When I was eight years old, I decided that I was gay.
I believed this despite not knowing what the word “gay” actually meant. I had seen the word in an issue of Mad Magazine, almost completely devoid of context, and I can’t tell you why I got it in my head that “gay” applied to me. I had a sense that it had something to do with sexuality, but I didn’t even really know what sexuality was at that point. I wasn’t attracted to anyone yet. Not boys. Not girls. I was just a little kid who loved Calvin & Hobbes and Duck Tales.
And yet, there it was — a little voice inside my head that told me I was gay.
Learning the definition of a taboo word was easier said than done in 1993. My family was still a couple of years away from our first internet connection, and I wouldn’t have dared make that sort of search on the family computer regardless. There was a massive and ancient dictionary set up on a plinth in a corner of our dining room, but I figured (correctly, probably) that the book wouldn’t contain the information that I craved. The word, I knew, was somewhat recent and colloquial. An out-dated definition wouldn’t do.
I could have asked my parents, but even though I didn’t know what being gay was all about, I had a sense that it was a loaded, uncomfortable, and perhaps even shameful term. I was an incredibly anxious kid as it was, and having an uncomfortable sex talk with my dad sounded worse than swan-diving into a volcano. So I continued to say nothing.
But the nagging feeling of being gay stuck with me, clinging to my burgeoning identity like a barnacle. Eventually, I vowed to ask my doctor about what being gay was all about at my next physical. You know, just in case it was some sort of weird medical problem that needed to be dealt with.
Luckily, that awkward conversation never happened. At some point before that appointment, I was taught (probably by another issue of Mad Magazine) that being gay was what you were called if you were a boy who liked other boys.
This realization baffled me. Even though I was still a few years away from my first legitimate crush on anyone, I knew — knew!! — that I was not and never would be attracted to guys. Was this really what I had been worried about for so long? I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t even CLOSE to being gay!
And yet, I can’t really say that my sexuality blossomed in a straightforward heterosexual male sort of way.
I have a very visceral memory of lying on my living room floor in fifth grade, nestled in the belly of a soft cotton sleeping bag. Two of my friends, each named Nick, lay next to me in sleeping bags of their own. We had just finished watching at least one Star Wars film, probably two, and it was time for the pillow talk portion of our sleep-over to begin in earnest.
One of the Nicks posed a question to the group: what does your ideal girlfriend look like, and what does she do for a living? He made it clear that we weren’t talking about the crushes we had on our classmates, but about the girls that we wanted to end up with once we were old enough. You know. REAL women.
I can’t recall exact details about the women that the Nicks described, but it was instantly clear that they each had a similar type. Blonde. Buxom. Sultry. The kinds of girls who lounge on Lamborghinis, pose on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and fall into bed with James Bond at the end of a long adventure.
Then it was my turn. I had no idea what to say, so I said the truth.
“My girlfriend is going to be a florist,” I said. “Or, like, a girl who runs her own plant nursery. She’s got red hair, and overalls, and she’s very nice to me.”
I don’t think either Nick ever said anything overtly mean to me about this fantasy, but there’s a reason I still have this memory lodged deep inside my brain. It is one of the many memories I have from early adolescence where I overstepped some innate boundary of cishet male bonding without realizing what I had done until it was too late. This would inevitably lead to an immediate feeling of embarrassment and isolation. I began the requisite mental self-flagellation, shaming myself for not mimicking their answers.
Over the next few years, I would become very good at picking up on the “proper” cues for adolescent male behavior; doing what I could to mimic the behavior of a peer group whose approval and acceptance I desperately wanted to have. At the same time, I couldn’t really deny the sorts of women I found attractive. I had a type, and that type was lesbian. I got used to developing a crush on someone, only to find out about a week later that they were gay. Even though I did date some fairly straight women, saying that this happened to about half my crushes might be a pretty conservative estimate.
The first girl I ever loved was a closeted lesbian going through a period of deep teenage questioning. Our relationship took place entirely online, mostly through AIM chats, and we talked a lot about her sexuality in between bursts of expressing our undying love for each other. Even back then, I never felt all that concerned by the fact that she was growing less and less interested in guys. I loved being the lone exception to her sexuality, and it tickled me beyond reason to know that she probably wouldn’t have even talked to me had we met in person instead of on LiveJournal. I felt special. I felt seen.
She wasn’t the only gay girl I dated, either. Several weeks into our relationship, one of my other high school girlfriends confessed to me that she had never really found men either romantically or sexually interesting. Upon further questioning, she admitted that she was probably a lesbian but didn’t want to “rock the boat” with anyone, least of all her family.
We went out for another several months after that.
My favorite story along these lines is from the night I met my future wife. After we spent a decent amount of the evening engaged in conversation, one of my best friends (also a gay woman) told me not to get too attached because she was pretty sure that my future wife was also gay. “Okay,” I said, though secretly it only made me want to pursue her even more.
As it turns out, we were both sort of correct.
During that part of my life, there was a long-running joke among my friends about me being a lesbian. Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with the sorts of women I was interested in. Instead, the joke had to do with my musical taste: Tori Amos, The Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, Rilo Kiley, Dar Williams, Tegan and Sara. Not only were these Lilith Fair staples among my favorite bands, but I kept putting them on mix-tapes for people and feeling surprised that nobody else connected to them the way that I did.
My friends were (and still are) kind people, and I the joke would have died pretty quickly had I not clearly liked it so much. I didn’t think I was ACTUALLY a lesbian, of course — that would be crazy!!! — but I found the comparison unusually flattering. I buried the line “I am a lesbian” in the body of my AIM profile and my LiveJournal profile because it make me feel good to be seen that way by so many of my best friends.
In adulthood, I often felt a pang of longing when I thought about what it might be like to be in a lesbian relationship. If pressed for details, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why the idea appealed to me so much. It had nothing to do with wanting to be with someone other than my wife, who I loved and still love. It wasn’t even about changing our relationship dynamics, which weren’t exactly heteronormative. I’ve always been more of the homemaker, and she’s always been more of the breadwinner, but we’ve tried to avoid letting gender define us, especially when it comes to our interactions with each other. Once, in casual conversation with another couple, my wife an I agreed that if we woke up tomorrow in bodies of the opposite sex, our relationship dynamic would continue on roughly unchanged. Needless to say, our friends did not share this sentiment.
And yet, the idea of purging masculinity from our relationship altogether was tremendously appealing. I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself in those terms until very recently, of course, but it’s one of the many things about myself that came into focus when I accepted the fact that I was trans woman. It wasn’t just the toxic elements of masculinity that I had issues with, it was the whole dang gender. I wanted to be a woman in a relationship with another woman, and the fact that I couldn’t see myself that way burned me up inside in a way that I didn’t yet understand.
Throughout my life, I’ve always felt a deep affinity for the queer community. Most of my best friends in middle school were gay. Most of my best friends in college were also gay, though admittedly I did go to a school where the unofficial motto was, “gay by May or pack a day.” I’ve always been drawn to found families, especially queer found families, and I’ve tried to be a good ally. I haven’t always been successful, especially when I was struggling to purge the toxic male behaviors that I picked up as survival mechanisms in adolescence, but I feel good about how my attitudes and opinions have grown over the past decade.
And yet, I’ve always held myself at a distance from the queer community. That the whole “not liking boys” thing simply Did. Not. Go. Away. As more of my male friends came to accept certain bisexual aspects of themselves that they’d buried under layers of repression, I still found myself stubbornly sitting at the far end of the Kinsey Scale.
It wasn’t even the penises that made men so unattractive to me. Penises didn’t bother me then, and they don’t especially bother me now. It was all that other stuff. The scents. The body hair. That male-coded mode of me-first sexual aggression and dominance. Back then, I didn’t yet realize that these were things that I found upsetting in myself as well as in a potential partner. All I knew is that I couldn’t be gay because I didn’t like dudes, end of story.
Well, end of story until I realized that I was a girl who liked other girls.
A few of the friends I’ve come out to as trans have remarked that it’s sort of like a double coming-out for me. Not only am I transgender, I’m also gay.
I’ve joked with them about this finally explains my taste in music and women. How my celebrity crushes are less Gisele and Kate Moss (are these the supermodels that straight guys are into these days? Maybe not anymore?) and more Laura Dern and Ellen Page. I’ve laughed about the idea of buying a Subaru and getting really into hiking. I already own two cats, and I’d be up for a third if I didn’t think it would upset the cats that I already have.
But part of why I’ve been making those jokes is the intense feeling of both relief and euphoria that I get when thinking about my newfound identity as a gay girl. Just like being trans feels like discovering a puzzle piece at the center of myself, so does the realization that I’m a lesbian. It’s not about the tired stereotypes, or the folk music, or the cool haircuts. It’s about my sense of self finally coming into focus. It’s about knowing who I am and being able to put that knowledge in its proper context. It’s about being able to better define why I do the things I do and like the things I like.
Labels can be harmful when applied non-consensually by external forces, but they can be incredibly affirming when given to yourself. I did not think that I needed this particular label at my age, when most people more or less know who they are, but I have denied enough of myself for long enough that something as simple as this feels damned good. I am a lesbian, and I love being a lesbian.
I am also both excited and a little nervous to finally feel like I belong in the greater community of gay women. Excited because I feel like some cosmic bouncer has finally let me into a club that I’ve always wanted to enter and never knew I could. Nervous because I know that even this little essay is going to be met with vitriol from TERFs and other narrow-minded gatekeepers who do not want to grant me access to women-only spaces. The world can be an unwelcoming place, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable identifying as a lesbian around people who don’t already know me well.
At the same time, I now know who I am in my heart, and that knowledge brings me a surprising amount of joy. That little eight-year-old version of myself knew who I was, even if she didn’t even know that she was a girl yet.
It just took me a while to figure out what the word “gay” meant when it came to describing myself.