The coming out process took unexpected turns for lesbian author Shirley Hayden. The 50-year-old Lexington, Ky., native told her mother at age 9 she was gay, a proclamation that was met with near indifference. Hayden, who had little social context for being gay in the South, eventually married a man as a young woman and had twin sons. But she quickly realized the straight married life wasn’t for her.
“I just didn’t like it,” she says. “There was something inside of me that it just didn’t work. And it’s not that I hate men. I love men and have many wonderful men in my life. I just didn’t like being married to one.”
Eventually the same adage she brought to her writing career — “I don’t believe in fear,” she says — enabled her to roll with the punches in other areas. She’d never had a conversation with her young sons about being a lesbian but realized they knew what was going on by the time they were in kindergarten. Caught unexpected by show and tell one day because the teacher changed the day, they shared with the class that their mother was gay. She chuckles at the memory now but says it brought unsettling aspects with it. A cousin who was in their class used an anti-gay slur in reference to Hayden to her sons.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “This baby could barely spell his name and he knows words like that? What kind of hatred are we teaching?” Hayden, as always, found refuge in her writing. Inspired by two teachers when she was in seventh grade, she had a small poetry collection published at age 12. She’s since written 11 more books in various genres and is conducting a series of writer’s workshops for LGBT authors every Saturday through the end of the month at lesbian-owned Sisterspace and Books (3717 Georgia Ave., N.W.; www.sisterspacedc.com).
She discovered the shop during a visit to see author/teacher Nikki Giovanni here a few years ago and fell in love with the store because it gave shelf space to writers of color. Her current project is a screenplay called “The Women of Nelson,” which is set in a Civil War-era Army camp in Kentucky (www.shirleyhayden.us). Hayden works as a consultant and grant writer when she’s not doing her own writing. She enjoys spending time in libraries, volunteering, walking, running, Sudoku and sunbathing in her spare time. She also enjoys hearing her now-27-year-old sons’ perspectives on politics and the world. She’s single and lives in D.C.’s Ft. Lincoln neighborhood in Northeast.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I have never had a problem telling anyone that I am a lesbian. I have been out since age 9. Funny story; I would come home from spending the summers at my grandmother’s every year and tell mama that I was gay. She would respond, “That’s nice, go out and play with your brothers and sisters.” When I turned 18 I just stopped talking about it. At that point she asked if I was still gay. My response was that I was, but I felt she was just going to tell me to go outside and play anyway. And incidentally, I am one of 13 children, born to the same mother and father, and I have two gay brothers as well.
Who’s your gay hero?
Audre Lorde, Terri Jewell, May Sarton, Sapphire, and Alice Walker, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich are my “sheroes.”
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
My favorite D.C. hotspot is actually Sisterspace Books but we need to work on their Wi-fi connectivity. I love meeting writers in the D.C. public libraries to write as well. Libraries across the USA have always been my safe places to write. I have logged more hours in libraries across the country than most people have logged through volunteerism. Additionally, my favorite hotspot is my porch, nachos at LACE, and Busboys and Poets on 5th and K.
What’s your dream gay wedding?
I want to marry in the District. I so want to get married as soon as possible, but my challenge is I cannot marry by myself. My ideal dream wedding would be somewhere on water, but how many watersheds do we have in D.C.? I see myself married, happy, barefoot, but never pregnant. I want to wake up to her morning breath, share night sweats, wear her slippers when traveling, curl up and read together, pray together and do our own particular “nasty” together.
What non-gay issue are you most passionate about?
I would respond racism, but it is certainly a gay issue as well. And so are sexism, volunteerism and mentoring. Well maybe the role of women in the church. Oh wait, I guess that intersection could be homophobia. OK, so my answer will be historical: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
What historical outcome would you change?
Well Barrack Obama is in the White House, but I think I would continue to change the notion of being “the first anything based upon race, gender or creed or orientation, you know the infamous clause we still use.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Most memorable would be the Jackson 5 and oddly, the death of Michael.
On what do you insist?
I insist on being un-bossed and un-bought. Shirley Chisholm, a woman who ran for president back in 1972 — she’s the one who coined that term. Always lived by that philosophy.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
My last Facebook post was in celebration of my newest book, “Coming Out Loud.”
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Adam Can’t Take This Rib Back”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
I would pray that I never encountered this science because I like being a lesbian woman; however I would like to tinker with the machinery long enough to eradicate racism, sexism and homophobia.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
I always say that, “when hell freezes over, I will skate.” I believe in a lot of things beyond this world but I believe heaven is right here on earth and I believe also in the continuance of it beyond this world.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
I have no issues with LGBTQ leaders, however my advice would be to follow. To get behind the movement and push/motivate/inspire/teach/train new leadership to be the forefront.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
I would not walk across hot coals for anything. But I might be encouraged to dance along the edges if I had the opportunity to meet my future mate and life partner.
What gay stereotype annoys you most?
My response will probably inspire debate, discussion, formalization of a nation think tank, new ad-hoc committees and I am sure a few pies thrown in my face, but the stereotype that most annoys me is the women, who bleed like all women, but who believe they are somehow “boys” like my brothers. They are not and I do not care what in the hell they wear in support of trying to be boys or men. Walking like a duck don’t make you a duck.
What’s your favorite gay movie?
People who know me know that one of the areas in which I need to improve is media, particularly movies and even watching TV. Up until about a year ago I did not own a TV and now I am sometimes viewed as the sistah from another planet because movies now in my purview are 10 to 20 years old now. But in answer to the question, I do not think I have a favorite gay movie. The jury is still out on that one.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
This is a hot button topic for me. I think the most overrated social custom is returning text messages every time one of my friends texts me to say they are going to the bathroom. I just do not care and do not want to know about it. I guess if they have fallen off the side of a mountain and they text for help then I may be able to make an exception. But I would expect for them to call 911 for assistance. I get text messages while I am in church. I guess it is telling on me that I allow them to indulge in this behavior with me. Perhaps after today, I will receive fewer messages. I should hope. Additionally, I just do not enjoy Facebook and Twitter for the same reasons. I guess we should hold an all-day summit to address that.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
I long to win literary awards such as the Pulitzer, but I will settle for more honorable mentions in a new sub-culture where people do not appear to read as much anymore.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
I wish I had known at 18 that the Internet was coming. I would not have saved so many paper files and newspapers.
Because I grew up in a farming community and there was no bus and town was where you went on Sunday for church. I have lived in many places, but I live in D.C. because I love, love, love being surrounded by so many diverse people and cultural events. There is always something to do in the District.