Case Narrative

A Consenting Juveniles narrative is a first-hand account reporting the words of the research subject on his or her experience.

Beth Kelly

I learned how it felt to feel real shame.

Source:   On “Woman/Girl Love”—Or, Lesbians Do “Do It”
by Beth Kelly
Gay Community News, March 3, 1979, page 5

Beth Kelly is a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at DePaul University, as well as director of the department of Irish Studies. She is a founder of DePaul’s LGBT studies program. Since March 2010, Kelly has been chairperson of the Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues for the City of Chicago.

Now, the time has come when I must share some of my memories and experiences with the larger community. Things I had preferred to think of as too impossibly personal to speak of with anyone have become highly charged, politically volatile issues affecting us all. Taboos on childhood sexuality when it blossoms at all, or on adolescent sexuality that crosses age boundaries, are so deeply entrenched in our culture that for years I was ashamed and afraid to admit, even to myself, that I was involved in an explicitly lesbian relationship when I was between eight and eleven years old.

The first woman I ever loved sexually was my great-aunt; our feelings for each other were deep, strong, and full. The fact that she was more than fifty years older than I did not affect the bond that grew between us. And, yes, I knew what I was doing — every step of the way — even though I had not, at the time, learned many of the words with which to speak of these things.

Aunt Addie was a dynamic, intelligent, and creative woman — who refused, all her life, to be cowed by convention. In an extended family where women played out ‘traditional‘ housewifely roles to the hilt, she stood out, a beacon of independence and strength. She was a nurse in France during the First World War, had traveled, read books, and lived for over twenty years in a monogamous relationship with another woman. Her lover‘s death predated the start of our sexual relationship by about two years. But we had always been close and seen a great deal of each other. In the summers, which my mother, brother and I always spent at her seashore home, we were together daily. In other seasons, she would drive to visit us wherever we were living, and often stayed for a month or so at a lime.

She taught me to knit and do embroidery. But she also encouraged me to run races and climb trees, and dared me to swim out past the breakers, as she did. Addie was exciting to me, a child of the middle fifties. I was desperate for female role models who could show that there were alternatives to my mother‘s situation. I had begun to observe my parents‘ stormy and stultifying marriage close at hand, and was becoming keenly aware of my mother‘s mounting frustrations and the complex ways in which she took out her resentment on those closest to her. I didn‘t want to be like her. I craved the proof of other possibilities that Addie demonstrated, and even inspired outright.

I was precocious, intellectually and physically. At eight my breasts were budding; by nine I needed a bra. Puberty was well behind me before I turned ten. Tall for my age, and clumsy, I was no good at team sports, and most of the kids at school considered me ‘too brainy‘ or ‘weird‘ to associate with. I was generally out of synch with my time and my peers. I don‘t know what I gave Addie in return for the loving affection I know I received. Perhaps I symbolized promises that something of her would live on, carrying dreams for a future that she wouldn‘t see. I think that the time we shared, the love we felt and expressed for each other was something of an idyll for each of us as we grew in different directions. Addie was clearly aging; her lover was dead, and she had to face the possibility that her own days could end very soon. I was fast approaching what was to be a turbulent adolescence. For a while, we found refuge — together.

I adored her; that‘s all there was to it. I had never been taught at home that heterosexual acts or other body functions were dirty or forbidden, and I‘d been isolated enough from other children to manage to miss a lot of the usual sexist socialization learned in play. It never occurred to me that it might be considered ‘unnatural‘ or ‘antisocial‘ to kiss or touch or hold the person I loved, and I don‘t think that Addie was terribly concerned by such things either, I DO know that I never felt pressured or forced by any sexual aspects of the love I felt for her. I think I can safely say, some twenty years later, that I was never exploited physically, emotionally, or intellectually — in the least.

Unfortunately, my mother took a rather different view. One summer night when I was eleven, she happened upon Addie and me together in my bed. There was an ugly, violent scene. I learned, for the first time, how it felt to feel real shame, the physical and mental anguish of guilt. I also began to learn how to hate — myself. I was confused and withdrawn; I shunned Addie‘s attempts to smooth things over with my mother, to draw me back into trust, if not into love. I hurt her deliberately, and probably cruelly. I pushed her, and what we had been to each other, far into the background of my life, where she remained until she died. I did my best to repress all memories of our physical relationship, even as I embarked on lesbian liaisons with other young women.

We never had the chance to talk about any of these things, and I‘m sorry about that. Addie died when I was twenty and barely on the threshold of affirming the self that I am now. I had left her completely alone. I can only now admit that I never really stopped loving her, regardless of the time and energy I spent trying to deny what we had been to each other. The analytic adult in me would like to compile reasons, to categorize the emotions in hindsight, checking off reactions, as though life were lived by multiple choice alone. The child I was so many years ago had the wisdom, it seems, to let such worries be, and trust only in what was simple, natural and real.

Limited excerpt reproduced under fair use doctrine for noncommercial, educational purpose.