The attack in Orlando caused me, like many others, to stop and reflect, and it led me to think of our community’s past and future. I know that we have to push forward, as those before us did. As I have reflected, I have considered how all of the changes in the last 30 years have inspired more and more people to come out and live authentically.
This month I interviewed Cathy Jambrosic, a Kansas City businesswoman. I first learned of her through the documentary Out Late (2008), which features LGBT people who have come out in their 50s, 60s, and 70s and what that experience has been like for them. The documentary follows Cathy and her wife, Michele Stauffer, as they discuss their coming out and their decision to marry in Canada on Sept. 24, 2005, just a couple of months after the Canadian government enacted marriage equality. As a matter of fact, the two married on Laurel Point, Victoria, British Columbia, just across from the Parliament Building where it was signed into law.
Since coming out, Jambrosic has become involved in the Kansas City LGBT community. She reminds us that it is never too late to come out and that there are opportunities to live an authentic life at any age.
1. First of all, I would like to discuss the documentary Out Late. How did you and Michele become a part of that project?
Jennifer Brooke and Bea Alda (Alan Alda’s daughter) contacted us after having seen an article in the New York Times entitled, “In the Heartland and Out of the Closet” (http://goo.gl/l2DLlL). They were working on a documentary about closeted LGBT folks coming out late in life.
2. From what I understand, you came out to yourself in the late 1970s. Why did it take you so long to come out publicly?
I think it’s a combination of many influencing factors: growing up as the youngest of three daughters and believing I would follow in the footsteps of my elder sisters to marry and have children; growing up in the Midwest, in a family whose father was a Southern Baptist and mother, a Methodist, and never wanting to disappoint my family; knowing something was different about myself but unable to put my finger on it. Children have a way of noting what’s acceptable and not acceptable … and acting accordingly. I never questioned my sexual orientation growing up because I never allowed myself the luxury of being honest with myself. This stuff gets buried pretty deep.
3. Did your coming out change any of your relationships with family and friends?
My deepest sadness is that my parents left this earth without really knowing the real Cathy because I feared losing their love. Even though they loved Michele like their own daughter, and perhaps they knew at some level that we were more than just friends, I didn’t have the strength to gamble the relationship of the parents I loved so much.
I had one particular friend from college that did not speak to me until just recently by connecting on Facebook. She rants about my political views and the like, but I guess that’s the best she can do to try to reconnect with me.
With my sisters, it was quite different. When Michele and I were getting ready to leave Seattle to drive into Canada for our marriage license, I grappled with whether I should tell my sisters (this discussion of my being gay never had come up at this point). After finally deciding that I wanted to be the one to tell them and not have them hear it secondhand, I called. I remember calling my eldest sister first: “Eadie, I’m about to take a big step in my life and I didn’t want you to hear this news from someone other than myself. Michele and I are more than just friends. We’ve been together for many years now and are driving to Canada to get a marriage license. We want to give our relationship the dignity and recognition it deserves.” There was a bit of a pause (which seemed like an eternity), when she said very slowly, “This answers so many questions.” I called my other sister, and she was very gracious. However, I think it took her a little longer to have it actually sink in. Outside of my relationship with Michele, Eadie and Cindy are the two most important people in my life. Coming out has only made us closer, and it feels good to have a bond with my siblings without reservation and pretense.
4. How has your life changed since the documentary?
I have gotten involved politically and worked with several organizations for the betterment of the LGBT community, both locally and nationally. I have received many phone calls and emails from those who have watched the documentary, especially since it was picked up by Netflix. Numerous individuals have contacted me for help and guidance in the coming out process and how to remove themselves from the isolation of being closeted.
5. You have become involved in activism within the Kansas City LGBT community by holding positions on different boards (Human Rights Campaign, LIKEME Lighthouse). How might we help younger people in the community to become more active in these opportunities?
I think creating a group of speakers from each area organization who could go out into the community to spread the word about the resources that are available to them — targeting schools that have GSAs [gay-straight alliances] and perhaps helping to set up GSAs where none exist. Reaching out to welcoming/affirming churches to participate in such a program and talk to their youth groups. Partnering and building coalitions — it’s all about relationships.
6. Besides being a wife and activist, you’re also a businesswoman. What is the biggest challenge in owning a small business in the Kansas City area?
I started my business in 1983, one of the worse years for new business failures. I felt if I made it through that first year, I could get through anything! Very honestly, Kansas City was very good to me. I had loyal customers who appreciated my efforts to give them the very best product and service at a reasonable cost. The greatest challenge was the immense land area of greater Kansas City. I had customers from Lawrence to Blue Springs, to Kearney to Louisburg. It was difficult to keep up, but I did my customer calling during the day and office work at night, working mostly 60-80 hours per week. I starting phasing out of the picture in 2007, very grateful for the relationships I built with my customers.
7. Has being out affected your business at all?
I actually started phasing out of my business shortly after I came out — and I came out in the New York Times, so there was no going back. When I was in front of my customers, it was all about the customer and what they needed. I avoided comments about my personal life. There were a few customers who became personal friends though; one in particular confided in me she had an estranged sister who is gay. She told me she used feel so sad for me because she felt I was gay and went to great lengths to conceal it. She was right.
8. Beyond activism, are you involved in the KC LGBT social scene? Please explain.
I’m not sure what you mean by active in the KC LGBT social scene. We are blessed with many friends for whom I am grateful; we entertain in our home frequently, etc. We try to do our part in supporting Heartland Men’s Chorus, Kansas City Women’s Chorus, Planned Parenthood, etc.
9. What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Since I’m not running a business anymore, I often wonder where I found the time to work, as there is so much to do! Michele and I love to travel, having recently returned from an exploration cruise to the Kimberley [region of Australia]. We have a home in Florida which we frequent as well. Michele loves to garden (I’m on an as-needed basis!). We love to cook — I’m the indoor cook, she, the outdoor cook, and she makes a mean steak, which I deem the best in Kansas City. I love movies, books, working in our flower beds, swimming, snorkeling, walking, yoga and just being active in general.
10. I always like to have a little fun with my final question. It’s been hot, and I’ve been eating quite a bit of ice cream. If you could be any flavor of ice cream, what would you be and why?
I’d be a Ted Drewes chocolate pecan concrete [made with frozen custard] – because you can’t rattle a Ted Drewes concrete, chocolate is a sexy flavor, and pecans because I like to be just a little bit nutty sometimes.