42 - Carla Wilson
PHD candidate, working on a dissertation in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman's University - Research area: Contemplative Practices in Higher Education.
With the infinite possibilities of gender identity and expression, when did you know….
“The whole coming out thing for me has been different because there is this narrative that people have a story of a time, or a period, or that they were holding something back and that they were in the closet and then they came out, this before and after, and mine just wasn't anything like that. I was married twice to men, for long periods, one time 15 years, and another time 10 years. And at 40 I was working in a bookstore, and I fell in love with a woman. It was out of nowhere. It wasn't like I came from a family who wouldn't have accepted whatever I chose to be, or do, or like, or love. It wasn't like that. It wasn't like I had some latent repressed desire or whatever… I just fell in love with a woman, and then I left and got a divorce and was with her… and the whole time I thought, ‘Is this just her… It's not about gender… it's not about sexual orientation… it's just about her, I love her… She's the only one I would love, or whatever. And of course at the time that was true, because there was a connection that I felt with her that I'd never felt before. I don't know what goes into that. It's very complicated. Maybe because I was a really young mother and getting pregnant as a teen may have put coming into my own self on hold for a little while. I became somebody’s mother and it was all about this child and raising this child. It wasn't about who I was attracted to... So it's really interesting. It's almost like I started to discover more about myself at 40 than ever before… So, I mean it's really not a coming out. It's more of a falling in.”
On her coming out experience...
“Luckily I came from my mom who was an artist, so I was always raised around other creative spirits, which would involve all people in the LGBTQ community. I went through so many experiences with her friends who died of AIDS… And so I was around the LGBTQ community my whole life. Also, I have an aunt who’s gay and who’s always been out. So that was just kind of normal for me. I think a lot about this. I really didn't think about gender at all… It was that people are people. And I didn't really think about it, because it was never a big thing for me. Then I started to think about where does gender start, or where does all this stuff start and end…. but I never had a fear that my mom, or that my family - my kids were grown at the time, my daughter was 18, and my son was six years older - I didn't think they were not going accept me. It was just, ‘I like this person. It is what it is.’ And they were fine with it. I did find out in later years that my daughter - she's 28 now - struggled with what her friends would think about me. And that makes total sense when you're 18. There's a lot of peer pressure still. So I think that's something she kept to herself. She didn't really tell me a whole lot about it. My kids are both biracial, and so she's just now, within the past five years, starting to claim and be proud of her heritage - which is half Mexican-American. She told me the other day, and it cracked me up… she said, ‘Mom, I just barely started to accept my own identity…’ So it's like, yeah, learning identities and what that means is complicated because I think people have experiences and they don't have a language for it. I think that was never a concern of mine. I think about it for other people more than I do for myself, because I pass, which it can be a good and a bad thing to pass. The good thing is that I’m safer in situations and that my sexual orientation doesn't need to be part of the conversation if I feel like it's not appropriate or if I want a job I don't have to worry if they’re going to judge me, which I know a lot of people do. So I really do appreciate that part of it. Then the bad part about passing is you're invisible in some ways and people see you as like some suburban housewife who's probably into men, or if I'm out with my friends that appear or represent more queer or gay, then I look like I'm just hanging out with my gay friends and that's frustrating, especially if you're single and if you want to date. It's like, do I wear a rainbow flag or what?! So those are positive and negatives, but luckily I haven't had to worry about what other people think too much, because of the privilege of passing. I think we want to be seen, ultimately, we want to be heard. And sometimes that's safe, and sometimes it's not. So I think passing is complicated.”
Frustrations within our community…
“A couple just off the top of my head are very quick-ish…. as an adult being 40 and over and trying to find a group or trying to find a community is really hard. And I know that it's probably hard on those with other identities as well. But usually they'll say you don't meet people unless you’re in church, or school, or work. Those are the three places we spend most of our time. But when you're over 40, a lot of people aren't in school, and maybe they're working somewhere where they're not LGBTQ friendly… And so there's all these possible problems with meeting people. I'm not a bar person. I mean, I'll go out dancing every once in a blue moon, but I don't necessarily enjoy going to a loud scene. I want to have meaningful conversations. I'm an introvert, so I'd rather do more intimate things. I think there's a lack of venues and queer spaces for this. That is a huge problem. I think that it’s more of a systemic problem.
On more of a personal level, I feel like I was kind of disappointed - it’s so funny because when I was in Atlanta there is a feminist bookstore called Charis Bookstore. I was married at the time to my second husband, and I went in there and was really interested in women's empowerment… I’d never really studied women throughout history because we don't get that in our history classes... And I was really wanting to learn, but I went in there was overwhelmed with how much LGBTQ stuff there was and I was like, ‘Well, damn, do I have to be gay to be a feminist?’ I couldn't understand why it felt like it was predominately about the LGBTQ community. What is this? What's the connection between feminism and this? And so it was kind of confusing to me, and yet I was pulled to that store because of the conversations they would have at the book signings, they would have community events and that's rare to find. There's not very many independent bookstores left, period.
So then I thought, ‘Oh, this is how the LGBT community is, politically-minded, socially active, women of colors, all these marginalized identities and voices, and I was so excited to [come out to myself]. And then I started looking for people, you know, like a tribe ,and I just found it very disappointing that the general population was not politically aware, wasn't active in social justice, and if they were, their activism or politics weren’t as broad as what mine is due to what I’d learned over the course of nine years in grad school now. I've been focusing on this for nine years. I'm going to be in a different place than the general population. I have to accept people where they are and hope to offer some kind of example for what justice looks like in the LGBTQ community, that it's not just for gay white men. These movements all have their biases and ‘you're not queer enough, if you're not doing this…’ and ‘you're not gay enough, if you're not that’ and ‘you're not lesbian, if you're not this’ and it's like so many doors are closed on people… that's been disappointing for me.
Even with women - I thought lesbians would be like all pro-women, but I have never felt, and experienced, and even dated more female chauvinist pigs. The misogyny within women's groups and with women is just shocking. There’s slut shaming… There's all kinds of stuff that you hear typically coming from men - rape culture - with women, they're putting down other women.”
Favorite part about the community?
“I feel like because of peoples’ experiences being marginalized and possibly not having a supportive family, they have a chosen family, there's that welcome and openness, and they take you in and you can have that family you need if you don't have it. I feel like speaking up for people is a big thing within the community.”
What is something you would tell a younger you? Advice for anyone out there who feels like they can’t come out, or they don’t have a community to be a part of?
“Something I would tell a younger me would probably be, first of all, that it's OK to be alone… because I think a lot of times, as far as my experience goes, our culture hones in on romantic relationships and how important those are, like you're not complete unless you have that, or if you don't have that, something's wrong with you. On the flip side, if you're in a relationship all the time, or go from one to another, then you're called needy, and not independent enough, so there’s this double-bind like you need to be an independent individual and be able to stand on your own and love yourself and it’s part of self care, self-love, and then there’s the other side, ‘Why haven’t you met somebody?’ or ‘What's going on?’ So there's that. But, I would probably tell myself that it's okay to be alone, and it's okay to be lonely, and it's OK to get to know yourself before you jump into something. I think that's always been something I dealt with, getting involved really young and then it's just been one relationship after another. And the importance of friendship, friendship with others in the community and outside of the community too. For me, I think being in academia, it's really important to have people in my life outside of academia that understand what's going on in the world outside of academia. The same goes for the LGBTQ community, it's important to have friends that aren't in that community as well as within. This is for both me and younger people.
It may not be easy, but there's got to be people out there - mentors, elders. I think we forget about elders, we feel like they don't get us when we're young. I remember feeling like 30 was really old when I was younger and that those older than us don't even know what’s going on. Now that I'm getting older, I'm probably seen as old by some, but we have so much wisdom and lived experience to offer. Yeah, there's different music and there's different things going on, but really the world hasn't changed a whole lot. I feel like there's something that we just dismiss with elders. I feel like I'm noticing that as I’m becoming one. Once you get past a certain age, you disappear in our culture. It’s a youth culture. Try to make that connection with someone older.
If you don't have a grandmother or grandfather, they're out there. I'm always amazed at how many people we have in the world, yet how much loneliness there is and how much disconnection and how do we resolve that? Because there's somebody sitting in their house, lonely, and then there's somebody sitting up here lonely, and that's what's going on. Just find some connection.
I had a class at a community college - which was kind of the best education I've ever had - but anyway, we got in a circle and everyone had to go around and say something they needed, wanted, desired, or whatever. And then somebody in the group always had it. So somebody was like, ‘I really want a bike.’ Then someone would respond with, ‘Oh, I’ve had two bikes in my garage for years that haven't been used…’ or somebody needed a car, and somebody else had a beat up old car. I mean it was like every single need in that group was met in that group.”
What in your life are you most proud of?
“That changes, but overall probably my kids that I've raised. I started really young. I had him when I was 16. So you know the stereotype of a teen mom, I'm not. I feel like being so young and wanting him was never a doubt in my mind. I have the weirdest story with him. I knew I wanted a baby, like really young, like as a child, I liked dolls. I wanted to take care of a baby. So when I started saving my allowance - most kids save it for a hope chest when they get to be teenagers - I was buying baby stuff. Nobody knew this. I was even hiding real baby pacifiers. So when he was born when I was 16, I had a little dress that I had bought when I was 13 and it said “Mommy's Girl” because I wanted a girl so bad, but I had a boy and he wore that. He laughs about it to this day. I've raised a feminist though. He's a very strong male feminist, and I'm very proud of the way he treats women. He's got a little girl that he adores, and I’m just so proud of that. And my daughter, I'm really proud of her as well and in different ways, mainly her creativity.
The other thing I would say I’m really proud of is the difference I can make with my students in the classroom. I think those kind of go together. To me, the biggest thing I want to do in the world, or the most important thing to do is to inspire and motivate and really lead by example, more than tell people. Because I don't know what people's journey is. I could be having a really bad semester, and I can get one e-mail from a student that says something about what we did in class or some contemplative practice that they did and they cannot wait to do it on their own after the semester ends and how it's changed their communication style. I will just live with that for months. And tools, providing tools to my students to live better lives and make a difference with themselves and with the social world, so yeah, inspiring students.”
With the state of the nation and the world in its current state, what’s one thing you would change if you had the power?
“That people can listen to multiple perspectives and hold space for ambiguity, uncertainty, conflict, and difference and hold space for that as a sacred space without feeling the need that they have to give up their own values, beliefs, and perspectives. We can hold multiple perspectives and world views, we're amazing. We are like Walt Whitman says, ‘We contain multitudes… and contradictions…’ and we can hold space for other people and still hold our own. So I wish, I guess if I had any kind of power, it would be that the leaders, the world leaders, and the people who can make the biggest changes, would be able to sit down at the table and have a conversation and listen to each other and actually empathize with each other versus a BS argument or someone having to be right or wrong.”