Red fish and roundabouts

Alder: 40

“Black or white, madam?” The woman looks at me. I give her my answer – in her language. From the window I can see the huge Dome and the long, broad avenue. The view changes all the time. The world outside is moving. At least it seems like that. I am sitting still. It is the restaurant which keeps turning. I am sitting inside a big silvery ball high up in the air. And the ball is revolving around the axes of the “Alexanderturm”. The woman comes back, puts the cup on the table, and nods before she leaves again. I open the little box next to the cup and pour white drops into the black. My inside gets warm as I close my eyes and enjoy the first sips. As I open my eyes again, I see the stadium with the four huge lamp posts up north. They are my landmark to see where my home is – where I belong in this city, which is still quite new to me, and where I sometimes have problems with understanding the people when they speak their broadest dialect. If I had lived here 20 years ago and walked out of my apartment, turning to the right outside on the street, I would have bumped right into the Wall. My street was blocked at one end with the wall parting the East from the West. And I would have been on the East side – but I wasn’t. As the view changes, I think back on the last four years. If somebody had told me those 20 years ago that I would one day be a “minister’s wife,” I would have laughed in disbelief. And I would have known for sure that they were joking if they had added that this minister would be a woman – and that I would be cutting the grass outside the minister’s three-floor house in the middle of Germany, in Frankfurt am Main, of all places! Where all “normal” Norwegians would just speed by on the Autobahn to “go south.”

I grew up in the 1960's, 15 kilometres away from Sweden – on the Norwegian side. This is where Norway starts. At least that’s how I like to see it. That’s why the cars have the two letters AA on their number plates. I was born into and raised within the church. The church. In Norway, about 90 percent of the people belong to the state church, which is Lutheran. So did – and does – my family. With full
backup from my two loving and active parents, I walked the path. The Sunday school “uncles” and “aunts” stamped red fish onto my Sunday school attendance card. Every now and then, when we had been coming regularly for several weeks, the red fish yielded to a shining, golden star. We would compare cards and secretly compete to see who would have the most golden ones. Then came seven years as a Girl Scout, wearing yellow – and later blue – bandanas and brown uniforms. Not blue uniforms – only those who were in the non-Christian scout organisation wore those. I went to church with my parents – every second Sunday, since our parish shared a minister with the neighbouring parish, so we only had services every second week – luckily, because I liked sleeping in on Sundays. There were years of singing in the Ten Sing choir, reading and discussing the Bible with the other young girls and boys in the Christian youth organisation, helping to lead a children’s choir in the Inner Mission and later serving on the board of the Christian Student Organisation. I posted Bible verses on the school’s bulletin board in high school and discussed with the other students whether God could really have created the world, whether he existed at all. For me this was not a question.

Now, I could have told you about falling in love as a teenager. Or could I? Even if I had a boyfriend for three years, I am not sure whether I was really in love at that time. Being two serious Christian teenagers, we had quite an innocent relationship, not crossing many borders, except between Norway and the U.S.A., since he was an American. Looking back, it seems that the times when I thought I was in love, it was actually something else, and the times I now know I was in love, I did not recognize it. So I can’t tell you about being unhappily in love, not daring to tell friends and family about falling in love with girls; about struggling with being different and feeling differently. Of course, I was also searching for who I was. But all young people have to go through that, and many “older” people, too. I thought that I did not have the ability to fall really in love, to feel all these wonderful feelings that people were talking and writing about. At least, I thought, I must be very slow at it. I did not grow up feeling that I was a “tomboy” or a boyish girl. I wasn’t even aware that there was something like that. Not that I was some kind of “baby doll,” either – far from it. I was more the athletic type, liking sports, all kinds of ball games, playing both inside and outside, alone or with friends. I read one book after another, devouring them. I made up whole worlds and stories while playing quietly with my dolls, or using white tape to build streets for my cars (to my parents’ great surprise when they tried to remove the white streets that were stuck to their living room floor). My style of dressing was not especially different from other girls my age: T-shirts and pants in everyday life and nice dresses or outfits on special occasions. And I liked both. The memory of one specific outfit is still clear in my mind; dark brown pants, a white ”high neck” sweater and a waistcoat with a pattern in a diversity of earth colours, all in wonderful silk velvet. I loved it. Later, as a grownup career woman, I often dressed up in skirts and silk stockings, and I felt good. I still feel good when I do that. I feel my femininity. But I also like to challenge what I see as my more masculine side. And what could be wrong with that? No, I never used to be aware that I was in any way more “different” than the others. That doesn’t mean that I was always a happy young person. No, I certainly had my times of distress, of frustration, of feeling lonely and “outside,” sometimes also of “not belonging”. But who doesn’t?

Normally, life ends there. At least, the one we have here on earth. Mine started there – at a funeral. At least sometimes it feels like that when I am looking back. I had been studying economics and international management in Oslo, and at the time I was working as a mid-level manager in a life insurance company, our department being responsible for big customer groups like trade unions for doctors, nurses, journalists and economists. I was 29 years old, and my career was an important part of my life and of my life planning. I had had a longer relationship with a man, but I never really considered marrying. I well remember my cousin and I – when we were both 21, and her 26-year old-sister married – teasingly (but oh, not so unseriously, – since it was a long time till we would turn 26) telling her that we would never get that old before finding a man to marry!

However, eight years later I was still happily unmarried and I went to the funeral of my great-aunt. I fell in love with the minister – who was a woman. But I still did not understand it. I just followed my feelings because they felt right and good. I still remember that first feeling of a woman’s skin against mine. I, who had never been consciously aware that there was such a thing as homosexuality, found myself falling head over heels in love with a woman. But don’t come telling me the old story of the innocent being seduced by the knowing lesbian. From that time on, it was as if some sort of thin, but not fully lucid “blanket” had been removed from my life. Or from my eyes. Looking back at my life until then, I can see clearly that the feelings I had for some women earlier definitely had been “falling in love” feelings. I had just not been able to see it.

I can’t even remember the word homosexuality having ever come up in any of the Christian settings where I had been active. Not because it was accepted – as many people think about Norway – no, because it was unthinkable to talk about it. As long as one did not talk about it, it did not exist. I don’t think that this was a conscious strategy of the youth leaders. Homosexuality at this time was not really a big theme in the church or in society. At least that was how I saw it until I suddenly found myself being “in the middle of it.” Was it just that the discussion had not reached our small town of 30,000 people? Or again, maybe it was just that we did not talk about it in our Christian context because it did not concern us. Of course, all of us were heterosexual. Did any of us at all ask ourselves if we were not? I don’t know. For sure, I did not. It did not exist as possibility. Now, one might say that what you don’t know, you also don’t miss. That may be, but you still miss out on it! In the years before this “discovery of my life,” I had been more distant from the church. I honestly found it boring. And it didn’t really make a difference to my faith whether I went there or not. I did not believe any less or any more, but I believed more calmly. I was no longer engaged in Christian organisations. I concentrated more on working, playing squash, going skiing, hiking in the mountains, strolling along the fjord in downtown Oslo, travelling and spending time with friends. For various reasons, the “relationship” with the minister turned out to be a very short one. I gave myself a period to think things through. Amazingly enough, one might say, with my relatively conservative Christian background (depending, of course, on whose eyes are looking), I never questioned whether my feelings were right or wrong in God’s eyes. I just had to find out whether this had been a once-ina-lifetime experience for me, or if it was really something which was a central and important side of myself which I had earlier more or less consciously oppressed. I had to find out if it was the right way for me. Maybe it was because I was already 29 at the time. Or maybe it was because I was not so close to the church any more that I did not feel the stress of somebody preaching to you that all your feelings are something bad and sinful. Maybe I felt secure because of the basic attitudes I had always felt in my parents – even though we had had our “normal” share of teenager parents fights and quarrels through the years: “Whatever happens, we will always love you.” And I always felt that God said the same.

The time to come was the most intense in my life. It was as if I had been wearing blinkers all my life, preventing me from seeing anything which was not directly in front of me. Of course, it wasn’t really like that, since I had had a lot of different interests during the years, but it certainly felt that way. I discovered women! They were everywhere! And they were beautiful. Where did they all suddenly come from? After a while, I knew there was no way back for me. This was me. I had never experienced such feelings before. Finally, I understood why I had been so slow in falling in love. I had been looking in the wrong direction. Having broadened my sight, I realised that I easily fell in love.

The interesting thing is that this crossroad in my life, which had already brought me closer to me, also led me closer to God and to a Christian community. I joined the Ecumenical Open Church Group for lesbian and gay people. This group has a variety of activities, one of which is the service every Friday evening. I came to know a community of faith and love, where faith and being lesbian (or gay) come together. At the services, we sang psalms, prayed, heard the words and messages of the sermon, and shared bread and wine. I felt welcome and I felt God’s presence. We got closer to each other again.

Often, the women would go out together after the service, and I felt that I had found a family of friends. The first women’s disco that I went to with women from the Open Church Group was a wonderful experience. I discovered that I loved to dance, which I had not really done until then, unless I had a partner who was extremely good at leading so that I would know what to do. Now I was able to hear and feel rhythms which I had not earlier perceived inside me. I granted myself a period of play, a late first blooming. I felt energetic and open, but I did not – maybe strangely enough – feel especially vulnerable.

Everything was new, everything was exciting. I ran, I danced, I really felt I could fly. I will not describe it as if I was hovering over the roofs of Oslo. That would be too distant. It was much closer than that. I remember a certain moment; it is Friday, 8.35 p.m. I come directly from the shower, dressed up, on my way to the Open Church Group. I am humming as I cross the street, and as I take the last metres to the pavement on the other side in a few dancing steps, a warm feeling was growing inside of me, a kind of explosive happiness about life, about being alive. Maybe I am using very strong words about this. Maybe they sound exaggerated to someone “outside”. But it was really the way I felt during this time.

Of course, after all fresh experiences, after all new intense love feelings, there comes a time where you have gotten used to what is happening. You start to realise that there are also other sides to life, and your ears and mind open to other messages. I realised that I had not only “become” a lesbian. I had also become a member of a group of people which it was – per se – legitimate for others to look down upon! All of a sudden. I had fallen in love. With a woman. And for that reason only, it seemed, it was permissible for anyone to have opinions – and call them moral – about whom I should love and live my life with. This was not happening to me personally, maybe, since I had not come out yet, but suddenly the newspapers were full of these discussions, or suddenly my ears had been opened. And when you hear people talking about “the homosexuals” – as if they knew every single one of us, and had seen up close how terrible we are and how immorally we are living – you know that they also mean you – at least if they had known. I was forced to realise that my feelings had a name, that there existed a definition for “people like me” – a lesbian. And now I had to start working with my own prejudices. The little I had heard about lesbians earlier in life was definitely not positive. And now these words were about me. It was scaring, hurting, and extremely provoking. I had a feeling that, in some people’s eyes, I had gotten the plague, while for me it had felt like a blessing.

For me, being lesbian is not a problem. It would be quite fine were there no homophobia in this world. I know that Norway is one of the most open countries in the world when it comes to homosexuality. This has not happened overnight, though. There have been people fighting hard for their rights. There have been people who gave in, taking their own lives, and people who continued to fight, who never gave up, in the society and in the church. I can hardly express my gratitude to these women and men whose never-ending work has made my life and my world better. Still, the churches in Norway are fairly – and some very – conservative. This has a lot to do with the pietistic history of our country. I have full respect for people who want to live their life according to their beliefs. I also want and try to do that. But I really have problems when I hear people claim that their way of seeing the world, their way of reading the Bible and their way of believing is the right – and the only – way to do it, the way everybody should do it. What is it about the pope, that God should have a special liking for him? And what is it about other church leaders, that God should look upon them with more love and grace? For me, this all boils down to what image of God each one of us has.

I grew up with thoughts of God being “constant,” already defined – a sort of “God in a box,” hermetically sealed, preserved, unchangeable. You can’t add anything and you can’t take anything away. I learned to know God as the good God, loving and caring like my parents, but caring for and looking after all people at the same time. Not always accepting what you do – even punishing severely when something was seen as wrong – but underneath it all was the underlying trust that I was loved. Believing that God was unchangeable, I think I was lucky growing up with exactly this picture of a loving God.

Maybe God is constant, but maybe our images of Him are not. Who has the right to define this image? If I don’t decide for myself what my image of God is, to whom am I then – directly or indirectly – giving the power to define this for me? Am I prepared to give another human being such a great power over me and my life that they should even be allowed to define who God is and what He expects from me? “The Bible says it clearly,” some say. But the whole Bible is full of stories about human beings who had different experiences with God. Single persons and groups of people’s experiences with and of God. And they are not the same. It is like this today, too. People meet and experience life and God in different ways. Who shall have the power to define who should be “inside” or “outside”? I think each one of us has the responsibility to choose the image of God which we find right by reading the Bible, staying close to God, hearing the stories of other people, and telling and also listening to our own.

Part of my story is that, at the same time all these changes were taking place in my life, I also seriously started asking myself whether I really wanted to continue doing the work I did. Even though this is something I have not emphasised in telling this story, I had been working extremely hard. Work in “my” area was very much about the company earning money and the employees having to have certain conditions in order to be productive. The people were there for the business, not the other way around. There are many opinions about this, and this is not the place to discuss them. I knew myself well enough to know that when I did something, I really did it seriously, and I spent a lot of time on it. I am still like that. So my question to myself was: “If I am going to spend a lot of time in my life on something, is this what I really want to spend it on?” It wasn’t. I quit my job and started to study journalism. I wanted to write. I had always loved writing. This was what I wanted to do: not be a day-to-day journalist. I wanted to write and do projects that I myself found important. Realising that I was a lesbian and asking myself these questions about my work life were closely linked. They were parts of the big questions: "Why am I here and what is my task here on earth?"

In 1996 the Open Church Group was hosting the international conference of the European Forum. I was on the board of the Open Church Group, and I was asked to represent them at the Forum’s annual meeting. This turned out to have some consequences other than my getting involved with the European Forum on a long-term basis. Indeed, it became the main reason why I am sitting here high above the streets of Berlin at the moment. The European Forum certainly can change your life! I met the woman who is now my wife. I remember noticing her the first moment she walked in the door. And somehow she also discovered me during those days of the conference. One living in Norway and the other in Germany, we thought that this was some kind of a “conference affair”. But then visits followed in Germany and then in Norway again. It turned into a long distance relationship for two years. After we had spent our first year of living in the same place – in New York – I found myself in the minister’s house in a fairly conservative part of Frankfurt am Main in the middle of Germany – as the “minister’s wife.”

Because I was going to live in the minister’s house whenever I was not working in Norway, my partner was given a three-month “test period.” She was the only one of the “new” ministers from her group who was in this situation. But we and the parish survived the test, and she was to be ordained. I remember clearly the days of preparations – and the sleepless nights. We had agreed that I would give a speech to the parish members at the reception after the ordination service. I would address them in German as the life partner of their new minister. We had always used English as our common language, and I had not really been speaking German since I had studied it in school. That was 20 years earlier, which certainly added to the excitement. I was trembling as I went up to the microphone. It went well, and even if it had cost me quite some nervousness, the reactions that we received from several of the parish members were very encouraging.

After the ordination, wife’s colleague wrote an article in the parish newsletter, only briefly mentioning, in two lines in the middle of the two-page article, that I, the Norwegian life partner of the minister, was also welcomed to the parish. There was a photo of us and a tall macaroon cake with glazing and Norwegian flags, brought by very good friends all the way from Oslo. Afterward, he received an anonymous e-mail, saying: “I find it incredible that what the minister does in bed is now being written about in the parish letter.” Not unexpectedly, there were people wanting us out of the minister’s house and out of the parish. A group of people tried to get church council members to decide to “get rid of that lesbian minister.” But somehow, most of the council members were not willing to give in to this group.

What I strongly experienced in this period was a challenge to my own prejudices. It is easy to think that old people voting for a conservative party (like the majority in this suburb) would be among the last ones to accept being “stranded” with a lesbian minister and her partner. I got a surprise. Having heard about the people trying to throw us out of the parish, a group of women around the age of 80 took my wife aside after she had been visiting their meeting for parish seniors. “If you ever have trouble in this way,” they said, leaning closer towards her and nodding their heads, “you tell us! And we will march on the streets for you!”

For me, a big question was to what degree I should involve myself in parish activities. This was not the kind of parish I would have looked for if I had been in a new place just anywhere. I would probably have tried to seek out a Christian lesbian and gay group to join. But I went to many of the Sunday services and to some of the evening discussions and other social events, and I felt welcome. Many people were very positive and we formed good relationships. But I also felt that some people were insecure about how to meet me. I was insecure, too. Having this “role” as the minister’s partner, but with everybody being a little unsure what to expect from it, I found it difficult to take part as me, the person I am. Of course, this was often about shyness, on both sides, I think. And it did not make it easier that I did not speak much German to begin with. So I decided right away to learn German – and I did.

My partner, as the minister, met the parish people all the time, in daily life, in emotional connections like weddings and baptism, and in vulnerable situations like funerals. This creates personal bonds. She received a lot of very positive and loving signals from very many. Of course, because of her role, she was also the one who had to face the difficult confrontations. I, as the partner, had a more distant relation to most of the people, but I was still visible, since we lived in the big minister’s house in the middle of the main street where everybody passed by. This situation of being visible and, at the same time, not really knowing who was watching, filled me with mixed feelings. And it was difficult to know whether we were being evaluated as ourselves, or as “the lesbian couple”.

I have to admit that it cost me a lot to live like this, and I now understand better the difficult situation of traditional ministers’ wives, a group with whom I never would have thought I would identify. It is still clear to me that I will always fight for the right of lesbians and gays to be ministers and ministers' wives and husbands, and for the right of the parishes and the parish people to have lesbian and gay ministers! However, I am not sure I would put myself in that position once again. I think it was a challenge for both the parish and for us, the lesbian couple, to work out a situation which none of us had been in before. My impression was that we all had to learn new things and new ways of thinking. Slowly getting to know each other a little better, and getting rid of old “pictures” in our heads, I think we all learned a lot. There were some lasting personal ties made and many memories of support, from young and old, which still touch my heart. Embraced in me like a small jewel is the elderly woman who often called my partner just to tell her how happy she was that we had come to the parish.

From the start, my wife’s job was time-limited, and after four years we emptied the huge house and left the parish. Now she is working at the University of Frankfurt. We are back to living with long distances, since I found myself an apartment in one of the many backyards of Berlin, doing freelance writing and working on book projects, trying to find out where life goes on from here and how to get there. Being a Norwegian, I find middle and northern Germany – let’s say – a bit flat. Berlin is a very exciting city – and that is another story – but I have only found two places that I would call hills. So, every now and then, when I feel that I have to get another perspective on life, to see the world from another angle, I enjoy going up in the elevator to the top visitors’ floor of the tall television antenna at the “Alexanderplatz.” I look out of the huge windows, taking in the impressions of this city with its recent history of East and West, of worlds apart. People were living close to each other, only a few metres away, but separated by a wall, by pictures and images of “the others” developed through distance, by lack of communication – just like often between lesbians, gays and church officials. And then came the opening of the Wall – the challenge of meeting, of bringing together different experiences and world views and finding ways of sharing life, of daring to climb walls and tear some of them down. I look up from my paper. The woman is there again. My tea cup is empty, and I order a glass of wine. My story is finished – for now. It is time to celebrate, to ponder the surprises and roundabouts of life.