Wittmershaus: When we had to lie about mom’s ‘roommate’

Eric Wittmershaus, with his mother, Jeanne Fischer, and his wife, Chanel, at his wedding in 2007 in San Francisco. (Becca Dilley)


When I was growing up, The Rule more important than any other was not to tell anyone my mom and her “roommate” shared a bedroom.

My parents divorced when I was 10, and my mom brought my 6-year-old sister and me to live with her and the woman who would essentially become our stepmom. At that age, having been raised as an evangelical Christian in a town of 1,200 people, I didn’t know what a lesbian was, or that my mom was one. I didn’t know my former schoolteachers and members of our church probably thought my mom — the church’s former treasurer — would burn in hell.

There was no special moment when our mom and her partner sat my sister and me down and told us they were lesbians. We kids each figured it out on our own, in bits and pieces.

There was the time in fifth grade when I heard a kid use the word “faggot,” and I came home and asked my mom, who appeared unsettled, what it meant. She referred me to our dictionary, which told me it was a bundle of sticks or twigs, and that just made me more confused.

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, my mom drove one of my friends home from our house in the country. Somehow, gays and lesbians came up in conversation, and my friend talked about how disgusted he was by them. He said that though he was pretty sure he didn’t know any gays, he wouldn’t be friends with them should he meet any. My sister, Sarah, still wonders whether the clique of friends who suddenly had no time for her in middle school cut her out of their lives under pressure from their parents, or if it was just preteen girls being preteen girls.

My mom’s partner had identified as a lesbian for nearly her entire adult life, and it was surely a lifelong accumulation of moments like those that led to The Rule. At some point, it was spelled out: Sarah and I were not to tell anyone my mom and her partner shared a bedroom. They were roommates, nothing more. We could have sleepovers, like any other kids, but the bedroom doors on the second floor were to be kept shut.

These days, my hometown of La Crosse, Wis., often leans left on social issues. It’s had a gay pride festival for years. But things were different in the late 1980s and early ’90s. My mom’s partner was a kindergarten teacher in a nearby town. There was a very real danger parents or school administrators would force her out of her job. She feared she would be fired if they found out she was a lesbian.

As a journalist, I do my best to push aside personal beliefs when I leave for work. But I handled Friday’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage a bit differently. I woke up and saw the news on my phone, and I spent several hours helping to coordinate our coverage.

I didn’t let out a whoop on social media, but when I got a moment, I took a walk and made a quiet call to my mom. I remembered all she’d been through, from being kicked out of our church for seeking a divorce to fielding hurtful comments from relatives. She once tried to donate books on sexual identity to local high schools and was told by one principal, with certainty, “We have no gay students here.”

Friday’s ruling will change little legally for my mom. She and her partner split up years ago. Many of her lesbian friends already have gotten married in Iowa, or just across the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Same-sex marriage became legal in Wisconsin last fall.

But it’s still a big moment, a powerful validation that the gays and lesbians who’ve fought for decades for the right to marry should be treated the same as everyone else. For me, it inches us closer to a future when no little kids will have to lie about who their parents love.

Eric Wittmershaus is The Press Democrat’s digital editor. You can reach him at 521-5433 or On Twitter @wittmershaus.