Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 15, 2009

Tea with an untraditional grandmother

Henri, who prefers that her surname be omitted, is the lesbian grandmother of Michael Martinez, a gay Knox student who is a member of Common Ground. She shared her insights with Knox students at a Common Ground sponsored tea gathering.

Henri graduated in 1955 and married a man soon after. She said, “I wasn’t sure I was in love. I just got married ‘cause that’s what you did.”

Four years later, she became pregnant with Martinez’s mom. Although she described pregnancy as “a wonderful thing,” Henri was deeply unsatisfied with her marriage.

Henri grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s and “didn’t know any word for lesbian. [She] had only heard ‘queer’ used as a derogatory word.” In 1980, she joined the National Organization for Women (NOW) and her eyes were opened to the realities of the gay community.

She heard women coming out at meetings saying, “‘I’m divorcing my husband and coming out.’ [Henri] thought, ‘Wow! You can do that?’”After doing some research in the Stanford library about what it meant to be a lesbian, and what it meant for her own life, Henri decided to confront her husband.

While redoing her kitchen one day, her husband commented angrily that it was his kitchen too, and he should have a say about it. Henri said, “Well, maybe I’m a lesbian. And maybe I don’t want to live here any more.” To this, her husband said that it was “just another one of [her] crazy ideas” — a statement which had become a frequent refrain.

The next day, the two agreed to get a divorce and Henri’s life took a more positive turn. “It took a long time,” Henri said, “but I did wake up.”

Today she is in a loving relationship with an older woman named Kim. After sharing her coming out story, Henri provided a “word of warning from a grandmother: it’s not always a perfect world out there. You have to be careful.”

The imperfections that Henri was specifically concerned with were bigotry and violence against LGBT people, such as the murder of Matthew Shepard (examined in The Laramie Project, which Common Ground screened on Monday). The House of Representatives is deliberating about a bill to protect LGBT people from hate crimes.

Other advice that Henri offered was “[not] to bother about divisions [like butch and femme]. Evolve into something different. Be whatever you want.” In discussing gay marriage, she asked “How do you destroy marriage by redefining it?”

To conclude the meeting, Henri asked others in attendance to share their own coming out stories. A poet herself, she emphasized the wealth of writing material that can come from “passing between two worlds” as an LGBT person.

Kaeli Winberg

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