By Sharon Cortelyou
January 5, 2018: "Tommy" started walking the neighborhood when I was about twelve. Dressed in a tan trench coat, slacks and sensible shoes, she walked with purpose and did not meet my gaze when we met on the sidewalk. I had heard she had a heart attack and guessed that the walking was a suggestion from the doctor. Tommy and Jane were my next door neighbors for 18 years. In researching their lives, I found that they had bought the house on Sunset Blvd. in Cape Girardeau during the 1930s. My parents bought the house next door in the late 1950s and I was born a few years later. We lived there until my senior year in high school.
I am now very involved in collecting the history of the LGBT community and even for those born in the 40s, 50s, or 60s, I hear a common theme. Many say that they were adults before they even realized there was such a thing as a same sex relationship. It was a virtual unknown. But for me, that was not the case. Despite the conservative, small town, life of my childhood, I always knew there was such a thing. For better or worse, I had the "queers next door" which is how my father described them. I will point out that the label was not said with malice. My father seemed to like them much more than our neighbors on the other side. That was just the language he knew.
I never had much interaction with Tommy. I theorized that as the butch in the relationship, she might have been especially nervous about interacting with a young girl. I wonder if things would have been different if I were a boy. Jane, on the other hand, was friendly and always bought a box or two of Girl Scout cookies when I knocked on their door each year. They were quiet neighbors and rarely ever spent any time outside. They hired me to clean their fence line each year which generally left me covered with poison oak. Jane was born in 1908 so when I was nine, they were probably moving into their 60th year. I don't know if Tommy was older or younger. One thing I remember noticing about them is that every Sunday when we left for church, their car didn't move.
I never consciously connected who I was to who they were until after I came out at age 19. By then, we had just moved to another part of Cape Girardeau. But one very vivid memory was around the time of my high school prom. I was going with a guy named Mark. My mom bought a dress for me and of course before we left, there were photos to take and we were outside in front of the house. You would think that I would be focused on the flowers, the dress, maybe even Mark. Instead, I was acutely aware of what the neighbors might be thinking and while on the surface I wanted them to see that I was not like them. Deep down, that was one of several moments that I realized that I was exactly like them and part of me wanted them to know. I was sorry that they were seeing me with this boy and would think something that wasn't true because deep down, I knew that we were more alike that I was ready to accept. That is one of my pivotal memories from high school.
Over the years, I often thought of dropping in on Jane as I had heard that Tommy passed away. But I never did and she passed in 1997. It was really about that time that I started becoming interested in LGBT history and I am still so sorry I missed the amazing opportunity of hearing their story. Jane Barnett was born in the Missouri Bootheel and she spent most of her adult years in my conservative small town of Cape Girardeau. Tommy seems to have been from Cape Girardeau originally. They were both great supporters of the arts and owned a downtown store called the Coop. There are amazing pictures in this link. As far as I can tell, they may have had a forty year relationship before Tommy passed away.
Image courtesy Sharon Cortelyou (around age five with Tommy and Jane's house in the background).