Do you remember what it was like when you first came out? What about what it was like when you had to come out all over again?
(How many different times do we come out in our lives? I’ve come out as queer, as bi, as an incest survivor, as genderqueer, as femme, as gay, as a porn writer… what are the areas identity that we can keep in the closet, or that our communities want us to keep hidden? Aren’t those the parts of ourselves that require outing?)
My dearest Kathleen tells me to remind you that, though you might not know this, I’m gay. It’s June, which means it’s gay pride month (thanks, Stonewall), and I’m living in the greater (supposed) Big Gay Mecca area. I’ve had no plans to participate in much of the plethora of queer events happening this month (like, say, NQAF, Frameline), except maybe for the Dyke March and hopefully the Queer Women of Color Film Festival (which is tremendous and which you should attend for sure!).
I watched Desert Hearts yesterday, for the first time in many, many years, and today I’m remembering what it was like when I was first coming out to myself and into the world. Today I live a life that’s queer at its core and yet not always visibly so. I don’t know if I feel jaded, exactly, but, having been out so long, I feel less drawn to participate in a public performance and proclamation of queerness (or survivorship) on a regular basis.
So why am I so glad that it’s Pride month? I feel a little swell in my belly, that thickening that says excited, says yes, says I get to be with my people. It’s the same feeling I got when I’d drive down to Boston every year for their Pride March, held usually right after graduation festivities in my college town. I’d look at all the other cars going south on I-93 and assume that every single one of them was headed for Boylston Street and the gathering of queers. We couldn’t ever get there fast enough — I wanted to get my body there, in the middle of the queerfolks, on a day when everyone you saw was assumed queer, at least for a few hours. It was a day when we got to be the norm, the regular, the majority. It felt like we took over the whole city, with our rainbows and glitter and feathers and leather and candy and mardi gras beads and streamers and flyers and palm cards and sweat and sex and need. Pride Day turned me inside out, let me wear all my joy on the outside, gave me a public space for what lived around the ache I usually bore.
The story I tell is that gay wasn’t a site of trauma for me; I didn’t struggle over it, didn’t fall into the well of loneliness, didn’t get washed through with shame or guilt. I liked girls; that was nothing compared to the trauma that was my homelife. When people asked what my family thought, I laughed: my queerness is the least of our issues, I’d say. My story was that queer was good and fine, a place of blessing and joy that rose up like a surprise blossom in the middle of the devastation that was my traumatized sexuality.
In Desert Hearts, there’s a scene toward the end of the film, when the two main characters go out to a bar for a meal after the first time they’ve had sex. One woman has been out for awhile, at least to herself, and sort of tacitly to her community; the other woman is only just discovering that she could love a woman, is terrified and exhilarated – she can’t sit still, she fusses whenever her lover looks at her or touches her hand, she alternates between smiling lovingly and appearing to want to crawl under the table.
Watching this, I remembered going out for a (very) late breakfast the afternoon after the first time I slept with a woman — which was also the afternoon after the first time I kissed a woman, after the evening when I first realized that what I’d been doing with this new friend of mine all night wasn’t just teasing, it was flirting. We ordered cafe mocha grandees and waffles loaded with strawberries and whipped cream, and I was certain that we had neon signs over us flashing Lesbian! Lesbian! Lesbian! Every time I lifted my coffee cup to my mouth I could smell on my hands what we’d spent the morning doing. I wouldn’t let her touch me (except when I reached for her hands surreptitiously), and I didn’t want her to flirt — what if people saw us?
And what would they have seen? Two young women, obviously delighting in each other. Maybe they would see new lovers. Maybe they would see good friends. Maybe they wouldn’t see us at all. Our waitress, a tall, rangy, old-school dyke, surely knew who she was serving. We left her a big tip, and I wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Here’s what was true: I was still being abused by my stepfather at the time, even though I was twenty years old and away at college. I wanted to go back to my new friend’s room, climb back into her body, and I wanted to avoid my own room, where my phone lived, and the phone was his mouth, his face, an appendage that could at any moment call out and demand my full attention. I was terrified of him finding out what I’d done, because he would take it away or use it for his own ends. Or both. But I couldn’t tell this woman that — no one knew what my stepfather was doing to my family. This thing that had happened between us became another secret for me to wear.
To this first woman I loved, at least those early days, I must have been just another straight girl freaking out because she’d had sex with a woman. Of course I wanted to keep us secret. They all did. And she did her best (despite my sneaking into her room at night and making all that noise).
In my life, homophobia had the face of my stepfather, a psychotherapist who was raping his daughters and yet had the audacity and authority to demonize homosexual with the standard 1970s DSM story: underdeveloped; domineering mother, absent father; narcissistic; suicidal; selfish, and obsessed with sex and the death drive.
His was the story I had to swim through if I wanted to live — and his was the embodiment of psychoanalytic homophobia. And so I learned to breath that belief even as I was trying to justify sanctify regulate reconcile it with the complicated, beautiful, kind, generous, catty, smart queer-spectrum folks I was beginning to get to know. It was one thing to have internalized the idea that I was narcissistic and selfish, and another to not see that in this community I had found (at least, no more so than in any other group of people).
So, it’s not exactly true to say that my coming out was unfraught. It was actually terrifying, woven as it was into the life I was living as this man’s stepdaughter.We tell and retell our coming out stories; they take on a shape and a structure for us, they organize (as does any narrative) what is a disorganized and explosive/implosive experience. I am grateful to get to revisit my own well-told stories, to reach into and underneath them, to write them again, to find the slippery and scared parts, the parts that haven’t been told yet.
Coming out is ongoing, everpresent. What did coming out look like for you? What does it look like now?
Thank you for the way you continue to look inside the petals of your stories, to find what new life there is to discover there. Thank you for your words.