That time I sat down to write about labels and ended up with the story of my first thirty years.
When I was younger, and closeted, I was obsessed with labels.
As a kid, of course, I knew that gay men were sparkly, Puckish creatures, and that lesbians were overweight women kitted out in flannel and mullets. (I don’t have any particular memory of ever hearing the words bisexual or queer). I knew there were sometimes glamorous, feminine women on TV who were portrayed as lesbians, but I understood this to be a lie, in the way of the gorgeous starlet who plays the regular-looking person in the biopic, and how single mothers on television are always moving with their plucky children to obscenely large houses with wrap-around porches: femme lesbians were, I thought, just another glossy Hollywood liberty.
And so in junior high school, although I know I felt attracted to my friends at times, it didn’t cross my mind that I could be queer, because I couldn’t imagine ever being attracted to a mannish middle-aged woman with a mullet and a fanny pack. (THIS IS WHY ACCURATE AND NUANCED MEDIA REPRESENTATION OF MINORITIES MATTERS, PEOPLE). And if that logic sounds rather basic, remember that there is nothing less articulate than the romantic brain of an emotionally late-blooming thirteen year old.
I “dated” a boy for two months in seventh grade; the sum total of our contact was a single phone conversation (interrupted by my stern, surprised father) and one slow dance to an R. Kelly song on Valentine’s Day. That dance, which was the first time anyone touched me romantically, put electric butterflies in my stomach just like it was supposed to. We long so hard for so many things when we are thirteen. When I wished I could reach out and hold hands with one of my friends at a slumber party, I figured it was just a kind of overflow from my unquenched longing for the touch of a boy.
In high school, the “lesbians” were the girls who got naked unabashedly in the locker room after P.E. The girls who showered, fully on view amidst the ancient crumbling tile. The girls who didn’t care if they flashed a nipple, who walked around perfectly happily in their transparent bras. “Lesbians,” my friends would whisper, and I would whisper it too. Those were the days when I wore three bras on top of each other all day long, a desperate attempt to hide my 34DD breasts. I hadn’t been naked in front of anyone since they had suddenly sprung themselves on me in sixth grade.
There was also an Actual Lesbian Couple at my high school. I didn’t know them; they were older. They walked across the quad holding hands with rainbow patches on their backpacks. One of them had dreadlocks. Everyone stared.
Of course, I had a gay best friend. He had all the best girlfriends he could stand and we all knew he was gay “before he did.” He was funny and fussy and effeminate and knew what it felt like to just have to get away. Once I got my license, sometimes we’d just drive the back roads all night, going everywhere and nowhere all at once.
That was gay and lesbian. Bi was a thing girls made up to impress their boyfriends, or boys made up to appease their parents. I had never heard of queer. I had never met someone whom I knew to be trans. I graduated high school in the early 2000s and dove head-first into my first relationship, with a man of 26. My senior year, I had taken to getting drunk and making out with guys at parties. That was how we met. He and I would live together for almost three years. I thought I would marry him. And if that sounds rather naive, remember that there is nothing less articulate than the romantic brain of a nineteen year old in her first relationship.
Sex was fine. I mean, it was fine. It was quite nice at first. It was good to touch. It was good to feel wanted. I taught him how to make me come. I got somewhat used to his strange guy parts. There were things I wouldn’t do, things I was shy about, that I hear many (straighter?) women love to do. I didn’t really want to touch it with my hands or mouth, or even look at it. Out of sight, out of mind, so vanilla sex was best.
When I thought about marrying him, it made sense, he was my world, but if I do, I thought, I’ll never touch a woman’s body. I’ll never know. I thought of how soft they would be. I thought of the things they would have that I had too, and I was flummoxed. Things had cooled down so much for my boyfriend and I over the last couple of years. The hottest sex we’d had lately was just after watching Bound. My perceptions had changed–now Lesbian was, if not Tina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, then my boyfriend’s adorable pocket-sized baby dyke best friend, the girl with the kind brown eyes and short hair and frowning girlfriends, the girl I could hardly look at without blushing. The complexity of real, articulated desire was starting to simmer within me, and I had no idea what to do with it.
Luckily, when I was 21, my boyfriend dumped me.
Everything swirled around me. I was a complete and total mess. I had to leave my home (I paid rent to live in his condo). I was living in his hometown. My life had been his for what felt like forever. The good part of losing everything, of course, was having nothing to lose. I watched The L Word and read AfterEllen.com obsessively. I told my friends nothing about this, even as I let them mop up the contents of my completely broken heart. Finally, with the reckless abandon of a new divorcee, I arranged a date with another twenty-one year old girl on Craigslist. It was very, very scary. I took BART to the city to meet her for dinner. She was slim and girlish and way cooler than I would ever be. It all felt very strange and awkward and nothing like a date. But as I took the train home that night, there was a certain feeling of moving forward. At least, I thought, I had finally tried to do something.
But then time began to stretch out. I moved somewhere I’d always wanted to live. I’ll be Gay there, I thought. That’s the place I’ll reinvent myself. But wherever I went, there I was. I still had all the same fears, I still watched my friends like hawks for any small homophobic microagression, any slight joke or comment, and used them as excuses not to tell them that I was, as I had decided, bisexual.
But was I bi? If so, based on what I read and saw on TV, the lesbians would hate me. Bi women kissed girls with closed mouths and their eyes on their boyfriends, giggling about the taste of their friend’s cherry Chapstick. Bi women had long fingernails and cuckolded their husbands on Craigslist. Bi women always went back to sleeping with men, in the end.
And then there was the fact that I had never touched a woman. Not like that. So it wasn’t like something I had proved. For all I knew, I was lying to myself. For all I knew, I was just someone who didn’t like sex that much. For all I knew, I was inventing excuses not to grow up, not to fall in love and get married and get on with my life. For all I knew, it was a passing fancy. All of the homophobic things people are told by their acquaintances or hateful families: I told most of them to myself.
The years folded over each other. I worked. I went to college. I dated the men who asked me out. It was fine. I mean, it was fine. No one fell in love with me, and I didn’t fall in love with anyone. I just kept getting older. The guys I dated were less and less available. The last one–I dated him for almost two years–lived on another continent and visited just twice a year. He didn’t even like to take off his boxer shorts in bed. At some point I started to wonder if I might be a lesbian. And still, no woman had ever asked me out, and I didn’t have the guts or the convictions to try and pursue any myself.
If I was a lesbian, how could it have taken me so long to figure it out? Why had I dated boys and slept with men? (And that was a capital offense in the lesbian world anyway, right?) What if I said I was a lesbian, but they saw right through me and kicked me to the curb? And how was I ever going to infiltrate their ranks (hazard of being a writer: I’ll always feel like an interloper, anywhere I go) when I couldn’t even look at a queer girl without blushing?
There are certain points in life–those dark periods between good dates or after divorces, you know what I’m talking about–when ever connecting with another person in a romantic way starts to feel about as possible as flying to the moon on a unicorn. That was how it felt during the first three long years of high school when no boy ever kissed me (I laughed off my parents’ warnings about stranger rape, utterly convinced at fifteen that I was too unattractive to even be attacked), and that was how I felt again as a 28 year-old girl virgin. I started to feel as though I would be alone forever. I started to worry about car accidents and cancers: what if I died without ever kissing another woman? The thought was too much to bear.
I was living back in my hometown. I had moved all over the Pacific Coast in my quest to find myself, but it didn’t seem to matter where I lived: I was always just me. The same old scared little skinless person, numb with fear. So I decided it was time to do the work. I made a mental to-do list and I put The Queer Thing as the first and only item. I e-mailed the LGBT Center. They assigned me a therapist. I showed up for my very first appointment. The woman handed me a questionnaire. I stared and stared at it. I wrote my name in the space provided. That was easy. Gender, too, was simple, and I realized that was not the case for everybody who showed up here.
I was crying already. I couldn’t meet the eyes of the woman sitting across the desk. Swimming across the page, with far too much white space provided for the answer, was the Question:
How do you identify?
There are so many things I wish I could tell that girl who sat there crying a year ago. “It gets better” is such a dumb cliche, but if I could, I would tell her that she’d go on dates, and kiss women, and take them home with her, and that she might not ever be able to rule out who she might fall in love with, but that all of the other bullshit, the labels and the identities and the false lines drawn in the sand by people who don’t understand what they haven’t experienced, or haven’t examined their own desires…all of that would slip away. That crap is just smoke and fear and mirrors, the last fingers of a nightmare, dissolving as you wake into a sunny dawn.
Of course, on the other side of that moment, life is still life. Everything will always be hard. Things will always be changing, and I’m sure someday I’ll read this and be amused at its quaint naivety (after all, there is nothing less articulate than the brain of a 30 year old girl who just finished her first queer relationship). But I spent all of that time and energy, all of that fear, scurrying to define my experience, trying always to fit into an idea that someone else might have for me. And the secret is, the one that girl sitting with that questionnaire couldn’t see even though it’s so very very obvious once we look back at the paths we’ve traveled: we don’t have to buy into that. I’m done with it. Thank goodness.
Writing for the Guardian, Michael Stipe defines the queer experience. It’s beautiful, and kind of perfect, and I probably could have just posted it instead of giving you the long-form history of my sexual doubt. I think it’s a good note to end on.
What I feel we have arrived at with all this, is that queerness – as I am happy to call an all-embracing, foundational tenet – is really a state of mind brought about by an understanding: it is understanding difference, accepting your own truth, desire and identity, and lovely, lovely choice. It is the final, completely obvious contemporary acceptance and understanding that this enormous world of beauty, sexuality, identity, lust, feeling, excitement, and love isn’t just black and white, or simple, at all. It is literally every shade and gradation of the rainbow. It doesn’t just lie in one of two camps. It includes accepting and supporting positions that you may not even completely understand; and to arrive at that conviction is so, so beautiful, and to quote my great friend Casey Legler: “Fierce!”