Monday, July 26

Breaking the Silence: Costume Change (Creative Nonfiction)

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This piece appears in the “Breaking the Silence: Queer Self, Life, and Love in Northeast Ohio” anthology. “Breaking the Silence” is a part of Literary Cleveland’s Amplify Projects series, designed to empower, uplift, and celebrate our many stories and place power into the hands of people and communities, giving them the platform to tell their own stories on their own terms.

by Diane E. Millett

We were still catching our breath from our move several hundred miles north to our new home and I was pushing us to go to a Halloween party that sounded, well, questionable. The party was advertised in The Chronicle, a newspaper for gays and lesbians. The ad said the party started at 10:00. At night. Come in costume, it said. Women only. It gave an address of a house.

It was 1981, we had just moved to Cleveland Heights, we were young, anything was possible.

We came here from the hills of southwestern Virginia where we lived for 6 years, advancing our education and working. Preceding Virginia was New Hampshire, our home state, where we grew up, where we met, where we left behind our small families. In both places we were firmly positioned in the closet. To be “out” at all, we believed, would be career suicide. Our families did not know about our relationship. Very few friends — actually only four that I remember — “knew” about us.

One of our hopes for our move to Cleveland — and particularly to Cleveland Heights which was known for its liberal politics, hippie culture and accepting attitude — was to meet some other gay women. But how?

Perhaps at this Halloween party.

We talked about it all week long. What do you think? Should we go? It starts so late. Who advertises a house party in a newspaper? Is it for real? What if someone recognizes us? Would it cause trouble in our jobs? We’ll wear costumes. We’ll wear masks. What if someone recognizes our voices? We won’t talk. What if we recognize other people there? Well, that’s okay, isn’t it? Isn’t that what we are hoping for? What if it is raided? Could it be raided? Would that happen in Cleveland Heights? We’ve never been arrested. Where is it again?

Our anticipation grew. Maybe we’ll go, we said. Maybe we won’t. We’ll see what Saturday is like. We’ll see what we feel like. We’ll decide at the last minute.

On Saturday, at a time when my partner would have preferred to be getting ready for bed, she encouraged us to start putting on our costumes because she knew I wanted to go. We drank a beer, probably two, while we decorated ourselves and each other. From deep in the closet we pulled out bits and pieces of disguise. We laughed a lot and for a few minutes thought that might be enough. But then, feeling courageous, we headed off into the night.

It was only about ten minutes to the address provided in the newspaper. Scarborough, Lee, Cedar, Coventry. Coventry — alive with costumed crowds. Right turn up a hill. As we got close, we saw cars lining the street, parked along the curb. Were they all at this party? For a few minutes we sat in the car watching people walk by, wondering if we were really going to do this. It was now or never. We’re here, we’re dressed in costume, let’s do it.

It was really dark as we walked up the sidewalk. There was a light rain falling. We could hear the rhythm of dance music coming from deep inside the house. Ahead of us there were three women, ghostly figures in the dark and drizzle. We followed them, picking our way through the leaves, up the slate stone steps, to the open door of an old colonial house perched on the side of a hill.

Then we were in. Or out. Whichever. It made no difference there. It was Cleveland Heights. It was 1981. We were young. Anything was possible.

Diane Millett is a retired attorney. She and her partner/spouse of 50 years live in North Collinwood, Cleveland.

About Author

Breaking the Silence

"Breaking the Silence: Queer Self, Life, and Love in Northeast Ohio" is a writing project of Literary Cleveland, led by Alexander Saint Franqui. After a tragic year for our community, Breaking the Silence seeks to uplift narratives that center on the queer experience in the Greater Cleveland area, especially those written by Black/Indigenous/People of Color. The project accepted poetry, prose, essays, creative non-fiction, and flash fiction written by queer/LGBTQ2 identified people.

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