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The Quest for a Truthful Life

The Marietta chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which marks its fifth anniversary Sunday, came along just in time for East Cobb native Shannon Hames.

Shannon Hames rarely betrays emotion as she discusses the painful events that transformed her life, virtually in a flash. 

She'll tell you, however, that flash of a moment was decades in the making.  

At the age of 38, after years of trying to be a devout Christian, an obedient wife and a dutiful mother, Shannon Hames had to step forward and become herself.

Which is not at all as she seemed to so many people around her. 

In 2007, she announced to her family, friends and members of her evangelical church that she was a lesbian and could no longer hide it.

"I became a Christian to try to fix myself. I married the guy everybody in my family wanted me to marry, and I thought that might fix me."

Hames fits a tendency for lesbians to accept who they are in midlife. An analysis of census data by UCLA's Williams Institute around the time she came out found that 36 percent of women in their 40s with same-sex partners had been married to men, and that number grew to 75 percent for women in their 60s, according to a 2010 article in Minneapolis' Star-Tribune.

But that trend didn't immediately help Hames in 2007. With no more than a high school education, she was forced to move from her home, lost custody of her two teenage children and was disowned by her mother.

She was grateful that her father rushed to her support, as did childhood friends. 

When she attended Atlanta Gay Pride and discovered the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, she found some kindred spirits in what would become a dramatic journey in a new life. 

"I got a hug from someone in PFLAG," Hames says, tears welling up in her eyes. "A hug from someone else's mom."

It wasn't long after that Hames became part of a new PFLAG organization in Cobb that has been a focal point of her life as an open lesbian. 

On Sunday at 1 p.m., Hames will be among those congregating at Pilgrimage United Church of Christ on Sandy Plains Road for Marietta PFLAG's fifth anniversary. 

"I look forward to those two hours as much as anything," she says of the monthly Marietta PFLAG meetings, which are held on the fourth Sunday and generally attract 15 to 20 participants. 

While PFLAG chapters around the country were started to help those close to gay individuals learn to accept their loved ones, gay members provide a powerful connection for understanding.

"Many of these people were raised that (being gay) is such a horrible thing," Hames says. "And yet they're appalled that it's hindering relationships. Some feel they have to choose between their friends and their gay child."

Hames talks about a Marietta PFLAG mother of three grown children—one gay, one heterosexual and one transgender—who all moved out of town in recent years.

"I told her that she had to stop referring to her (transgender) daughter as her son," Hames says. "She found that treating them with that kind of respect helped them get close again."

The woman's children all came home for Christmas last year as the reconciliation period entered a hopeful new stage. 

"We just hear stories like that all the time," Hames says.

Especially her own.

'I've Felt This Way Since I Was 5'

As she grew up in East Cobb's Chimney Springs neighborhood, Hames also grew to resist amorous feelings for other females as fiercely as anything in her life.

"I became a Christian to try to fix myself," says Hames, who graduated from Lassiter High School. "I've felt this way since I was 5.

"But I got married at 21. I married the guy everybody in my family wanted me to marry, and I thought that might fix me. When that didn't work, I thought that having children would do it. And when that didn't work, it was the church."

As a girl Hames attended East Cobb's  with her family, but only casually. Determined to bury her feelings, "I thought I needed something more strict."

She, her husband and their children attended evangelical churches, finally settling on a Southern Baptist-affiliated church in Cherokee County where wifely deference to her husband and church doctrine were paramount. 

Hames became a stay-at-home mom, home-schooling her son and daughter. Her husband, who controlled the family's expenses and credit cards, "didn't want me to leave the house."

She acknowledges harboring suicidal thoughts: "Sometimes I was thinking about it every single day."

But seeking out counseling, or even surfing the Internet on her home computer for assistance, was out of the question.

"I would go to the library if I needed to look up something" on the Internet, Hames says. "I lived in this constant fear of being found out."

When members of her church's women's Bible study group complained to her husband that Hames wasn't attending regularly, she felt she had reached a tipping point. 

"I just felt like I couldn't be myself around those people," Hames says. "When I saw that he wanted to stay (at the church), that was that."

When she realized she had to own up to the truth—her truth—"I knew what this was going to do."

Acceptance and Starting Over

At the time of her divorce (Hames has taken back her father's surname), her son was 16, and her daughter was 14. She agonized over not having them with her every day.

"But my son said, 'Mom, this doesn't change anything,' " she says. "That was the most Christ-like response there is."

Some in her former church family, she says, "prayed for the death of my sin."

She found good fellowship and comfort with Marietta PFLAG. It was there Hames also found the person with whom she now shares her life.

Nearly three years ago, she and her partner, Melissa, had their commitment ceremony at Pilgrimage. "It's not officially recognized in Georgia," Hames says. "But she's my wife."

"I try to get across to my kids that you shouldn't have to feel like you're locked into something that you're unhappy with."

They live in Acworth with their blended family. Same-sex parenting is most common in the South, according to an analysis of American Community Survey data from 2005 to 2009 that the Williams Institute published in December.

Melissa, who has taken Hames' name, has two children from a previous marriage, and Hames' daughter, now a senior in high school, lives with them. Hames' son, Nick, is a student at Georgia Southern University.

After earning an associate's degree at , Hames is enrolled in the honors program at and wants to get into public relations, journalism or communications. 

She also is a freelance writer for the Georgia Voice, an Atlanta-based gay publication. 

Hames still considers herself a Christian but isn't drawn to finding a church home for now. 

It's far from the life she once led as she tried to be a "perfect Christian." What she's trying to piece together is a life that's true to the person she has always been.

"I try to get across to my kids that you shouldn't have to feel like you're locked into something that you're unhappy with."

This article is part of "Dispatches: The Changing American Dream," a series about how people in East Cobb are adapting to the challenges of life in the 21st century. You can find more Dispatches from across the country at The Huffington Post.

If you'd like to suggest a person or people for East Cobb Patch to profile, please contact editor Wendy Parker at wendy.parker@patch.com.

Beth Day February 25, 2012 at 10:28 PM
Thanks for sharing your story, Ms. Hames. I know it will give others courage and comfort.
Anna Lisa Derenthal March 05, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Hello. I am a psychotherapist who serves the good folks of our LGBTQI community with much pride. One of my clients shared this article with me, and it has inspired me to pass it along to several other clients who I know will be equally inspired by it. Thanks for spreading your courage and integrity! - Anna Lisa Derenthal, LPC

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