// what does a lesbian bring to a second date—with a man?
swept up and the close bodies chanting/ She told me not to fuck with straight girls/ She told me not to take pills//
Eugene deciduous/ that miniskirt again// What about letting him make you a straight girl//
– “Programs for Exceptional,” last section of sped
My personal library had reached an oppressive size. My partner and I could not find enough space in our two-room condo to accommodate the artifacts of our respective English degrees. I scanned the shelves in search of possible sacrifices: Radical Feminism, Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation, Queer 13. Ann Bannon’s complete Beebo Brinker series, including an autographed copy a former girlfriend gave me, the cornerstone of my Barnard undergraduate thesis about 1950s lesbian class relations—I couldn’t part with these.
And Sappho Goes to Law School, acquired sometime before my move to Oakland to attend graduate school at Mills, my second women’s college. A friend in law school had recently married her female partner. Maybe I could give it to her. But had I ever read this one? I sat down to skim the introduction.
Legal scholar Ruthann Robson published the book in 1998. She opens by exploring the value of a lesbian Supreme Court justice, the possibility that such a justice would support abortion rights; recognize equal protection rights of all minority groups; declare capital punishment unconstitutional; use judicial interpretation, not strict construction—in short, would unwaveringly embody liberal lesbian-feminism.
Robson wonders, though, whether identity politics carry weight; is “lesbian” not only a sexual descriptor but also—maybe even more so—a political descriptor? Are lesbians inherently liberal progressives given their experiences in a minority group? Postmodernists dispute whether the term “lesbian” signifies anything. Even allowing that “lesbian” does, however loosely and imperfectly, describe a group of people, who can argue that there is no such thing as a lesbian Republican? A lesbian racist? A lesbian pro-lifer?
Robson concludes Lesbian is a normative theory, not a descriptive label. To identify as a lesbian is, on one level, to compare oneself to a prescribed model; the closer the imperfect lesbian measures up to that liberal feminist archetype, the more politically correct. The normative ideal lesbian could make progressive political changes if nominated to the court, but in practice, there are all kinds of lesbians—even self-hating, homophobic ones who might serve as token nominees but block equality for gay citizens.
I finished the chapter and wondered, what about me? I got involved with my first long-term girlfriend before I could legally drive. I was one of only a couple of students to come out at my high school, and I stayed out into adulthood.
Until I met the man I would marry.
When my husband and I first got together, a close friend asked, in all seriousness, “What are you now?” And I thought, in all seriousness, “a lesbian with a boyfriend.”
That identity might sound like an oxymoron, but for me, “heterosexual” clinically describes sexual pairing (male with female), while “lesbian” is a complex identity I came to embrace over more than a decade. Lesbianism has political-cultural implications forged in experience and belief, not just sexual practice. I identified as lesbian but married heterosexually.
When I first came out, people talked about the LGB community—lesbian, gay, and bisexual. The acronym later blossomed into LGBTQQI, representing plural communities, and Queer, a beyond-category. I had no desire to appropriate identity from sexually practicing lesbians, but being culturally gay and suddenly clinically ungay, I found myself wondering if there might be room for other lesbianisms.
America’s love for dichotomy aside, I did not convert from gay to straight. I didn’t feel compelled to date men, though I’ve experienced homophobia: In Chicago, a truckload of men pulled alongside my then-girlfriend and me as we exited a movie, and commanded us to kiss. A man on the New York subway circled his hands near my throat, turned to his female companion, and said, “You don’t know how much I want to strangle dykes.”
If you are like many lesbians I know, you can fill in your own “and so on.” Far from making me want to be straight, these run-ins with bigotry and physical threat fortified my lesbian identity and sense of personal-political struggle. At an age before subtlety prevailed, I even considered myself a card-carrying manhater for a time. Lesbians could empathize with my battle stories when straight friends could only apologize.
I went to Barnard as an undergraduate in large part because I imagined I’d find a lesbian-feminist community. I’d spent high school longingly recognizing women with shaved heads or tongue piercings, women with hands in the back pockets of each other’s Carhartts. I moved from Seattle to New York, shaved my head, got my tongue pierced, wore men’s clothing. I belonged to a visually identifiable community. Straight or gay, people could pick me out on the subway.
* * *
Greg was a fellow writing center TA in Mills College’s co-ed graduate program. Our shifts overlapped one day per week, and I found myself rushing from class to the center in the hope that he might be free. I started to recognize the crush but pushed it aside, sure that I only enjoyed his intellect. We graduated, and I followed my girlfriend to Chicago.
A year later, we were single. Straying from women wasn’t a calculated choice; I just liked his disarming conversational style and his quirky pop band. I envied his “Planned Parenthood: You Vote Girl” t-shirt. I liked that his broken gaydar worked along the lines of “I think she’s hot. She must be gay.”
Not having much experience hitting on anyone, let alone a man, I gave it my best shot: I invited him to the De Young Museum and then sat on his car when he went to leave, until he realized I wanted to kiss him. Smooth. But it worked.
He’s not macho, but he is unambiguously a straight man, both biologically and by self-identity. All the conversation topics that used to establish common ground were non-starters: The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love? Blank stare. Perfect Sleater-Kinney attendance in the ‘90s, going to the first Lilith Fair, a dozen Indigo Girls shows? Just a vague, polite smile.
The most striking thing about dating a man in a straight world had nothing to do with sex: Walking with Greg, for the first time in my romantic life, I became invisible. My experiences of homophobia had taught me to walk with mental blinders on for the sake of physical and emotional safety. On my first public outings with Greg, though, no one commented or stared. I felt uneasy just the same: I feared I might negate my own coming out.
* * *
A tongue-in-cheek New York Times science headline announces: “No Surprise for Bisexual Men: Report Indicates They Exist.” On one level, of course they exist, and of course they know they exist. Scientific data does not physically create them. On another level, though, lie Robson’s questions of identity politics. Scientific data may manifest bisexual males in the broader public consciousness, in the minds of those who previously dismissed “fence-sitters” as deluded into thinking they were more than just gay or straight. I know I exist, and I personally know three other committed lesbians who became romantically involved with men.
Still, an internet search for our situation mostly yields porn, rants about delusional lesbians thinking they can be satisfied with men, and reflections from heterosexually married women wondering what might have been. British entertainer Jackie Clune writes on The Daily Mail gossip website that she first chose to be with women for the emotional closeness, and then with men to escape female drama. Most confounding is her assertion that she “certainly” doesn’t think of herself as bisexual, particularly now that she’s married, as that “would be tantamount to admitting” she was “thinking of being unfaithful with a woman.” Identifying as bisexual when married does not imply infidelity with a member of the same sex any more than identifying as heterosexual implies infidelity with other members of the opposite sex, and her piece does nothing to contribute to a theory of heterosexually married lesbian—or even bisexual—identity.
Dan Savage laments his three ex-lesbian friends, of whom one “is married to a man, another is living with a man, and the third is a man.” He wonders, “Gee, what is it about being a dyke that’s so easily shrugged off?” One of his friends explains that unlike most people, she does not consider her partner’s gender “the first and strongest criterion when selecting a lover.” She still considers herself queer because she’s “kinky”; in a polyamorous relationship with her male partner, she continues to sleep with women. Being “poly/bi/kinky and out” places her “outside the norm as surely as being a true-blue lesbian ever did.” In other words, identity still comes down to current sexual practice. She reinforces the notion that lesbianism is primarily a sexual act with secondary political implications, not an identity with associated acts; from this vantage, no matter how long one has been a lesbian before encountering that unusual man, the status is negated with lack of exercise. In the frame of Robson’s discussion, there is normative pressure around politics—be out, feminist, nonjudgmental, pro-equality—but the same-gender sexual act is prerequisite.
* * *
Greg’s brother married his husband during the window before Proposition 8 passed in California. Over dinner one night, we get on the subject of how Greg asked me to move in with him within the first few months of our relationship.
“What does a lesbian bring to a second date?” Greg’s brother-in-law asks.
“A U-Haul,” I respond, like catechism. “What does she bring to a third date?” I ask. He shrugs. “A turkey baster,” I answer.
“What does a gay man bring to a second date?” he asks.
“Second date?” we wonder in unison, eyebrows raised.
Greg and I moved in quickly, got a cat, took turns cooking dinner. Three years later, we got engaged. I’d been engaged once before, to my last girlfriend. At the time, it felt irrelevant that marriage wasn’t “legal”; as strongly as I wanted all couples to have the same recognition, standing, and benefits, I didn’t need then-President Bush’s permission to consider myself married.
With Greg, though, there was a tacit expectation among all of our friends, gay and straight, that we would legally marry, not ceremonially commit. The marriage application itself accentuated just how much the legal sphere had excluded me—and how my new legal identity revolved around current sexual practice, not self-perception or culture. There was one page with two sections: male and female.
We went to the Rent-A-Relic car lot on my lunch break to get it notarized, entered under a huge dinosaur-shaped sign, came home with free souvenir pens. No somber air of ceremony, no protests, no questions about our fitness for marriage. The paper evoked a loss of identity, though nothing had changed between us.
My legal transformation brought back a memory of Pride in Seattle with my first girlfriend. The accepting crowd energized us, but fear her picture might end up in the paper, outing her to her mother, added a nervous edge to the experience. We later learned that our picture had ended up in the paper—in a color spread for Seattle Gay News. There was little danger of her mom finding out; instead we wanted a copy to keep as a souvenir. She double-parked, and I ran in to the local communist bookstore.
“Sorry, we don’t have any left,” the male clerk told me. “But, you know, you should check out this book about communist sexual politics…It talks about how after the revolution, there will be no more need for lesbianism because men and women will truly be equal. Heterosexual relationships will no longer oppress women.”
My friends and I found the idea hilarious: Women didn’t enjoy sleeping with other women; we were just waiting for the revolution. The inevitable political-sexual evolution of lesbians is into unoppressed heterosexuals—yeah, right.
* * *
It would be generous to call the bookstore clerk misguided, and I did not evolve in any Marxist determinist sense. Yet there I was, the unoppressed female partner of my male fiancé, Netflix-bingeing on The L Word while Greg was away for his bachelor party weekend.
In Season 4, Tina arrives to play basketball with her friends, estranged since she left longtime partner Bette for a man. Bette asks, “What are you doing here?,” evoking both the drama of their breakup and the specter of Tina’s boyfriend.
Jenny (white, formerly straight, now militantly political lesbian author): But it’s a lesbian game, Tina.
Kit (Bette’s straight sister, African American): Hey, what about me?
Alice (invoking the power of a minority group to recognize allies, but not for allies to align themselves without permission): You’re an honorary lesbian, Kit, come on.
Tina (representing a political-cultural view of lesbianism): That’s fine, Jenny, I still identify as a lesbian.
Jenny (representing current sexual practice as definitive and prerequisite to politics): Yeah, but when you walk down the street with your boyfriend, holding your boyfriend’s hand, enjoying all the heterosexual privileges, you stop being a lesbian.
Kit (pointing out the lack of analogy between sexual and racial minorities): It depends on what color heterosexual you are that gets you all them privileges.
Shane (the most visible and closest character to “butch”): Tina, I don’t think it makes a goddamn difference.
Helena: If Tina wants to identify as a lesbian, isn’t that her choice?
Alice (invoking sexual identity labels as clinical descriptors): Why don’t you just be a bisexual?
Tina: Actually I think of lesbian as a political identity, to tell you the truth.
Jenny: No, it’s not about who you vote for; it’s about who you fuck.
Later, Tina asks Bette if people agree with Jenny’s dismissal of her as a noncommittal experimenter. Near tears, she says, “I miss being surrounded by women and feeling part of something so secret and special.”
I did not harbor fear about my internal identity or our strength as a couple. As a human valuing community, though, I wondered if our rite of passage would change my place in the wider world. Despite my decade seriously dating women, could one relationship obliterate the implications of all the others? Maybe Jenny was right, and I would irrevocably cross a threshold out of the secret and special.
* * *
We married. Seattle’s weather cleared just in time for our outdoor ceremony. Our friends and family traveled thousands of miles to support us. We cut cake, took pictures, danced. I wore a long, white dress. For years I’d kept my fingernails short, one star in the constellation of visible lesbian identifiers. For the wedding, I grew them out and got a manicure. It felt like a drag take on tradition. It was fun.
To Greg, the wedding was a big party to celebrate our already deep commitment. That celebration was important to me, too, but I also felt a larger change. By entering into this contract, I have both committed to Greg and accepted the consequences of my legal identity not matching self-perception, and, over time, reshaping that perception. The act says, “I love you so much I’m willing to find a new place for myself. I love you much more than the easy delineations I had before. I will navigate the political consequences of my new sexual practice.”
That navigation still resurrects the question: What am I now?
One night last spring, we had dinner at Greg’s parents’ house. His uncle and father talked about their time growing up near Chicago.
“Did you know that woman you used to edit the high school paper with ended up becoming a novelist, and coming out as a lesbian?” Greg’s dad asked.
Greg nudged me. “Dad, would you recognize her pen name if you heard it?” he asked.
“Try me,” his dad said.
“Ann Bannon,” I offered.
“That’s it! That’s the one!” he laughed.
I grinned. “I wrote my senior thesis about her work when I was at Barnard. I still have all of her books.”
“Do you want to meet her?” he asked.
And so through the heterosexual marriage I never imagined, I started a correspondence with one of the writers who shaped my lesbian identity. The present has not purged the past, and I am neither fully initiated into the mainstream nor neatly part of a minority.
This month I celebrated my Washington friends’ long-overdue right to get state marriage licenses, and I thought about the “Freedom to Marry” button pinned to my bag all through high school. When I pictured celebrating that victory as a teenager, I imagined going to City Hall to claim a license of my own, but I’ve already had one for more than a year. Even so, my elation over the historic change reminded me that my community is the people I care about who have stood by me, not something imposed on me or taken away by a label.
In considering why “lesbian” holds more sway than simple sexual description, the beyond-category “Queer” might offer an explanation. Queer’s power lies in its refusal to be pinned down, in its recognition that comforting visual markers are slippery—and secondary, not identity itself. Queer lacks normative prescriptions; it is anti-normative. It evokes theorist Judith Butler’s assertion that “if the category [of lesbian] were to offer no trouble, it would cease to be interesting to me” because there is “pleasure produced by the instability of those categories.”
Queer positively identifies “other than straight,” making space for another identity, not cowering in lack or opposition to heterosexuality. It playfully refuses to obey or stay within clinical confines. It’s unwieldy and gives pause—like a heterosexually married lesbian in print: It says, “We exist.”
(c) Teresa K. Miller 2012
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