It’s tough enough living a double life – something many in the LGBTQ+ community can unfortunately relate to – but what about living a triple life?
It sounds hard to believe, but that’s exactly what author Janis (Jan)E. Mills endured for much of her life. In her memoir, “Coming Out – It Only Took 50 Years,” she details her three very different life experiences that rarely, if ever, intersected.
To her family, she was a devoted, loving – and straight – daughter. Professionally, she was a renowned educator, high school principal and, eventually, district-level administrator.
At night, she was something else completely. She became part of “a hidden nocturnal world centered around bartending in dangerous neighborhoods in Washington, DC,” Mills wrote in an essay published in the November edition of “Letters from Camp Rehoboth.”
While bartending at these gay bars, she “was hit by a rock, saw a gun pulled on a friend, witnessed fights, saw arrests and experienced marches that pitted straights against gays. During this time, Jan jumped from girlfriend to girlfriend and dabbled in activities far different from the straight educator she portrayed by day. It was exhausting.”
Mills understood that it was “sad and unfair” that she had to live her life this way, but she felt she had no other choice.
Her Younger Years
A native of western Pennsylvania, she knew at an early age – just eight years old – that she was “queer” after she first heard the term and her mother explained what it meant.
“That’s when a boy likes only boys or a girl likes only girls,” her mother told her.
At that time, she decided not to tell her conservative parents that the word “queer” described her perfectly, as her mother had made it clear that she disapproved of the LGBTQ+ community. Jan’s mother even questioned her daughter’s sexuality at one point, saying she would “blame herself and not know what to do for the rest of her life” if Jan didn’t have “normal feelings toward men.”
In order to live her life freely, Jan eventually moved away for college and settled into the metropolitan D.C. area. Every time she visited her family, she kept her true life hidden.
She only became more relaxed about being out around her family after her father, her more accepting parent, passed away. Janis attended the funeral with her future wife, though she never told her family they were together.
After the funeral, before they went to bed that night, her mother showed her an old photo of her fourth-grade class and told her, “Take this upstairs and show it to your sweetie.”
Mills said, “She came out for me. It was very surprising, though anticlimactic. There was no big hug or celebration. We just sort of moved on.”
After this, she came out to her friends at the school district where she worked. They weren’t surprised, likely because of her age and because she was unmarried. She also had never spoken about romantic relationships.
Years before, at the start of her teaching career, it was more difficult to be an openly gay teacher. “As an educator, you were constantly being judged. Parents were afraid. They didn’t want their children in a queer’s classroom. But I started teaching in the ‘70s, when people thought you could make people gay.”
How Her Book “Came Out”
Since coming out, educators she has known throughout her career have invited her to speak to students in gay-straight alliances at their schools. This is when she realized that telling her story could be a tool for helping others.
“I always thought, ‘You coward.’ And I really was a coward about it. I was so afraid that conservative people around me wouldn’t be friends with me anymore,” Mills said. “I never had the strength. Now, I hope I can help others do things differently.”
Still, when she started writing, she focused more on her family – particularly her two grandmothers with “very interesting stories.” One even grew up in a small traveling circus as part of her family’s acrobatic troupe.
“My grandmother was a circus performer as a child and didn’t want to be there,” Mills said. “By the time Gram could leave the circus, she was seventeen years old, married and pregnant to the leader of the band. Years later she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.”
Whenever Mills pitched this story about her family, she would inevitably talk about her own triple life, which intrigued people. One panel at a writing conference in Atlanta told her, “You really need to write the story about your own life. We want to know more.”
She got to work writing what would eventually become “Coming Out – It Only Took 50 Years,” which was released Sept. 21 – her wedding anniversary.
While Jan found it was easier to write about her family’s secrets than her own, she understood that it was important to tell her story and share her truth.
“Telling my story is about acceptance,” she said “I’m not one who tells all my secrets, but if it can help others in the same situation as me, it doesn’t scare me anymore.”
Janis Mills is a longtime educator, high school principal and school district administrator in the Washington, D.C. area. She hopes to relocate to Florida. Her memoir, “Coming Out – It Only Took 50 Years,” was released by Desert Palm Press in September 2021 and is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble (ebook only) and directly from the publisher.