The first time I was called a faggot, I was in fifth grade. It was a Monday, and we were getting off the bus heading into school for the day. I was 11 and one of my classmates must’ve learned a new word from his parents that weekend. I didn’t know what that word meant (and I don’t think he did either), but I knew it wasn’t a compliment. I denied it, probably said something rude back, and quietly looked it up in a dictionary when I got home. Ironically, I preferred that moniker to some of the other names I was called on the playground. As I grew up, and into my sexuality, I’ve been called dyke more times than I can recall, and each time I am filled with fear before it turns to rage. But that fear is always present.
The librarians in my hometown were the first people in my community that knew I was gay. I spent quite a bit of time reading books about drag queens, lesbian short stories, and watched Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ over and over again. Beautiful Thing was the first movie I saw about homosexuals my age and that movie will always have a special place in my heart. Sometimes I would catch a knowing look exchanged between the librarians, and I was afraid they would tell everyone. I started checking out massive amounts of books and movies, sneaking the gay titles into the middle of the stack. I don’t think they cared, but I do think they knew.
In the 80s and 90s, gay people in the media were very stereotypical. Gay men were either swishy sissies or predatory leather daddies (though I didn’t have that terminology at the time). Lesbians all had short haircuts (or mullets, depending on the decade) and “wore comfortable shoes.” I thought that if you wanted to be a lesbian, you had to have a short haircut, so that’s what I did. I shaved my head, put on some combat boots, and bought a necklace with rainbow rings on it. Back then, I thought the rainbow was a discreet way to let the other gays know that “I’M GAY TOO!!” I’m not so sure how discreet it was, but my parents didn’t know what the rainbow meant. Every time I went into the city I loitered outside businesses that I thought lesbians hung out in. I was praying that some dyke or drag queen would see me, and talk to me. Invite me to the secret homo BBQs. Take me under her wing and show me how to be gay. That never happened; I had to bumble around like everyone else that wasn’t a character in a movie.
I came out to my mother when I was 14. We didn’t get along very well, and I think I told her so I could be a martyr. All of the movies and books about gay people at that time told me that when you come out, your parents will disown you and you get to live with a chip on your shoulder for the rest of your life. I suppose that appealed to me, since my comfortable suburban childhood was fairly free of strife. However, my mother did NOT kick me out. She said she knew, and looking back, it wasn’t a very well-kept secret. She agreed to let me tell my father in my own time, I still wasn’t allowed to have boys over for a sleepover, and our uncomfortable mother-teenage daughter relationship continued along its natural course. I remember being disappointed. I was an idiot.
The first time I ever went to a gay bar, I was 18. I was in Vegas for work, and some coworkers and I had heard about a bar that I could probably get into (being a minor). Times were a bit different then, and bouncers weren’t as diligent about carding. The rule of the game was to be quiet, get in, and send someone of age to the bar to get beers. Once you had a drink in your hand, you were home free. So the first moments were nerve-wracking; hoping I didn’t get caught and kicked out or in worse trouble. I didn’t even get to focus on my excitement of being in a bona fide gay institution.
I remember, as the night wore on, becoming more comfortable and just looking around the room with a goofy grin on my face. These were my people. In the flesh. They weren’t characters in a book or a movie that I secretly checked out from the library. Men and women came into the bar like it was Noah’s Ark, two by two, and I swear I remember everyone standing straighter once they crossed the threshold.
The music started, and slowly the dance floor filled up. It was a country line-dancing bar, and I didn’t know the steps. I was young, eager, and tried anyway. A kind drag queen helped teach me and I knew I was home. I haven’t felt joy like that very often and it’s a warm memory. Seeing yourself reflected in another for the first time is indescribable. I knew I was safe there, and with family; it wasn’t just a clever secret code.
Orlando breaks my heart. My brain keeps screaming “IT COULD HAVE BEEN YOU” on a loop every time I see a rainbow flag, or read an article about the shooter. I see the support around the world, and my chest tightens. I hear strangers say the victims at Pulse deserved to die, and tears fall. Gay bars are supposed to be safe. The world is a violent and scary place, but I always felt secure in a gay bar (though sometimes the parking lots and garages made me nervous). Part of the reason I no longer have a short haircut is I want to feel as safe as I can everywhere I go. My femme invisibility keeps me safer, yet envious of the butch visibility. I felt lucky to be attending these establishments in this time of our history; after regular police raids and anti cross-dressing laws. If I had been born in a different time, I probably would have been one of the many women arrested for wearing a suit and tie. I possibly would have had a special friend I would have traded clothes with as soon as we were safely inside the club.
Am I supposed to stay in my home and distance myself from the gay community because it’s dangerous? Or should I become MORE visible, facing my fear and presenting a united front with others in my community; put myself in danger? I let myself become complacent when leaving gay bars, not looking over my shoulder as much as I should. Living in a liberal city on the west coast, and in a “gay” neighborhood, I became less and less aware of my surroundings. I was more worried about violence done to me for being a woman than for being a homosexual.
When I first heard about the Orlando massacre, there was a part of me that wasn’t surprised. Mass shootings happen far too often in our country, and we have become almost desensitized to the horror. That being said, it is a different sort of shock when it’s your community. I have never been to Pulse, and I didn’t know any of the victims.
But I could have.