“I have decided to leave the convent. I’m pretty sure I’m gay,” I announced to my mother over lunch at a quaint Victorian restaurant in Cape May, New Jersey. The year was 1990, and I had made this pilgrimage to deliver what I knew would be jarring news.
“You can’t be a lesbian.” My mother’s piercing green eyes welled up as I stumbled through my announcement, explaining that I would be taking a leave of absence from the Sisters of St. Joseph. I imagine the daughter she saw sitting across the table didn’t match her stereotypical image of a lesbian, if she had one at all. I studied her face. Was it shock? Even worse, disgust? Or perhaps the shame I myself had grappled with over the years. In our Irish Catholic family, we were raised to believe that gays were perverts. I was not that, I had told myself countless times. I could not be one of them.
Similar revelations to each of my brothers and sisters, the same well-rehearsed speech in hand, were met with support, encouragement, and just a few quizzical looks. I’m sure they wondered how I could come to this conclusion after spending 21 years as a Catholic nun. I didn’t go into detail.
“Trust me,” I said. “This is just a leave of absence — I need to figure out who I am.”
If I had gone into detail, I would have started in 1969, in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, when I was 18 years old.
Our family’s 1968 Buick LeSabre slowly made its way up the tree-lined driveway in this pause between seasons; leaves were just edging toward change and more muddled in hue than vibrant. It suited the mood of our travel as we approached the old ivy-covered gray stone building called Fontbonne Hall, where I would spend the next nine months as a candidate, or “postulant” as they called it, to be a Sister of St. Joseph. My required two full-length black gabardine habits had arrived at our home a week earlier. The outfit, the only one I would wear for the foreseeable future, felt foreign and otherworldly. Perhaps the novelty also made me feel special — my opaque black stockings, shoes that looked like men’s oxfords but with a short heel, a black bonnet.
The main reason I gave for entering the convent at such a young age was that the civil rights movement and themes of social justice were a rallying cry to serve. Nuns in our parish school not only taught me but also often invited me and a few friends to the convent on Friday afternoons to help clean what they called their “charges.” I was mesmerized by their friendly back-and-forth banter, their laughter, a side of them heretofore unseen in our strict fifth-grade classroom. Later, I volunteered with my high school friends at a poor parish in West Philadelphia where the nuns worked. They were young, and fun, and committed. Here was my chance to be part of this historic period. And I’m sure I believed this. But gnawing just below the surface was a fear that I would, at some point, be expected to marry. I was overweight and liked my girlfriends much more than boys. I didn’t date; I’d much rather be with my friends. The convent felt safe. It offered a more-than-acceptable way to avoid big questions I didn’t even realize I had.
Just a few days before this car ride, I’d returned to my old high school, with two others from my graduating class who were also entering the convent, decked out for our first public appearance in religious garb. This annual ritual was our chance to see our high school teachers and some of our younger schoolmates, but also a way to encourage the rising juniors and seniors to contemplate their own potential “vocations.”
Being back at my old high school, I remembered the hockey team, my leadership positions, the nuns who taught me, special friends. And Carol, my “big sister” in a school-designed coupling organized to help freshmen get acclimated. A junior and star athlete, Carol had chosen me to be her little sister. I adored her. She drove a cool Cutlass to school, and I knew her parking space and typical time of arrival. I memorized her class schedule and the exact moment we would pass in the hall on our way to geometry or history. She’d nod and smile, her straight blonde hair framing an inviting face, her shoulder sometimes brushing mine as we jostled through the crowded corridor. She’d grin sheepishly and apologize. I never minded.
The Christmas of my freshmen year, a few of us had taken our big sisters to Center City Philadelphia to see Gone with the Wind and go out to eat at Wannamaker’s Crystal Tea Room. I could hardly sleep the night before, in anticipation of our time together. At the end of the day, Carol gave me a small box wrapped in silver and blue paper.
“A signet ring!” I squealed as I opened the leather case and spotted the shiny gold oval with my initials scrolled in the loveliest script. I fumbled to remove it from the satin fold. It slipped on easily; I stretched my arm, holding my hand up to admire its glint and style.
Carol looked at me shyly, her brown eyes searching. “I wanted to get you something special. After all, you are my little sister. I wanted you to know how much that means.”
At the time, I’m sure the ring conjured images of going steady, although I didn’t recognize the romantic edge to my feelings for Carol. Now, despite the directives we had received from convent supervisors to leave all jewelry at home, the ring was still with me.
* * *
I was fortunate to enter the convent when I did. In 1969, the impact of the Second Vatican Council, a worldwide gathering of Catholic bishops and cardinals, was influencing American Catholic rituals, with many of the trappings of the old church being abandoned for more spiritual religious practices. In Fontbonne Hall, we new postulants welcomed these changes joyfully, but the older sisters with whom we lived seemed less enthusiastic, their displeasure on display with big sighs and a grunt or two from the back pews. Instead of saying the rosary, we postulants studied the tortured journey of the great mystics: St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul scared us; Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle gave us hope that we too could become brides of Christ.
But another side of myself, the sexual side, tugged me in a different, more troubling direction. Early in my career, our superiors cautioned against “particular friendships.” We called them “PFs”— a sister we took walks with or confided in. But we had them anyway, furtively, a confirmation for us that such intimacy was wrong. As postulants and later novices, expressions of endearment took the form of making our PF a gift, a favorite of which was a stitched, personalized burlap cover for our morning and evening prayer book.
As years went by, however, my illicit encounters intensified. I became grateful for the long, carpeted hallways, a buffer to my light step as I tiptoed past bathrooms, the empty room used for ironing, the sisters’ bedrooms, all tight and secure, each resident long settled in for the night.
It was late, and 6:00 a.m. morning prayer was not far off. As I passed one room, I heard intermittent snoring. I paused and held my breath, careful not to stir the snorer or any nearby sister who might be sleeping lightly or not at all. A passerby so close to morning would certainly raise questions. I slowly continued my steady progress to the end of the corridor, and carefully tapped twice on the room to my right. I waited. The door cracked open. Anna had been waiting for me.
“You look tired,” I whispered. “Maybe tonight is a bad idea.”
“No,” she replied quickly, taking my hand and leading me to her bed. She crawled under the covers and held them high for me to join her. In the narrow twin bed, the light cotton blanket covered us both easily. I laid still, her warm body close, leaning in.
She lifted herself to look at me, head resting in her hand, elbow bent. In the quietest of voices, she shared details of her day: her fourth-graders’ antics, the parent-teacher conferences that followed. I nodded and took her hand, quietly massaged her fingers, one by one. I had learned over time to commiserate without saying a word.
The darkness of her room felt safe. I’d never liked my body, and her probing hands felt body parts, attached to me but out of sight, just the way I wanted it. No lights, I had asked. Her finger traced my chin, my nose, my lips. She leaned in to kiss them lightly, then more forcefully. I felt the jump inside my gut, the ache. She knew how to do this.
I wore a light-blue cotton nightgown, which she tried to tug up. Not yet, I murmured. Instead, through the gauzy fabric, she gently circled my breast, moving from center and out, then slowly, deliberately, back to center. My back arched. I wanted to moan but couldn’t. Everything must stay quiet. The sisters were asleep.
In my mind, I heard the taunts of the neighborhood kids back in my Philadelphia suburb, racing by our next-door neighbor’s house, ridiculing the rumored “homosexual” out washing his car. Never in a million years could I imagine myself as one of them.
* * *
In January of 1991, I stood in the middle of my small bedroom at a convent in the Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where I lived with five other sisters while studying in a doctoral program in American literature at George Washington University. I gave one last look for any items left behind. The desk, minus the computer that had produced countless academic papers over the last 18 months; the bed stand with its small reading lamp, no longer home to the photo of my mother and father and my vanilla-mist candle; and the closet, where only a few hangers dangled on the rod, absent blouses or slacks to anchor them. My mind was made up: I was taking a leave of absence from the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Why now? I was about to turn 40, and somehow that had become a threshold I could not cross without coming to terms with questions about my sexuality, grappling with the reality that I could be gay, and facing my dread about my Catholic family’s reaction. The vows I had taken, poverty, chastity and obedience, were colliding with a sexual desire I was ashamed of; my admiration for the sisters and my commitment to a higher purpose were at odds with my clandestine encounters and sexual transgressions; my external persona that represented integrity and honesty belied an interior life plagued by guilt at my deception. Having never experienced adult life outside of the convent, I needed to leave to figure out who I really was. The thought of leaving the sisterhood, my community, was terrifying, but also liberating; no more secret rendezvous. No more duplicity. No more guilt.
It took months of therapy and prayer, long discussions with dear friends, and meetings with the general council and superior general of our congregation to reach my decision. I even had to write a letter to the pope, explaining my need for this separation. On the day I received the letter of dispensation from my vows, I was at the Motherhouse in Chestnut Hill in my final meeting with our superior general. She was sensitive and understanding, and she thanked me for my years of service. I relinquished the cross I had received when making my first vows, and the congregational pin I’d worn for years, identifying me as a Sister of St. Joseph.
My 1989 Honda, bought for $1,500 just a week before, was packed and ready. I had arranged a house-sitting job at a retirement home called Leisure World, in a Maryland suburb about 40 minutes outside of D.C. Not exactly the hip lesbian pad I was hoping for, but the “no rent” factor won out over style. Through my assistantship at George Washington, I would continue as a teaching assistant and receive a small stipend. The reality of paying bills and taxes for the first time was daunting.
Leaving the convent to discover “who I am” meant experiencing the world in entirely new ways. I distinctly remember the day I joined the queue at Bank of America’s ATM machine, long with impatient customers, their coats pulled tight against the crisp January air. ATMs were ubiquitous at the time, but this was my first attempt to tackle the machine that would spit out $20 bills from who knows where. I was panicked. What if I held up the line? Or the directions weren’t clear? With palms sweating and card out and ready, I approached the window with verve, hoping my feigned confidence would calm my shaking hands and pounding heart. A small thin slot looked like the best place to start, although it took a try or two to insert the plastic in the right direction. Like magic, the window with directions brightened; with this positive turn of events, my mood did as well. After a press here and a tap there, I walked away with three crisp twenties in my hand and a sense of triumph.
Even more intimidating was dating women for the first time. In high school, I had attended the occasional school dance or prom with a boy, but being out and open as a lesbian was terrifying and exhilarating at once. Determined to get my new life started, I picked up a copy of the Washington Blade, D.C.’s gay newspaper, and found a listing for a lesbian happy hour at a bar in Dupont Circle.
Approaching the bar, I began to have doubts. Why did I think this was a good idea? I had worn a denim dress purchased at the Junior League thrift shop in Georgetown, and I decided on arrival that the outfit was all wrong. I should have worn jeans and a T-shirt. What was I thinking? That crisis became another. Who would be there? Would I fit in? I walked around the block a few times pondering next steps. It’s just a happy hour, I said to myself. One hour. I can handle that. But each time I rounded the circle and saw the bar ahead, I passed it, continuing to mull over my options. After three or four of these roundabouts, seeing the same boutique shops and trendy restaurants, I decided to bite the bullet. I pulled open the heavy wooden door and walked in.
The inside of the old tavern was dark, and I asked the first person who looked official about the “women’s group” meeting for a happy hour. I simply couldn’t get the word “lesbian” out of my mouth. A young gentleman led me through the narrow hallways of wide-planked wooden floors and low ceilings to a back room, cozy and inviting. A group of about 10 or 12 women of all ages sat at a long wooden table, tall benches on one side and captain’s chairs on the other. Sipping wine, beer and fruity concoctions, snacking on chips and pretzels, they were laughing uproariously over a remark someone had just made. I wanted to quietly slip in, grab an inconspicuous spot at the end of the table, and gradually acclimate. No such luck. Someone decided it might be fun to go around the circle and hear a little about each one of us. Oh no, I thought to myself. What would I say? I wasn’t sure I even was a lesbian. How to give an abbreviated version of my current status? I dreaded my turn.
Playing with the cocktail napkin in front of me and sipping my white wine, I heard how each had met her partner, reasons for moving to the D.C. area, and sad stories from a couple of single folks about recent breakups. My turn, finally.
“Well,” I began. “My story is a bit different.”
I recounted my recent leave-taking from the Sisters of St. Joseph and explained that I wanted to explore the lesbian lifestyle in D.C. This new social club looked like a good fit, and I was anxious to meet women in comfortable settings like this. I must have been looking at my napkin at this point because when I finished my little speech, I heard nothing. Silence. I glanced up to see faces that looked surprised, even stunned, but at the same time completely welcoming and delighted.
I was immediately bombarded with questions: How long were you a nun? Why did you enter? What made you leave? Did you wear a habit? (As I would discover in subsequent encounters like this, the habit question was a favorite, especially among gay men). The rest of the happy hour flew by in a whirl of nun-related stories. I remember exchanging phone numbers with Michelle and accepting an invite to Sunday brunch at the home of two women who lived in Chevy Chase. My lesbian life had officially launched.
In the years to come, I often found my 40-something professional self at odds with my rather stunted 18-year-old emotional capacity, but over time I found my footing. Perhaps most gratifying, I felt grounded in and accepting of who I had become, never hedging in new job pursuits or introducing my spouse, Connie, as a “special friend.” In 2005, we celebrated a civil union, and later marriage, when it became legalized for same-sex couples. Together we have weathered life’s major challenges, like my mother’s death and her father’s, and a diagnosis of breast cancer. And all the day-to-day moments in between: her patient tech rescues when I am befuddled (a lot); the “Be careful!” she sings as we navigate uneven sidewalks; her arm that curls around mine as we explore the city; routines, like packing light and getting to the airport early; the joy we both feel at green spring leaves on barren winter branches; the smell of rosemary and thyme as her favorite soup bubbles on the stove; the utter delight we feel each and every time our dogs squeal their “welcome home.”
My life is rich and full. And, perhaps most importantly, honest.