One Year Out

It’s a Friday night.  I’m sitting at a dining room table in a charming brownstone in Brooklyn, drinking wine and snacking on French cheese, surrounded by a circle of my peers.  My professor has invited us to her home for an end-of-semester celebration.  We’re adults now, we can sit around drinking and talking about literature. The world of academia is a world I’ve chosen to spend the next five years in, a world I will probably spend most of my life in, and it’s important to me that I feel at home here.

For me, an essential part of feeling at home is being out.  It’s something I’ve had to work on ever since I graduated from Mount Holyoke, where by the time I was a senior you were pretty much queer until proven straight.  That’s not the world we live in, unfortunately, and when I moved to New York City, I had to decide whether, and how, I would come out.

It didn’t happen all at once.  It started first with friends, and then with fellow students, and then with a not-so-subtle comment about lesbians in my history class, and then with a heart-to-heart with my boss at work, and by the time the spring semester hit, there was no going back.  I was out to my professors, colleagues, and co-workers, and I felt lucky to be in a place where that was possible.

I joke sometimes that I’m the “token queer” in my department, always talking about the social construction of gender and writing papers about lesbians.  I’m proud to be “that feminist,” the one who never lets you get away with a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment, the one who always brings it back to the patriarchy, the one who talks about periods when there are men in the room (the bloodier, the better).

By now, people have more or less gotten used to it.  They laugh at my raunchy jokes, they ask me about my date with the cute girl I’ve been gushing about, they nod politely when I go on a feminist rant in the middle of class.  

And then, they start asking questions.

“When did you know you were gay?” they’ll begin, and then, “How did your parents react?” and before you know it, “How do you have sex?” (or even, in one instance, “Who plays the man?”)

I used to think it was my duty to educate: These poor straight people, I reasoned, they just don’t even know what they’re talking about.  They’ve never talked to a real live queer person.  They just want to understand.  They mean well.

It would be easier if I could just make a blanket statement about these scenarios, say which questions a straight person can ask and which they can’t, what responses to offer and when to offer them. But the truth is, it’s different every time.  It’s different being asked about my coming out story by a new friend when we’re bonding over coffee than it is being asked by a professor who barely knows me in a classroom full of fellow students.

This is what happened last week, as we sat around drinking wine and talking about literature in my professor’s adorable Brooklyn brownstone.  Somehow, we got onto the topic of college.  With tears in my eyes, I told the story of the first time I ever visited Mount Holyoke, the way I fell in love with the college as my parents and I drove past the clock tower on that crisp April evening, the way I felt at home the minute I stepped foot on the campus.

“Were they cool?”  My professor asked, referring to my parents, who I had mentioned only in passing.

“Cool?”  I replied, caught of guard.

“With you being gay?”

I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me.  We hadn’t even been talking about my coming out, and the story I was in the process of telling really had nothing to do with my journey into queerness.  But instead of letting on that my professor’s question–asked completely out of context–had made me feel like the smallest version of myself, I mumbled some kind of a vague response, and changed the subject.

As the evening went on, this continued happening: questions thrown at me as if I were a walking encyclopedia of queerness, eyes turned to me every time anyone mentioned anything that was even remotely “gay,” homophobic jokes veiled as clever jibes.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect my professor, and I appreciate my peers (all straight women, I should add) and the work we’ve done together over the course of the semester, but as the night went on, I began to realize that while everyone else was beginning to feel more and more and home, I was beginning to feel more and more like a stranger, or worse, like nothing more than the search box on google.gay.  

It’s hard for me to write about this night for several reasons.  First of all, I am mortified to think that my professor or peers might someday read this post, and tell me that I was overreacting.  “It was all in good fun,” they might say.  Or worse, “I never said that!”

The second reason why it’s difficult to write this is because it’s about more than just one evening of uncomfortable questioning.  It’s about the fact that coming out can be as terrifying as it is liberating, and that some nights, it’s more of a burden than it is a relief.  

But at the heart of all of this is a deeper question: when you live with an identity that has historically been invisibilized, misunderstood, and antagonized, how do you fight for visibility, understanding, and empathy without losing yourself in the process?  

The reason why it bothered me so much to have my professor ask about my coming out was not because I am ashamed of the story, or because it is too painful to tell.  It bothered me because that story matters to me.  There is no simple answer to the question “how did you come out?”  It is a story that needs time.  It is a story that needs a dedicated listener.  It is a story full of pregnant pauses, colorful details, and vulnerable confessions.  It is a story that I cherish.  It is a story that is profoundly and uniquely my own.

Part of the reason why Marnie and I started this blog in the first place was because we both longed for a space where we could share these stories with readers who cared, with people we trusted, in a space where we had the time and freedom to craft these stories in an intentional and meaningful way.

One of the main reasons why we longed for this kind of space is because we had already experienced it.  For four wonderful years, we had lived at Mount Holyoke, a place where coming out felt more like coming in.  

Thinking back on it now, it’s not so surprising that I teared up while telling my classmates about the first time I ever visited Mount Holyoke.  Because here’s the thing, it wasn’t just the way the clock tower looked that April evening, lit up by the vibrant colors of a New England sunset. It was the fact that, on the first night I ever spent on campus, I found myself sitting at a dining room table in the Rockies, surrounded by a group of friendly, intelligent, beautiful young women, welcomed into a space where storytelling was not just a momentary distraction, but a way of life.  The stories we shared that night, and every night since, were the colorful threads that formed the fabric of community.  What I knew that evening, more than anything else, was that I was already home.

It’s been one year since I left Mount Holyoke, and one year since I started coming out to the wider world.  If I’ve learned anything in that year, it’s that home is a story only you can tell.

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Image courtesy of MHC Archives

An Open Letter to my Straight Friends

Dear Straight Friends,

Recently, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Call Your Girlfriend.  Yes, like the Robyn song.  And no, not “girlfriend” like significant other.  “Girlfriend” like BFF.

For starters, let me just reiterate: please please please stop using the word girlfriend to refer to your BFF.  I’ve fought this battle one too many times, and I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of explaining to you that every time you call your straight best friend your girlfriend, you are erasing me.  You are making it so that every time I call my (hypothetical) lover/romantic partner/significant other my girlfriend, I am never entirely sure people will know what I mean.

I had the uncomfortable experience of explaining this concept to a room full of straight women in one of my classes recently.  Somebody had chosen to translate ses amies as “her girlfriends” (ses amies is the feminine version of “friends” in French; “girlfriend” is a totally different word: petite copine).  I simply could not understand why it was so hard to translate ses amies as “her group of female friends,” or even just “her friends.”  

“It’s confusing,” I said to them.  

“Why?”

“Because when I am talking about my girlfriend, I don’t mean my friend.”

“But obviously she’s not talking about anything romantic.”

So basically, we’re going off of the age-old adage: straight until proven queer.

It seems to me that the use of the word “girlfriend” can be especially difficult for queer folks who identify as femme.  The use of this word to mean “straight best friend” is often justified by the (straight) speaker in the name of context.  Basically: “I’m straight, and I use ‘girlfriend’ to mean friend, and nobody would ever question me when I use ‘girlfriend’ to mean friend, so I should be able to keep using ‘girlfriend’ to mean friend.”

For femmes, it may not be so obvious to the casual listener that “girlfriend” means significant other.  “But, she doesn’t look gay,” the listener might think to herself, “she’s probably just talking about her best friend.”

The easiest way to avoid all of this confusion, and stop erasing queer ladies’ romantic relationships?  How about just using the word friend?  It’s as good a word as any other.  And don’t worry, nobody will think you are any less straight.

Back to my story:

So, I’m listening to this podcast.  Amina and Ann, the “long-distance besties” who created the podcast, are talking to Rebecca Traister, writer of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.  Rebecca is telling the story of Amina and Ann’s friendship, explaining that the intensity of their commitment to one another is really more like a romantic relationship than anything else.  She goes on to explain that a handful of unmarried women are beginning to host celebrations to honor their singledom, a chance to receive all the gifts they missed at the weddings they never had (I’m rolling my eyes now).  

“Basically, it was our platonic lesbian wedding,” one of the women in Rebecca’s book explains.

First thing’s first: there is no such thing as a platonic lesbian wedding.  By saying there is such a thing as a platonic lesbian wedding, you are reinforcing the ages-old, pernicious stereotype that lesbians are really just glorified best friends, who like to have sleepovers with each other and talk about their secrets and sometimes snuggle in their pjs.  

Hey look, I get it: being married to a woman sounds great.  But guess what?  There are people out there who do that.  They’re called lesbians.  And when they sleepover at each other’s houses, they do a lot more than snuggle.  

So please, for the love of God, stop saying that you and your best friend made a pact that you will marry each other if you are both single by your fortieth birthdays.  I spent my whole childhood being taught that a lesbian was a failed heterosexual, and I don’t need you to reinforce that.

And please stop telling me, after I tell you that I’m queer, that you “wish you were gay, because it would be a lot easier just to be with a woman.”  There is nothing “easy” about being queer.  There is nothing easy about the fact that 95% of the women you meet on a daily basis, no matter how smart or beautiful or sympathetic they might be, will never think of you as anything more than a friend.  I wouldn’t trade my queerness for anything, not even that 95%, but that doesn’t give you the right to tell me that my life as a queer woman is oh-so easy.

And just because it’s not easy being queer doesn’t give you the right to say: “I could never be a lesbian.  Women are so high maintenance.”  I hardly even feel like I should have to explain how completely you have internalized the lies of the patriarchy if you are able to form this sentence.  I suggest a rigorous course of psychoanalysis, and a visit to your local feminist bookstore.

Because here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man or straight or queer or trans or bisexual or non-binary: relationships are hard work.  Relationships are high maintenance.  Loving is a terrifying, complicated, courageous act.

And it is even more terrifying, and complicated, and courageous when history refuses to recognize that your love is real.  Or worse, when society tells you that your love is unnatural, abnormal, or just plain wrong.

For centuries, maintaining a facade of “friendship” was a necessary means of survival for queer women, a way to love their partners in the shadows of society’s expectations of female friendship.  But we shouldn’t have to survive this way any more.  We shouldn’t have to live in the shadows of feminized “affection”.  If we are lucky enough to live in environments where we feel safe to express our identities, we shouldn’t have to worry that our straight friends will set us back a hundred years.

So to all of my straight friends, I just want to say: try a little harder.  And if you have any questions about this confusing business of not erasing your queer friends’ identities, you can always just ask them.  After all, that’s what friends are for.

Love,

Hannah

How to Write a Manifesto

Two years ago this March, my best friend and I wrote a manifesto.

It was a brisk spring day in Paris, and we were sitting on the banks of the Seine, equipped with a bottle of cheap rosé, a box of Prince cookies, and a Moleskine notebook.

It was sunset.  Of course it was sunset.  Who writes a manifesto at any other time of day but sunset?

Yes, it was just as picturesque as you might imagine.  The light was orange and pink over the water.  The street lamps of Paris were beginning to light up, one by one, across the city.  

It was perfect, okay?  No need to wax poetic (for once).

We were half a bottle in when the writing began.  I wrote the first sentence, she the second, I the third… and we went on like this for what seemed like hours, passing the notebook silently back and forth, taking sips of wine and watching boats pass on the quiet water.

To understand why, on that particular evening, we had decided to write a manifesto, it is important for you to know a few things:

  1. I had just turned 21: a ripe, rebellious age.
  2. My best friend had been living alone in a small chambre de bonne in Paris for almost two months: plenty of time to ponder existence.
  3. I had just fallen in love with a girl for the first time: love makes you do crazy things.
  4. Wine is cheap in Paris: cheap wine makes you want to write.

So there we are, about to pen the last sentence of our manifesto (switching off every other word now, just to make it extra special), and we see a boat coming towards us on the water.  A man screams at us, waving his hands, but we have no idea what he’s saying.

WHOOSH.

In the boat’s wake, a wall of water surges towards us.  Remember, we are drunk: slow reaction time.  The wave climbs up the concrete wall, splashes over our feet and legs, soaks the notebook, and carries the empty bottle away—not the first or last to be lost in that river.

But the manifesto, that we managed to save.  We could hardly complain.  A manifesto baptized in the waters of the Seine?  The stuff of legend.

In the months to follow, I would repeat this story to my friends, adding certain details, and taking others away.  “Ah, to be young in Paris,” I would conclude, eyes looking dramatically off into the distance.

But the truth is, it wasn’t just the wine, or the sunset, or even Paris that inspired us to write the manifesto.  We wrote it because we truly believed that together, we could make the world a better place.

We weren’t the first to think so, and we certainly aren’t the last.

Feminism, in particular, has a rich history of manifestos.  Dismantling the patriarchy is no piece of cake.  It takes guts, hard work, and a lot of angry (drunken) writing.

Last year, Eileen Myles and Jill Soloway also happened to find themselves in Paris, and also happened to write a pretty badass manifesto.  Their solution to a world of male privilege and domination? For starters, film, television, books, poetry, song-writing and architecture created by men will be outlawed for the next fifty years.  Oh yeah, and “male constructed governing must cease for one hundred years (one century).”

Now that’s what I call a manifesto.

“Wait, wait,” some people might say, “is that really necessary?  Not all men are evil, you know, and they make a lot of good art.”

You better believe Eileen Myles has an answer to this question.  A manifesto, she recently explained, is not meant to be taken literally (although that would be ideal).  A manifesto is meant to be “a piece of abstract art that prods… a movement has to begin with the hyperbolic.” 

It’s been two years since my best friend and I wrote our manifesto on the Seine.  Reading it now, I feel distant from the hopeful energy of that day.  So much has changed since then, so many things have happened that I never could have imagined in that moment.

But it is for that very reason that I am glad the manifesto exists.

We will not shrink, we wrote that day, We will not minimize.  We will not apologize.  We will live as we mean to live, so brightly that our light explodes the sunlight on the river.  And we will move, covered with flowers.

Rereading those words, I am reminded that the hard work  of making the world a better place can never be accomplished alone.  That may seem like a cliché—and it is—but it also happens to be true.

The hard work begins here.  It begins with the people you know.  The people you already love.  It begins with the lives you dream up together, at sunset, in a foreign city.  It begins with the words you share with your best friend on a crinkly, water-soaked page.  It begins with the fantastical, the dramatic, the hyperbolic.

We may not be able to ban men from literature for the next fifty years, or walk around the world covered in flowers.  But we can harness the energy of these beautiful dreams, and stand our ground, even when waves of doubt come rushing towards us.  We can laugh as they splash our feet, and soak our clothes.

We can live as we mean to live: bold, and unafraid.