According to family lore, when I was five, I changed my clothes obsessively throughout the day. On one cold day, I got it into my head to wear a sundress to the park. My mom immediately told me to change. At five, I put my hands on my hips and told my mom, “It’s my body, I’ll wear what I want.” At which point, I am sure my parents began to fear for my future.
The first time I was called a slut was in middle school. I hadn’t even held a boy’s hand at that point. One girl told me only prostitutes wore rings on every finger. My grandma had given me all her old jewelry and I wanted to wear every one of those bands of brass and fake gold. I can still feel the flush of shame creeping up the back of my neck and into my cheeks.
Later, my low-cut tanks and love of swing dancing brought on peer criticism. A girl from my cross-country team threw rocks at me in PE with no explanation for her actions for most of freshman year. Despite (or maybe because of) my attempts to be perfect and blameless, I was unable to blend in.
Most of our conservative town went to youth group as well as church. Like most of my friends, I wore a WWJD bracelet and a promise ring. My promise or purity ring was shaped like a fish with a fake diamond inside. It meant I wasn’t going to do anything nasty with anyone but my future husband. Some people talked about it meaning I was married to Jesus. The cheap ring turned my finger green.
I grew up believing my sexuality was like an unstable atom -– toxic, dangerous, and capable of irrevocably destroying my entire life. The only cure was to keep it contained until, through the blessed bond of marriage, it could somehow be transformed into something else entirely. From a poison to a life-giving substance, my sexuality had only two possible manifestations: sin and service.
No matter how good I was, I never stopped being a feminist. I wrote my diary entries to Joan of Arc, Anne Frank, Frida Kahlo, and Virginia Woolf. I beat up the boys on our block and later I debated them over lunch and challenged them in the weight room. A hot flash of anger went through me the day the youth pastor reminded the girls not to wear bikinis to the pool party because it would tempt the boys.
The pastor talked a lot about the evils of porn. Some of the wives who led the girls’ groups had breast augmentations and spoke in innuendos of how we would please our future husband. In college, I would learn this was called the Madonna-whore complex.
My parents screened all our media for sexual content. Even as teens, we weren’t allowed to watch PG-13 movies that had adult situations. I learned early that even violence is more acceptable than sex.
In school, the health teacher taught abstinence and we were quizzed on the symptoms of various STDs. The word “lesbian” was used only to describe ugly girls. Its implied meaning was a girl who couldn’t get a guys attention and was therefore the worst word you could be called. And, of course, gay just meant bad as in “this movie/class/homework assignment is gay.”
Going to college with my high-school boyfriend protected me from the bacchanalian freedom of the dorms. I acted, wrote for the paper, joined a feminist club, preformed in The Vagina Monologues every year, and took in all the theories.
In every creative writing class, professors gently pointed out how every single one of my stories had oppressive male characters preventing the creative and sexual freedom of female characters. One character even slowly killed his girlfriend’s orchid. I stopped wearing make-up and irritated my mom by talking excessively about my amazing transgender professor.
I married my high school sweetheart and best friend on the weekend of our graduation. I blamed much of my disconnect between body and mind on my years of illness and repressive religious experiences. I kept promising myself I’d do better.
The first time I encountered the idea that sex was good for me was in a bookstore. I hid in the section of pink and red books with explicit covers, nervously flipping through pages and looking over my shoulder. I never visited this section in my hometown. I waited until I was alone and in some other city.
The book, written by doctors, talked about how good sex was for the body. I was shocked. I knew sex was good for your marriage and that touch had a positive psychological effect but I had never thought of sex as a health practice. Hadn’t I been taught that sex was dirty, risky, and highly volatile?
If you are going to blame anyone for what happened next, blame bookstores and the public library. I lingered in the Women’s Studies section which is conveniently close to the Gay and Lesbian Studies section. My brother had recently come out by introducing us to his boyfriend and then acknowledging that he worked as a go-go dancer in addition to his day job as a trainer.
No one was surprised. My uncle is also gay (feel free to speculate wildly about the gay gene; most people do).
I told myself I was being open-minded and supportive. At the library, I checked out all the battered copies of “The L Word” and ignored the sympathetic look on the librarian’s face as he looked from my wedding ring to my stack. He was gay and every time I checked out my selection (red faced and cursing the fact that our little branch didn’t have an automated checkout kiosk), I feared he’d say, “Oh, Honey, figure it out already.”
In addition to flipping through Bust and Ms., I lingered over Curve and (as research for my YA novel) Inked Girls. One day, I realized I had finished “Same Sex in the City: (So Your Prince Charming Is Really a Cinderella)” over the course of a month without ever intending to buy it.
Five years after saying “I do,” I asked for a divorce and told my husband I was going to date women. He told me to be sure before I told anyone else.
I’ll never regret the time we spent together but I do regret any hurt I have caused him.
I don’t know what I expected when I told the people closest to me. A rainbow cupcake? Nothing prepared me for people’s feelings of anger, disbelief, and betrayal.
As my mom pointed out, everyone assumed my brother was gay since he was three. I, apparently, was irrevocably straight. Liberal friends and family suddenly treated me like a case study, wanting to comb through my entire past for “evidence.” Many people suggested experiments in not-so-polite terms. And almost everyone advised that I keep quiet about it until the whole thing blew over. No one wanted me to do permanent damage.
After leaping out of one social construct, I did extensive research about how to fit into a new one. As I began to date and go to clubs, I acted as if I were trying to write the official field guide to gay culture.
I fell back on the comfort of being a good student. I tried to build a web of labels to make me feel secure in my “new” identity (soft butch, gold star, stud femme, boi). And, not surprisingly, I got stuck.
I was desperate for community. Needy and lonely, I depended on the girls I dated to validate all my emotions. I felt I needed an adorable relationship (one that looked as good as my straight relationship) in order to show people I was okay -– that I didn’t need to sleep with “the right guy” or hide this “side effect of divorce” until it passed. I ended up not being able to walk away from relationships that were painful and dysfunctional.
At 27, I had to learn for the first time that sex doesn’t guarantee love.
As I hovered between the boxes labeled “lesbian” and “bisexual” (on dating sites and LGBTQ organizations’ volunteer applications), I realized how many other voices I had allowed into my head. I had lost touch with myself.
But I am not a dead butterfly, crisp and still, that can be pinned to a board and neatly labeled. As safe as it may feel behind glass, I prefer the soft pulse and dust of this temporary existence. And all I want from the people in my life is space –- room to simply be.
I know the warnings that I am going to hell are coming. I grew up with those warnings. I have finally decided not to fear or fight them.
The same families who brought me casseroles when I was in the hospital and prayed for me in their bible studies may hate me now or insist that I am confused. They may be disappointed in me (and for some reason that is harder for me to take than outright hate).
But every time I speak or write and hear people say that I am an inspiration, I feel like a fake. Being silent about this part (or any part) of my life while claiming to believe in authenticity and the essential worth of every human being reinforces a culture of shame.
Worse, I don’t give people the opportunity to love me as I am. I automatically assume they won’t accept me, which makes me just as guilty of judgment.
Sexuality is a radioactive force. It doesn’t only exist behind closed doors. It is inseparable from our bodies, our self-concept, our creative energy, and the way we present ourselves in the world. One day, we will live in a world that encourages us to play and to tap in -– a world where there is no need to “come out” because there won’t be social constructs to break out of.