Last February, then 87-year-old Wilhelmina Perry spoke with Jamie about what it was like to come out in mid-life and how she redefined herself after her partner’s death.
So much of Mina’s work in her life has revolved around identity—as a woman, as a woman of faith, as a Black woman, and as a lesbian. She explored all of that during her If You Knew Me conversation—what she now calls “one of the most revealing” interviews she has ever taken part in—allowing herself to not only be vulnerable in a way she rarely had before, but also to do so in a most public fashion.
Sure, Mina’s voice had been given a platform before—often—through her work as a faculty member at a university and through her work as an LGBT activist. But, she recently told me, so often she spoke from behind the veil of those specific roles: “When you are a teacher, you adopt a certain posture, and that posture allows you to be empathetic and accessible. But it also can allow you to be distant from the people you’re interacting with. You can facilitate their discovery of their story. But it doesn’t really mean that you are doing the same.”
This time around, Mina wanted to “peel back the layers.” She told me, “I wanted to get my real self out there for people.”
She had begun blogging for that very reason, saying that therapy initially empowered her to feel confident enough to tell her story in this way. Having a listener that made her feel comfortable, though, enabled Mina to go even deeper during her interview.
When she first listened to herself in the episode, she thought, “Oh my God, I’ve revealed so much of me that I can’t take back!”
She got over that initial regret quickly, though. “I do it even more now,” she says of sharing her story boldly. “I’m very comfortable being open. And I think that is because I went through this process of revealing and revealing in stages, revealing more and more pieces of myself.”
Mina says that even though she had articulated the words “you don’t know me” as a reason for wanting to share her story, “it didn’t really impact me as true until after the fact. At some level, intellectually I knew what I was doing—but emotionally, I didn’t realize what I was doing. I was talking to someone a few months after [the podcast had come out] and I said, ‘I did it because I want people to know me.’”
And while Mina shared the interview with her community, no one reacted—not a shred of feedback. Did this bother her, I wondered? “No,” she told me confidently. “It was for me. It is for other people, but it’s also for me.”
She believes that putting her story out there will allow someone else to see themselves in it. “The point is to know it’s out there. I trust the process of telling the story enough to know that it does have an impact on some people.”
These days Mina, 88, is as busy as ever. She is involved in planning a year-long centennial celebration for her partner, Antonia Pantoja, and she continues her social work on the advisory board of a New York State LGBT advocacy organization.
“I would like to take my storytelling to the next level,” Mina says. And although she hasn’t yet figured out what form that will take, one topic preoccupies her: “People don’t want to talk about aging or dying, and those are things that I want to talk about. I’m going to find a way to approach the subject so that people listen.” She laughs as she ponders this, adding, “I’ve told about as much of me as I should probably tell, but you know, maybe I can help some other people tell their stories.”