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In This Place

Gay and proud

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My wife, Shelley, and I were walking down West Falmouth Highway a few days ago when we noticed a rainbow flag sailing high atop the flagpole by one of our favorite houses. We’ve never met the family who live there. But a few years ago, their daughter and her wife got married in their backyard. As we walked by what was clearly a joy-filled celebration, I was so moved that I wanted to run home and wrap up one of our favorite pieces of Lesbian art to give them as a wedding gift. Shelley convinced me to wait until we actually knew their names. It was no surprise to see their flag celebrating gay pride month, but it still amazed me.

There were no gay flags flying in Falmouth when we moved here forty years ago. I’d left my job at a health center serving the LGBT community in Boston to fulfill our dream of living on Cape Cod. We’d left a diverse city with a flamboyant annual Gay Pride Parade and came to a community where the only gay people we knew were hidden deeply in their closets. It was a time before the Ellen Show and Modern Family. My approach to dealing with my sexuality in my new surroundings was the one President Clinton would later adopt for the military. “If they don’t ask, I won’t tell.”

My practice grew quickly with patients who needed a primary care physician. I saw parents and their teenaged kids. I saw teachers and lawyers, nurses, and scientists. And I saw Lesbians. Somehow, within weeks of my arrival, the word was out in the gay community that there was a Dyke Doctor in Falmouth.

Andrea came to the office for her first visit dressed in denim, flannel, and work boots. Her hair was short, and the scent of Old Spice wafted around her. She had no special complaints and seemed to be in good health. But few weeks after I met her, I got a call from one of our psychiatrists saying that Andrea had come to the ER the night before, claiming that God was telling her to kill herself. The Cape didn’t have a psychiatric facility in those days, so she was admitted to a general medical floor at Falmouth Hospital.

On my morning rounds, I walked into Andrea’s room to find her reading a Bible. She looked up at me and said, “Natalie, it’s OK. I’m better now. The Lord has spoken to me. If I give up perversion and sin, He will forgive me. And He’ll forgive you too!”

I tried to change the subject, but she was relentless. I tried leaving the room, but she followed me into the hall, holding the Bible over her head, her voice echoing through the corridor.

“Natalie, Listen to me! We can be saved from our lives of perversion.”

Nurses and doctors whose names I hadn’t yet learned stopped what they were doing and stared at us. Patients in johnnies appeared at doorways to see what was happening. The usual cacophony of sounds that fills a hospital vanished. All I heard was her deep booming voice, as if it were on a divine public address system.

Suddenly, from what I assumed must have been heaven, I heard the clear and gentle voice of my own personal savior. Dressed in white, Claire took control of the situation in a way only a seasoned nurse could. “Andrea,” she said. “You’re getting upset, let’s go back into your room and calm down.”

She put her arm around Andrea’s shoulders. As she guided her back into her room, she motioned for me to head for the elevator. The eyes of everyone I passed bore into me, as I tried to walk straight, very straight, down the hall. When the elevator closed, I began to tremble, and my dreams of a career on Cape Cod quaked with me. When I stepped out of the elevator, I did the only thing I could do - I went back to my office and treated my patients. Treated them with dignity and respect and hoped for the best.

My practice continued to grow. Rarely I’d hear a rumor or an ill-spirited comment, but mostly my patients cared more about my clinical skills and compassion than my personal life. Doctors and nurses at the hospital became valued colleagues and many of them became our dear friends. When I was being treated for breast cancer, that same angel, Claire, made me a quilt that still warms us every winter.

Forty years after that trial on the fourth floor of Falmouth Hospital, Shelley and I are living a life beyond our dreams. Our rainbow flag hangs on our porch all year long, and here I am, talking on public radio about being gay when no one even asked me to. It is time to be proud.

This piece was brought to us by Viki Merrick and Atlantic Public Media.