There was a conversation in the Season 1 finale of Apple TV+’s terrific show, For All Mankind, that powerfully resonated with me. Astronaut Ellen and her boss and fellow astronaut, Deke, are in space, off course and low on fuel. Deke is seriously injured, and as they drift further into deep space waiting for help from their colleagues on earth, they share their feelings about their lives. Deke tells Ellen when she walks into a room people pay attention to her, and when she speaks, people listen. Feeling a close bond with him, Ellen reveals she’s a lesbian. Acting disgusted, Deke withdraws. But later he tells Ellen that she has great things ahead of her and admonishes her not to tell anyone else what she told him, because there’s too many people in the world like him—and it’s all they’ll see.
It’s all they’ll see.
All they’ll see.
This simple line of dialogue is brilliant. In three words it describes prejudice’s oppression and why I had resisted coming out.
Like Ellen and the other NASA women portrayed in the show, I had been one of a small percentage of women professionals in a male-dominated technical government agency. I can recall many times where I was the only woman sitting at a table when national and international issues were being discussed. It took over a decade of hard work to break through the glass ceiling, and to achieve that seat next to the men. In that time, I built myself into a strong person who I was proud of. I had to know who I was in order to hold my own—and I did. And those at the table knew who Angela Greenman was. My name was my reputation and my identity.
But imagine a person walking into the room and slipping into the chair across from me. They look at me, lean over to their colleague sitting next to them, and whisper, “There’s that woman, the lesbian.”
My name is no longer said. All that I am is not acknowledged.
To me, labels were identifiers someone puts on you to decide who you are. Labeling denied our completeness as a human being.
Why can’t I just be Angela? Why can’t you like me, or not like me, solely based on our interaction, or what I’ve done? To me anything else is irrelevant.
I believe my strong feelings about labels originated internally, from two places: my childhood and work at Chicago’s civil rights department, the Commission on Human Relations. I had an inclusive world growing up. Going to public schools, living in neighborhoods that were mixed, my friends were diverse—gay, Muslim, African-American and from various ethnic groups. I thought nothing about their color, religion, or sexual orientation. Diversity surrounded me and therefore it was normal and positive. To call out anyone because they were different was abnormal, and thus negative. I felt that to categorize my gayness, I was somehow “calling it out” and creating an independent identity. “Naming” it would make my gayness wrong. For years I was torn. I felt I wasn’t free by not publicly acknowledging it. Yet, since I was in a good place with myself, why complicate it?
Part of my reluctance was the nagging fear I had based on my Human Relations Commission experiences, where I saw how labels divide and inflame prejudice.
That, plus, the fact that I hadn’t established myself within the gay community and didn’t know how to define what I was, kept the issue shelved for me. The few terms I knew just didn’t seem to fit.
My ‘aha’ moment came when I watched the 2021 Golden Crown Literary Society’s (GCLS) conference “Your Gender Workshop” panel session. I discovered I still had much to learn. What I had considered to be “labels” could also be terms, or a language with a positive value. The panel talked about how creating a vocabulary can be freeing. Terms were not always limiting as I had felt. The key moment for me was when a panelist discussed how using terms for the various groups in the LGBTQ community in her books helped readers in their journey of recognition—they said, “Hey, that’s me!” They discovered they were not alone.
As a writer, I should have figured this out long before I participated in the GCLS conference. I know the power word choice has. I’ve spent countless hours searching for the perfects words to bring characters to life.
My eyes were opened by this thoughtful workshop and I watched it twice. Having a language that grows with us as we learn who we are helps us in our identity recognition, and this can be empowering.
I now have a better understanding that it’s not the language that oppresses—it’s people who do. The segment of society that seeks conformity by a desire to have a divisive vocabulary is the one that is wrong. Not us for using it.
I hadn’t internalized that I would only be empowered when I acknowledged that my societal “nonconformity” was in reality conforming to who I was. By coming out, I wasn’t putting a term on some outside identity and then trying to force it to fit mine. I was celebrating the whole me, the vibrancy of being a multi-dimensional person. I had to realize that it was adding a term to the vocabulary that defined me. I had to be able to say it, to use it, because there will be those that would try to delete the term saying it was bad. If I let them choose my language, I am letting them say who I am.
I learned a heartfelt lesson from the GCLS conference. Labels can be good. People are different, and descriptive words can be an affirmation to their existence. I’ve found mine—sapphic—and I do feel empowered, for it’s a term that embraces who I am. I love women, advocate for women, am attracted to women—it’s about womanhood for me. Sapphic is gender-inclusive, which I like. It’s an umbrella that welcomes both women and women-aligned people. It covers any woman or nonbinary person who is gay—lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer and mspec (multisexual spectrum-individuals attracted to more than one gender) woman.
The “Your Gender Workshop” brought home to me how not speaking the words, not creating the language, is saying we are homogenous. We’re not. And, I’m glad we’re not. That would be so boring. The marvelous textures and vividness that makes us who we are is what’s exciting, and what gives me inspiration to write.
Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry,
and others of ships, is the most beautiful
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
whatever a person loves.
Excerpt from Sappho’s Fragment 16
A former workaholic, Angela Greenman’s intense career has spanned the spectrum from media and civil rights in Chicago to US and world governments’ public communications on nuclear power. After decades of globe-trotting, she can be found in two places—the North Woods and Gulf Coast—where she devises plots for her novels, referees her two Burmese cats’ competition for lap time, and has been known to dance on the treadmill to power workout mixes.
Angela’s debut thriller The Child Riddler will be released in 2022.