There are many things that I enjoy about being a Canadian snowbird. Spending the winter in Georgia with my wife is the best part, of course. Sweet potato fries with cinnamon sugar, melt-in-your-mouth barbequed brisket, two autumns and two springs, planting roses in March rather than June—these are wonderful aspects of wintering in the Deep South. After all, I could be shovelling snow instead of getting sunburned while watching the Georgia Tech women’s softball team on a February weekend.
But there are also aspects of residing six months of the year in the Deep South that aren’t as pleasant. These are attitudes epitomized by recent attempts in Kansas, Tennessee, Arizona, and now Georgia to pass anti-gay Jim Crow-like laws. It’s reassuring that liberals, moderates, and business-minded people are pushing back against such right-wing legislation, but it remains one of the reasons I return to the closet when I cross the border. It’s something I’m not keen on, but to preserve my wife’s job in a career she loves—she can be fired for being gay without legal recourse—I do it. The closet door begins to swing shut when I don’t tell U.S. border guards the real reason I’m driving from Calgary to Atlanta. In the wake of DOMA’s overturning, it may be that I wouldn’t be looked at twice if I said I was going south to be with my wife, but I won’t take the chance of being denied entry. So I quietly pass as an ordinary sun-seeking snowbird, amidst hundreds of thousands of other Canadians driving south. The closet continues to confine me when I slough off casual questions about my writing. To any that ask, I describe my books and stories simply as “romantic thrillers,” “semi-autobiographical,” “historical fiction” or “paranormal,” all without the descriptor “lesbian.” The closet is reinforced a hundred different ways as I’m careful about revealing too much, and the door doesn’t swing open again until I turn my car north in the spring.
For almost thirteen years I’ve led this double life, openly gay north of the border, subversively married to the woman I love south of the 49th parallel, and it’s coloured my perceptions of the people I live amongst. I’ve met wonderful people in the Deep South—our neighbours, my wife’s co-workers, casual friends—but when you have to close off that vital part of your life from external scrutiny, people never have a chance to know the real you. I meet new people with a reserve born of caution because I don’t know whether or not they hold stereotypical anti-gay attitudes.
Which brings me the long way around the pig’s butt to the pork. A few weeks ago my wife and I were grocery shopping at a local Kroger. We were checking out and chatting with a friendly, middle-aged clerk, who observed the way my wife and I interacted and asked if we were sisters. After the usual split-second ‘do I out myself’ hesitation, I launched into my routine explanation that no, I was just a Canadian friend who wintered in Georgia. Then two things happened that altered my long-established perceptions. First my wife, who is usually very careful, proudly declared I was her wife, not her sister. I’d barely recovered from that shock when the grocery clerk smiled and said, “I don’t judge” before moving on to some questions she had about Canada. It turned out she’s always wanted to go to Quebec because she spent four years studying French. She demonstrated her facility with not only French, but Spanish, as she did a rapid-fire monologue about speaking to her children in both languages. I can’t comment on her Spanish, but her French was impressively fluent. When we left, my wife joked how unusual it was to encounter someone who was quadrilingual – English, French, Spanish, and Southern.
Here’s the thing—I pre-judged the cashier and in doing so, I did her a disservice. It leaves me wondering how many others I’ve done that disservice to, assuming attitudes that they might or might not hold, but weren’t given the chance to exhibit either way. I consider myself an open-minded woman, but perhaps I’ve been as closed-minded in my own way as those legislators trying to pass anti-gay so-called religious freedom laws. Will I automatically out myself now to every person I encounter in my Georgian life? No, not when it involves consequences that are greater to my wife than to me. But I will make a conscious attempt to give people the same chance that I’ve assumed they wouldn’t extend to us. Maybe in doing so I can change their perceptions just by being me…the real me.