I moved to a small city in northern England in 2019. My partner had been offered a job as an academic at a local university, so we packed up our lives in New York City and prepared to put down roots somewhere new. The locals call it a “large village,” a reference both to its quaint and historic architecture, as well as its friendly, close-knit community. Step outside your door, and you’re bound to bump into someone you know: the owner of a local cafe, the guy who gives ghost tours of the city, or a university professor out walking her dog. Every day here feels a little bit like an episode of Gilmore Girls.
In my mission to get settled, one of the first things I did was seek out a writers’ group. I shopped around a bit before I found a winner: a group of novelists that met in a cafe right across from a gorgeous medieval church. The setting was every bit as adorable as my gauziest dreams of long-ago Britain could have conjured. We met upstairs, in a cozy library-like space furnished with antiques. Fitting the cliché, the first thing we did before every session was order steaming pots of tea.
Aside from being the only American in the group, I was also the youngest person by about twenty-five years. All told, there were seven of us: six women and one man. Five Brits, one Canadian, and me.
No one seemed to mind that, at thirty-two years old, I was the baby of the group. “It’s great to have some fresh blood!” they said happily. At our Christmas party that year, they raised their glasses and toasted me, the newest and youngest member.
These people were bright and generous. They were all possessed of that classic British reserve popularized in movies and TV shows. They could be funny at times, but they were unfailingly polite.
Even in the beginning, it didn’t seem purely coincidental to me that I had landed myself in a group primarily of women over fifty-five—women who praised my writing, lit up when I walked into a room, and did their best to make me feel at home. No one in the group knew this, but my own mother and I were hardly speaking. We used to be one of those mother-daughter duos that other people envied. We opened up about our lives, we talked frankly about love and sex, and we had somehow avoided the clichéd turmoil of my teenage years. “What’s it like to be friends with your mom?” my friends would ask me. “How do you stay so close?” I didn’t have a good answer—we just got along.
Growing up, I basked in my mother’s praise. I lived for the moment when she’d walk in the door, envelop me in a fragrant hug, crouch down on my level, and ask to hear about my day. I couldn’t wait to share my latest accomplishment: a story I’d written, a cartoon I’d drawn, a grade I’d received, or a teacher I’d impressed. “No!” she would exclaim, feigning disbelief just so I could have the pleasure of telling her again. “Anna, no—you did not! Unbelievable! Anna! Anna!” Her voice skated up and down the scale, musical with wonder at her youngest child.
Was she aware that she was putting on a show? Absolutely. And I lapped it up. I lived for her approval, and she readily handed it over. It was in this state of happy symbiosis that we existed until I was thirty years old and my mother was sixty-seven, when I faced her across the dinner table and told her, giggling with a weird mixture of excitement, discomfort, and nerves, that I was dating someone new: a woman.
I knew my mother would be surprised. I didn’t know she’d be horrified. Days later, when I pressed her for a reaction, she was brutally honest.
“I was repulsed,” she said.
I remember watching her face. Her expression had gone totally flat. Her eyes had, too, as if the light of her pride had drained away.
“I love you,” she said, “but I hate your actions.”
The word “hate” came out as a hiss, dripping with disgust.
I began to cry. “I had no idea you were so homophobic,” I said.
She denied being homophobic. She said she didn’t think that being gay was wrong in a moral sense—but she believed it was wrong for me. “I know you,” she said. “And this isn’t who you are.”
It was clear that we had both shocked each other beyond all imagining. My best friend of twelve years was a gay man whom my mom sometimes jokingly referred to as “son number two.” He called her “mom number two.” Perhaps even more surprisingly, her own best friend was a happily married lesbian. I asked her if she disapproved of their choices, too.
“It’s different when it’s your child,” she told me.
I had spent my life thinking of her as a rational, open-hearted woman whose judgment I revered. It would take years, and several painful, maddening conversations, for me to fully grasp that there was no simple through-line of logic driving her reaction. It was, and remains, an incredibly confused patchwork of binary thinking, religious dogma, and stubbornly defended falsehoods, everything from comparing gayness to alcoholism (“You’re poisoning yourself,”) to proclaiming her sorrow that I would never give her grandkids. When I explained that lesbians can, in fact, have kids, she was appalled. At a certain point, attempting to understand her perspective started to feel like a pointless exercise in self-harm, like I was merely collecting reasons to hate myself.
In the end, I realized that what drove my mother was not logic or even a coherent belief system; it was a feeling: disgust.
Two years later, I moved abroad with my partner and embarked on a totally new life, but my relationship with my mother stayed broken. Sometimes this knowledge would pierce me. I didn’t cry as often as I used to, but it was the greatest sadness and the deepest loss that I carried in my heart. Moving away from home only threw that loss into sharper relief. In the weeks before Christmas, she made it clear that my partner and I weren’t welcome in her house. It was the first time that I wasn’t invited home to celebrate the holidays with my family.
Sometimes I thought: maybe she’s right. Maybe my love for women is unnatural. Disgusting. Weird. Or at the very least, undesirable. Maybe I would be better, happier, more whole, if I were dating a man. At least then I would get my mom back.
I was convinced that homophobia lived inside everyone. If it could live inside my mother, undetected for thirty years, then anyone could turn on me at any time. I never knew when the rug would be pulled out from under me. Trust was naive, foolish—a recipe for heartbreak.
And yet, here I was, opening myself to a group of women in their fifties and sixties. Women whose blue eyes crinkled like my mother’s when they smiled, who told me I was smart and talented and lovely and most importantly, that I belonged.
Here I was, sharing my novel with them. And not just any novel: a novel about lesbian relationships. The very sort of novel that my mother would have shuddered to read.
To be fair, it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows at writing group. I had ruffled their feathers before, once by consuming a scone when no one else was eating, and then again by sharing my feedback in a Word file instead of printing out a paper copy.
“I’m worried that we’re becoming too technological,” one of the writers said, eyeing me sternly. I never made that mistake again.
These women were rule-abiding and respectable. They made me nervous—what if I accidentally did something to displease them? What if they turned on me, decided I was too vulgar, too outspoken, too American, that the content of my stories was too sexual and therefore that I was some kind of lesbian creep? What if they thought I was hitting on them? (I seriously had this fear, even though I’m not sure how it’s possible to hit on five women collectively.)
In essence, I just wanted them to like me. And once they liked me, I didn’t want them to take it back.
All of which helps explain my intense anxiety on a night in early February, about four months after I’d joined the group. Right before I was due to submit my chapter, I realized there was a sex scene that I was a little embarrassed to share. It involved a lesbian couple whose sex was supercharged by a fantasy of inviting a third woman into their bed. I asked my partner to read through the chapter and tell me which parts were too scandalous. She recommended I remove one line. I agreed and emailed the edited version to the group.
Except, of course, I hadn’t emailed that version—I’d sent the original by mistake.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” I said out loud, staring at my computer. “Oh god, oh god, oh god.”
“Which line did you take out?” my friend asked when I called him in a panic.
I took a deep breath before answering:
“I was wet before her tongue even grazed my clit.”
He burst out laughing.
I quickly sent a follow-up email with the edited version. “ALERT, ALERT!” the email warned, with a request that they ignore the original.
I spent the night with my head in my hands, moaning to my partner about my mortification. If it had been a heterosexual love scene, I would have been embarrassed, too, but the fact that it was between two women took things up several notches on the humiliation scale.
I recognize these feelings for what they are: internalized homophobia. Even though I have always embraced the gay people in my life, long before my partner was even a twinkle in my bi-curious eye, for some reason, I’ve been unable to fully accept my own sexuality. Sometimes I think I am gross and bad, and sometimes I acknowledge this feeling of grossness and badness is quite clearly linked to my mother. I will have dreams that my partner and I are having sex and my mom walks in and starts scolding me. I will be in the midst of having sex, sex that I am enjoying with a woman I love deeply and who loves me deeply back, and I’ll experience the moment from an invented outsider’s point of view:
This is unnatural.
This is wrong.
This is repulsive.
My mother’s disgust had seeped into my brain, and I worried the women in my writing group would be disgusted, too.
My partner assured me that the sex scene wasn’t that scandalous; she called it “restrained” and told me I was overreacting. “I’m pretty sure they all know they have clits.”
Beneath my embarrassment, I had to wonder if something deeper was going on. Did I in some way want this to happen? Was this some kind of literary Freudian slip? Maybe I had exposed the so-called “worst” of myself to see how my surrogate moms would react. If there was any latent homophobia lurking among them, surely this sex scene would reveal it.
Three excruciating days later, the group met to review our submissions. As we took our seats around the table, I tried to act normal, but my capacity for small talk had abandoned me. Our once-cozy meeting space seemed to have shrunk to stifling proportions. The setting had become unbearably intimate, and I felt as if a spotlight were shining down on my head. When my turn came, I was so nervous that I kept my eyes locked on my computer screen under the pretense of taking notes.
“The sex was great,” the woman to my left announced boldly, looking around.
The room murmured its assent.
“Brilliant,” someone else mumbled.
“The thing is, I read both versions, and I couldn’t tell the difference between them.”
“So did I.”
All around the room, my fellow writers admitted to having read both versions and/or wanting to go back to read the original, because they were curious to see what I had taken out.
“I compared word counts,” said one woman proudly, “and there’s only a ten-word difference. So tell us: what was the missing line?”
Another turned to me, laughing. “Now you have to read it out loud!”
No one was offended by the content. If anything, they seemed hurt and bewildered that I didn’t think they could handle a little sex scene. “Much ado about nothing,” they concluded. They wanted to know if I felt I was writing for an audience that didn’t include them. Up until that moment, I would have said, Yes, absolutely, I do not think that my novel about a tortured lesbian love affair is for you, but I had clearly underestimated them. One woman said she liked the chapter so much, she thought I should send it to an agent. “It’s very topical,” she said, nodding sagely. “I wrote a sex scene once,” she added. “It involved cunnilingus on a beach.” I blinked at her in quiet amazement.
Tensions ran high at this particular meeting, but not because of my story. There was a heated debate about the maximum word count for a submission—some people wanted to cap it at three thousand words, while others argued, quite persuasively, that you couldn’t assess a chapter based on an excerpt.
“I just think it diminishes the value of the feedback,” one woman said primly, shaking her head. It was the most fired up I’d ever seen her.
Later, I felt humbled by the whole experience—by openness of these older women, and by their refusal to judge anything in my story except the elements of craft. They just didn’t think that being a lesbian was a big deal.
My partner always says that she likes to give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume they’re not homophobic, proceed accordingly, and let them prove you right. And isn’t that a better way to live—daring to expect the best of people, walking through life with your head held high, instead of skittering around in a defensive crouch, bracing for the deadly blow?
When I came out to my mom, I expected acceptance, not because I was brave but because I was naive. The blow hit me that much harder for being unexpected. Over the ensuing years, I’ve lost more than my mother’s support, affection, and praise. I’ve lost the belief that we share the same values. The deeply held conviction that she is equipped to guide me—wisely, compassionately, with an open heart—to the next right thing.
I wish I could say this small triumph with my writing group has erased the pain of that loss. It hasn’t. I sit with it every day. But now that I understand the full consequences of coming out, my calculus hasn’t changed. There is enormous pain in being rejected, but there is even greater joy in being seen, understood, and accepted. Only by taking the risk of revealing myself, over and over again, can I manage to find and cherish those miraculous people who love me for who I am.
As I write these words, I am twenty-four hours away from proposing to my partner. When I told the women of writing group about my plans, they showered me with warm congratulations.
“Do you think she’ll say yes?”
I was so surprised by the question that I laughed. “Oh, I’m not worried about that part,” I said. “She picked out the ring.”
In this case, at least, acceptance is assured.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.