my girlfriend and to my community. They reminded me that my life was bigger than it seemed right then. Those stolen kisses in the produce aisle saved me, making visible the kind of life that might be possible for me someday. They gave me hope.
That is the power of visibility.
The rest of that summer is a blur of awkward silence at home, finding beauty in the dappled sun on the winding country roads to and from work, and love letters to my girlfriend. And when August came, I packed up all my things and said my goodbyes—to that town and to my mother, not knowing if I’d see either of them again.
It’s been nearly 30 years since that day in the grocery store. I survived that summer. I graduated from college and moved to Minneapolis, leaving small town life behind me for good. That girlfriend who was my lifeline broke up with me but remains one of my closest friends. The community I started to build in college is bigger and stronger today. I’ve been with my partner for almost 27 years and we have two kids, one of whom is now in college himself. This is the life I couldn’t imagine all those years ago. I’ve seen queer lives become more visible, diverse and vibrant with every passing day and and every day, I strive to be visible, not just because it makes me feel powerful or pushes the world towards acceptance but because I know someone could be watching, someone who needs to see what’s possible, someone who needs hope.⚡
Edited by Heather