I just returned from a reading at Bluestockings on Manhattan's Lower East Side. David Boyer, the author/editor of Kings and Queens: Queers at the Prom, read several selections and introduced us to one of the subjects of his book. It's a really interesting book because it doesn't just chronicle same-sex couples who rocked the prom and made the local news by showing up together. It's quite the opposite, actually.
Many of the profiles are of people who either were closeted or like myself, completely unaware of their orientation in high school. They knew they had different feelings towards people of the same gender but couldn't make sense of it. They went to the prom because that's what high school kids are supposed to do. As adults, they retell their stories as acknowledged homosexuals and the accounts range from funny to heartbreaking to empowering.
My favorite part of the evening was when a graduate of the Harvey Milk School, one of the subjects of the book, spoke candidly about his prom experience and his education at this revolutionary institution. I was SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO clueless and SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO far in the closet at that age that I cannot even fathom how he and his classmates can deal with this so honestly and articulately at such a young age.
At 30, I'm still not completely comfortable discussing it. I admire this graduate's strength and sense of self. I'm also a bit envious of it. I'm a reluctant lesbian in a lot of ways. I squirm and recoil when sexuality is politicized. I don't devour essays on gender politics nor do I take to the streets to protest or demand much of anything, really. What I respond to though are events like this where universal feelings and emotions are on the agenda. Who can't relate? Regardless of gender and sexual preference, it's discussions of loneliness, confusion and isolation that cause me to form bonds. I came away from this event with such a sense of attachment to the homosexual community and a real sense of pride. I'll definitely attend various Pride events this weekend but mostly for the social aspects. I connect to the community in other, more intimate ways and often when I least expect it.
It was loneliness, confusion and isolation that ultimately made me come out to my friends. And I couldn't have asked for a more accepting, beautiful bunch of people to share this with. Not one of them disappointed me. Whatever preconceived ideas they had about lesbians quickly melted away. Distaste for butches with bad hair and flannel shirts and a general discomfort with the notion of strap-ons and dental dams gave way to something well beyond stereotypes. They were confronted with something they hadn't experienced in the history of our friendship -- a shattered, broken version of me. I held it together for years without ever letting them get to know the questioning, confused, fractured me. They thought I was impenetrable. I was the strong one who offered the shoulder to cry on. It was never the other way around. I fostered that and worked at it for years. I dealt with my fears alone... until I met my first girlfriend. She, in a sense, rescued me from that scary, desolate place. And then it felt like she abandoned me there.
When that relationship ended, it just leveled me. It was in the midst of summer yet I never felt so cold in all of my life. I dropped about 20 pounds in less than two weeks. I was physically and emotionally frail. I was incapable of keeping up an appearance of strength. Too tired to juggle pronouns and tell lies anymore. Too wrecked to hide behind that feeble wall I had assembled over the years. It was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do but I finally gave in and told my inner circle.
For years, one of my best and oldest friends said horrible, disgusting things about gays in my presence. Naturally, I was scared to tell her but she was part of the select few and I had to. She was on vacation when the break up actually occurred. When she called me to tell me she was home, she knew something was wrong. I tried changing the topic but she gently pressed and persisted. When I spoke, my voice was so tight and small. It shook and quivered. Most of what I said was completely inaudible despite my best attempts to project volume. It finally cracked and made way for the deluge of tears and admissions. I think that phone conversation went on for about five hours. We would have talked longer but both of our cordless phones started beeping as the batteries begged for a charge.
Even though she wasn't in front of me and I couldn't see her, I could see and feel her face soften and her eyes moisten when I finally said the words. She couldn't hug me but her reply of "I know" was the embrace that I needed. She quickly followed up with a blanket apology for all the dumb ass things she'd said throughout the years. It's a truly amazing thing to be acutely aware of a moment when you're experiencing a breakthrough with someone and reaching a new level.
While not as historically significant as the Stonewall riot, what she and I achieved in that moment did so much to promote understanding and tolerance. I've had similar experiences with a few other people since. These completely organic, spontaneous moments have become my form of activism. Some people are like, "No, duh!" and others are surprised. Regardless of the reaction, it's intimate and personal and never forced. Those quiet conversations are as electrifying and invigorating to me as a protest march. Maybe next year I'll take to the streets sporting a t-shirt with a cheeky slogan but for now, I'll continue with the "think globally, act locally" approach.