Scenes From a Lesbian Life
Kindergarten, 1961. She’s blonde and pretty and she’s twirling around in a blue dress. I can’t take my eyes off of her.
Girl Scout Camp, 1964. I’m off to the loo, and I happen to see one of the counselors getting dressed in her tent. I see her butt. It’s beautiful.
My Parents. My parents accept that I’m a tomboy. They get me a GI Joe rather than a Barbie. An erector set. A dart gun. No pink.
Junior High School, Late ‘60s. Friends start dating, and every single guy they date is not good enough for them. The guys lack élan. If the girls dated me, I’d know how to treat them right. Like a gentleman.
Sleepover at a friend’s house. Most of the girls giggle and have fun together. I find it stressful. Lois cries because she is adopted. The others find her to be a drama queen. I find her compelling in ways I cannot identify.
Girls start wanting to put make-up on me. There are many hints that it’s time for me to become feminine. Ain’t gonna happen.
Reading a Newspaper Gossip Column, Late ‘60s. It says that Truman Capote is traveling with a female companion yet no one is scandalized. I ask my mother what that means. She kind of snickers and says, “I’ll tell you when you grow up.”
My Grandmother, Late ‘60s. For some reason, my grandmother is talking about two men who were “you know” decades ago when she lived in Brooklyn. My mother asks, “How do you know they were ‘you know’?” Her tone says, “How can you accuse them of such a thing?” My grandmother says, “Well there was the time the cops came, and…” My mother cuts her off with a warning glance, gesturing toward me. Whatever “you know” is, it’s too horrible to hear about. I think I know what it is, but, really, how can I possibly ask?
Sherman, Late ‘60s. We’re visiting my parents’ best friend, Sherman. He is showing me a book of caricatures from the 1930s and ‘40s. Under the actress Patsy Kelly’s picture is the caption, “She’s a woman’s woman.” Sherman asks if I know what that means. I say no. He explains that sometimes women fall in love with other women instead of with men. It will be the single nonjudgmental thing any adult says to me about homosexuality in my entire childhood and teen years.
High School, Early ‘70s. I’m still a total tomboy, and I have no plans of growing out of it. Various prople continue to try to get me into make-up and feminine clothing.
Many of my male friends are clearly gay, if not necessarily out. There is one openly lesbian girl in school. She scares the hell out of me.
The locker room terrifies me. I don’t know why. I manage to get excused from gym for “medical reasons” (achy joints, which I do have) throughout high school.
I go into “the city” with a friend to see a Dietrich double feature at the Kips Bay movie theater. The movies are Blonde Venus and The Scarlett Empress. In the row in front of me, two extraordinarily good-looking men make out for the entire four hours. I don’t know which affects me more: Dietrich’s breath-taking sexiness or those two men.
My good buddy Manny and I see Tom Stoppard’s confusing but fascinating play Jumpers on Broadway. Jill Clayburgh spends much of the first act nude. It is one of the best shows I have ever seen.
I know I am different from other people. I don’t know how to name it, and I don’t try that hard. During high school—perhaps earlier—perhaps much earlier—I understand that I’m probably “you know.” However, I successfully keep this realization a secret from myself for years. I’ve bought that to be gay is to be disgusting.
I occasionally go on dates with guys to feel maybe kind of normal. One time an older guy at the department store where I work asks me out. I barely know him. I don’t like him. But I can’t turn down the opportunity to get another “normal” notch in my pathetic belt. A week or two later I learn that he asked me out on a dare, as a joke.
There is a girl at the same department store who I like a lot. She’s boyish and different from the other girls. We get along well. It is literally decades later that I realize that she is interested in me “like that.”
I graduate from high school without having had sex, smoked pot, or gotten drunk.
College, 1972-Early 1976. I do a lot of theater, and I know many gay men—and one gay woman. I avoid her.
My friend R does A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He introduces me to M, who is playing Domina, because he thinks we would like each other. Uh, he’s right.
M has straight, dark hair down to her butt. She is funny and attractive. She is recovering from a broken engagement to a man who turned out to be gay. She is very physical. We become best friends, inseparable. She and I do not realize that I am in love with her.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
I must indeed have a first-rate intelligence. I manage to be in love with M while staying adamantly unaware that I am gay—though whether I am truly functioning is a matter of opinion. I am so obsessed with M that I freak out when she gets a boyfriend, behave like a spurned lover, and start picking fights.
One day I’m at M’s. We’re lying on her bed, facing each other and chatting. I think, “If I could run my hand the length of her side, I could die happy.” I think, “I’m not gay.” Take that, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I go to a party just before graduation and drink alcohol for the first time. I get seriously hammered. The next day, I don’t remember what happened. A number of people congratulate me on making a pass at the one guy who would say no because I was so drunk.
I start dating D, a nice guy who takes me to see Broadway shows in good seats. We mess around a bit. It’s not unpleasant, but I just don’t care. I break dates with him to spend time with M. D and M have lunch one day and he tells her, “Wendy’s in love with you.”
A few days later, M sits me down and says, “We have to talk.” I know exactly what she’s going to say to me. I feel equal amounts of terror and relief. She says, “You’re gay. I’m not. It’s time for you to come out.” I’m thrilled she doesn’t find me disgusting, but I’m still not ready to accept the identity.
I graduate from college at 20 without having had sex or smoked pot.
Early Adulthood. The next year and a half are intense for me and for my friends, who have a remarkable amount of patience with my confusion and drama. Every day I change my mind about whether I’m straight or gay. When I’m on the train, I count how many men and how many women I think are good-looking. If more men are good-looking, I’m straight. If more women are, I’m gay.
I sleep with some men. I feel like I have to. The experiences are largely dull, but how could they not be? Having sex to prove a point—particularly a point that cannot be proven—is not a recipe for ecstasy.
M stops talking to me because (1) she thinks that I won’t make any progress with her in my life, and (2) my behavior around her is getting weirder and weirder. I’m devastated.
I’m doing temp work during the day and theatre at night. I’m a fairly mediocre electrician and stage manager, but I’ll work for very little or no pay and I’m enthusiastic, so I stay pretty busy. I’m also a backup usher at the Public Theater, where I meet Abigail and Dennis. Abigail lets me move in with her while I figure out my next steps. Her apartment is long, skinny, and small and looks as though cops have done a search and turned everything upside down. I’m very grateful to her.
When Dennis finds out that I think I might be gay, he decides to take me under his wing. He is completely and totally out. He wears a gay pride button at his highly visible job at the Public. He gives me books to read. He has me take a walk holding Gaysweek with the name visible. He convinces me that the most powerful political thing I can do as a gay person is to be open and unashamed. (AIDS kills Dennis in 1995. The antiretroviral cocktails come out right after he dies.)
I tell everyone I meet that I’m looking for a place to live. I fall into an amazing one-bedroom apartment half a block from Washington Square Park. It’s an illegal sublet and costs maybe two thirds of the going price for a studio in the area.
Manny and I go to see a play. I tell him that I think I might be gay. He says, “I’ve known you were gay since we saw Jumpers in high school.” He lights a joint. “What would shock me,” he says, “is if you took a toke of this joint.” I take a toke. I will take many, many, many tokes before I get clean and sober years later. (Manny is diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. It batters the shit out of him. An attack of meningitis leaves him half paralyzed and blind. The local organization for blind people refuses to teach him braille because he has AIDS. He dies in 1985.)
It finally happens. I meet a real cutie named Eve who actually seems interested in sleeping with me. When she kisses me (June 15, 1977!), I think, yes. I never have a doubt again. Turns out she has plans to move to California…
Two weeks later, I walk in my first Gay Pride March. I know the huge turnout is due to the aggressive homophobia of orange juice queen Anita Bryant, but it feels like hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gay men and bisexuals and trans people are marching for me.
I try to get involved in the lesbian community, but with little luck. I go to the Lesbian Firehouse and end up arguing with a room full of women who tell me that I shouldn’t have male friends. I’m accused of being “male-identified.” My gay men friends have saved my sanity on numerous occasions during the previous years and are generally charming and entertaining and fabulous friends. It’s an easy decision to leave the Lesbian Firehouse.
I meet a friendly lesbian at a temp job. She invites me to an all-women party. I am scared, shy, and thrilled. It is not a pleasant evening. A huge fight develops about separatism versus inclusion, with dips into classism, sexism, racism, and other -isms. Through much of this arguing, a drunk woman is passed out on the floor. At one point, she sits up, seeming almost like she’s coming back from the dead, and says, “The reason we will never get along is that the only thing we have in common is that we like to suck pussy.” She then passes out again. I learn over time that she’s wrong; some lesbians don’t actually like to suck pussy.
(Okay, that’s a cheap joke. And there are definitely New York lesbians who get along and don’t constantly fight about politics. But overall the ‘70s in the Manhattan lesbian community are pretty volatile.)
The New York City Council starts discussing a gay rights bill. A billboard goes up in Sheridan Square listing famous supporters. Seeing those names up there in the open feels liberating.
When the head of the city council committee responsible for the bill refuses to let it out of committee, Dennis and I meet up in Sheridan Square in the center of the Village. Thousands of LGBTQ people are there. We start marching.
Marching without a permit is a whole different experience than marching in a planned event. We stop traffic. We make noise. The cops aren’t quite sure what to do with us.
The march feels huge. There is a man marching near us, a Nordic god, 6’5” or so, long white-blonde hair, bristling with muscle. I ask him how far back the march goes. He says, “Don’t you want to see?” and lifts me up on his shoulder as though I weigh nothing. (I weigh 135 pounds.) I announce loudly, “It goes further than I can even see.” Everyone cheers. We end up sitting in the street at 42nd and 7th. Traffic halts. Cabbies put their feet on their dashboards and read the Daily News. TV cameras show up. I’m nervous—I’m not out to my parents yet. But there’s no way I’m leaving. The march is in the news the next day, but nothing changes. It will be many years before New York has a gay rights bill. (AIDS kills thousands of the beautiful men there that evening, possibly including the Nordic god.)
I get a grown-up full-time job as an editorial assistant for a group of medical journals. The people there are really nice, but I’m still scared to come out. I know I have to overcome that fear—I have taken Dennis’s teachings 100% to heart. I wait a while and identify the company gossip. One day I come out to her, knowing that my sexuality will be common knowledge within days, if not hours. I handle it pretty smoothly, but I spend the next half hour in the bathroom with stomach cramps.
I move from job to job. Coming out becomes much easier.
I come out to my family. My parents take it moderately well, although both do the full-face twitch familiar to many people who have come out. My mother asks if I have “tried men.” This is the woman who taught me casual sex was a terrible thing, who preached that I should wait until marriage. I just don’t answer. Over time, I realize that they think that they’re doing me a favor by accepting me.
My 16-year-old sister doesn’t bat an eye; she’s always known that there was “something different” about me, and it’s fine with her.
For the next few months, any time I mention a female friend to my mother, she assumes I am sleeping with her. I tell her that she is way overestimating my attractiveness.
The next few years I have flings and a rocky relationship. I have an adult life with an adolescent emotional skill set, plus an unrealistic sense of what things are “supposed to be like.” When S and I have two weeks of truly breathtaking passion, I think it means we need to stay together forever. Not a good idea. She breaks up with me after a couple of years.
In 1982, I get offered a job in San Diego. I’m unemployed, I’m single, and I don’t have a place to live. The signing bonus happens to be the amount I’m in debt. What the hell, I think.
Before I leave, my good buddy Dany takes me to the much-missed Unique Boutique in the Village and chooses a work wardrobe for me. It is mostly pants, but I do let her choose one dress. I never wear dresses or skirts but I’m about to be managing a department, so I think that maybe I should.
My parents visit and I try on the clothing for them. When I put on the dress, my father tells me that he is prouder of me than he has ever been. Part of me is thrilled. I can’t help it—positive comments from him are few and far between. Part of me is furious—this is what impresses you? I trade the dress to a friend for two pairs of jeans.
San Diego. San Diego and I are not a good match. The exact same personality that makes me popular in New York City antagonizes San Diegans. My obsessive comparisons of NYC to SD—not to SD’s benefit—don’t help. My homesickness is vast.
One night I get up my nerve and go to a lesbian bar. Bars have never been my thing. I take a cab because, despite being a San Diegan, I don’t know how to drive. When I give the cross streets to the cabbie, he immediately knows where I’m going, which makes me uncomfortable. When I get there, I find that I have arrived way too early. The place is almost empty, and only one woman is there alone. I try to work up my nerve to talk to her.
I decide to play Ms. PacMan. I tell myself that if I pass 60,000 points—which I have never done—I will speak to her. I pass 60,000 points. I go over and we start chatting. She soon tells me about her day, spent “Jewing down” the Mexicans in Tijuana. I have a feeling I’m not in Kansas anymore! I excuse myself and go home.
I eventually figure out how to interact with San Diegans, and I start going to lesbian meetings to make friends—and maybe find a lover. The lesbian community in SD is much, much kinder than the one in NYC, probably because it is much smaller. Sticking together feels important.
The queer community in San Diego is fascinating and highly politically active. Many of the most committed people were kicked out of the military for being gay. These are patriotic people who enlisted to serve their country. One was given a dishonorable discharge the day before she was to get an honorable discharge. Another one, a doctor, was taken out of her clinic in handcuffs. They are deeply pissed.
The rest of the politically active core runs a wide gamut. The main thing they have in common is that they get things done. SD has both a gay center and a gay rights law years before NYC does.
I learn over time that racism, classism, anti-Semitism, and sexism are alive and well in the SD gay community, but it’s still more cohesive than the one in NYC.
I get a girlfriend. One day we are walking in a shopping mall in La Jolla, a particularly well-off part of SD. We are holding hands. A 16-year-old mean girl gets in our faces and says, “Two girls. Ewwwwwww.” For all the times I am called a dyke (and a fag!), it is the one the affects me the most. She hurts my feelings!
I go with a friend to see the movie Torch Song Trilogy. Every time there is any sort of gay affection, the guy sitting in front of us grabs his girlfriend and kisses her. I throw popcorn at them. It doesn’t stop them. This sort of incident happens so often that you would think that the very existence of lesbians threatens straight men.
I get a different girlfriend. And another one.
I get clean and sober. For months I walk around in a fog. Eventually the air clears, and I meet Liz. Our relationship last 7 years, most of them very good. We live in Hillcrest, the gay neighborhood, and know people everywhere we go.
I start writing an opinion column for a local gay paper. I become a little bit famous and win some awards. I give readings, and people show up. I join a lesbian writers group. We write a chapbook and have a pay-what-you-will evening to read from and sell it. People are remarkably generous, both emotionally and financially. Our small printing sells out in about five minutes.
At one point after the reading, I am in a circle of women. I mention that I have had sex with nine women in the room. My friend H says, “Was I one of them?” to great laughter. I’m probably the only women in the room she hasn’t slept with. (I end up sharing an office with H. At one point, I ask her, “How long does it take before you can hear an ex-lover’s voice on your answering machine without getting upset? “Oh,” she answers, “one or two more lovers.” She dies way too young of breast cancer.)
I decide to go back to school to get my master’s in writing. I take the GRE and do well enough that the University of San Diego approaches me to teach a GRE-prep course for them. The interview goes very well, and one of the women leaves the room to get the schedule so that we can discuss dates. The other woman looks at my resume and spots something. She says, “When you say that you write for the San Diego Gay Times, does gay mean gay?” I laugh and say, “Yes, gay means gay.” It turns out that they cannot fit me into their schedule. They’re a Catholic university and they are allowed by law to discriminate against me.
Liz plays flute and piccolo in the San Diego Symphony. Her nickname is the “Piccolo Goddess.” She is completely out of the closet. A musician friend of hers is equally out; his nickname is “The Cello Queen.” It seems that everyone in the SD queer community knows about and is proud of them.
A judge writes to the orchestra complaining that women shouldn’t wear pants. An edict goes out telling women that pants are no longer allowed. The next day, most of the women wear dresses or skirts. Liz wears pants. The day after, many of the women wear pants. I am proud of Liz. She says, “I’m not going to let a man who wears a robe tell me I can’t wear pants.”
I do “homo gigs” at human sexuality classes at local colleges. A gay man and I tell the kids about our lives and let them ask whatever questions they want. We are greeted with a range of responses, from gratitude to relief to fear to deep hostility. We respond with humor. When asked if I can tell a gay person by looking at him or her, I say, “I used to be able to, but you guys keep stealing our styles.” (Two friends of mine, when asked “what do gay people do in bed,” write the names of body parts on the blackboard and start drawing lines between them.)
Over the years, the reactions change, slowly but radically. It’s easy to identify alpha males in classrooms, and in the 1980s, they are snotty and condescending and even nasty. Somewhere in the 1990s, they become more open and accepting, although still condescending.
One of the guys I have done homo gigs with dies of AIDS. My eye doctor dies of AIDS. Dozens and dozens and hundreds and hundreds of men die of AIDS. One lesbian friend seems to lose everyone she knows. A friend asks if she is in therapy. She was, but her therapist died of AIDS.
Death resides in San Diego for years. The bath houses (or, as Liz calls them, “the fornicatoriums”) are closed. There is a backlash against the sexual freedom that men have been enjoying for years. There is a backlash against the backlash. Although people who risk their lives to climb mountains or jump out of planes or swim the English Channel are seen as brave risk-takers, people who risk their lives to have sex are seen as disgusting.
I decide to figure out how much money Liz and I are losing because we are unable to get married. As the total reaches many of thousands of dollars, I stop. It’s too depressing. Same-sex marriage will never be legal, so what’s the point?
One day the phone rings, and it’s the publisher of a gay-lesbian publishing house. He says, using much more discreet and subtle verbiage than I’m paraphrasing here, “We’re doing a lesbian sex book, and we need a nobody we can underpay.” I don’t even have to think about it. It’s not like I have a better offer. Liz generously supports me while I write the book.
I begin my research by reading all the existing lesbian sex books. They’re all excellent, but they’re all also edgy, very New York City, very San Francisco. And one thing I’ve learned from my time in San Diego is that not everyone is from New York or San Francisco. I make my book simple and straightforward. Very “lesbian 101.” My imaginary reader is a woman in the mid-West whose marriage has just broken up and who has decided to finally act on those desires she’s had all her life.
Here’s how I know that I get the tone right: the reviews from smaller cities are mostly positive, while many of the reviews from metropolitan centers are negative, even scathing. A review from Dublin, after ripping the book to shreds, says, “But what do you expect? She’s American.” Oh no, I have disgraced my entire country…
On the other hand, much to my pleasure and pride, my book and I are attacked on the floor of the Australian parliament by Brian Littleproud, known as the Newt Gingrich of Australia. It turns out that a women’s health center has reprinted sections of my book with Australian federal money, and he’s incensed. I have to laugh—although I have worked hard to make my book nonthreatening, lesbian anal sex is just not in Brian Littleproud’s comfort zone.
Surprisingly enough, my book is stopped at the Canadian border, along with a long list of gay and lesbian titles. They’re not against Canadian law, and when the bookstores take the customs people to court, they win.,but the law suits use up their cash and energy.
The book is translated into a Spanish version that a friend assures me is terrible. Oh well. It is also translated into Portuguese. In fact, it is the first lesbian nonfiction book ever printed in Portugal.
Come 1996, Liz and I split, and my time in San Diego is up. My 13 years there have changed my life, profoundly, for the better. I got clean and sober there, started really writing there, had a wonderful relationship with Liz there, had some fame and fortune there, grew up there. Liz and I break up kindly, lovingly, but it’s still pretty awful.
Back in New York. Reverse culture shock!
It takes me months to get back my New York street smarts. And I’m still reeling from the breakup with Liz. But I am thrilled to be home.
I realize that I have totally lost interest in officially coming out. When I get a job, I just speak of my life as my coworkers do but with different pronouns. It’s not that I don’t experience any stress about being gay in new surroundings; it’s just that I don’t want to give much energy to it. One job is full of gay people, so that’s not an issue. At the next, the third person I’m introduced to is Jo, definitely a lesbian. The next day, another coworker says, “You and Jo wear the same shoes.” I say, “And that’s not all we have in common.” Okay, that’s done.
Years later, another coworker says, “You know, I was surprised that you came out so quickly.” I answer, “I didn’t actually come out. I just spoke about my life.” The concept surprises her, but she gets it.
Nearly 20 years after it was first published, I’m asked to revise my sex book for a third edition. I work with a white gay male editor for whom the word clueless would be a compliment. The book has all new photographs. When the editor sends me the ones he has chosen, I am furious. They are all—every single one—of thin young white women. I tell him that this is not acceptable. He says that choosing the pictures is not my responsibility. I tell him to read my contract. Way back, for the first edition, I had insisted that photos be inclusive, and I had it put in writing. He says, “Oh, okay. We do have some other photos. I’ll send them to you. But we picked the most artistically pleasing.”
The “non-artistically pleasing” photos feature older women, women of color, and heavy women. I’m sure that Mr. Gay White Man believes that he’s not racist or ageist or weightist. Maybe he’s just an asshole.
I get a job in which I write about life, lifestyles, emotions, relationships, and so on. I fight for better representation of the LGBTQ community. I win some fights; I lose some. People tease me about not giving up. I answer deadly seriously that I never will.
I assume that everyone knows about me. It’s not a large company, and most people know most other people. But every once in a while, I’ll say something in a meeting and someone will do that full-face twitch.
My boss bets me a hundred dollars that gay marriage will be legal in my lifetime. I take the bet, feeling as though she is trivializing the seriousness of what gay people have to deal with.
Years pass. Various gay marriage cases creep through the courts. I’m not optimistic. And then I’m cautiously optimistic. And then gay marriage becomes legal!
My friends Jo and Ing get married at City Hall the first day it’s legal, and I’m one of the guests. I doubt that City Hall has ever before been so festive.
A handful of couples, mostly women of color, are dashing butches and glamorous femmes. Among the men, there are couples with age differences of decades. A surprising percentage of the couples are lookalikes. Pairs of stout short-haired dykes in jeans or matching suits. Gay men of similar heights, looks, haircuts, and clothing. Lipstick lesbians dressed in white.
My favorite couple is two husky men with cropped hair, maybe 5’6” or 5’7”, in flannel shirts and jeans. My guess is that they’re of Italian heritage. They look like truck drivers—not dressed like truck drivers but actual truck drivers. They are besotted with one another. They smash every stereotype, and they’re lovely.
Years pass. Progress in LGBTQ rights continues. Not enough, but more than I ever expected.
The presidency is stolen from Hillary Clinton, and the thief starts overturning gay rights protections. His fellow evil bastards start writing laws to make sure that LGBTQ people will always be second-class citizens and often in physical danger. (They’re also striving to destroy the entire planet, but that’s a separate story.)
And while I fear that our legal progress will be reversed, I am cautiously confident that our social progress will continue. The younger people I know don’t focus on sexual categories, which is a lovely freedom. Younger people in general are more likely to support same-sex marriage and see us LGBTQ people as, well, people.
I realize that any sort of progress is far from widespread. The conditions for LGBTQ people in most countries are unspeakable. It is a luxury to live in New York City. (Mostly. It’s still quite dangerous to be a transwoman, and anti-LGBTQ violence of all sorts still occurs periodically.)
I am grateful I was born when and where I was. I was born early enough to play solitaire with cards, be excited about getting a color TV, watch bakers roll out bagels by hand, wander on my bicycle (without a helmet!), and have long unscheduled summers.
But I was also born late enough for the gay rights movement, feminism, and an explosion of opportunities for women. And I love my laptop. And streaming movies. And finding old friends on Facebook.
I was born late enough that I get to see women kissing women on TV. I was born early enough that I’ll never take it for granted.
But the best part is that I am here and openly gay. I am a 62-year-old Jewish lesbian. I was not killed in a pogrom or concentration camp. I didn’t die in childbirth. I wasn’t burned as a witch. I wasn’t forced to marry someone I didn’t like or even know. I have had the bliss of being with the woman I loved for years.
In one of my favorite memories, Liz and I are on swings in Balboa Park in San Diego on a beautiful bright spring day. We are looking into each other’s eyes and grinning as we swing higher and higher. And I think, “Wow. I get to have this.”