By Pietro Rossini
Boston University News Service
In 1977, a 27-year-old woman gave birth in a delivery room of a Massachusetts hospital. When Chris Roberts was out of labor, a female nurse handed her a newborn girl.
Heidi, the nurse, was showing how to feed and bathe the baby. Chris found the nurse’s attention to be very helpful. And she felt something else, something she had never experienced before. That’s when she realized that she liked women.
“I grew up in New Hampshire and I naively believed that only men could be attracted by other men,” Chris, who is now a tall 72-year-old woman with short grey hair, said in an interview at her home. “I didn’t know that there were women liking other women until I found it out by myself when I had Karin, my daughter.”
Back in the 70s, the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. was still marginalized, misunderstood, and discriminated against. Not many gay people were coming out freely for fear of not being accepted by society. And, at that time, Chris didn’t even know the meaning of the word lesbian.
Now there is much more information and acceptance of the gay culture. However, there are still people who suffer discrimination because of their gender identification and sexual orientation.
Even though the relationship with the nurse didn’t last long, Chris had reached a new unsettling and confusing discovery. But an even harder challenge was waiting for her: would she tell her husband that she liked women?
“My husband was so hurt, angry, and volatile,” Chris said. “He didn’t know how to handle this information.” Chris had denied several times that she liked women to Steve, her husband.
“But I think he knew that they were not just friends,” Karin said about her mother’s relationship with women. When the reality got unbearable, Chris and Steve divorced. Karin was 2.
In the divorce agreement, Chris got custody.
When Karin was just a kid, Chris had asked Karin to keep her attraction for women a secret. “It’s the only time my mom asked me to keep a secret,” Karin said. “She was afraid that because she was a lesbian, they would take away custody from her. But worse than keeping the secret was thinking, ‘Oh God, if I told the secret. I could get taken away from my mom.’”
Karin was in third grade. She was fascinated by her teacher and every time she would come back from school with loads of stories about this person. Chris felt intrigued by this woman and wanted to meet her.
There was a conference at Karin’s school and Chris went to attend the event. That’s when she met the teacher for the first time. “I didn’t even know whether she was a lesbian or not,” Chris said, remembering that moment with a light of intriguing desire in her eyes.
After the conference, Chris was brave enough to ask her out. On their first date, Chris was nervous, and the teacher noticed that the atmosphere was getting tense. So, she put Chris out of her misery and said, “Chris it’s OK, I’m a lesbian too. And I just ended another relationship with a woman.”
The two women started dating regularly after that first meeting. And they also went to a therapist together to understand how to be the co-parents of Karin. “At that time the only book available was, ‘Heather Has Two Mommies,’ which was a cartoon story about a daughter with two mothers,” said Chris.
It was 1985 when Karin came home from school reporting that the superintendent of her school had made an announcement that there were no homosexuals in his school program.
“I thought it was odd and fun at the same time. Because I woke up that morning in the same bed with a woman that was a teacher at that school,” Chris said, laughing as she sat on her couch petting her cat, Mocha Joe.
Chris wanted to raise her daughter together with the teacher. But when the therapist heard Chris saying something about Karin reporting to her that the teacher had made her feel “discomfortable” – which is not a word in English, the kid meant “uncomfortable” – things started to change.
The teacher had a very gregarious and extroverted personality. “And Karin just didn’t like that,” Chris said. “But the therapist took that like the teacher was abusing my daughter.” So, the school started an investigation into whether child abuse was happening.
The teacher was in a high position within the Massachusetts school system. So, the stakes were very high for her. And Chris had to choose between her partner and her daughter. “And of course, I chose my daughter,” Chris said.
Chris had a hard time living as a lesbian mother. One day, she was visiting her brother together with the teacher. “My brother started the conversation saying, ‘My wife and I have talked about that, and we decided that it is better if you and your friend don’t stay alone with our kids.’ That was hurtful,” Chris said.
That Chris liked women was not easy to digest for her mother. “My father was already dead, and I had just broken up with the teacher,” Chris said. “I went to visit my mother and I told her, ‘Mom, I need to tell you that I’m a lesbian because I’m not gonna dance around pronouns and I’m not gonna pretend to be somebody that I’m not.’”
Chris’ mother got sad at the news because she thought Chris would have a hard time raising her daughter. “I would go to gay pride every year,” Chris shared with tears in her eyes. “And it just always moved me so much when I saw people that were supportive of their gay children.”
Chris worked for more than 40 years as a dental hygienist. And one of her dental patients was a woman who had eight children, four were straight and four gay. “And she told me, ‘I really love my gay children more also’,” Chris said, pointing out that in her life she had always had to pick up and choose people she was comfortable with.
Karin’s life has not been easy either.
When she was 10, she was keeping the secret. But one day, Karin told her best friend, Amy, that her mother liked women. “Amy was freaked out,” Karin said. “She just didn’t know what to do with the information.”
Karin went home and Amy did too. The same night, Chris was cooking dinner when she got a call from Amy’s mother apologizing for how Amy had behaved with Karin. That was the first time that a straight person showed support to Chris and her family.
The teenage years arrived for Karin when she fell in love for the first time. But she had a weird feeling. One day, Karin went to talk to Chris and said, “Mom, there is no way I like women.” This was a moment of revelation for her. Karin thought that if her mother was a lesbian, she must like women too. “I don’t know, I thought that being gay or a lesbian was something that was passed on through the genes,” Karin said.
Karin just celebrated the 17th anniversary of her wedding with Dave in 2022. She has two children: Jack, who is 13, and Sarah, who is 10. For their anniversary, Karin was sitting on the couch of her house holding the wedding album pictures. She was turning the pages of the big book containing the memories of one of the most beautiful moments of her life.
Sarah was sitting next to her mother and while she was turning the pages asked, “Who is this person that it’s everywhere in the pictures with Nana?”
Karin told her daughter that the person in the picture was Jules, Chris’ partner at that time, and Sarah was not shocked at all to learn that her grandma had a partner who was a woman as well.
The way Chris, Karin, and Sarah grew up was very different. Three women of three generations had a completely distinct awareness of the gay culture. Chris married a man and had a daughter without even knowing the meaning of the word lesbian. Karin had to live keeping her mother’s identity a secret. And Sarah, 10, shrugs the fact that her grandma likes women.
“I was talking one day with my daughter and Sarah was there as well,” Chris said. “I remember I said, ‘I like women but maybe at this point in my life I might like men as well.’ And I remember my granddaughter telling me, ‘Nana, does it mean that you are bi?’”
Chris is a retired dental hygienist and lives in a two-story house in Hyde Park, Boston. The main entrance of her house faces the main road and there is a backyard with a small garden. The garden is not Chris’, she made the space available for a neighbor who didn’t have much space for gardening at her place.
The backyard is full of sculptures that Chris has been collecting over the years. Chris loves arts and is an artist herself. On the front door, there is a big wooden panel with a pineapple sculpture with an inscription that says, “Roberts.”
Chris is now happy about her life, and now that she is retired, she is deeply involved in many activities that promote the LGBTQ+ community in Massachusetts.
“Chris loves to celebrate life! When I had my first birthday here, Chris made three dozen cookies for me to bring to school and share with my friends,” said Christina Warriner, a Boston College graduate student who is currently staying at Chris’ place.
Christina has lived at Chris’ for more than a year. But the two women have known each other for much longer. They worked together for the political campaign of Gretchen Van Ness, who ran for election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 2020 and played an essential role in the approval of the gay marriage law in Massachusetts.
“Chris likes to be involved and she always does more than the job she signed for,” said Christina. Now that Chris is retired, she is volunteering in Hyde Park through clothing drives, art classes, and most of all, for the construction of “The Pryde,” an LGBTQ+ friendly senior living facility that will open in Hyde Park in Fall 2023.
The activism and the volunteer activities that Chris is carrying on supporting the LGBTQ+ community reveals that after so many years of struggle to come out as a lesbian, she can finally breathe and be herself.
“Now I’m not in a relationship and I feel like I am done,” Chris said, laughing. “But I have a community of friends that are all kinds of things.” She paused for a moment and after a long sigh, Chris added, “…and being accepted for who I am is really cool!”