SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Tara Perez
“Southern Mountain Air”

There was a time in my life when I started to discover who I was sexually. Some people will wonder if they are gay, straight, or bisexual. I fell between straight and gay. I knew I didn’t really like guys, yet I wasn’t really sure I liked women either. I felt I needed to choose one or the other and that feeling left me isolated. I always searched for a way out. I was also losing my own identity by trying to fit in. It left me feeling on the edge of wanting, waiting, never quite satisfied, lonely and alone.

I had just turned 18 and had a wonderful opportunity to live in Germany for eight months.  When I returned to Arkansas, I went to work at Tyson Production Plant.  This is where I remember meeting Nita.  She was thin, had short black hair, and was beautiful.  She was everything I was physically attracted to.  There were only two problems; one, she was seriously involved with another woman, Samantha, and two, no one knew I was a lesbian. Actually I wasn’t even sure I knew.  For eighteen months, I worked in the same department as Nita, but she seemed untouchable, off limits.  I would see her five nights a week and wish for the courage to talk to her and tell her how I felt, but the courage was not there.

Samantha threw Nita a birthday party during that time frame and I was invited. At some point, during the party, I was inside checking on one of the babies and Nita was in the same room. I felt it was the perfect chance either to do something, say something, or to do nothing at all and let the feelings die. We both moved closer to each other and finally we were face to face. We kissed without saying anything, it just happened. No planning, no hesitation, it was just a kiss.

“I worked with Tara.  She was a very nice person and work was the only place I knew her.  I did not know that she liked me and I was not sure if she had planned our meeting or not. It was easy to see Tara; no one knew her and it took some time for anyone to suspect anything.  I suppose looking back we were both using each other.  We both wanted to satisfy a need of some sort.  I needed to have something exciting in my life and Tara needed to see if the path she had chosen was the right one.  I put my relationship with Samantha on the line and Tara put her relationship with her family on the line.”

My first mistake was falling for another woman who was involved in a relationship.  The second mistake was falling for a woman in a southern town, population 2000, all while working in a chicken production plant.  The factory was a full production plant; we brought in live birds in the morning and processed them by 2 AM the next morning.  It felt like the plant was my family, everyone knew everyone.  Immediate families can run deep inside the factory, from grandparents to grandchildren.  Crossing any type of boundary into the unknown can tear the family apart right before your eyes.

“For a few months, Tara and I would see each other. At first we were very secretive, but then we began to see each other more at work and in public. We worked the same shift in the same department in the factory. Actually Tara and Samantha worked on the lines together and I worked upstairs in another section. Tension and rumors started building up within the department and pretty soon Sam started questioning everything.”

I wanted to know more about how I was feeling, more of why I felt like this and even if it was normal.  I was crossing the sexual boundary and the “family” at the plant, and being aware of this, left me out in the cold when I first started discovering myself as a gay person. The factory was the only job I could get and now I felt I had nowhere to turn. Small town Arkansas in the late 80’s was not the ideal place to discover one’s sexuality.  This was evident the day I moved out of my apartment.  My roommate, Debbie, blatantly called me a “faggot” in front of my mother.  This incident was never mentioned again between Debbie and I, or between Mom and I.

Gay role models were not out there for me to see and finding anyone to talk to was next to impossible.  I believe this is where my longing for Germany, any other place except Arkansas, came from.  There I could find the clubs, the “gay central” place to hang out.  There I could be me and no one cared or noticed.  There I was welcomed thousands of miles away from my home.  Here, Arkansas became a closet for me and now I have shut that door for the most part.

“Tara quit Tyson in September of 1990 and joined the Air Force.  I believe she wanted more from me but did not know how to approach it. I also believe she couldn’t handle the rumors.  The rumors can hurt you in a small town.”

Nita was already living her life as a lesbian.  The factory family accepted her and left her alone. So to try to fit into that setting without everyone’s approval was difficult for me. Rumors were everywhere and that was Nita’s motivation.  Not that she wanted the rumors, but more the thrill of someone so eager to find herself.  At the time, I was so eager to be free and so anxious to leave the boundaries of the factory and the enclosed southern life.  The whole incident with Nita prompted me to physically leave the state again.  My ideas of where to live stemmed from my earlier trip to Germany.  That was a place I felt free to be myself, free to come and go with no questions and no harassment.  I knew that no matter what, I would leave behind all the hurt and anger that Arkansas held for me.  At the time I only wanted to be who I was, and this could never happen in that town, factory or state.

Twelve years later, I am out of the Air Force and the hurt and anger that Arkansas once held for me are gone.  In Arkansas, during the fall and winter months, if I’d leave my window open at night, I’d wake up to the smell of crisp, fresh pine trees and bright ever-fragrant daffodils.  Sometimes when I am walking down the streets here in Glendale, a breeze will carry that same woodsy, fresh scent past me.  I will close my eyes and the smell carries me back 12-13 years to a sweet, innocent time, a time that is trapped in the smell of ice cold southern mountain air.

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