No Words for This: Coming Out in the Late 80s
There was always pressure to like boys– to get a boyfriend, fall in love, marry, and have babies. I can’t remember a time of my life when I did not feel that pressure. Church, school, magazines, cartoons, movies, toys, games, sitcoms, and plays not only encouraged me to be straight, they told me being straight was the only option. I was an obedient child. I did what I was told. But even as I had crushes on boys, I also had a different feeling I did not understand about certain girls. Hope, excitement, joy… like grape-flavored candy to a kid in summer.
I felt this way about very few girls, but when I felt it, it was a direct hit. I felt it for a couple of girls on my softball teams, but more often I felt “that way” about people on TV—such as Jodie Foster, Tatum O’Neal, Kristy McNichol, or Nancy McKeon—most of whom ended up coming out later in life.
I was always very excited about girl-centered books, music, and culture. Any show about a gutsy girl and her best friend against the world was an instant favorite. The Trouble with Angels, “Kate and Allie”, “Rags to Riches”, and my favorite of all time, Annie, were the shows that set off a bell in my heart as if to say, “Yes. This is me.”
I never called these feelings “crushes” because no one ever told me you could get crushes on girls; I just thought I really, REALLY wanted to be friends with them. I knew these girls were different, like me, but I didn’t know exactly how. It also never occurred to me that these feelings could be perceived as wrong or bad, especially since I thought everyone felt the way I did. I had never heard the word “lesbian” or “homosexual” either, despite bullying refrains of “homo,” “queer bait,” and the like.
As a kid, I’d had sexual feelings, but when I hit adolescence, all of my sexual feelings went underground. I felt asexual, and even though I was sexually active with my boyfriend, sex itself was rather revolting to me at the time. I didn’t understand at all why someone would want to do it, but I saw it as my duty.
But everything changed when I became friends with Jamie Rogers.
What’s really strange is that in high school I hated girls—I found most girls to be insipid and boring. Poofy hair, high-waisted jeans with front pleats, stinky flowery perfume…. No. Not for me.
Jamie Rogers wasn’t like that. She was like me.
In the summer of 1989, a guy in our class named Jim heard I was a vegetarian and invited me to distribute animal rights flyers with him and Jamie at the town’s Oktoberfest. I hesitated to go because Jamie had been a popular jock and “mean girl” in middle school, and I had avoided her whenever possible. But despite my apprehension, I agreed.
The evening before the Oktoberfest, I met Jim and Jamie at our tent to set up the booth. Jamie and I hung back a bit, our former social strata preventing our new selves from connecting. I feigned cool indifference while sweating paranoia. Jim had the booth under control, so Jamie and I went for a short walk on the nearby train tracks.
Our feet leapt from tie to tie on the tracks, chunky black men’s shoes softening each step. Jamie picked up a stick and started whittling it as we walked. I remember how sure I felt of my footing, as if my lanky men’s jeans held the key to my independence, slung low around my hips. The crisp October air made everything seem new, even though fall is the season with the darkest days.
Jamie and I bonded over books (e.e. cummings, Rod McKuen); movies (Pretty in Pink, Harold and Maude); and music (The Smiths, The Cure). We talked shit about people we hated (and there were plenty). “You do that? I do that too!” was the metronome tic that kept our talk apace.
As the years went by, we frequented concerts and dance clubs, built bon fires and planted trees, and saved our lunch money for thrift stores and bookstores. We even wrote to each other in a hard-back composition book which we exchanged between classes.
Ours was a culture of two. Any third party who tried to infiltrate our kingdom was roundly rejected sooner or later, not with any malice, but simply because we were so ionized that we had no time or patience to explain ourselves to anyone else.
I began to feel possessive of Jamie, and jealous of her bland, empty-headed boyfriend, who clearly was only for show. Jamie and I would even bond over the details of our sex lives with our boyfriends. I thought I was in love with my boyfriend, but as my feelings for Jamie grew, I realized that the way I felt about her was the way I was supposed to feel about him—about boys.
I realized I was in love with Jamie when my family went away for a weekend trip, and she stayed with me overnight. We invited our boyfriends over, and all I could think about, watching her boyfriend lie on top of her, was getting the guys to leave so she and I could be alone. I think she picked up on my feelings because she seemed a little freaked out the next day. (Years later, Jamie revealed that she’d had similar affections for me at the time, but was so closed and gamey back then that nothing ever happened between us.)
As I discovered my feelings for Jamie, I sought information and support to deal with them, but there was none to be found in our area. In 1990, the subject of “homosexuality” was not even listed in the card catalog of our public library, and the mall bookstore did not carry books about it either. I had to drive my mom’s car fifteen miles (which she never wanted me to do) to find the “homosexuality section” at the county library, where I found about 10 items—mostly books on 1970s gay liberation, biographies of Oscar Wilde, and a book of quotes by Quentin Crisp. I learned a lot about the birth of the modern gay rights movement, but very little that I could translate into my small-town, teenage life. There were no books about lesbians at this library, let alone lesbian teenagers. Thank goodness Time and Newsweek covered some ACT-UP and Queer Nation protests; otherwise I would have found nothing current at all.
After my trip to the library, I decided to do my senior research paper on gay and lesbian rights. My paper was the talk of the school, and I was being bullied daily.
My parents were not happy about my paper topic, but pretty much kept their opinions to themselves. While visiting colleges with them in October of 1991, I met my first lesbian. It was National Coming Out Day, and a small crowd of queer students had gathered on campus with signs about gay pride. My dad pointed them out, and I approached the group eager to finally meet some real “homosexuals.” A bisexual girl named Vanessa who looked like Jamie gave me a pink triangle gay rights pin, which I cherish and still wear.
Vanessa also introduced me to Barb, a women’s studies professor, who is the first lesbian I ever met. Barb copied all kinds of feminist articles for me, and gave me the book Torch Song Trilogy, informing me that it was an essential part of gay culture. As part of my senior research paper, I had to interview two people, and Barb agreed to be one of them.
Meanwhile, I was tending to a broken heart: Jamie had started dating my ex-boyfriend and close male friend, Alex. Devastatingly, I had told Alex of my feelings for Jamie just days before they started dating, so it was a double-betrayal. It actually took me years to get over that, and I honestly still feel a pang when I think about it.
When I interviewed Barb for my paper, I confided in her about the Jamie-Alex situation. She spoke at length about feminist theory and how “classic” it is for a man to come between two strong women. I instantly fell in love with feminist theory.
In a way, because I was always expected to like boys, there was no revelation in my relationships with them. I was always anticipating the next guy, so it never surprised me when I started dating one. By contrast, my feelings for girls were allowed to develop at their own rate, over time, free from the constant quest to find one. I could linger in crushes and amorphous longing at my leisure, my feelings a discovery, a gift. When I was around Jamie I felt compelled to touch her hair, her face… it felt totally normal, and totally thrilling. I understood for the first time why someone would want to have sex—as a natural extension of their strong affection and desire to be close to someone– and how it could happen as effortlessly as breathing.