Tara, 29, Describes Life in the Shenango Valley as a Bisexual Woman #AMPLIFY

 

Mercer County Bisexual

Name: Tara

Age: 29

County of Residence: Mercer County. The only other places I’ve lived are Findlay, OH and now Basseterre, St. Kitts.

Preferred Pronouns: Her/she

How do you describe your identity? I’m a bisexual female. I’m attracted to all types of people, regardless of their gender, presentation, or color. People are beautiful to me, not what’s in their pants. Pansexual is probably a more accurate description, but I feel bisexual is simpler for everyday life. I’m usually pretty quiet and reserved, so I’d rather say “bisexual” and have it understood immediately that gender is a non-issue.

Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? My coming out experience was absolutely terrible. Before I start, I’d like to preface my response with the fact that my parents are amazing people, but reacted horribly to my confession based on religious beliefs. Please don’t let this change your opinion of them. My mom still loves me as I am.

Z moved into town during 8th grade and we became fast friends, then best friends. After a while, I started to have romantic feelings for her, much like my previous crushes on boys. I eventually came clean about my feelings. Much to my surprise, she felt the same! We started dating shortly afterward.

My parents suspected Z and I were “more than friends” in 9th grade, which eventually lead to me not being allowed to see her anymore. We weren’t allowed to talk on the phone, see each other after school, or even talk to each other DURING school. My mom said she “found” some loves notes we wrote to each other, but I think she searched through my bookbag and my room for incriminating evidence. My parents, primarily my mom though, threatened to send me to a different school so we couldn’t be together.

The shit hit the fan one night after the high school choir concert. I wasn’t part of the choir, but Z and some of my other friends were, so I wanted to go support them. My mom took me and decided to stay. After the concert, I told my mom I was going to congratulate my friends in the band room, which was normal after concerts at my school. Eventually, she caught me talking to Z, along with a group of our other classmates, in the gym. She started screaming my name from the entrance (I was on the opposite side of gym, mind you) and told me we were leaving NOW. This was in front of a few hundred students, parents, and teachers mingling and chatting while they made their way home. Everyone got quiet and stared at her while she made a scene. I put my head down and started crying. I refused to leave at first, but she grabbed my hand and drug me outside to the car. We started yelling at each other in the parking lot about me talking to Z. I begged and pleaded with my mom numerous times to let me see her or talk to her, but she never gave in. I cried the whole way home.

Once we got home, my tears had turned to anger. I ended up slamming every door I touched, kicked off my shoes so hard they hit the wall, and told my mom I hated her. She got in my face, and my dad stepped in. He sent my little brother to his room before I recalled what happened at the school. He sighed, but didn’t say anything. He was a man of few words. After a few minutes of me blubbering, trying to calm down, the three of us went to the kitchen table to talk.
I remember my dad sitting across from me and my mom sitting to my right at our tiny cramped kitchen table. I don’t remember the specifics of conversation, mostly because I blocked it out, but in a nutshell, they told me homosexuality was wrong and I was going to Hell if I continued liking girls. I fidgeted with a leftover napkin as I told them I loved Z. We were best friends. I said I was bisexual, not homosexual, hoping that might somehow make it better. It didn’t. I was still damned just the same.

In the weeks following my admission, my parents forced me to start counseling. I remember trying to listen to the conversation my mom had when she made my initial appointment. She was pacing outside on the sidewalk, cordless phone in hand, and I couldn’t hear that well through the closed window. We had an argument when she came back in the house. I told her it wasn’t going to change who I was, but they were welcome to waste their money. And they did.
The first 3 sessions I refused to talk entirely, hoping the counselor would tell my parents it wasn’t going to work out. I eventually caved however, and opened up about the situation to the counselor. She told me she didn’t believe in bisexuality, you were either gay or straight. I told her the same thing I told my parents about not changing. After that, we usually talked about school. She didn’t try to make me straight. I was in counseling for about a year and a half before my parents gave up. My mom ended up calling Z’s mom as well, to tell her about our relationship. Z’s mom ridiculed my mom for her actions since she didn’t think it was a big deal. Her mom loved me just the same.

During this time, my close friends supported me. Z and I broke up 6 months after my parents found out we were dating. Sneaking around to keep up the relationship was too hard, and I was worried about getting kicked out of the house. We didn’t have a GSA or anything like it at my school, so I always felt very alone. My gay male friend and I commiserated together, but only during school. There weren’t any openly gay students or teachers either. In 10th grade though, I found some comfort from two new teachers I suspected were gay. We never came out to each other, but I think they knew about Z and I. (Rumors about us spread like wildfire the previous year after the choir concert spectacle.) I always felt a little bit better being in their classrooms. In 12th grade, I eventually did come out to one of them.

After I started counseling, my parents never mentioned my sexuality again. They always pretended the whole thing didn’t happen, or swept the topic under the rug when it came up with their friends or with me. My mom still doesn’t acknowledge I’m bisexual to this day. My dad has since passed away, but seemed to be a little more tolerant by not mentioning anything negative about the LGBT community after I came out.


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How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? I’m out to all of my close friends and select family, really all the people who matter. Outside of them, I don’t announce it to the world. I’m a pretty private person in general, so I don’t think it’s anyone’s business unless we’re dating or I feel like telling them.

Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? The first LGBT person I met was actually a tie between two of my best friends, one a gay male and one a questioning female. They both had an incredible impact on my life. Him and I struggled to reconcile our orientations with our faith back in middle school, and she and I ended up dating for year in high school.

Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. I haven’t watched many LGBT shows or movies, but I have a soft spot for Imagine Me & You. I think it’s a really cute movie. Sometimes life has other plans for you. You don’t know until that one person comes along and changes everything.

Shane from The L Word is another favorite. Katherine Moennig is just gorgeous. Lastly, there’s Lestat from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, because who doesn’t like a sassy, bisexual French vampire?

How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? Through websites, Facebook groups, and online news sources

Describe your geographical community. Mercer County is mostly rural outside of the Shenango Valley, which is more suburban and houses most of the population. There are other towns outside of that area, but they are fairly spread out over the rest of the county. Most of the towns are your typical “everyone knows everyone” small towns. I’ve lived in the Shenango Valley my whole life, aside from my college and professional school years, so I can go to the grocery store and see at least 5 people I know every time. To me, it seems like the older generation either has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward LGBT people. They try to pretend we don’t exist or refuse to acknowledge someone’s sexuality. If they do feel like acknowledging us, we’re either going to Hell or going through a phase.

Within the last 5-10 years though, the tides are shifting and they seem to be getting better. With the younger generations, they seem to accept and embrace our community more. There are a lot more allies than actual LGBT people though. Since a lot of towns are so small, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, everyone knows everyone so when someone does come out, they are already loved or hated based on their character, not because of their orientation. (I hope this makes sense.)

News travels fast and so does the gossip. People are more likely to talk/stare/whisper about you than confront you or get violent over LGBT issues. While it’s undesirable and annoying to deal with, I’ve always felt safe here, yet out-of-place. However, I think the safeness stems from me being a woman. Gay men and the trans community aren’t as well received, and are generally frowned upon/talked about. If a guy was even perceived as gay in high school, he was usually bullied with intensity if the other kids didn’t like him.

Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. As far as I know of, there isn’t much of one in Mercer County. I have met other LGBT individuals in my area, but they are few and far between. As for support groups, pride centers, or clubs, we have to go to Youngstown, Ohio, Pittsburgh, or Erie because their communities are already established and thriving. There are a few LGBT clubs in Warren and Youngstown, Ohio that are pretty popular among people in my area since we’re right on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border.

After I graduated from undergrad and moved back to the area, I joined an LGBT women’s group that had just formed. It was a safe space for LGBT women to form friendships and have a social outlet. The ladies I met were all in their 20’s-30’s like me, which was great. My ex and I made a few good friends there. We’d go out to local restaurants, art shows, bowling, movies… anything the ladies thought would be fun. It was a small but thriving group for about a year. After our original coordinator left, another lady and I stepped up to keep it going. It lasted for a second year, but people slowly lost interest and it dissolved.

For me, it was very isolating to grow up there and not really know if there were other people like me. Sure, I made a few LGBT friends growing up, but there were no role models or successful out people for us to look up to.

Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. Personally, not too often. I “passed” at work, and left it that way. The positions I held were very public and I only came out to whose I felt close with. When I have experience discrimination, it’s been more in a social setting, such as among friends or acquaintances, not at work. In those types of situations, people said things to me such as, “You can’t be bisexual. You have to pick one or the other” or “I can’t date you. You’ll leave me for [opposite sex].” The remark that hurt the most was from a close lesbian friend at the time. My then female ex and I mutually broke up. A few months after, I started dating a guy. When my lesbian friend found out, she sent me a huge, long email about how I was a traitor, that she’d never date a bisexual girl because of what I did, and that I’d never be happy because I’d always be longing for the opposite sex. It was pretty devastating since that was my first serious rejection after coming out to my parents. In public, I only remember two times when people harassed me. Both times, my female ex and I were holding hands while we were out shopping and a group of guys decided to cat call us. They called us horrible names when we ignored them. In high school, if the other kids did say anything about me, it was always covertly whispered while I walked by. No one ever bullied me or hurt me because of it. I think I was just lucky though, because I’m female. Gay men or perceived gay men don’t have it so easy. A few of my gay male friends have said they’ve been harassed numerous times at work or out in public.

Tell us about your access to health care in Western PA. Has it been LGBTQ competent (or not?) I haven’t had many instances where my sexuality needed brought up, but in the few times it was, I’ve just gotten a strange look from the nurse/doctor, and the appointment continued unaffected.

Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? First of all, we have to create a local dialogue in our county. Like I mentioned before, there’s not much of a community here because no one’s stepped up to create it. It’s easier to keep your orientation to yourself than deal with the repercussions it could cause. Therefore, everyone just travels elsewhere because the bigger cities already offer well-known establishments, a larger LGBT population to get to know, and anonymity (which some people crave coming from a small town). I hope this chances by the time I return home.

What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? Create statewide anti-discrimination laws and acknowledge our existence/contributions in their communities.

Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. A lot of the people in my area have lived there their whole lives and never really left or explored other cultures. It’s very homogenous and stagnant, culturally. Everyone goes to church on Sundays and dates their own race. We’re slightly behind the times, sadly. LGBT people and rights are something to be gossiped about, not intellectually discussed. If you don’t fit into a neat box the others can categorize, you’re ridiculed out of ignorance.

Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? Religion. But more so, society’s interpretation of it. Not only does it breed hate or disdain between people of different faiths, this self-judgement isolates the individual from their God. I know some of you might not be religious or spiritual, but I grew up Catholic, so bear with me. We went to church every Sunday, went to Catechism every Wednesday, and afterward, you’d go to Grandma’s for dinner. It was extremely hard hearing conflicting religious messages about falling on the spectrum. You’re supposed to love and serve everyone, yourself included, but you’re condemned to Hell for liking someone of the same sex? I was constantly wondering, “Does God really hate me if He made me in His image? If I have these feelings, and what you say is true, wouldn’t God be bisexual then too?” No one could ever answer my questions.

The Church shaped a huge part of my personality and attitudes toward life. Compassion is the key. I wish people could set aside their beliefs and love each other. That’s the real message God wants us to share. Love and take care of each other. Feed the poor, give to the needy, care for the Earth, listen to the lonely, you name it… The Golden Rule. I will say my church never had a sermon condemning anyone. Our priest always preached about doing good deeds and loving each other for who we are. But not all the churches here are like that. I just happened to get lucky.

What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? Someone created this group today for our county. Feel free to join and share. 

The only other LBGT organization I can think of locally was a chapter of Marriage Equality for Pennsylvania (ME4PA- Central West or Mercer) group a few years ago. I’m not sure what they’re doing now, but they had a picnic event at the courthouse promoting marriage equality and LGBT rights before it was legalized. I haven’t heard anything about them since then. I think it was 2013?

Local Resources – all have Facebook pages
ME4PA- Central West – LGBT marriage equality group
Mahoning Valley Pride Center- Youngstown, Ohio
Funky Skunk NiteClub – Warren, Ohio
Utopia Video Nightclub – Youngstown, Ohio
Out & About LGBT Social Group – Youngstown, Ohio/Mercer Co. Area
LGBT Youth Hotlines: http://www.health.pa.gov/My%20Health/Documents/Mercer%20County%20Resource%20Guide.pdf
Northwestern PA Pride Center- Erie, PA
A lot of places in Pittsburgh

What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania?  That we will always be under-represented. That a lot of us will always feel out of place or alone. That we will always be ignored or reviled by our straight counterparts. A lot of people move out of the area because they don’t like living in a rural area when there’s greater representation and community in the major cities.

What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania?  When we do come together, how great it will be. No more travel! 

What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Stick up for LGBT people/friends when someone says something ignorant or negative about us. I’ve noticed the most effective words that change hearts come from passionate allies. Allies can also get involved in, or support, local LGBT events when they are planned.

How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? Be open-minded and loving. Help one another. We’re all in this together.

What motivated you to take part in this project? First and foremost, I thought it was a great project! Second, I felt by sharing my story, maybe more people in my area would feel less alone in their experiences. Third, I hope to empower others to break their silence, however change starts with each and every one of us. If I don’t do it, I can’t expect my neighbor to.

Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. I think you covered everything.

Thank you, Tara.

Read the entire AMPLIFY LGBTQ Q&A archive.

AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. These are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices.

Our intent is to highlight the voices of marginalized members of our community who are not always invited to the table or whose voices are not heard.  If you would like to participate, visit the online Q&A which takes about 30 minutes. 

You can read the other Q&A responses here.  AMPLIFY! LGBTQ is a project of Most Wanted Fine Art and Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents.

 

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