Open Letter to a Young Lesbian From a Middle-Aged Dyke

Dear Carissa,

Happy 18th birthday! You came to class with a bouquet of cookie roses from your girlfriend, picked out all the chocolate chips, and left the rest. Tomorrow I will lecture you about crumbs and bugs (last week, I found a cockroach the size of my palm behind a beat-to-hell stack of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth) but today I offer only congratulations. In seven months, you’ll slip the surly bonds of Gila Javelina High School and begin your grown-up lesbian life.

Here are my top dozen tips:

1. Keep being as out as you are now, e.g. out like whoa. Don’t start agonizing over who to come out to, or where or when — even if there’s a scholarship or a job at stake. Fuck ’em. There are other scholarships and jobs, ones that don’t come at the price of your integrity. People’s Exhibit A: Teachers who dither, “My private life is private” when you ask if they’re married. Trust me, they’re full of shit. If they were heterosexual, they’d tell you about their husband or wife as easily as they’d tell you where they went to college. Symptoms of Internalized Homophobia include ulcers, loneliness, and an ongoing sense of nameless dread,  so let my generation be the last to suffer. Leave coming-out anxiety as safely in history as 8-track tape players — everyone but the occasional eBay nutcase has moved on.

2. Know your GLBT history. Butches really did used to get arrested for wearing fewer than three items of women’s clothing, and doctors really did used to give queers electroshock “conversion therapy.” That’s out of fashion now, but be wary of “ex-gay” groups or any other religious organization that tries to court you during your first year of college. At the very least, rent “Stonewall Uprising.”

3. …and “Desert Hearts.” Old, but a magical date movie, as is “Imagine Me and You.” Put one of those in the DVD, make a bowl of free-trade organic popcorn sprinkled with olive oil and sea salt, and prepare for the Getting Your Love On Regional Semifinals. Have a CD mix ready for when you pause the movie; otherwise the sudden make-out silence is too weird. I recommend Ani DiFranco’s Up Up Up Up Up Up (skip the tracks “Come Away From It” and “Angry Anymore”: The former is about heroin — bummer! and the second is too boisterous. It’ll wreck the mood).

4. Curvepersonals.com is fun, but try to meet women in real life. This is why I keep pushing you to apply to Smith and Wellesley — you have the grades, and you don’t know how disheartening it is to try and find a partner anyplace that’s got less than 3 million people. It’s a numbers game, and you will lose in a small town (unless you decide to become a land dyke, in which case, learn to re-wire the electricity in an RV or whatever the fuck those women are always doing out in the middle of Ohio). Lesbians comprise 2% of the population, and of that 2%, at least half are too old/too young/too nuts/in a relationship/ hung up on their exes/chemically dependent/struggling to leave the Mormon Church. All these women seem amazing on Curve, but KNOW THAT ANYONE CAN WRITE A WITTY PERSONAL PROFILE. Eva Braun could have done it, if she’d had the technology. Bottom line: Move to a city, or near a city, and give yourself some geographical options. I hear Madison is great. Iowa City. Austin. I don’t recommend Phoenix. That’s where I met the ex-Mormon. Her cats had middle names.

5. Be careful in bars, especially mixed ones. All-women’s bars are rare, even in big cities, so be aware that it’s a boys’ scene. Even a handful of men in a women’s bar change the dynamic dramatically. Watch your drink at all times; if it leaves your line of sight for even a moment, throw it away and order a new one. If you’re in a strange city and don’t know where the gay bar is, rest assured it’s in either (a) the rough part of town; or (b) in the cute, Disney-fied gay neighborhood all big cities have, the one lesbians can’t afford. Just gay men and their strange little dogs.

6. When you fall in love, remember this: Love is irrelevant if you can’t get your needs met. Does your beloved care about the things that interest you? If you have different interests, does she at least ask about the things you like, and listen when you talk? Does she make you laugh? Is she a considerate lover? Do you trust and enjoy her RIGHT NOW, EXACTLY AS SHE IS, or is this a fixer-upper situation? Beware of falling in love with her “potential.” Lots of people have potential. Eva Braun had potential. Fuck potential. See what’s really there.

7. Be good to your girlfriend. Invest heavily; talk and play together all you can. Laugh. Find common goals and go after them together. Your relationship should be your own small universe (not like Heavenly Creatures, though!) with its own culture and customs; language and topography. Put her first. Give her your best. And if you grow apart, take what you’ve learned and apply it again. And again. Until the timing and location and personalities finally line up, and you run off to wherever they’re letting us get married in the year 2035.

8. Women don’t catch HIV from each other; if they did, we’d all be deader than smelts. I think there might have been one case — one partner was menstruating and they didn’t wash the toy they were using — but even that may be apocryphal. However, there’s still herpes, HPV, chlamydia, and other non-fatal creepy crawlies. If you can’t stand latex gloves, at least douse your hands with hand sanitizer before sex. Note the places it stings — broken cuticles, etc. — and avoid vaginal contact with those areas. Another way to avoid sitting in a large vat of penicillin for the rest of your life is to lose your embarrassment and ASK: “Do you have any sexually-transmitted infections that you know of?” “Which STI’s have you been tested for, and how long ago?” ASK. The one time I didn’t ask was the one time I should have. Also, if you decide to snort any drug through a rolled-up bill, don’t share the bill. You can get Hepatitis C that way. If you do use someone else’s bill, turn it around and use the end that wasn’t up their nose. And please, see your gynecologist once a year.

9. In every lesbian community, no matter how small, there’s always at least one whackjob who cheats and lies and scatters the area with Bad Juju Spores. Figure out who that whackjob is and stay away from her.

10. Don’t be the whackjob. Behave yourself. You do not want to have to skulk through the aisles of Whole Foods, hoping not to run into someone you’ve treated badly, so be gallant in love and generous in friendship. Feed and water the women in your life with potlucks and picnics and Solstice Caroling parties. This will bear fruit no matter what: If you stay in one place for awhile, you’ll build a lovely family of friends. If you move around, you’ll never really be alone — even if you land in a big city and don’t know anyone. Your assorted beloveds will call, e-mail, Skype, Facebook, send passenger pigeons.

11. Don’t date women with girlfriends or boyfriends or wives or husbands. It’s masochistic. Please see #6 (“Potential”).

12. Be courageous. If something feels wrong, react accordingly. Don’t second guess yourself. Same thing if something feels right (UNLESS it involves the nutjob from #9.) If someone makes you feel small, or infringes on your space, speak up. “No” is a complete sentence. So is “Yes.”

And it’s still not too late to apply to Smith. The undergrad deadline is Jan. 15.

Love,

Ms. P

factory-installed

Today a few students, after reading the inner monologue of several sociopathic Edgar Allan Poe narrators, wanted to discuss the problem of evil. Although they didn’t call it that. They wanted to know why people do “f****d-up s***”.

“People are born good, right?” asked Backwards-Hat Nick. “So how can they turn out bad?”

I said people are like cars: Some are better-made than others. Some are lemons. If something goes wrong at the factory (genes) and the car is bought by someone who doesn’t take good care of it (environment) and drives on dangerous roads (culture) disaster is more likely to occur.

For some reason, they extrapolated sociopathy into homosexuality:

Backwards-Hat Nick: “I don’t believe people are born gay.”

Me: “Well, as someone who believes she was…” (meaningful eyebrow raise).

Him: “Well, you would think so.”

I let it go — he’s a kid, and he’s from a country that hates gays more than the U.S. does — but after class it started to gnaw at me. Yes, Backwards-Hat Nick — I would think so, because I’m the one living in my body, mind, and spirit. 

Straights love to tell us how we got this way. After all, they’re the ones who can see us objectively, right? How could we ourselves know the origin of our sexuality, laboring, as we do, under the illusion that we are who we’ve always been? Either we’re not facing up to our childhood trauma or we just haven’t met the right man or or or. Gay is caused by controllable factors, ones that can be explained if not remedied. Because if they aren’t controllable and explicable, gay could happen to anyone. And there’s nowhere to put the blame.

It’s more complex that this, anyway. Some women’s sexuality is more fluid than others; plus I’m starting to believe in political lesbianism more than I used to.  Nothing I could explain today, though,

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part the Fourth

I’m the only dyke you’ll ever meet who lived in San Diego, moved to Bakersfield, and then came out.

You have to know a little about Bakersfield for the weirdness of this to shine forth in the bizarre bas-relief it deserves. Bakersfield is an ozone-polluted, soul-stripped abomination that lies between Fresno and Los Angeles in the San Joaquin Valley. Its main attractions are dessicated farmland and right-wing politics, both reeking of oil. Bako is consistently ranked as one of the least-educated metropolitan areas in the U.S., and boasts the highest redneck-to-misspelled-tattoo ratio in the Western Hemisphere.* At that time, it was booming — people couldn’t wait to buy a house there! Such a nice family town! With the lowest sales tax in California!

It wasn’t my type of place. But there was a newspaper job, and by 2002, those were thin on the ground. So I packed up my cat and 87 boxes of books, and moved.

The culture shock set in immediately, when I realized that I stood out for being 26 and unmarried. People nodded in relief when I said I was divorced; at least that made heterosexual sense. They assured me I’d meet a nice man in Bakersfield.

Instead, I met G.

G. was turning 40. This seemed like an advanced age, and I wondered if she was lonely. She looked like a soccer mom — nice sensible outfits; low-maintenance hair — except for her sharp, dark eyes full of hurt and ferocity. G. was an observer; a doer who didn’t say much unless she had to. But I was fascinated with her, so fascinated that I stayed far away. She’d ask if I was coming to Happy Hour after work. Not this time, I’d say. Things to do. Got to hit the gym. Then I’d watch her out of the corner of my eye all day. She was a large, dense planet with powerful gravitational pull, but I didn’t have a spacesuit.

One morning, I came into work and found an elegant little package of goat cheese on my desk. Enjoy, the note said scratchily. I went to a farmer’s market over the weekend. I’d have called you, but I don’t have your number. Here is mine: xxx-xxxx. — G

I  loitered at her desk much longer than it took to thank her. Then I did what I do when I’m nervous — fixate on a small visual stimuli until it becomes the only thing in the room and I have to verbally deconstruct it.

“You have such big hands,” I said. “I mean, not freakishly big; not like you couldn’t find gloves if you needed to — you’ll never need to, in Bakersfield — but bigger than a person would expect. Because you’re not that big. Or tall. I have tiny hands. See?”

I held up my right hand. She held up her left and pressed it to mine. We compared them silently. In that moment, the newsroom buzzing obliviously around us, my life changed. I lost my fear and shame as quickly and easily as shedding an ugly coat in the dressing room at Macy’s — it was never really mine to begin with.

Later that week, G invited me out for tapas at the one decent restaurant in town. She ordered mussels. I looked at her teasing them apart and blushed to the roots of my hair, thankful for the dim lighting.

She told me about her life before Bakersfield — the all-women’s rock band she’d played guitar in; her love of motorcycles; her friends in in L.A. and Santa Barbara (all of whom seemed to be named “Kat” or “Kris.”)

Awkwardly, I asked if she “had someone.” She shook her head and answered the question I was really asking — casually, but without taking her eyes from my face: “Oh, I’m a big dyke.”

A handful of stars skipped along my spine. Something solid moved into the space that fear and shame had vacated, and bones cracked and resettled into a skeleton that was finally mine. All my false starts and bad decisions; all my nagging questions — “Why am I such a fuck-up?” Why can’t I manage to make a life for myself?” — put a soft blanket around themselves and lay down.

Somewhere deep inside, without knowing the details, I knew that this was next:

 

We sit on her couch, talking about music in the glow of an orange lamp shaped like a jack-o’-lantern. G. tells me about a lesbian bar called The Wild Rose in Seattle, where she and another butch held lit cigarettes to each other’s arms to see who’d pull away first. She shows me the scar. I’m buzzed on two inches of wine, and I’m telling her about last year; about figuring out that I like women but most of the lesbians I’ve met are crazypants nuts. She says it’s the same wherever you go. I finish my last sip of wine, shift myself onto her lap, go limp and hang my head back.

“I’m the Pieta!” I say, and feel her laughter rock me back and forth. I lift my head back up and re-focus my eyes; inhale her; taste her. 

“Are you sure you’ve never done this before?” she asks an hour later. I know why she’s asking. I’m hardly sure I’ve never done this before, either. It feels like I’ve been doing it all my life; like all the years I wasn’t doing it were a dream.

 

With G. as my hostess, I dove into ** lesbian culture full-force. Within weeks, I discovered Curve magazine; MichFest; “Desert Hearts,” gluten intolerance, menstrual sponges, and the labrys — except I kept pronouncing it “lay-bris.”

“I want to buy a lay-bris necklace,” I told her on one of the Saturdays we never got out of bed. “Maybe they’d have one at that feminist bookstore in Santa Barbara. Have you heard of this thing called the lay-bris? It’s a double-sided axe, representing the waxing and waning moon, and also woman’s capacity to create and to destr– why are you laughing?”

“I was a dyke in the 80’s,” she said. “It’s sort of like you just asked, ‘Have you heard of this thing called the ‘fork’? Also, it’s pronounced lab-riss.”

On our labrys shopping trip, I picked out the biggest one I could find — so big, it hung with the axe pointing down instead of up. The bookstore didn’t have chains, so I wore it out of the store on a rainbow lanyard. Every few minutes, a lesbian passerby would catch our glowy, dilated eyes and toss us a smile. That day I learned the “dyke nod” — a quick uplift of chin that means, ” I see you and I know you see me and here we are.”

G. also bought me a dictionary that day — an enormous, unabridged Webster’s from the early 1950s, because I saw it and made a squeaky noise of longing. I looked at its thumb-wedged pages and marveled that all those words together weren’t enough to describe how brilliant she was and how fine, and how I had never loved anybody in the world even half so much.

 

*I made that up. Still, the city of Bakersfield is a sobering lesson in why, if you’re going to get a Chinese-character tattoo, you should first consult the Asian-languages department at the closest university. The difference between an armband that reads “Courage” and one that reads “Reckless Moron” is, all too often, no more than the flick of a nib.

** heh.

Notes from the chalkboard

I wanted to teach AP English. I had plans involving brilliant Toni Morrison exegeses, candlelit slam poetry, and Princeton acceptance letters.

But I got regular English. At first I felt like Renessa, the trainer in Jackie Warner’s 1-on-1 Work Out video who has to do the modified version of every exercise (push-ups on her knees, etc.) even though she’s a beastlike physical specimen. Not fair! I wanted to see Renessa do all the military-style push-ups she was capable of. I wanted to slow down the DVD so I didn’t…miss…a second.

Anyway. I am surprised and thrilled by many of my students. I have scads of math-and-science types; visual artists; advanced dance kids and one role-playing aficionado (who ironically hates group work). I have half the football team, which is great in terms of classroom discipline: They can’t play ball if they act like dicks. Hence, there has been no dick-acting.

One student, Enrique, just turned 18 and lives alone because both his parents are in prison. Two nights ago, someone robbed his apartment. I found out when I asked the kids to draw a picture of their houses, and his drawing featured broken windows and punched-in drywall. No matter what happens this year, I will not become discouraged or dread my workday: Enrique is there. He gets up, goes to school, and works hard five days a week so he can maybe go to college as well as hold down a full-time job. I’d show up for him even if no one else came to class.

Also, I have six out LGB* kids! I asked to sponsor our Gay-Straight Allliance, so I am now Head Gay in Charge of Gays. My classroom will be a safe place, where everyone can be exactly who they are, and Justin R. can talk about elite gymnastics and Hugo Boss all he wants to, and no one can stop him!

The out kids are really out. “No one cares,” a bisexual named Rina told me cheerfully. For a second I felt like someone who’d lost a lung to bacterial pneumonia watching someone else flash her brand-new penicillin prescription.

I told Rina that back in my day, kids would have rather eaten a big plate of their own hair than admit to being a friend of Dorothy; a bird with lavender feathers; a Sister of the Inclination. “We didn’t have these Internets,” I said. “We had ‘Homosexuality’ in the library card catalog and some Bikini Kill mix tapes, and we were grateful to get them.” 

But she was already bored. She asked if I’d sponsor the rugby team, too.

 

* No T’s yet.

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part The Third: Treading Water in the Well of Loneliness

Summer, 1999: I’m 25 and divorcing a man I haven’t slept with in three years. I think there’s something wrong with me. He agrees. I move into a shoebox apartment on the corner of Park and University in San Diego, directly across from a dyke bar called The Flame! At night its neon sign buzzes on and off: The Flame!…The Flame!…The Flame! It drives me crazy, there in my shoebox. I would like to investigate. What’s going on behind those opaque glass doors?

Across from The Flame! is a men’s bar, and every time their door opens, foam comes floating out on music: “DO YOU BE-LIEVE IN LIFE AFTER LOVE…AFTER LOVE…AFTER LOVE?” They hoot and holler. They’re having a blast. But when The Flame! closes at 3 a.m., I hear:

Woman #1 (boots stomping): “What’s wrong, baby?”

Woman #2 (high heels clicking): “If you have to ask, I’m not going to tell you!”

Woman #1 (sighing): “Aw, baby. She came up and talked to me. I didn’t wanna be rude. And then I came right back to where you were.”

Woman #2 (sniffling; tripping over heels): “Oh, whatever. What-EVER!”

One night, I visit The Flame! but I’ve never had a bar life so I don’t understand that showing up at 9:30 p.m. won’t get me anywhere. I lurk by the jukebox, nursing a Chardonnay and giving off a sketchy bi-curious vibe. That doesn’t work, so I start hitting the LGBT bookstore to chat up the woman working there (if your definition of “chat up” includes the opener, “Hi! So, hi. I like to read. You have a lot of books here. Are any of them, you know, good?”

Her name is Jamie. She wears tiny men’s clothes and walks around the store in bare feet. This slays me. She recommends Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, so I spend $15 I don’t have and run home with it tucked underneath my arm. Jamie goes to Costa Rica to save the rain forest for two months, after which I get a phone call: Would I like to come over and look at her Costa Rica photographs?

Would I like a million dollars? Would I like the sky to fill with rainbows? I’ll be right over! Don’t move!

Jamie answers the door with a cup of beans and rice in her hand, the smell blending evenly with Nag Champa incense. Her tiny apartment is decorated in circa 1999 California Dyke Classic: twin bed covered with an Indian print spread; huge CD collection; cat on a papasan chair; big poster of Ani DiFranco’s Living in Clip cover with a lipstick print on the bottom.

“You should see the birds in Costa Rica,” Jamie says after I turn down a bite of her beans and rice. “They’re so intense. I felt like I was walking with the Goddess every day. It gave me this total creative force.”

She flops down on the bed. Ani’s Up Up Up Up Up Up album is on repeat. From the height of the Pacific to the depths of Everest/from the height of the Pacific to the depths of Everest.

I flop down next to her. It’s a little weird that we’re on her bed, but she doesn’t have a couch. Maybe this is just what lesbians do when they hang out?

We talk about this and that. And every little while, I scooch closer to her. Inch by premeditated inch. After a couple of hours, my arm is touching her arm and she isn’t moving her arm away. And then her lips are in my hair. I feel like I’m falling out of a plane, but I’m still in my head and I think, Maybe this is the ultimate act of self-acceptance: holding and kissing a body just like your own. Or maybe it’s the ultimate act of egotism.

My arousal shocks me because it’s so familiar, yet taken out of context. A liquid doing a solid’s job. Like those photo prints I saw at the mall where an escalator somehow descends on the beach, waves pounding its serrated steps.

Ani sings: god’s work isn’t done by god/it’s done by people. Jamie’s tiny hands are surprisingly strong.

“These are the best pictures of Costa Rica I have ever fucking seen,” I say into her ear at 4 a.m.

Jamie pulls away; sits on her haunches. “I think we went to a very deep place just now,” she says. “I have to be careful with deep places.”

This somehow turns into a conversation about:

1. Jamie’s ex-girlfriend
a. The processing she’s still doing surrounding their relationship
i. Jamie is a Sagittarius but Amy is an Aries, so you know, it was pretty fraught from the beginning
ii. Amy is the redhead who works at Jamba Juice; do I know her?
b. Jamie is totally not ready for anything serious; is that cool?

2. STD’s in lesbians
a. Sex should always be safe
i. Because it’s not just AIDS, it’s things like Hepatitis C
b. Jamie is totally out of gloves, so.

I’m OK with that. Gloves?

We watch the sun come up through Jamie’s crooked miniblinds as Ani sings: She crawls out on a limb/and begins to build her home/and it’s enough just to look around/and know she’s not alone.

 

Next, in Part the Fourth: I move to central California and fall in Big Giant Huge lesbian love for the first time.

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part the Second

September 1988: I am 14, composed almost entirely of frizzy hair and socks. Because hair products haven’t yet gone beyond Aqua Net and Dippity Do, I am bullied and invisible by turns. One day, I catch the flu and lose several pounds. I feel light and airy. How much lighter and airier could I get? By spring, I weigh 86 pounds. My parents check me into a private psychiatric hospital , where I talk about my “control issues” and develop a huge crush on my female therapist. One day, a male orderly says I have big legs, so I throw pieces of my lunch under the table and lose a “level,” e.g. they confiscate my Walkman and I can no longer listen obsessively to my Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars cassette (“I quit/I give up/nothing’s good enough for anybody else/it seems“). When I get out, my family goes on a cruise to Barbados. The ship rocks back and forth with food, and I am the only person who eschews, rather than chews,* the midnight buffet. I feel powerful. I do not want to talk and I do not want to play shuffleboard. Neither does my mother. My father is furious. They are both unhappy with the suffocating constancy of bad wallpaper.

June 1989: I develop a huge crush on Dana, my outpatient therapist. I tell her I don’t know how to be a girl; I want to escape into the woods and never come back. I wrap and unwrap the fingers of my right hand around my left wrist to show her how thin I am. She lends me a scholarly book about women as “relational psychosocial auxiliaries” to men that makes a lot of sense after I look up “psychosocial” and “auxiliary” in Webster’s. I find other books: Geneen Roth’s Feeding the Hungry Heart, Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, and everything I can find by Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Susan Brownmiller, Robin Morgan, Mary Daly. An old copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” proves simultaneously informative and titillating. Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse: ???. Marilyn French makes my head explode, so I give a copy of “The Women’s Room” to my mother. She doesn’t read it. But her mother, my grandmother already has — plus she subscribes to Ms. magazine; odd for a 65-year-old Mormon and military wife. Ms. magazine’s back page shows good advertisements that show women climbing mountains and ruling boardrooms, and bad ones that make women look like animals or something to eat. My grandfather rolls his eyes and says something about “strident bitches.”

July 1989: Sullen and inarticulate with everyone except my grandmother, I get sent to The Mormons in Mesa. The Mormons are my extended family — dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins who rise at 4:30 a.m. to pick vegetables for their End Of The World stashes. Stumbling through the cornfields, I sing 19th-century labor songs like “Solidarity Forever.” I really project. When I call God “She” — I’ve just read a book about patriarchal religion called “The Skeptical Feminist” — one of my eleven great-aunts freaks out. “What man has hurt you?” she asks. I don’t answer. It’s not like I can narrow it down. Hasn’t she read Marilyn French? The abortion wars are all over the news, all summer. I know enough to take it personally. When I go home, I start volunteering at Planned Parenthood even though I won’t have any kind of sex for another several years. As we seal envelopes together, one of the older volunteers asks me, if I’ve started my “moon time” yet. I don’t get it.

Sept. 1990: My parents divorce. The texture and flavor of their grief makes me think of Luminol sprayed on crime scenes — everything looks fine until OH DEAR GOD. I cannot stop eating. I drive to the drugstore for chocolate-covered cherries; jars of peanut butter; six-packs of soda — then eat in the car and throw up at home. My mouth tastes of chemicals. My gut cramps with laxatives. I’m 25 pounds heavier than I was in the hospital, and people are starting to express “concern” about my dating possibilities: Don’t I know men don’t like fat women? That if I keep on this way, I’m going to be unhappy? The difference between their concern now and their concern when I was thin is, they blame me. I am no longer fragile. I am offensive.

Shortly thereafter, I get hit with a severe bout of obsessive OCD. I have Bad Thoughts, primarily about religion and sex, and they scare me senseless. There is obviously something Very Wrong. I start praying and join Young Life (the evangelical high school youth organization). I try to live for Jesus; to have a clean mind and a spotless soul. I get baptized, but I also start cutting a lot of school because I can’t concentrate. I’m pretty sure Jesus is coming back soon. My best friend, Kaylee, has the most beautiful red hair I’ve ever seen and I want to be with her all the time. I hate her boyfriend. He’ s an idiot. I’m always having to wait for them to finish making out before Kaylee and I can go anywhere.

August 1992: I’m a freshman again, this time at a Southern Baptist university. I find myself looking up Women of the Bible and trying to figure out how they managed to be so righteous. I have a boyfriend two hours away in my hometown, primarily because a girl needs a boyfriend. A husband. Feminist books still buzz in my head, and I’m pretty liberal as far as students here go — I don’t, for example, think all Democrats are baby killers — but I feel terror at the thought of displeasing God. The OCD gets worse. Then I meet Amy, a walking collection of Darwinian estrogenic markers. My father says she looks like a TV star — and indeed, many years later when the WB network debuts, I’ll be reminded strongly of Amy’s perfectly symmetrical face. Every guy in our brother dorm goes nuts, in a Baptist gentleman sort of way. There are flowers, invitations, “God told me to marry you”s galore. I seethe and have no idea why.

Next, in Part Three!: I decide to marry a guy I’ve known for five months.

*Yeah, I know. Sorry.

I’m at an awkward age for a lesbian

…too old to wear a fauxhawk and start becoming a man; too young to have made spin art out of my menstrual blood at the Moonwomon Collective. I did hand-mirror my cervix at MichFest a few years ago, but it felt self-consciously retro, like watching Reefer Madness or making a meatloaf from scratch.

I enjoy the company of vintage lesbians online and at 70th-birthday potlucks. These dykes* can eat and talk and eat and talk for HOURS. That’s hard for me because sitting down too long aggravates my obsessive-compulsive tendencies.** The only time I ever stayed seated voluntarily from 6-10 p.m was election night 2004, and I was higher than shit for the duration.

This seasoned company means great presents. One couple, L. and A., who’ve been together as long as I’ve been alive, gave me a box of books left over from the women’s bookstore they owned together in New York. The back jacket blurbs are full of coy ellipses and weird butchy nicknames. Most fit neatly into the following subcategories:

1. 1980’s lesbian detective mysteries: “Jazz Gordon, cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist, begins a relentless pursuit of a killer at a a down-and-out English girls school, and discovers that lovers and friends all have something to hide…”)

2. Bar dyke romances set in Greenwich Village: “Chris cannot satisfy the alluring, capricious Dizz, and now Dizz has become interested in George. But Dizz knows very well her power over Chris…”

3. Science-fiction novels set in a future where all males die: “America is under forcible quarantine by a world desperate to protect itself from a virus aptly named the Red Death. But one enclaves, a mysterious, uninfected women’s community known as the Gaians offers sanctuary…if they can be found.”

4. Earnest books about sexuality, such as Pat(rick, now) Califia’s “Sapphistry”: “When some lesbians have sex, they may see patterns or colors or hear snatches*** of music.”) There seems to have been political controversy re: dildos and leather. One copy of “The Joy of Lesbian Sex” has a long, carefully-written note on the flyleaf, but I can only discern a word or two (“Kat” and “forever”) because SOMEONE GOT ANGRY AND SCRATCHED OUT EACH LINE WITH GREAT FORCE. So, you know — not always dolphins and flowers back in the day.

5. Out-of-print poetry collections that make me weep: “I’m not a girl/I’m a hatchet/I’m not a hole/I’m a whole mountain/I’m not a fool/I’m a survivor/I’m not a pearl/I’m the Atlantic Ocean/I’m not a good lay/I’m a straight razor/look at me as if you had never seen a woman before/I have red, red hands and much bitterness” (Judy Grahn).

Knowing older lesbians is a better gift than any book. They whacked their way through homosocial territory before there were maps. No Internet, no Curve magazine, no Daughters of Bilitis, even — just themselves; their friends; their hopes and fears. Because of them, I’ll never have to watch my butch lover be humiliated on the sidewalk outside a dyke bar — “How many items of women’s clothing are you wearing?” Hideous as that story was, the whole room laughed hysterically when L. and A. told it — because how very, very long ago! How very, very far away! A cartoonish anecdote to tell from the head of a beautiful table; as made-up-sounding as the Red Death Gaian quarantine.

Their partnerships comfort me, too — someday, I can celebrate a long life with a lover in a home of our own.

I don’t want to “stand on the shoulders of giants” when it comes to my older friends and mentors — I want to stand WITH them. They can’t be replaced, and they should never take a backseat to anyone.

 

*Sometimes they don’t like that word, because it was hurled at them so many times before we sort-of reclaimed it. They prefer “Lesbian” — pronounce it with a capital L, like you’re reading the back flap of an Ann Bannon paperback — and “woman-loving-woman.” Yeah, it’s a lot of syllables, but it’s the least you can do.

**Like, I’ll start counting the number of words in people’s sentences, and then the number of sentences per person divided by the number of people at the table.

*** Hee hee omg lol snatches

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part 1

Here be overarching themes! ~ Devotion and displays thereof; the power of language; women who are good at what they do; women who grok me; athletes; empaths; honesty; justice; humor; ability to put legs over head. What else is there?

1976-1977, inclusive: Every morning at six, I pad into the living room to see Yoga Lady on TV. Yoga Lady has a long, dark braid, and she can put her legs above her head. “Hello, class,” she says. I steeple my hands; bow my head: “Hewwo, cwass.” I understand about TV not being real; still, Yoga Lady and I are doing this bendy thing together. I don’t yet have the words, “She looks into my soul,” but that’s what Yoga Lady does. “Namaste,” she says. “Namaste,” I reply.
May, 1978: Last day of preschool. My mother is standing over me, explaining that it’s summertime, and we’re going to swim and go to the zoo and do all kinds of fun things; won’t they be fun? but I don’t care because I’m having a meltdown over leaving my teacher, Ms. Howe. My snotty face is buried in her lap, and she’s stroking my hair. I love Ms. Howe because she understands things, like why I always choose a cot instead of a mat at nap time. I don’t yet have the word “contempt,” but that’s what I feel towards the kids who choose a mat. Who would sleep on flat sweaty plastic when they could have a cot? From a cot, I am three inches off the ground and can watch everyone else sleeping. I don’t yet know the word “suckers,” but that’s what I feel towards the kids who choose a mat (and the ones who fall asleep when they could stay awake). Ms. Howe understands this, and I love her. I want to make a case for living here at preschool forever, but I am three-and-a-half and my language is unequal to the task. I shut my eyes tight so nobody can see me.
June, 1983: I’m obsessed with Mrs. L., my third-grade teacher. I want to be near her and I also want to be her, which is confusing. Why I am so into her is this: She is hilarious; tells jokes and stories just a little bit above our heads, and often I’m the only one who gets them. She talks to me with a frankness that I appreciate, because it means she takes me seriously. Also, Mrs. L. calls me on obnoxious behavior such as stomping around the classroom when I’m in a bad mood. Those times, she refers to me as “Lucy” — the tough, butchy Charlie Brown character — which I love, but I also get the message. Also, Mrs. L. is good-looking — not pretty exactly, but with interesting bones and kinetic energy. Sometimes she takes us outside to show us different birds. One day I see a red one and ask her what it is. “It’s a cardinal,” she tells me. She knows everything! I don’t yet have the words, “Goddamn, it’s amazing to know a woman of your caliber,”so what I say is, “Let’s name it ‘Frank.'” On the last day of school, I hand her a letter on my best blue stationary. It says “I love you,” hidden in the middle of lots of other words thanking her for everything. I am a little freaked out about giving it to her, but I do. Fourth grade stinks from start to finish. I watch the third graders with obsessive jealousy.
August, 1984: My camp counselor is named Sandy. Big-boned and blonde, she coaches all the team sports, which I hate, but she also has a special talent: She can tie a string around a Junebug so it flies in circles around her head. I’ve never seen anything cooler or more brave: Junebugs are huge, click when they fly, and smell like dungeons. Sandy is also in charge of the camp newspaper, so I try out for the editorship. She chooses a blond, athletic, adult-sucky-up boy over me. He’s a big fake and I hate his stupid guts, so I ask Sandy how come he got picked. She tells me she evaluated us “on a point system,” and he got more points than me. I am crushed. Betrayed. I don’t yet have the words, but what I think is, “Fuck your bullshit point system.” After that, whenever I see her on the softball field, I don’t know whether to start crying and run away — would she come after me and comfort me and maybe pet my head? — or to be tough and cold, like I don’t care. When camp ends I go home, immediately take over the elementary school newspaper and start bossing everyone around. I write a lot of nascent pop-culture articles about Madonna.
September, 1985-August, 1992: Every time it comes up, I smoosh it down. No one can know. There are a couple more teachers in here; a friend’s sister; a Young Life advisor who looks just like Amy Grant, etc.
Next, in Part 2: My across-the-hall freshman dorm neighbor has eyes like…like big pools of eyes.