Tuesday, September 3, 2013

100 Ways To Not Realize You're A Lesbian

Illustration from Lesbian Paradise Weekend*
This summer, six lesbians gathered in a lakeside house for a weekend of fun. And if you know
me, you will not be surprised that we played games, including one I like to call Secrets.

The game is very simple--the group chooses a few questions that they want to know the answer to, and then everyone has to answer them anonymously on a slip of paper. The answers are read out and the group has to guess who wrote what. Sample questions I've used range from "what did you want to be when you grew up?" to "what's something people wouldn't expect about you?" to "most embarrassing hook-up story."

One of the prompts we lesbian paradise summer weekenders chose was "things/situations/experiences that should have indicated to you that you were a lesbian...but didn't."

This category was amazing. We each put in two to four slips of paper, so there were many hilarious recollections to choose from. And they were so easy to write! There are so, so many things that should have helped me realize that I was not straight that I just chose not to see. And the other five lesbians felt similarly--how could we have been so oblivious? Here we were, six out, proud women who felt strongly and securely queer. How did it take us until we were in our early or mid-twenties to come out?

Some of our responses included: getting caught by parents looking at lesbian porn at age 13; as a child, planning to be a single parent because couldn't imagine having a husband; having no sex drive for a male partner for months but getting turned on by just one episode of the L Word; the most exciting thing about hooking up with a guy in high school was telling friends about it the next day...and many many more.

How did these things not register for us as significant? That our bodies, our minds were telling us something over and over and we would not listen? It's just incredible that the current of heteronormativity--the pull to be like our parents, our friends, the couples on TV--was strong enough to override objectively unambiguous lesbian feelings and desires.

For me, one of the starkest examples came into focus after I came out as a junior in college. I all of a sudden recalled a particular art class in 12th grade. The teacher had left the room and we were filing out. For no reason that I can recall, a boy in my class called me a dyke. No one had ever called me that before, and I went into a panic. I kept repeating it over and over to myself and my friends--"Can you believe he called me that?!" My friends were not at all perturbed. They told me to shake it off, it wasn't a big deal, he was a jerk, and of course I wasn't a dyke. But I couldn't let it go. I ruminated on it, thinking about the moment over and over again.

It was only three years later, after I'd come out that I understood--it struck a nerve because he was exactly right! So there was a pang of recognition, but it was buried under so much denial that I could only feel stressed about it without knowing why.

For some folks, they've known that they're lesbian, transgender, bisexual or gay since they were five or six. They just somehow knew they were different than their straight cisgender parents, and they knew to some degree what that difference was. But for so many of us, it can be like the princess and the pea. Layers and layers and layers of familial expectations, positive reinforcement for hetero behavior, hetero role models everywhere you look and the like, sitting on top of our truth.

Recalling it all now, it's at once funny and sad. I love thinking back to my amazing logic-defying denial--really Judy, you didn't notice that you were closest with all the lesbian and gay teachers in high school? That you were hyper-attune to any lesbian or gay subplots on TV (thank you Degrassi!)? That you were obsessed with that one girl through most of grade school? I have to chuckle.

But then other times I wonder, how much did I miss of my teenage years, not knowing this important part of myself? How different would I have been? Perhaps not different at all, or perhaps completely different. All I can do is keep enjoying this whole self now, and these wonderful friends who also understand what that denial and discovery was like.

*Just kidding...it's actually my favorite book series, Alison Bechdel's 'Dykes to Watch Out For.' More here for the uninitiated: http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/


  1. I loved this post! It is fascinating to hear about your shared experience with women coming out in their early- to mid-twenties. I think no matter what age we realize our sexual orientation (or any inherent truth about our identities we've been suppressing), there's bound to be things we've blocked or not recognized.

    I also think an interesting factor is that for women, it can be easier to pass off potentially lesbian identifying moments whereas gay guys tend to be pegged. Butch clothing or even kissing another woman isn't necessarily read as gay for women, whereas for if a guy is caught dressing femme, or kissing a boy, or looking at gay guy porn, that's read a lot stronger. What I'm saying is, there's a lot less "help" from society in some ways for lesbians in figuring out we're gay, because there's so much ambiguity vs. gay guys.

    Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking about this! You are SUCH a strong writer, Judy, and I thank you for sharing your insights! ~SB

    1. Thanks for your note SB, and very good point about the differences in what counts as 'transgressive' behavior for girls v. boys. It also sucks for guys who are mostly straight but interested in experimenting with their gender performance or who they are smooching--they're on a much tighter societal leash whereas straight-ish girls have much more freedom...probably one of the few areas in which girls have more freedom than boys!