A Coming Out

TW: mention of verbal/emotional abuse

At my doctor’s appointment my mom said there was a gun in the house.

It’s a common question that doctors ask for safety reasons: “Do you have a gun in the home?” I felt embarrassed and startled by my mom’s answer. I felt unsafe.

My mom began dating a woman a year or two after my parent’s divorce. I was six, so the fact that this person was a woman wasn’t really issue. Kids don’t really care about that shit. Cheri was the first “Gold Star” butch lesbian cop I had ever met. The cop part was the main issue for me—even as a child.

During one of the first nights Cheri slept over, there was a thunderstorm. It woke me up, and I ran to my mom’s bedroom seeking comfort. I ran right into Cheri. She had blocked the doorway to my mom’s room.

“She’s sleeping.” She said.
”Oh, ok…” My small voice responded.

I ran to my older brother’s room and spent the night sleeping on my lambskin rug on the floor beneath him. He didn’t know I was there, but his presence comforted me.

My mom always seemed out of reach when Cheri was around. I began to feel neglected and emotionally abandoned—because I was.

Cheri and my mom bought a house together. We lived there along with Cheri’s two children from a previous relationship. I was the only girl child, and this was not lost on me. My brother and I went back and forth between that house and our dad’s house. I began to see my dad as my savior. Each time he picked my brother and I up, I felt safe again. I could breathe again.

The house was big—by far the biggest house I had ever lived in. It was foreboding and vacant. It was an old, uninviting house. There was no air conditioning, and summers felt annihilating. I believe this is where my intense discomfort with heat came from.

I noticed the verbal and emotional abuse almost immediately. I never liked Cheri, but after witnessing how she treated my mom (and myself), my hatred for her began climbing. She never cared to understand me. She never cared to understand anyone, but herself.

One day, I think I was in fourth grade, Cheri had told me the local paper was doing a story about her. A converted Buddhist, she brought meditation practice to the police force in Madison, and this was evidently a big deal. She wanted to mention my mom as her partner in the article. Even my mom was uncomfortable with it, because my mom was (and still is) a very private person. I told Cheri I didn’t like the idea.

“Why don’t you want me to mention your mom in the article?”
”…because I don’t want to be made fun of at school.”
”Well, if you’re made fun of, those don’t sound like friends.”
”I know, but…”

My voice trailed off. How could I, at the age of 9, articulate that I was fearful about my own survival in a homophobic climate at school? This was the early 90s, and kids in my grade began saying, “That’s so gay.” I also remember overhearing a kid say “gay people go to hell,” and though I wasn’t raised religious, it struck terror in me for my mom. I knew I didn’t want these kids to know anything more than was necessary. I didn’t want to be punished for my mom’s personal life.

For a long time, I wondered if I was homophobic. I’m sure I was to some extent, but I also think had Cheri been a kind, nurturing, decent person I wouldn’t have cared about her sexuality. My dislike of Cheri probably contributed to my own internalized homophobia. Perhaps I would have explored my bisexuality earlier on if I had never met her.

I never felt safe with her. I never felt safe in that house.

Having lived with Cheri was the biggest secret I carried. I didn’t tell anyone until I was 18.

I was terrified of what people would think. I wasn’t ashamed of my mom. I was ashamed of Cheri. And not of her sexuality—but of her abuse. I was ashamed to have lived in an abusive home.

This is the first time I have ever publicly written about this. My memory is fragmented from that time, because I tried so hard to forget it, to bury it, to kill it. But I can’t heal from it if I don’t even acknowledge it.

Cheri died a few years ago after having succumbed to major injuries that stemmed from a bicycle accident.

When I heard of her passing, I immediately cried. I didn’t cry because I was sad. I cried because I was relieved. She had haunted me while she was alive—even long after her and my mom broke up.

Truthfully, I can only write about this now publicly because Cheri died.

And after she died, all of the bullshit narratives of her being “THE BEST PERSON EVER” started appearing, and to those of us she abused, this felt vile. Because Cheri had done some volunteering with the local domestic abuse shelter, they had memorialized her on the homepage of their website. It greatly affected my mom to see it. So much so that they contacted them to say Cheri was an abuser, and that maybe this wasn’t the best thing to do. Their response? “Well, she’s dead so we can’t get her side of the story.”

I truly don’t believe people are either all bad or all good (except maybe a few people). I don’t believe in binaries. Cheri did do some good things in her life. I still don’t believe we should give abusers Saint status or memorialize them on agency websites.

I am glad she’s gone. And I don’t feel bad saying that. I am glad she has long been out of my life.

Living ghosts are worse than dead ones, and a cop is still a cop.