Personal and Political – From China to the U.S., and Back

Published on May 17, 2012 by Michelle Wirth

I have taken my professional journey and personal values to a crossroads where I am considering moving abroad for work. To begin to understand the lay of the land regarding refugee and asylum issues, as well as teaching opportunities, I interviewed a friend who teaches English as a Foreign Language. She has befriended many of her former students, and recently received a request from a student in China who is studying “Homosexuality in America.” I was able to repay my friend’s kindness by answering the questions of her former student.

Her questions and my answers are topical to many issues at the forefront of current U.S. politics. I know that personal stories influence public perception, and can therefore influence political outcomes, so I have shared our exchange below. Although I have gone outside of my comfort zone, I have also redacted some portions of my answers in light of what feels appropriate to share with a broader audience.

I have changed the interviewer’s words only as needed to transform the text from texting slang to more spell-check friendly formal English.

1.      When exactly did you come to realize your sexual orientation? Does it comes naturally or something triggered you to realize it?

I was 19 years old when I realized that I had been in love with a woman I had met 9 months earlier, on the first day of college. The chemistry was immediate – I thought she was beautiful, brilliant, funny, and kind. Although I was an award winning public speaker, I felt stupid and tongue-tied. When that first class was over, I did not want her to leave. We became friends, and when we would hug goodbye, I did not want to let go. She was the only “out” lesbian on campus, back in 1992. I had a boyfriend.

[She] decided to withdraw from school, and she was also moving away for the summer. I felt unbearable panic at the thought that I would never see her again. I wrote her a long letter detailing my pain at the thought that I would never see her again. Then I wrote her detailed directions to my house. We had our first date in June 1993. Our relationship lasted almost a year.

[After we broke up] I began dating a wonderful woman I met at a coffee shop. We have been together for almost 18 years, and we got married in Canada shortly before I went to law school. The marriage has no legal standing in the United States, but it means a great deal to me.

2.       Any hard feelings such stressed, disappointed and angry when you realize your sexual orientation?

No. I did panic about what to wear on our first date, and about what it would be like to kiss a girl. We each wore khaki shorts and a green top. The first kiss was good enough to get a second date.

3.       What do you think is the most important thing that makes you hold on to it despite all the obstacles?

I faced many challenges as a child, including the death of a sibling, a betrayal of trust by [an extended] family member, and fights at grade school. Through it all, my parents taught me to respect myself, stand up for what I believe, tell the truth, and take responsibility for my choices. This is the foundation of my personal integrity.

In grade school, I also learned about the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, and the Trail of Tears, the Japanese-American Internment Camps, and the civil rights movement in the United States. I learned that following orders and trying to go unnoticed in the hope of escaping persecution does not guarantee safety.

When I was taunted in grade school, I experienced first-hand that living a life of hiding in fear is a miserable life. I found freedom and relief in fighting back. I would never throw the first punch, but my father taught me how to throw the last punch. My mother had been the captain of her Catholic high school’s debate team, but later left the Catholic Church. She taught me how to fight back with rational thinking, well chosen words, and impeccable timing.

My parents modeled for me what it looks like to live life with the courage of your convictions. My father was a conscientious objector from the Vietnam War, and as a consequence he was required to move from his home in New York to Pennsylvania to serve his country through public service at a school for children with learning disabilities. When my father moved, my mother married him and moved with him.

When I was a child, my mother petitioned the local school board to allow the school bus to pick us up from the bus stop closest to our child care facility, instead of near our house, as the school’s policy required. A school board member told her that if she was a good mother, she would stay home and spend the day with her children, instead of going to work. She told him he was a “sexist pig.” She got the school board to change its policy, not just for us, but for everyone. When my father’s employer laid off all the workers, my mother supported our family. If my mother had stayed home instead of challenging the way things were done, we could have lost our home.

I am a Caucasian woman and I was raised by two college-educated parents, in a safe, middle class suburban community, with an excellent free education. I benefit from enormous privilege and opportunity. I have experienced discrimination, ignorance, and hatred, and I face them head on in part to honor the people who have born the brunt of discrimination before me, and “pay it forward” for those people who have fewer opportunities to influence change, and for those who come after me.

4.       It’s said that gay people have this “radar” that can help them identify the homosexual; to what extent do you agree or disagree?

I have lousy gaydar for queer women. I always have. In addition, most people assume I am straight.

I find it easy to spot gay men. My best friend does not.

My best friend is a straight woman, and she has excellent gaydar for women. Many gay women assume she is gay and will flirt with her in public – even at the grocery store – while ignoring me. She has long blonde hair and large blue eyes, and was a ballerina, so she does not fit the stereotype of what “looks like” a lesbian.

5.       What is the most disturbing stereotype of the homosexual to you?

I was disturbed by the trend of depicting queer people in fiction books and films only as suicidal, criminal, or insane. I am glad that queer people are now represented with more diversity and humanity.

I used to laugh at the cultural stereotype of lesbians as women who drink a lot of herbal tea and have a house full of cats. Now I drink a lot of tea, and I have three cats. I am allergic to cats.

6.       What’s your opinion about homophobia?

I am sad that people jump so quickly from ignorance, to fear, to hatred, instead of shifting from ignorance to inquiry even in the face of feeling fear.

Writer Rachel Held Evans has done an excellent job of addressing this in two recent blog posts about Christianity, “How To Win A Culture War and Lose a Generation,” and “From Waging War to Washing Feet: How Do We Move Forward?

7.       Will you vote for President Obama for his recent announcement that he’s in support of marriage equality ?

Yes. I would have voted for President Obama even if he had not voiced his support, but now I will volunteer for him, too. I was honored to serve as a “poll watcher” for 12 hours on the day of the election in which he was voted in as President. It was one of the longest and best days of my life.

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Published on May 18, 2008 by Michelle Wirth

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Prodigal Pittsburgher

Published on April 20, 2008 by Michelle Wirth

Prod”i*gal, a. [L. prodigus, from prodigere to drive forth, to squander away…

Each day for the last two days, I spoke with people who were planning to move from D.C., back to Pittsburgh. They had left Pittsburgh for D.C. in search of better jobs. At least one of them found that, helping a man go from Congressman to Governor and getting a lot of good things done along the way. And they’re both looking to come back to the ‘burgh.

Someone recently asked me if I was attached to working in Pittsburgh. Actually, a lot of people have recently asked me if I’m attached to working in Pittsburgh. I looked out of his picture window, following the yellow arc of the bridge across the river to the sun reflecting off the windows of the buildings on the the other side. Pittsburgh is beautiful. It’s clean, affordable, and the people are kind. I would like Mag Lev to be built between here and Philly, to pull the state together like a zipper. I could get to my folk’s house in an hour every Sunday for dinner, and not move Love from her hometown, from her parents, from the city I have come to love.

They say you can never go home again. I want to walk in the corn fields of my youth, but they’ve cut paved roads through them, and the park service drives through in trucks and yaps at me to keep my dog on a leash. Soccer moms pushing strollers take up the space between the corn and the soybean fields, and people drive their cars to the parking lots near the flush toilets.

My dog and I used to push through the hot air on the dusty red dirt roads between the corn and the soybeans, sometimes shaded by the mulberry trees, sometimes pulling ourselves through the clutches of the raspberry bushes, always, sooner or later, escaping to the flat rocks of the creek bed. Mint grew in the clay along the banks. A migrant field worker, wrinkled and smiling, holding a tomato that smelled like the sun. Here, a deserted farm house with a narrow stair way, a small fireplace in each bedroom, and newspapers like tumbleweeds that blew in from the 1970’s. A quarter of a mile over, along the roadside and by the edges of the pine forest, jonquils silhouette the outline of where a house once stood. Hawks fly overhead. Deer evaporate into the pines.

“When bees are few, the revelry alone will do.”

Einstein said that he solved problems by imagining himself traveling above the fray on a beam of light, taking in the whole picture from this elevated perspective. From there, the same circumstances did not look like problems.

“I put this moment here. I put this moment here. I put this moment over here.”

I come home in twenty-two days. And I want to be everywhere at once.

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Toward the Finish Line

Published on April 14, 2008 by Michelle Wirth

A third-party account of my weekend, from the angle of my better, albeit limping, half:

Hello All,

Here is the only slightly abridged and perhaps slightly embellished story of my first attempt at competitive cycling. The date was April 12th, 2008, one day after my 45th birthday…

The town of Mount Joy, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has a great Brew Pub called Bube’s, a very inviting though only passable coffee house called Higher Grounds, and on the outskirts of town, a VoTech for Tractor Trailer operators. Michelle and I sit in my rental car in the parking lot of the VoTech where many racers and their well-wishers have parked. There is no TP in the portajohn and very little blood in my face. I am turning green. My bike was out overnight in thunderstorms and the chain looks like cardboard. I need chain grease, badly.

Michelle points out a couple of women parked a ways over with a truck that seems filled with gear and I walk over to them to ask for lube. They are from Baltimore, 2 of a 4 woman team. The tall one has me grab and remove her bike from the truck so she can get the lube for me. Her bike weighs about 1/3 of what mine does, even when my tool bag is off.

I ride up to the reg tent and get my number (579) and Michelle and Sophia walk over toward the start. I am wearing my new shoes, my new smiley socks that Suz sent to the B&B where we stayed (courtesy of Mot, Lori and Suz) and my Steel City Endurance racing jersey. I am the only rider representing my team in this race, and though I am definitely among the cutest in the field, I am not at all confident I will represent them well. There are 40 other women here, and every single one of them looks like they know what they are doing. I have never ridden in a pack or a paceline, and my training has consisted mainly of rides with Jeffrey and Melissa that take us on large, hill-filled, meandering detours between coffeehouses. On the way in I passed these women warming up on their stationary trainers. If I had spun like that for the last half hour I’d be too tired already to race. Oy. Lee Ann, one of Pittsburgh’s best female cyclists is here racing for her team and she greets me with a cheer. That’s a little boost. We all mash ourselves up to the start.

We get started on time and I am doing what Jeffrey and Melissa have told me right from the start: Get on someone’s back wheel and hang on tight. I do that, going completely anaerobic for .98 miles before I am dropped once and for all from the peloton. Only 22.02 miles left, and I’m on my own. I catch my breath and set my own pace when I hear someone coming up behind me — it’s that tall Baltimore woman with the bike made of air! We settle in together and agree to take 2 minute turns pulling each other in the draft.

This is Esther’s first bicycle race too, only she is racing this year as a year off from Ironman triathlons, which she’d done for 9 years, even placing in her age group in Hawaii. She says she is sorry now that she swam that extra half hour this morning because she is a little fatigued, she should have only done an hour. We share a companionable ride for 2 of our 4 laps together, but I am working so hard just to keep in her draft that after pulling her up the course’s only steep hill on lap 2 I just have to let her go and run my own race in the back. I am going to finish this race, dead last perhaps, but I will finish.

Michelle and Sophia are hanging out on the grass just beyond the start, so I get a big wave and a cheer every time I pass. Michelle tells me later that Sophia looked with interest and sniffed at the calves of all the male cyclists that came by until she realized they were not me. Was that about body shape or pheromones I wonder? Sophia isn’t saying.

Esther and I were passed by the men from the heat after ours, and then later when I was alone on lap 3 and my right shoe was lifting and clicking off the pedal, I was passed by the straggler of that heat. We chatted for a moment.
Me: “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Him: “Very. How’s it going?”
Me: “This is my first race.”
Him: “What do you think?”
Me: “It’s very humbling.”
Him: “This is my third. It’s still humbling.”

Right before the steep hill on lap 3 I can’t take the clicking and lifting anymore and I get off my bike to tighten things up. Esther told me during lap 1 that tool bags are not allowed, but it was too late by then. Good thing I didn’t know because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to adjust my clip. It didn’t completely fix the problem, but my shoe is in tight enough for the rest of the race. I’ve now given up just under 3 minutes of race time and I’m really clear I will have to push myself to come in under 90 minutes for the ride, which I’ve said I will consider a respectable time. I get back on and go.

With 2km to go in lap 3 I am overtaken by the women’s peloton again. Yes, I got lapped on a 5.7 mile circuit, and these women are beginning their final sprint. I hunker down and get in their draft and stay with them for about 60 yards before they drop me again about 100 yards before the finish. They are done; simply not expecting anyone to be continuing on; so as I come through to begin my last, solitary lap I have to shout to them to move over so I can pass. They seem surprised. To them it just doesn’t compute. I remind myself that they would not have lapped me had I not stopped for maintenance. It helps.

I take the first turn of the last lap just as the rain begins. I am alone, the wind has kicked up seriously and I am pelted by big, hard drops of rain. But I am not despairing. I have come to find out what racing is like, and I have found out. I have come to see where I am in the scheme of women’s cycling and I have seen. I have come to finish, respectably for me, and I believe I can, come rain or shine. I am determined to beat 90 minutes, and to not be passed by any racers from the later races anymore. I do all that. I finish last, but I finish.

Michelle, Sophia and I load ourselves into the car. On the way out we pass by Lee Ann and a few other women. They ask me how I liked my first race. I tell them I hated it. They look shocked and dismayed. It is the truth. I hated it.

Over the next few hours I talk out with Michelle what my reaction is about. Certainly I didn’t like getting my ass kicked, but that isn’t it. I get my ass kicked every single time I play Ultimate and I love Ultimate. I think about why the bike race was so different from the triathlon, which I felt so good about. The triathlon, with its communal feel and staggered starts provided a constant experience of being with others who, by virtue of our varied start times, did not occur as my direct competitors, only as sister travelers. That’s not it either though, because if I train like all the other women in these races over time I would find others around my level to play with as I did briefly with Esther. Here’s what I really hated: I hated the physical experience of going strictly back and forth between anaerobic and recovery, without any time spent casually spinning along and taking in the scenery. I love cycling. I like to challenge myself to get stronger and fitter and faster. But I like just plain riding most, and when I can’t get a breath I can only focus on that, and it’s not enough fun to want to spend my whole ride feeling that way. That’s what I hated about racing.

Michelle asks if I will do any more races. “Probably.” I say.

Thank you all for your support.



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New Low

Published on April 9, 2008 by Michelle Wirth

this afternoon i scavenged in my car for lunch rather than take the time to get lunch from the drive through across the street.

it was dinner, too.

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