Life

“This Kind of Explosion Went Off in Me”

Anne Jarman on discovering her sexuality at 50, caring for gay men with AIDS, and loving her “magnificent” late partner, Barbara.

Anne Jarman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chris Lawton on Unsplash and Anne Jarman.

As the LGBTQ community reflects on the 50 years since the Stonewall riots this Pride season, Outward wanted to chat with a group of queer elders about their experiences and ask what advice they have for the generations following in their footsteps. Hence, this special, weeklong LGBTQ edition of our regular series Interview With an Old Person.

Chip Brownlee: How old are you?

Anne Jarman: I’m 86 years old.

Where were you born, and where do you live now?

I was born in Nashville, Tennessee. I live in Washington, D.C.

When and how did you realize that you were a lesbian?

I came out when I was 50, so it was 1983. I was a massage therapist, and I oftentimes did counseling for people. This woman called up and said, “I feel a lot of sadness when I’m with you. I wonder if we could talk about it?” I said, “Of course.” We were walking along the towpath over there in Vienna, [Virginia,] and she was just weeping and weeping about the fact that her husband had died in Alaska. She was not there, she had been working, and she hadn’t been able to grieve. And I guess she felt that I was giving her permission to grieve. So she cried, and cried, and cried.

I was actually married to a Southern Baptist minister at the time, and I had three children and six grandchildren. And so I had never been open really to gay and lesbian people because, as a Southern Baptist, that wasn’t something we did. Anyway, I said, “Why don’t we sit over here?” I found a log that I could sit on, and she sat on the ground. And I put my arm around her just to comfort her. As I put my arm around her stomach area, all of a sudden this kind of explosion went off in me. To this day, I don’t know what that was. But we kept on talking, and I didn’t mention that to her.

I was in therapy two days later, and I said to the therapist, “I had this really strange experience.” And she said, “Look, you have got enough problems—we are not going to talk about you being a lesbian.” I found out later that she had a husband who was coming out who was an Episcopal priest; I was really too much to handle. She wasn’t going to help me. So I went to the library and got these books on people who were lesbians. And I hid them under the mattress so nobody would see them. And my daughter, who is my youngest child, she said, “Mom, what are you doing with these books about being a lesbian?” And I said, “Just to find out about everybody.”

How did you meet your partner?

It was at a company happy hour. I never went to happy hour because I didn’t drink. [But once, a colleague convinced me.] And it was that time, when I went to that happy hour, when I met my Barbara, the one that I lived with for 18 years.

Barbara was sitting all by herself at this table. And when I walked in, as a Southerner, I was raised to always be social and to make people feel at home. So I thought, well, I know everybody here, I’ll go and talk to that woman who I don’t know. We had a wonderful visit. Just a nice talk. I didn’t tell her that I was a lesbian because I was kind of still uptight about that. I told her that I had just divorced and was having a real struggle about that. I went to supper with Barbara, and then I didn’t see Barbara anymore after that—that was in January. And in April of that same year, so we’re now in ’84, this person called me up and said, “Would you like to come to dinner tonight?” And I said, well, I’d love to come to dinner, but you have to tell me who you are, because I didn’t have any clue who she was. It was Barbara.

So that night, Barbara and I just had a really good visit. I probably told her I was a lesbian then. She had had just one lesbian experience in her life, and she was mostly dating men. This was Easter. After dinner, she said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to church.” So she came to church with me at the cathedral, and she cried all during the service. And I thought, of course, the Lord has led me to her to lead her to Christ. That’s why I’m a lesbian. That obviously wasn’t the right reason, but that’s what I thought. I went to supper at her house that night, and I told her about being a lesbian and how hard it was for me and how strange it was for me. And suddenly, there was passion for both of us. And we fell on the floor in an embrace, and I never went home after that. It was magnificent, it was wonderful. We were together for eight years.

Did something happen?

She had a ferocious temper. After eight years, I said, “Listen, I think I need to be by myself. You need to move out.” And we were separated for about 10 years, I guess. But always she would send me a Christmas card at Christmas wherever she was. I felt badly about Barbara, kicking her out of the house. In 2001, it was 10 years, she came to town because she would have meetings in Washington often. And she called and said, “I’m going to be in town. Are you available this weekend?” So we visit, and I just realize what a neat, fun person she was. I was missing her. I came home, and I told my then-partner that I wanted to be friends with Barbara. And she said no. But after a couple of months she did say, well, just go on and go. I called up Barbara, and I said, “I want to come and visit you, platonic, just want to be your friend.” I went to visit her, and we had a wonderful time. Straight, no sex, nothing, and just wonderful. Barbara walked me to the plane, to the gate, and she winked at me and blew me a kiss.

When I sat down on the plane, I thought, oh, my gosh, I have left my heart where Barbara lives, which was in Ohio. The next day, I called her up, and I said, “I left my heart where you live.” And she said, “What are you going to do about it?” I said, “I’m going to ask you to come back.” And she said, “Well, I don’t think it would be safe. I almost had a nervous breakdown when you kicked me out the first time.” So I said, “Listen, I change my mind all the time. I want you to feel safe. I’m going to go home and I’m going to tell my person that I live with that she’s got to go. And the house will be ready for you if you ever decide you want to come back.”

[After a few months of transition and visits,] Barbara eventually gets a job in the District and comes back. And we have a total of 18 years together. Then, she gets two kinds of cancers in 2011, and she dies in November 2012. And it has almost wrecked me, it’s just so hard for me to have this woman that I love be gone. And I’ve gone to lots of grief groups, and I don’t seem to be doing much better about it. But that was, like, more than six years ago.

Would you ever be interested in dating again?

I’m not interested in finding anybody else. I mean, there will never be another Barbara. She was magnificent.

What was the first time you became aware of LGBTQ movements?

I was a massage therapist then, and I was massaging guys with AIDS. That was the most blessed thing I ever have done in my life, because it was at that time that everybody thought that if you even looked at somebody with AIDS, you were going to die. They would say, “We’re not going to come be on your table because you massage people with AIDS, and you’re probably going to die, and we don’t want to die.” And I thought, well, we’ve all got to go somehow. And I need to do this work. But I really wasn’t all that aware of the LGBT stuff. I was just doing the AIDS massage because they just needed it. There were no rules—I mean, I would go to the hospital on Sundays and ask them if they had anybody with AIDS, and you know, they didn’t even want to take care of the people with AIDS. And so I would go in and give them a massage for an hour, and I really felt like a leper myself because of all I was going through, and I felt that everybody was treating the people with AIDS as lepers. It was awful how we treated, everybody treated people back then, especially the guys with AIDS.

What role has queer community played in your life? Like, knowing other LGBT people and being part of LGBT organizations?

I’ve had very few lesbian friends, that I know about. I haven’t been involved. At one point, I worked for Whitman-Walker [a D.C. clinic specializing in LGBTQ health care], and I led a group for people whose partners and mothers and brothers and sisters had AIDS. And that was a wonderful experience for me because I had this motorcycle guy who had chains and tattoos on, and I never thought I would meet anybody like that. And he was just dear, and his partner was dying of AIDS. So, I guess, rather than the community helping me, it was the partners and the guys with AIDS that were really the ones that helped me get into the community.

Do you have any LGBTQ friends today?

What a good question. Yes, I have one at my church. I have two dear friends that I was really close to, but they moved away to Chapel Hill, and I see them when they come back to town. And my therapist is a lesbian. And I’ve been going to therapy for five years.

What was your favorite age to be lesbian? I know that you weren’t lesbian until you were 50, or you hadn’t realized it yet, but after that, when was your favorite time?

To be with Barbara—those 18 years were just magnificent. So we’re talking about from when I was 50, and when she died I was 80, I guess. So 50 to 80 were my best years. And when I told my friends where I am from, they of course didn’t understand that and didn’t appreciate it. And so, you know, that wasn’t much fun to talk to people that thought I was something I shouldn’t have been.

What about your former husband?

My former husband has been so incredibly supportive. And his wife has been absolutely wonderful. They’re probably my best friends right now.

[As I said,] we were both Southern Baptists. The new wife, he’s been married to her for 10 years at least, maybe 20 years. The ex-husband and I are very comfortable talking about religion, and he was very supportive of me when Barbara died. And he came to the funeral with her, and the grandchildren were all there, you know.

Were you surprised, though, that he was so supportive, given that he was a Southern Baptist preacher?

I’m surprised that I’m comfortable with my ex-husband, yes. It’s like he’s one of my best friends. And he was never my best friend when I was married to him.

Have you ever been to Pride or celebrated it?

I was with Barbara, and I was studying at the dining room table, and it was Pride day. She said, “It’s Pride Sunday. Let’s go to Pride, the march.” I said, “Oh, Lord, I don’t want to go to the march.” She said, “We don’t have to march. We’ll just be on the side.” But now I never think about going to Pride. I have a bad leg that was injured, but I have walked for AIDS. I would say most of my lesbian experience has been with AIDS.

What about the time that you did go? Did you end up going with Barbara? And what did you think?

I did, I did. I mean, she was much more comfortable than I was. But we didn’t march, because I was afraid somebody would see me. I was uncomfortable with it for so long, until I was 50. And do you remember the quilts? People who had partners with AIDS, they would make these beautiful quilts, their friends would. And they spread out the quilts down at the [Washington] Monument. And they went all the way down, you know, on the grass. It was beautiful. Must have been I don’t know how many quilts. But, you know, I was very comfortable going to see the quilts. I think it was just—I don’t know what it was. I just—I’ve never done that.

Do you have regrets that you didn’t know about your sexuality earlier?

Oh, yes, yes. I think it would have been so much fun to have been in school. … Of course, when I was in school, people were so closeted, maybe it would have been different. But it would be great to be in school now, where people are so out. But, you know, I never met anybody who was a lesbian until I was 50. So of course I have regrets. But then I met Barbara, who was just magnificent and changed my life, and that was wonderful.

What kind of advice would you have for younger people, who are just realizing that they’re LGBT or trying to come out?

I’m very open to anybody who is struggling, whether it’s someone who is transgender or whether it’s being a lesbian. And if anybody wants to come and talk to me, I would love to talk to them. Just to listen to them, to be ears. To tell them what a great life it is, to have fallen in love with a woman. But I would have to listen to them first. Then I would certainly be one that would companion them on the way.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.