I thought that once I left Muncie I was never coming back. Right after graduating Muncie Southside, I went as far away as I could and ended up in a small college in Maine.
After that, it was Boston for a while where I met the woman I eventually married. We moved to Sonoma County, California, and I started school again. I had an interest in archaeology. She divorced me at the same time I was changing careers. We were together for almost 18 years. I have been divorced for the last 7.
Being alone again, I reassessed my life. My parents are aging, and I’d really like to be there for them, so four years ago I moved back here to Muncie.
It’s funny how someone’s life can be encapsulated in three short paragraphs.
I thought that if I was going to survive, I needed a purpose as much as a reason to return to Muncie. I quickly found it. Back in my old surroundings, I realized that many of the LGBT youth in our community still face the same issues that made me leave as soon as I could.
I wasn’t able to come out.
It is as true today as it was back in the early 80s when I left. Religious mores, societal values, and cultural upbringing still make it impossible for Muncie’s youth to stick around. There is such a big brain drain when these amazing people with great minds and good spirits simply leave, because they’re not finding their place and they’re not allowed to find out who they are as individuals.
Unfortunately, there are youth in our community who cannot leave. I see it every day as the Assistant Director of Muncie OUTreach. Many of our youth are not accepted by their families, and I think it is often because of religious values, what their church is telling them. Their church is fostering a culture of not thinking for yourself. It’s about following rules—and God help you if you break the rules.
I see too many parallels between the LGBT youth of today and how I felt when I was their age. I also think there are a lot of older people in Muncie who are still in the closet. I would have been one of them had I not left. I had two choices: (1) not come out, have a terrible marriage, a couple of kids, and be miserable the rest of my life—or (2) leave. For me the decision was easy. I left for the state of Maine.
Growing up, my religion was an important part of my belief system and values. The morals as decreed by the church stood in the way of coming out. Conflicted, I didn’t have many friends, was kind of a loner, and thought I was the only person in my class who was queer. On the other hand, as a Christian, I was a follower, a good girl, and believed I shouldn’t be a lesbian.
Now, Maine is a conservative state, but it’s not like Indiana. It’s a “live and let live” place. The state is socially conservative, but they don’t shove it down your throat like they do here; their values are similar, but they don’t think everyone should have to follow those rules. In Indiana, everyone has to follow the rules. Maine: “Sleep with whomever you want; that’s your business.” Indiana: “It’s everybody’s business who you sleep with.”
In Maine, you still had to struggle because your identity was tied to you being queer. In California, it didn’t matter because nobody cared. I could be who I am. I learned to live my life so casually and comfortably. I did not have to fear for my safety or getting fired from my job. I could simply say my partner is a woman.
The problem with being openly gay in Muncie is the same problem with being overtly religious. People only see you as gay or religious. They do not see past your sexual orientation or your beliefs. Assumptions are drawn, and there is no longer the ability to get to know the person for who they really are and what they are capable of doing. A judgement is made and the mind is closed. I think this makes people afraid to get to know one another, let alone come out. The story begins and ends with your sexuality or your religion and can go no further.
Moving away did not magically make it easier to come out. I still had conflicted feeling about being gay and Christian. It was hard to reconcile my feelings and beliefs about religion and being an out lesbian. In many respects, Christianity and high school had a lot in common. In high school, I was a great student. But being a great student had nothing to do with thinking for myself. Wanting to be a good Christian meant that I could not think for myself. Until I left Muncie, I had never had any experience in critical thought in my life, but now I had to. At college I started learning about thinking for myself and making my own decisions.
I had to come out but first I had to make a decision.
In the end, my decision was more of a struggle over my religious beliefs than being a lesbian. Once I made my decision, I was able to start living my life the way I wanted. Life just became more comfortable and easier. I think the 80s helped a lot too. Gay portrayals in movies, TV, and print were becoming more mainstream. It was also about the time when the gay community reclaimed the term “queer.” Attitudes towards gays started to change and I was also emboldened by the defiance of punk rock, , and I could unapologetically be who I am and be proud of being queer.
The message of my story?
Is it that I had to go away to become the person I am? Is it that religious and social pressures can be so strong that growing up can make finding out who you are impossible? Is it that my advice to any 18 year old who is conflicted and can’t find out who they are should leave everything they know behind? Or is it about the decision I had to make?
Why don’t you just ask and get to know me?
– Kim McKenzie’s Story as told by Tom Steiner
Kim is a “boomerang”- a Muncie native who returned to her hometown later in life. She has a lifelong passion for nature and being outdoors, and loves her volunteer work for local organizations.
This story originally appeared in Facing LGBTQ+ Pride in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Muncie OUTreach in Muncie, Indiana.