Out of the Closet and Into the Garden

I came out to my mother the day she got deported.

Probably not the best timing, but there is no good time to say “Hey, I’m gay!” to a God-fearing immigrant woman with the grit of a true New Yorker.

As the firstborn American in my family, I have only an oral history of my parents’ journey from the Caribbean to the United States, their stories of living in basements, working as dishwashers, cleaning mansions and taking care of Upper East Side children.

After a long day, my parents would search for the nearest Jamaican restaurant to eat curry goat and hear a familiar tongue. They felt alive when they saw themselves in others, especially in a foreign land. It gave them hope that they too could make a life in the great U.S. of A.

There were many times I wanted to come out to my mother. When we were on our secondhand sofa and the song “I Don’t Want to Wait” by Paula Cole started playing on the TV, and she asked me why my favorite character in “Dawson’s Creek” was Joey, I wanted to say, “I have a crush on her.” Instead, I said, “She has great flannels.”

I thought about telling her when we were writing letters to my father, who had just gone to jail for reasons my mother wanted to keep secret (out of her desperation to keep me and my siblings “normal”), and she asked if there was anything I wanted to update him on, but it wasn’t like I could write, “Hey Dad, I hope prison isn’t too shabby. I think I want to marry Tracy Chapman.”

Or the time at my piano recital when my mother asked me why I was wearing pants under the itchy red dress that made me feel like I was floating on all its frills.

I wanted to tell her during a January winter when I was 12 and had tied myself to the iron bar on the stoop of our Harlem building to protest my mother packing our things into a taxi to move us to Westchester, where a wealthy family had rented her an apartment so she could be their nanny.

As she untied the rope and grabbed my shoulders, I cried, wanting to scream, “I have a girlfriend!”

“Don’t cry,” she said. “You’re an American.”

I heard that often, how privileged I was to be an American. My classmates didn’t even know they had social security cards, but my mother had framed mine as if it were a family heirloom. Her religious faith and her determination to make it in America did not leave room for lesbianism, gender identity, sexuality or any “isms” that would deter her plan for me.

I once imagined how the conversation would go.

Me: “Hey Mom, I’m gay. Like Ellen. You know on TV. Her kind of gay.”

Her: “Ellen can be gay. You can’t.”

My mother loved me so much, but as an undocumented Black woman already facing so many hurdles, she didn’t want her child to check off yet another marginalized box. So I stayed in the closet, inviting a few people in over the years but never leaving. And when I felt sorry for myself and wanted to cry, she was quick to remind me how good I had it.

My mother did the hard work, contributed to the land of the free, and she had a plan for my future, like so many American children with immigrant parents. We anchor babies (one of my favorite pejorative terms that I have reappropriated) must apply to Ivy League schools and choose a career from an approved list: doctor, lawyer, engineer, professor, even immigration enforcement agent! Anything but a queer writer.

I never had the opportunity to tell her because it was never part of our plan. But when she had to confess her undocumented status to immigration officers, that plan was demolished. For the first time in our American lives, we experienced the privilege of an interlude. Usually, any tragedy forced us to move quicker, to hustle more. Breathing space is something we couldn’t afford. But her being deported stopped us.

First, she just disappeared, and none of us knew where she was for weeks. When we finally learned that she had been detained, I swung into action, contacting a lawyer, trying to come up with a plan.

Then I received a phone call. And my mother and I had to talk to each other as if it was our last day on earth, because that’s what it felt like. I had only a few minutes to explain how we were going to try to keep her here, to remind her of our hustle, and, most importantly, to tell her that our love could survive this.

Then I remembered the closest I had ever come to telling my mother I was gay.

The sky was peach-colored, and I had a small cut on my knee that I got from fighting a boy who called me a “dyke.” And during a New York summer, the last thing you want is a sticky hug, but I needed my mother. I wanted her to know what I was called. I wanted her to tell me that it would be OK.

I saw all the Caribbean women one by one exit the bus. I waited to see her face and she had such glee, I jumped in her arms, and she said, “Let’s make a garden!”

Inspired by the gardens she saw in the wealthy neighborhoods where she worked, she was certain that one day she would have her own. This dream of hers pushed me right back into the closet.

I squeezed her tight, wiped my face and agreed.

See, I had taken this class in school where I learned all about gardens. I knew the proper steps, knew what it would take to achieve this dream. I wanted my mother to have her garden, and I was scared to ruin the foundation of the roots she had planted. I thought coming out was going to be too big of a storm for my mother to manage with all the other flower beds she was tending, all the dreams that she had planted in America that were still desperate for water.

Step 1: Make your bed

You must prepare the soil for planting, digging your hands into the soil and getting a feel for where you want to lay a healthy plant.

My mother migrated to a new country, assimilated as best she could and worked hard. She made her flower beds to survive, and doing so prepared her for a new life. But here’s the thing: Plants will only grow in rich soil, and you need plenty of light that won’t get snuffed out, light that is hard to find when you’re living in the shadows.

The steps would require time and money, but I held my chin up. My mother and I are New Yorkers. We break the rules. We could skip some of these steps and still make a garden, right?

On the phone with her, I heard a voice in background, urging her to hurry up.

“I have a minute left, Christy,” she said.

My heart almost fell out of my T-shirt. Before she leaves this land, I needed her to know who I am. Our entire lives had been about keeping secrets, the most important secrets imaginable, and we were good at it. But that takes a toll.

“Mom, I’m gay,” I said. “Like Ellen.”

I could hear her smile. She is someone whose smile makes a sound. Maybe it was a smile of relief, of no more secrets for either of us.

When she finally spoke, her voice was shaky and soft: “I know how long you’ve been wanting to tell me that, and how hard it’s been. Back on the island I’ll finally start my garden, and I’ll plant flowers. I’ll make hundreds of beds for the number of times you wanted to tell me who you are. I’ll water them. I will accept them in every shape they bloom. I love you, my daughter.”

Then the line went dead.

A week later, I was notified of her whereabouts. She was back in her home country.

Step 2: Add your plants

Dig a hole, place your plant, cover it with soil and water generously. It now has been five years of me being formally out, five years of crying even though I’m an American. And five years of growth that I thought was impossible.

I bloom in every season. And I thank my mother every day for Step 1.

Christy DeGallerie is a writer in New York City.

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