I never wanted to be a woman, but I do remember identifying and finding strength with certain women growing up. Three women in particular had a powerful impact on me: roller derby star Judy Arnold of Philadelphia Warriors; Tina Turner who I loved from the first time I saw her on television; and Alberta Hunter, the great blues and jazz singer.
Watching Tina Turner dance and belt out songs on our black-and-white television gave me a thrill. Seeing Judy Arnold race around the roller derby track leading the Philadelphia Warriors to victory was thrilling. In college, hearing Alberta Hunter at the Cookery in the West Village in New York City, was deeply moving and powerful.
All of these women had something earthy, tough, gritty, powerful and real that I both identified with and needed to feel within me. These women had a different kind of power then the men I saw in the world. Men’s power seems something artificial to me, like a peacock strutting. The power of these women felt honest and real.
When I think back to my early adolescence, spending Saturdays in front of the television watching the roller derby on the local VHF station, I wonder what my parents thought. It was the women I liked to watch. The men in roller derby did nothing for me. Judy Arnold was my idol. Blonde and tough, I love watching her. When the Jim Croce song, Roller Derby Queen came out, I embraced it as mine.
I remember watching Tina Turner for the first time on a variety show. I don’t remember the song she performed, but it must have been one of her classics. She had these long powerful legs and wore a very short dress and high heels. As she danced and sang there was something so powerful and vibrant about her. I couldn’t take my eyes off her and loved her from that moment on.
Another woman I loved in my 20s was Alberta Hunter, the incredible blues singer. Over a two years period I saw her at least three times at The Cookery, in Greenwich Village, New York City. I was there the night the 1992 documentary, Alberta Hunter: My
Castle’s Rockin’, was filmed. I bought all her records and have never tired of hearing her sing to this day. She had a rough, gritty edge tinged with a kindness and heart.
In college I lived in Brooklyn, New York. I remember thinking at the time that New York City gave me a hardness and edge that I lacked, and I loved it. Tina Turner, Judy Arnold and Alberta Hunter had that same effect on me. They gave me a grit, toughness, and edge that I didn’t naturally have. They all had a strengthening effect on my life. I needed a bit of their toughness and grittiness to combat the softness in me.
What’s fascinating to me is that coming out fully, proudly, and visibly has had the effect of giving me more grit and edge. I find that I’m tougher at work in a good way. I am not afraid to speak up and be seen. Not that I was a wallflower before, but I feel there is a new edge and grit in me. I’m less afraid to take a stand. I don’t know that I fully understand this phenomena, but I see it related to my coming out, and certainly is connected to what I needed from these three women.
Today I don’t see that same softness in myself that I once lacked. Something has changed deeply in me. Part of it may just be the process of growing older. But I think a large part of the recent change has been brought about by coming out at work.
Work was always a place I did well. Work was one of the few places I used to think I was truly myself. Job after job I’ve been successful. I have always worked hard and throughout my career have continued to get advancement and promotions.
Coming out at work has given me something new and different. I feel for the first time that I am bringing my best and whole self to work in a way that is new. It wasn’t even apparent to me before that there was something lacking at work. The earthiness and grittiness that I so wanted as a child is there now and has gotten richer and stronger through coming out.
I’m grateful to these three women of my youth. Each in their own way gave me strength at moments where I didn’t feel particularly strong. They gave me an edge and a grittiness that I needed to internalize. Each woman was an icon to me and different points of my growing up. More recently, coming out has more deeply brought me some of the same qualities that I hoped to have from these women.