Issue Date: March 17, 2006
Her obituary outed our partnership
Char and I cowered in a quiet, compartmentalized way of living
By DORIS CIPOLLA
Charlene M. Tanner, age 70, died Monday, April 23, 2005, at home. Char was a graduate of St. Benedict Academy. After graduation she worked at St. Vincent Health Center as director of admissions for 43 years, until her retirement in 1995. She was an oblate and benefactor of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and was extremely active in social justice issues. She volunteered at the Emmaus Soup Kitchen and for many years participated in vigils in remembrance of murder victims as well as monthly Holy Hours for Peace. In addition to her mother, Char is survived by her loving partner of 35 years, Doris Cipolla.
With this obituary, we outed our 35 years of sharing and living together. During this time, we never knew what relatives, straight friends, neighbors and coworkers thought of us. Did they know we were gay?
I have to deliberately force myself to use the word lesbian. Perhaps this may be a generational thing. Many of our young friends seem to have little difficulty calling themselves lesbians and coming out to family and coworkers. Char and I obviously did neither. Until recent years, we heard the word lesbian used only in a most pejorative sense. We were simply two friends who came into each others lives and loved each other deeply and intimately. Why should our being the same sex change anything? But change it does.
We had been living in our present home a good many years, never knowing what anyone thought. Then one spring, the young teenager next door, along with two friends, hissed, Lizzy, lizzy, lizzy at us. Our hearts fell and we froze in the midst of our yard work, gripped with fear as they continued to sneer and hiss their lizzy, lizzy. Little did we know this would begin the most agonizing summer of our lives.
The next day we awakened to wheel ruts in our front yard. The following week while taking our usual two-mile hike, we were confronted with shrieks of lesbian, lesbian. We never walked again that summer, and fearing that our home might be vandalized, we had a security system installed.
How many of our neighbors had heard the name-calling? What could be done to ward off further negativity? I confronted the parents with an indignant statement that we were good Christians, that we were not pedophiles and that we did not appreciate being called names. What that meant, I dont know. Its kind of sadly laughable.
Then I came up with the non-bright idea of telling the neighbors that we had been accused of being lesbians and that these young teenagers were making unjust accusations simply because we were two women living together. After all, many people of the same sex live together, but that does not make them lesbians or gay.
I cringe at having done that. Char had said to do nothing, let people think what they want because nothing was going to change their thinking anyway. She was right and I was wrong, particularly since I had perpetrated a lie out of cowardice for the purpose of what I thought would be damage control.
Chars death has certainly liberated me of any such needs. I couldnt care less what anyone thinks of me. And, yes, I am a lesbian because I loved and still love the kindest, gentlest soul one could ever know.
Char and I cowered in a quiet, sometimes apprehensive, and always compartmentalized way of living. For example, only our gay and lesbian friends ever heard about the incidents of that horrible summer. In fact, we invited no straight friends to our home that entire season, and when our families came to share our usual Sunday dinners, sitting on the deck was excruciating lest the shouts of lizzy or lesbian be heard. Thank goodness nothing ensued and the taunting teenagers faded away.
We made sure that our friends and coworkers had only edited versions of what we did and with whom. When we were in their presence, we were most careful never to slip into the use of endearing terms or affectionate gestures. We feared jeopardizing our jobs. Char worked at a Catholic hospital and I was a secondary teacher in a public school system. Could we have been dismissed if we came out? Lesbian and gay persons have been dismissed from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.
Char was shy and reticent and treaded softly. On the other hand, I would rant and rave about social injustices. I found it ironic that our political and religious leaders decried Taliban practices while here in Pennsylvania there were many of us who experienced devastating discrimination and were denied legal rights that are granted to spouses. We are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for freedom for those people, and we are losing the battle in our own backyard.
Arguments erupt over the inclusion of under God in the Pledge of Allegiance while the pledge itself is meaningless because of its failure to insure justice for all.
In retrospect, it is all rather mind-boggling. We never even came out to our parents lest they, knowing who we really were, would have to face the struggle of discrimination. Chars parents never questioned our relationship, nor did my mother. If they knew, they never said anything. What was obvious was that my mother loved Char dearly. Chars dad often introduced me as his other daughter. Her mother, who is still living, alert and healthy at 91, often refers to me in the same way and does not hesitate to tell me that she loves me. If she wrestles with any conflicts, they have never surfaced.
After the doctor told us that the return of Chars cancer had spread to a Stage 4, any need to remain silent seemed inane.
* * *
Since Chars death, life has been difficult; time only affirms how much I miss her. I have found solace knowing Char has been spared the burden I bear. There is an old saying: May you live a thousand years, and I a thousand years less one day, so that I will never know that you have gone away. One of us had to live that one day.
There are times I experience a satisfying consolation, realizing our coming out did not change most peoples feelings toward us. During Chars wake all our neighbors came -- friends, relatives, past coworkers. More than 300 people signed the register, the majority of them straight. The chapel was full and after the last song was sung and the Mass had ended, everyone spontaneously stood up and burst into applause.
There was also a grand attendance at the funeral luncheon. It was an extraordinary sendoff and a real tribute to Char. At times this evokes a warm, memorable experience, a phenomenal celebration, but ever a reminder that we could have a funeral but we could not have a wedding.
Doris Cippola, a former teacher, lives in Erie, Pa.
National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006
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