“Most of them are homely looking, and usually overweight,” my mother explained. “That's because when men don't find a woman attractive, she'll sometimes pair up with another woman instead. One ugly woman will easily accept another ugly woman. I guess they figure it's easier than being alone.”
I was getting a consolidated education on lesbianism from my mother.
“And in every relationship between two women, there's always a man and a woman,” she added.
“I don't understand...”
She took a quick puff on her cigarette and exhaled bluntly. “There are roles,” she clarified. “One woman in the couple is more like the man than the other. She'll dress like a man, do things around the house that a husband would normally do. Like taking out the trash, fixing things, stuff like that. They live together like they're married, but obviously, they're not.”
Oh. Okay, Mom. Got it.
I don't remember what prompted the twelve-year-old me to ask my mother about gay women right there in the middle of our suburban kitchen, in a cloud of her menthol tobacco smoke and the dust particles from a million decorative paper towels. I suppose I'd heard something on a sit-com. I know there was at least one episode of “The Facts of Life” in which Blair accused a girl of being a lesbian because she excelled at sports.
When I was growing up, homosexuals weren't exactly a popular topic in our house. They seemed to make my father intensely angry. I witnessed hints of this during my childhood, when he reacted to certain kinds of men on television by flinging the word “faggot” like a circular blade from between his front teeth and lower lip. It wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I saw just how enraged homosexuality could make the man.
But long before words like “gay”, “lesbian”, “faggot” and “dyke” made their way into our household – before my mother, books or after-school specials helped refine the concept for me – I had an innate sense of what homosexuality was. It got played out among my dolls, and I have to confess, it fascinates me to look back on it.
Malibu Ken and Kissing Barbie were the best of friends. They'd met in college, long before she was a movie star and he, her agent. After eventually reaching the pinnacle of fame, Kissing Barbie decided she wanted the experience of motherhood, so desperately she could almost taste it – and it tasted curiously of Bonnie Bell strawberry lip gloss.
Ken and Barbie agreed to raise children together, from two separate but neighboring addresses. It was mutually understood that Ken would never marry Barbie. That was impossible, you see, because Malibu Ken was gay.
Of course, my nine-year-old brain didn't yet know that word, “gay”, and certainly didn't understand the machinations of gay male sex. But here's what I did know: that Ken liked to spend most of his time at the beach engaged in horseplay with evenly bronzed surfers. Furthermore, I had personally watched every episode of “Too Close of Comfort” in primetime, and had digested the fact that the character of “Monroe”, the third-floor tenant played by Jm J. Bullock, was a different kind of man. Much different from, say, my Budweiser-guzzling, fawn-shooting father who liked to spend weekends biting his fingernails and spitting them at Howard Kosell. I understood, instinctively, that Malibu Ken was like Monroe.
Eventually I would hear the neighborhood kids snickering over two men who lived in a beautiful fairy tale house on the block behind ours. It was a pink-and-white bungalow with gingerbread details, an immaculately manicured lawn, and black iron horse-head posts flanking the end of the driveway. Sometimes in the car on the way home from K-mart I made my mother drive around the block just so I could admire it.
One day, one of the local girl scouts peddled cookies at the bungalow's door, and a man with a moustache asked her to “wait here while I call my husband”.
The story shot like a white-tailed comet through the serpentine sub-division streets, where kids congregated in bare-calved packs, standing or straddling Schwinns with their agape mouths emitting the steamy sweet aroma of grape bubble gum. “Oh my god, his husband?!” we tittered. Even then, I don't think I heard the word “gay” used – but I was clear on the fact that my Malibu Ken would rather live with a moustached man in a bright and tidy fairy tale house, than with Kissing Barbie in her townhouse overlooking the Hollywood hills – even if it did have an elevator.
I also knew that Barbie's loyal housekeeper, Olga, secretly had the hots for Barbie. Olga was one of those hollow, blown-plastic fashion dolls who came cheap at Woolworth's, sold in a cellophane bag stapled to a small folded slab of cardboard. Olga had crayon-yellow hair and wore a look of perpetual surprise. I kept her in a polyester double-knit jumpsuit in an orange-and-green psychedelic print. She was hip for a housekeeper. She was from Europe.
I was clear on the fact that Barbie could never return Olga's affections. Barbie was solidly a-sexual (unlike her eldest daughter, a 1950s hand-me-down Barbie who was most definitely heterosexual and a raging slut). Kissing Barbie had deep, unspoken issues that kept her trapped in near-frigidity. Which was ironic to those closest to her, who were privy, considering Kissing Barbie's public image as a sex symbol.
Yes, even at nine, I understood all these things about Barbie, and about Olga, and Ken, but without the benefit of the appropriate vocabulary nor any concrete knowledge of sex.
As for me, well, I had good reasons for sticking with boys, thank you very much. Mom made it clear that being a woman choosing to be with another woman suggested a personal failure; a tragic “settling” to avoid a lifetime of sleeping single in a double-bed, masturbating on sweltering summer nights, and in harsh winters, stroking the wiry hairs springing from one's facial warts in a repetitive self-soothing motion. What woman in her right mind wanted that? Being a fat, frizzy-haired, gap-toothed, socially anxious misfit child and teen had been quite enough. I was determined not to carry this freakdom, this substandard-ness into adulthood. I intended to win this race. I planned to blossom in adulthood, to reverse this whole stubborn theme of inadequacy. I was going to amaze everyone with my transformation. “My, didn't you grow up pretty,” they might say. “You slimmed down real nice,” “You filled out in all the right places”, “You went from an ugly duckling to a swan!”.
So to my much-younger mind, being a lesbian simply wasn't an option. The last thing I needed was an additional set-back to universal acceptance. I'd be damned if I'd stay a freak. And unfortunately, the few lesbians I did come in contact with in my teens and early twenties appeared to support my mother's portrait of gay women – plain-faced, shapeless, hulking, lumbering creatures in flannel and work boots who'd been cast out of decent society, and found sufficient solace in one another.
As a young woman, I felt no kinship with these mysterious females. I was bewildered by their apathy towards beauty, by their immunity to the vigorous advertising efforts of Clairol, of Revlon, of Cover Girl. I didn't understand what these ladies were trying to be. How did they expect anyone to find them attractive when they looked like boys, mice, or weird hippie tent-dwellers who didn’t use deodorant? And wasn't being the kind of attractive you saw in fashion magazines thee thing to which every female should aspire? That is, if she wanted the best possible life for herself? If she wanted it all? I was baffled. Why would anyone not want to fit in on purpose?
Additionally, I learned from my father that same-sex dalliances would not be tolerated as long as I still co-habitated with my parents. Any deviation from this rule might result in my own death by hate-crime – right there in the middle of the family dining room.
It was the day after Thanksgiving. I was a young twenty-something with an office job and two adjoining rooms in my parents' lopsided 1880s house. A group of us were gathered around the dining room table playing Pictionary: me, my then-boyfriend Rob, my mother, my aunt, my sister, my brother, and a friend of my brother. My dad was sitting in a recliner in the next room, watching TV.
Someone brought up Madonna, and opinions began to flit back and forth across the table -- she was a trendsetter, she was a skank. And purely as a joke (because while I dig Madonna, I don't really diiiig Madonna), I said, off-the-cuff:
"Well I'd do 'er."
That was all.
I'd do 'er.
Really, I was just kidding.
I think my mother, aunt and boyfriend all groaned. My sister, then in her teens, went stiff in her chair, palms flattened to the air as though pressing it away from her, to the left and to the right, and bleated in staccato: "I, did NOT, just, hear that."
The next thing I saw was my dad's face, arms and torso flying towards me across the table, like an evil, angry, moustached Superman sans cape propelling towards me in 3-D. His hands went for my neck, and as he groped for it, one of them pressed my windpipe and produced a weird sensation in my throat, like the bonging of a bell. My boyfriend immediately shot out of his chair and I remember his voice shouting "Whoa whoa WHOA!" He tried to push my dad off of me; my mother and aunt struggled to yank my father back in the opposite direction. And then Dad said, with stiff jaw and spittle forming at the corners of his mouth:
"If you wanna be a fucking faggot, you won't do it under my roof!"
My mother kept saying his name, "Larry, LAH-ree!" Once they'd separated him from me, she sighed wearily, as though scolding a dog, "Oh, Larry! Go sit back down and watch TV, for Christ's sake..."
And that was just a joke.
So it was far easier, far safer just to stick with dudes. Not that this was torture, mind you. I am fortunate. I never suffered feeling my outward identity was a charade, at least not from a sexual standpoint. I never felt trapped in an erroneous gender, and most girly behavior suited me just right.
I grew up liking boys – though not all boys, to be clear. I never went for grunting cavemen with jock itch, or any loping bad boy with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. And when it came to kissing boys in khakis and monogrammed golf shirts, I felt something akin to those faint first inklings of nausea. Muscle men were a distinct turn-off. In junior high school, my friend Amy was fascinated with the Chippendale's dancers and a male model with his own poster in Spencer's gifts. They all had chests and arms that looked abnormally swollen to me, like they required patient, systematic draining via syringe by middle-aged nurses in old-time nurses' caps. Amy papered her room in pictures of these “hunks”, and solicited my shared enthusiasm. I simply couldn't give it. I didn't understand the appeal of men who looked like they might tip over from being top-heavy, whose chests put me in mind of twin pockets of pus.
But I did like smart boys. Strange boys. Boys who dressed like New Wavers, boys with Apple IIs who probably wound up billionaires, boys who painted or played guitar, or raised all manner of small rodents.
I had the potential to like girls, too. I used to pore over the bra section of the Sears catalog, trying to detect the dusky outline of a nipple beneath a layer of white lace. I kissed my friend Danielle on the mouth while role-playing “house” as husband and wife, but she wasn't as into as I was. She was a good sport about it (“Hi, honey, I'm home! Smooch!) but she kept her lips tight and her eyes wide open during the kiss. Yes, there was a distinct lack of sensuality on her part.
It wasn't just my parents who kept me walking a straight line, though; the lesbians helped a little too. I remember being in my early twenties and sitting along a banquette at a lesbian nightclub called Hepburn's in Philadelphia. I was there with two friends; a very "gay-looking" gay woman, and a gentle giant of an African-American man, gay and Jewish in a beaded yarmulka.
Despite growing up in a house full of self-righteous bigots, I retained a socially liberal core. I heard my parents' lessons, but I couldn't seem to fully accept and internalize them. Like pancakes in a Teflon pan, they had a tendency to smack the surface and slide right off again.
So I had no qualms about socializing with homosexuals, and I honestly couldn't agree with those who saw depravity in gay sex. And by this time, I had become much more comfortable with the fact of my own clandestine pre-adolescent kisses with another little girl. I even shrieked openly while watching videos of all-girl band The Bangles with a lesbian couple of my acquaintance (though certainly not in front of my father). It wasn't that strange to find me in a gay club. I rather enjoyed looking. And to my utter fascination, there were quite a few women there who didn't look like lumberjacks. How could my mother have missed this?
A female ambled over to us. She was what you'd call "butch" in the extreme. Everything about her was harsh-looking. She wore a wallet on a chain, her hair was dyed platinum and cropped ultra-short. Her eyes were small, narrow and dark like a rodent's. Her nose was long and thin. Her teeth were small and perfectly even; their edges looked sharp enough to engrave small keepsakes.
She leaned over me and thrust her face close into mine, scowling.
"ARE YOU GAY?" she demanded.
I immediately felt foolish. The fact is, I didn't know what I was. I dated guys because it was more trouble-free, but I felt like I could potentially be...well, anything. I was flesh and nerves and thoughts and emotions and electrical impulses. And in that moment, all of it was caught off-guard.
"I...I don't know..." I stammered, trying to pull back and put some space between us, though it wasn't easy.
She shook her head and cackled. She looked at my lesbian companion and said:
"Certain people just have no business being here, ya know what I mean?"
To my dismay, my lesbian friend nodded, like she understood.
* * *
Ten years, several boyfriends and two fiancés later, I found myself an unattached thirty-something woman in New York City. I opened myself up to dating again. And this time, I broadened my dating options to include women.
For a long time I felt like I wasn't "allowed" to have a sexual and/or romantic relationship with anyone but guys unless I was willing to cut off all my hair, start listening to Melissa Etheridge 24/7, wear Birkenstock sandals and take up hiking. I’d also been under the mass-spell that all females must prioritize their physical appearance in order to please men and stir envy in their fellow women, or otherwise be considered permanent outcasts.
I bought into the canned messages of what was beautiful and missed so much along the way. I started to see myself, and everyone else, through different eyes. I felt like Dorothy, pressed into the poppy-strewn earth beneath a heavy blanket of hypnosis, then felt the coolness of fresh snow upon my feverish cheek and woke to an even wider, more vivid world.
I recognized attractiveness in men and women I never would’ve considered attractive just a few short years before. I found more to be enchanted by. My mind exploded, as if I’d been living life from inside a tiny buck-fifty single-screen cinema, and was suddenly seeing the world on IMAX. My appreciation for the gorgeous variety and complexity of humanity was expanding.
At the outer reaches of my consciousness, there had long lurked a stubborn belief that enjoying the intimate company of a woman was a cop-out because one was fat, or at least hopelessly ugly. It was a surrender, even lazy. My mother equated it to marrying a black man, like her fat sister Phyllis had done.
Choosing to be with someone of the same gender is no act of shrugging one’s shoulders and saying, “Well, this'll have to do.” And if I was the kind of woman who settles, I could've settled for one of two men who wanted to marry me. And lucky me, I could've been getting half-hearted oral sex once every six years – provided I was willing to cover my entire crotch area with a huge swath of Saran wrap, and even then, he'd wind up falling asleep between my legs before the job was done. Or, in the other case, I might still be pacing wildly from room to room in our Upper East Side apartment, at the height of a brain-searing panic attack, trembling and begging the gods to “Make it stop! Please make it stop! Oh dear god please, somebody help me!”, and he’d be sitting at the kitchen table with his head bent over a map of an imaginary place, ignoring me completely, putting another tidy pencil mark on a non-existent crossroads.
I ended those relationships, with good reason. That's right – the fat girl did the calling off. It was the fat girl who willingly gave up a perfectly good, 32-inch-waisted Ivy League graduate with a handsome inheritance. The fat girl walked away from the chiseled, sexually artful would-be runway model (and yes, he was straight). One wasn’t communicative enough. The other was as frigid as Kissing Barbie. Neither was as self-aware as I was becoming, and in both cases I ultimately didn't feel we were growing together.
Nobody’s else’s “perfectly good” was going to be good enough for me. Not anymore. I listen to my gut now. Not to the twisted theories my mother used to parrot from god-knows-who. Not to the ads or movies or TV shows that tell me how I should look, dress, behave or spend, or who I should desire, pursue, fuck or fall in love with.
I had an instinct for certain things when I was a child. I understood more than I knew. I mean, my mom probably wouldn’t get this, but we’re all made of the same stuff, I think. Like a giant melted polymer mess in a vat at the doll factory. We don’t become an individual someone until we’re poured into a particular doll mold, and some line worker slips us into a pink chiffon dress or a pair of turquoise swim trunks, and maybe the marketing department gives us a name. But if that little doll-heart begins to glow from the inside, and the polymer begins to soften, and we begin to sense what we’re made of and can forget how we’ve been shaped or duded-up, should we be ashamed by who’s lighting us up?