The last time someone called me a lesbian, I didn’t correct them. Was it a colleague? A congregant? A reporter? I don’t know. I only remember not correcting them. These not-correcting moments tend to add up, like little dents in the promises I made to myself on a flight from Denver to Portland over fifteen years ago.
I didn’t plan it, but it was National Coming Out Day that weekend I flew to see my parents. They didn’t realize it either, not having such concepts in their lexicon. They didn’t realize they were about to learn a whole new language. 30,000 feet above the earth, I swore to myself, I would never lie like I had been again. I would not let the lies go on, and instead I would try to tell the truth about who I am and how I love, for the rest of my life. Once I corrected the big lie that remained, that would be it.
I was 23, far old enough to be telling the truth to my parents. By then I’d already come out as not Catholic, as a theatre major, and as someone unwilling to wait for marriage to have sex. You’d think this secret sharing wouldn’t have been worthy of such extensive delay, or such deep fear and worry.
I first fell in love with a girl when I was 20, or at least that was the first time I got what was going on. There were others before her, long distance letters and phone calls filled with giddy joy and innocent desire. But nothing I understood or would’ve named, until her. She was out and queer (importantly different than lesbian, I understood early on) and strong, but somehow also soft, and I liked that mix, a lot. It was kind of like the mix of scared and seduced I felt when I thought about her. She liked to talk to me about a girl she had a crush on, and about how incredible her girlfriend was. We talked about sex and desire in a safe, theoretical way. I was straight, and she was partnered. It was all safe and contained. Until it wasn’t.
I can’t remember now when or if I broke up with my boyfriend. He had graduated, and was living in another state. We still talked. I remember telling him about her. He was intrigued. She took me to the queer group on campus, and held my hand and we sent secret notes back and forth in hidden drop off places all across campus. I never thought she needed to break up with her girlfriend; she wanted to have babies with her someday, and that sounded good and promising. I didn’t have any intention of interfering with such beautiful dreams.
Her girlfriend wasn’t so sure, and hated me or tolerated me, depending on the day. We didn’t keep secrets, though, so sometimes we’d all go out together. But, we also didn’t have any language. We didn’t really know what we were doing, if anyone else had ever loved like this. It was the mid-nineties, pre-Ellen. We didn’t mean to be so radical in our loving, but there we were.
What I do remember: sitting in my room, in the house I shared with 3 other roommates, just barely off campus. The door was closed, there was music playing. And she took my hands and she asked how I was doing with my new bisexual identity. Was I freaking out? Was I confused, or afraid, or happy, or….? It was the first time either of us had said anything about my sexual identity. The first time I’d really even let myself think about it at all. I remember so clearly the feeling I had was nothing except liberation. I feel free, I told her. I don’t feel afraid, I feel real.
There was nothing simple about the next few years, loving her. My boyfriend and I did eventually officially break up, though not before we went to my first gay pride together, in San Francisco. His sister, who went with us, not knowing any of the story, flirted with me in that semi-ironic bi-curious sort of way. She couldn’t have known. But it was semi-painful nonetheless.
My…lover? (we never found a word that worked)….moved out of state, back to the state she called home, with her girlfriend. A few years later I helped with their commitment ceremony. A few years after that, I witnessed the birth of their first son. We all still count each other as family; and as with any family, our relationships have continued to evolve in their intensity and modes of expression. And, to be clear, I love them all.
Along the way, I fell in love, hard, with my dear friend right in the precise moment and place where he was coming out as gay. In all that vulnerability, we fell in love together. We wondered often what it would be like if I was a man, or if he could love women, though, I never had such gender confusion. He was just beautiful, still is. We broke both our hearts with the impossibility, and the longing. Eventually we decided we loved each other enough to let go, but it wasn’t easy. I don’t know what he did, but I’ll acknowledge I had to take a piece of me and hide it away for a while, starve it until it went quiet. Even now I love him with a quiet ferocity, simmering under the surface in a way we all know. We: his husband, my wife, him, me. It’s ok. We’re good. It’s long ago and different lives. Besides, there are so many ways to blow up a marriage, if you want to. And none of us have any such desire.
A lesbian playwright I worked with once asked me to predict which I would choose: man or woman. She was puzzled at my instability. I answered honestly, I didn’t know. She didn’t believe me.
When I met Carri, I didn’t mean to be settling the question once and for all. I only knew that every time I saw her I got butterflies, and I had this image of loving her until I was an old, old woman, and hoping I never had to not be with her. She wouldn’t want me to portray it as immediately a done-deal. It wasn’t – but also, it was. I’m just not great at leaping at the obvious. Luckily, however, she is. So, about 6 months after we first started talking, we got serious, and I realized I couldn’t avoid telling my parents about the unspoken lie we’d been sharing any longer.
My parents drove together from Olympia, Washington, to get me in Portland. I couldn’t get a flight into Seattle, because obviously we were meant to be tortured in the longest.drive.ever. I had told them I needed to fly home to talk to them about something. I wasn’t willing to tell them over the phone. I didn’t intend to tell them in the car, but they were impatient and pressed me on the drive. So, from the backseat I let it spill out. I told them I was bisexual, that I was in love with a woman, that it was serious. They didn’t react well. I’m sure they would agree with me that it ranks as one of the worst few hours of our lives. Some of the other worsts came in the next few months.
Somewhere along the way, my mom told me she would need five years to come to terms with it. I laughed with a certain bitterness, but she was about right. By about five years later, she started to talk to Carri like she was a person. She started to believe me. My dad stopped with his extreme silence. We didn’t have to play the game like everything was ok, because everything started to actually be ok.
They never picked up the queer or bisexual identity, however; if they say anything at all, they say lesbian. I tried correcting it a few times, but it gets exhausting, all that translating and explaining, coming out again and again. It’s so vulnerable to try to claim such perpetual instability, to insist on troubling the categories with my life. And so I just let them, and a lot of others, think whatever they are going to think.
But still in my heart, I know that this is how loving works – mine, and many others’. There are trends we can point to, and some helpful ways of thinking about people and roles and who we are to each other and why. Some people are really super duper consistent in the type (and biological sex) of the person they fall in love with and desire. And some people truly only fall in love with and find intimacy with one person, for their whole life.
But for many of us, love and desire is a lot more complicated across our lifetimes. There are relationships we just cannot have words for, that mean more to us in many ways than the relationships we do have words for. We surprise ourselves with desire for people that we would’ve never expected at other points in our lives. Some of those desires we act on; many of them, we do not. Love changes and grows and fades and evolves – because we do. Living things change.
Of all the dangers I ever wondered about in the marriage equality movement, it was the possibility that the GLBTQ community would collude in the silencing of these queer notions of love and desire. When I used to read those alarmist articles about queers wanting to change marriage, and straight (and also gay) liberals defending our upstanding intent to slip unassuming into marriage as-is, I used to think – No. We do want to change marriage. I hope we do.
I hope by arriving in the midst of this straight tradition, we can liberate all of us – queer and straight – into a greater honesty and authenticity in our practice of loving. I hope we can acknowledge more regularly that “marriage” does not mean one thing, but many possible things, each with many different promises, different for each couple and family as they may discover and discern. I hope we can de-couple marriage from pro-creation, liberating all my friends (straight and queer) who don’t want children from that oppressive pressure. I hope we can release some of the strange gender roles that even the most liberal straight folks I know feel the pressure to perform after marriage. I hope we can begin to unravel the legal framework from the spiritual framework of marriage, and allow anyone who wants to privilege anyone else in a certain kind of legal way, to do so easily and accessibly. I hope we can get more honest about the reality that sometimes, the most loving thing you can do for your spouse is agree that the marriage is over.
“A conversation begins with a lie, and each speaker of the so-called common language feels the ice-floe, the drift apart as if powerless, as if up against a force of nature.” There was a time when we couldn’t copy down Adrienne Rich’s words fast enough, they were such medicine to us. We knew exactly what she meant. We were trying to grow up, and we didn’t have the words for all the feelings we were having. We were long past Stonewall, and in the midst of our own awakening, we watched Ellen risk it all telling us what we all already knew. But we also didn’t need Matthew Shepherd or Brandon Teena to know truth telling, though ultimately liberating, might break us in ways irrecoverable. We knew our lives were witness to a dangerous kind of love that most of the world wanted to keep a lid on. It makes sense that we too would want to claim we fit in a category that doesn’t move.
But my hope is we don’t let the silence seduce us. My hope is we keep speaking up for all the ways love challenges us and inspires us and scares us and makes us laugh and knocks the wind out of us. Let’s keep coming out in the places where there aren’t yet words, keep crossing boundaries and borders until we realize we’ve made a new land, and a new language that tells all our stories.
And on that note, let me end with the video that finally inspired me to write my post for #SexUUality, this awesome super queer re-make of Taylor Swift’s song, Blank Space.