Around the time "Coming Out Married, Part II" (last post--see below!) ended, I was scheduled to leave for a month-long business trip hundreds of miles from home. My DXH wasn't coming, so I'd have plenty of time to stew about my sexual orientation. I was probably at least bisexual, I was now convinced, but beyond that, I was still confused.
I had very little extra time on my trip. But with what time I did have, I found myself trolling Craigslist W4W. Just to look... You know. To see what was out there. In the back of my head, I thought that I might be able to get the gay "out of my system" by having anonymous sex with some woman, which would let me return to my marriage and live a "normal" life happily ever after.
Guilt was becoming a heavy, constant burden. I hated myself for entertaining the idea of cheating on my DXH. I went so far as to answer an ad and arrange to meet a woman at a cafe. I remember sitting in the dark of my rented car and deciding whether to go in. What stopped me wasn't the fear that I might be a lesbian, but the sadness that flooded me when I thought about violating my marriage vows. That was the closest I came to physically cheating on my DXH. I didn't go into the cafe. Instead, I drove to the far end of the parking lot and sat in my car for over an hour. I thought over my options. On the one hand, I could stay married. On the other, I could kill myself. There only seemed to be two options. Killing myself seemed the better one. I decided it would be the least painful for him if I made it look like an accident. If he thought I'd died randomly, he'd eventually move on. I had promised my psychologist that I would call her if I was feeling suicidal. I did. We talked. I didn't do it, but thought I might do it the following day, or the one after that.
I began looking at flight schedules, trying to put off my return home for as long as possible, and convincing myself that this was necessary for work. Once I realized what my subconscious mind was up to, I knew I had to tell my DXH or I'd never come home. At the time, I thought I lacked the courage to kill myself. Now, I realize that not killing myself took much more courage.
In the end, I told him on the phone. I had to. I went to the top floor of a deserted shopping mall early one morning and sat in the empty food court with my cell phone shaking in my hands. After saying that I had something important to tell him, I think my exact words were, "I think I might not be entirely straight."
I will always be grateful for my DXH's first reaction. He thanked me for telling him, and said it must have been unbelievably hard to carry that around with me. He asked if I was a lesbian, and I told him, truthfully, that I didn't know. I thought I was probably bisexual. I fervently hoped I was bisexual. I told him it was probably just a realization I needed to have. Once I worked through it, I thought, we'd probably be okay. Two days later, I was on a plane, headed home.
To be continued...
(If you didn't read my last post, it's probably best to start with that one.)
...Where was I? So, anything sexual between me and the DXH* was getting less and less frequent. I was becoming extremely frustrated with myself. Why wasn't I interested? It wasn't because of the DXH--he was as great (and handsome!) as ever, plus ridiculously patient. He didn't want to push it--he just wanted me to feel better.
The following year, we moved to a new town, and I started a grad school program, which I had thought I'd enjoy, but hated--and hated myself for hating, which (of course) is a totally healthy outlook. This made me even more anxious, and I was convinced I'd made an irreversible, horrible mistake by starting this new (expensive) program. Things were dark. I'd stay up for hours, hating my work and plagued by guilt that I was a crappy wife. I stopped reading fiction (one of my great joys in life), and also stopped doing any kind of art (another great joy).
And then I met this woman.**
She was a barista at a coffee shop I frequented, and also taught community college math (how's that for an interesting combo?). She was seven years older than me, and for reasons I couldn't figure out, I was interested in everything about her. I told myself it was just a straight girl-crush, and that these things happened all the time; even the New York Times said so. Still, there was the fact that when she walked into a room, I stopped breathing. There was the fact that for reasons that eluded me, I couldn't stop thinking about her hands.
Well, I thought... I might be just a teensy, tiny, miniscule bit bisexual-ish. So what? Lots of people were partly bisexual, right? No big deal. I didn't act on it. She was married; I was married. We hung out a lot. Nothing happened. I don't think either of us really wanted it to.
But once I let that door in my mind crack open the slightest amount, my true sexual orientation elbowed its way in, little by little. My inability to control my thoughts drove me crazy. It was like a one-way ratchet: I could become more interested in women, but not less interested. I decided the solution was to stop it in its tracks, to not let it get worse. I hadn't breathed a word of my struggle to anyone at this point. Sexual thoughts about women? HELL no--I didn't let my mind go there. I buckled down. I studied more. I got a new occupation. I found a terrific therapist. (I made sure she was trained in LGBT stuff just in case that was contributing to my depression, which I highly doubted.)
And then I met this other woman.
I'd actually known her before. She was a photographer from Brooklyn who had done some work I'd written about for an online magazine. Our paths crossed again when she had an opening at a gallery in the city where I live, and from that reconnection, we started spending time together occasionally, a couple hours in a used bookstore or chatting away at a coffee shop. Eventually I found myself thinking about her more frequently. Not this again, I thought--I can't handle another one! I tried to stop myself from thinking about her romantically, but it was tough. She lived with her girlfriend, which was another layer of insulation against the possibility of anything untoward happening between us. Ah, but life is not so simple, is it?
One evening, this woman and I went out to a bar with some friends. My DXH was home with a cold and her girlfriend was out of town for the weekend. We all had a few pints of beer, and the others left early. This woman and I weren't 100% sober enough to drive yet, so we decided to walk off my Fat Tires and her Pilsner Urquells. I don't remember what we talked about, only that as we passed people on the street, I hoped they would think we were together. I felt guilty--not because I thought homosexuality was wrong, but because I was married. Eventually, we came upon a park, where we sat and talked. The sprinklers came on. We didn't move. We talked some more. There was a moment of silence when I wanted more than anything in the world to kiss this woman. In that moment, I realized: Oh, so that's what that's for. By "that," I mean some piece inside me--some indescribable component that had always been sitting there, unused, in my head and heart. It clicked into place and was suddenly a fully activated part of me. Uh-oh, I thought. Uh-oh. I don't know if this woman wanted to kiss me, too. I think she did. I guess I'll never know. I've replayed that night many times in my head, wondering what would have happened if I'd done it.
But the moment passed and was gone. I walked her to her car and left, full of wonder at this new realization, and full of regret for my inaction (plus, full of guilt for the regret--I was becoming a veritable expert on guilt by now). Later, I wanted to tell this woman how I felt, but I couldn't. Soon, she began to treat me coldly, and ground our burgeoning friendship to a halt. Much later, I realized that maybe she had been interested in me and decided to cut me off before anything happened. But at the time, I decided she hated me, which caused me a ton of pain. And I was also disturbed that this THING inside me had been unlocked. So... was I a lesbian?
To be continued... Next up: Craigslist! Suicide! More!
* Someone asked me if my DXH knows I'm posting all this, and is okay with it. Yes, and yes!
** BTW, I reserve the right to make up immaterial details.
I've been putting this off for a long time. But a few evenings ago, something about the alignment of the rain and the fall chill and the smell of damp earth outside made me realize that it's time to start writing about my personal coming out story. I'm going to do so in four or five separate installments.
As my regular readers know, I used to be married to a man. This shocks people who meet me now, but I made for a somewhat convincing straight woman. I loved my husband dearly, and had few doubts about marrying him even though I was relatively young (23-24). Back then, I didn't think that I might be gay. Sure, there were signs, but the idea of kissing another woman actually kind of grossed me out. (Looking back, I think this was because I didn't know any soft butchy women, which turned out to be my type.)
Beginning right after I got engaged to the DXH (that's "dear ex-husband" for the uninitiated), I started to feel like there was something deeply and irrevocably wrong with me. There were days when I would retreat to my bedroom and cry for hours. I had no idea why. I only knew I felt hopeless. I had felt for a while like there was a thin film around my whole body, separating me from other people like the cell membranes I learned about in high school biology. I figured this was fairly normal for us introspective types, but I saw a doctor (a general practitioner) about the sudden crying. He prescribed Effexor; I took it; the tears subsided. I figured a therapist would be a waste of time and money, so I didn't bother to look for one.
Despite my occasional depressed days, I was overjoyed to marry the DXH, and the wedding was one of the happiest days of my life. We were surrounded by friends and family, and I felt like I was becoming part of this neat club known as "married life." People gave us advice, congratulations, and a new set of dishes. I felt like I was part of this big tradition, and I was especially pleased at how great it felt to be following in my parents' footsteps, and how proud they seemed of me. I didn't have doubts about my love for this guy, so I didn't have doubts about marrying him.
The bad stuff started slowly. Effexor seemed to be worsening my feeling of separation from other people. (Someone I was working with died abruptly and I couldn't cry!) Tired of my dulled emotions, I quit the Effexor cold turkey. (This was before all that research came out about Effexor withdrawal and suicide.) Two days later, I was sitting on the bathroom floor, overcome by incredibly strong self-harming impulses. Thankfully, the DXH came home before anything happened, and nursed me through the next couple of days. [Note: never go off of meds without a doctor's supervision.]
Things settled a bit. Some days I would grow despondent and not know why, but much of the time I was okay. My emotions eventually sharpened back to their pre-medication state, but as this happened, the depression returned too, and so did my terrible conviction that there was something wrong with me.
The DXH and I had never had what I'd call a raucous sex life, but at least in the beginning, it had been pretty good. Sex wasn't as earth-shattering as the movies promised, but it was an enjoyable enough form of intimacy. (Sometimes I felt kind of disembodied, almost like my brain was watching itself and thinking, "Hmm. That's interesting. Now you are having sex." I thought this was normal.) But in the two years after we got married, I became completely uninterested in physical intimacy. We first chalked this up to the Effexor (which extinguished my sex drive), then to my birth control pills...
...To be continued. Next up: more sex, plus BW's first female crushes.
Most of the girls where I grew up started wearing make-up in middle school. By the start of high school, I still wasn't on the bandwagon. I didn't understand why girls were expected to wear make-up, since boys didn't have to--and goodness knows there were dozens of boys at my high school whose goth-pale or acne-addled complexions would have been improved by a touch of foundation. But since no one expected them to paint over their faces' imperfections, I was inclined to exhibit my own just as freely.
Understanding that I was a pretty logical kid, my mom chalked up my aversion to makeup (as well as to carrying a purse) as old-fashioned, practical minimalism. As my overloaded tie rack now reveals, this was off the mark, but given the evidence available at the time, it was not an unreasonable hypothesis. Although my mom didn't want me to be Barbielicious or anything, she sometimes commented on my lack of interest in makeup--or, as she put it, in "putting on a little color." E.g. (pleadingly): "Don't you want to put on a little color?!?"
Playing to my "minimalism," my mom would try to give me makeup survival tips. "Instead of carrying around separate blush, you can just put a dab of lipstick on each cheek and rub it in," she might advise conspiratorially. Or: "In a pinch, you can always use mascara to darken your eyebrows."
I was highly doubtful that I would ever be in a "pinch" involving insufficiently dark eyebrows. But gamely, I gave both strategies a shot. I wore makeup on and off for several years. Putting it on always felt like putting on a costume, but I could look at myself in the mirror and see that I was pulling off a conventionally feminine look. I figured that this was how all women felt--that it was one of those burdens that she-creatures have to bear, like menstruation or writing thank-you notes.
When I was married to my DXH, every time I applied what seemed to me a LOT of makeup, I'd ask him if he thought it was okay.
DXH: Is what okay?
BW: My makeup. Too much?
DXH [looking at me; tilting head]: You're wearing makeup?
BW: Obviously, YES. And possibly way too much of it.
DXH [squinting]: I literally cannot tell that you're wearing any makeup.
BW: I don't believe you. I look like a clown.
DXH: Sweetie, what seems to you like a LOT of makeup is not exactly what the rest of the world considers a LOT of makeup.
BW: Oh. Well, now I just feel stupid.
DXH: Sorry. In that case, you look like a two-dollar whore.
As a kid, I tried to humor my mom's suggestions to look more feminine, which often involved compromise on both our parts. Because I threw a huge fit at the prospect of putting on a skirt, my mom tried to persuade me that culottes (thanks to Bee Listy for the correct spelling) were JUST like shorts. "Then why can't I just wear SHORTS?" I'd ask, incredulous. (My mom and I are still very close, by the way--which is proof that, despite occasional frustrations on both sides, a butch dyke NPR-loving daughter and a conservative, Fox-News-loving parent can still find enough common ground to want to spend time together.)
It wasn't that I objected to the style of the culottes (though I should have). Nor were they physically uncomfortable; they felt like well-ventilated shorts. But there was something I hated about other people seeing me in a skirt. It felt wrong, uncomfortable, humiliating. Some butches say that in childhood, they "felt like a boy," and didn't want people to see them in the "wrong" clothes. But I didn't feel like a boy; I felt like a girl who wanted to wear pants and a tie and have everyone think I looked dandy that way. From a very young age, I wanted sex and gender to get a divorce.
(A brief aside: This is what I mean when I say that there's something "visceral" about masculinity. My DGF doesn't like me to use the word "masculinity." She says it's too tied to maleness, and that part of the fun of being a butch woman is turning maleness on its head by co-opting its trappings. But for me, "masculinity" refers to a style of dress and way of being that is not tied to biological sex--although for the rest of the world, there happens to be a very strong correlation. For me, maybe masculinity is more of an aesthetic?)
Anyhow, the other day, for the first time in years, I slapped on a touch of makeup, just to see what it felt like. And you know what? A bit of lipstick and some eyeliner looked kind of kickass with my masculine glasses, haircut, and clothing. It was enough of a pain that I don't plan to do it again anytime soon. But it was pretty funny that after so many years of resisting makeup, it finally didn't feel "wrong."
It makes perfect sense, though, doesn't it? Since I'm at a point where I feel free to dress as masculine as I want to, a tube of lipstick isn't a threat to my core being. It's just--well--a little color.
For some queer women, “butch” means short hair and sensible shoes. For others, it means sexual dominance. For still others, it’s an attitude or a way of life. To paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous take on pornography, the collective wisdom on defining butchness can be boiled down no further than: “I know it when I see it.” So why bother to identify as “butch” at all if there are so many possible definitions?
My DGF argues that it’s pointless to label one's self (ironic that she’s dating someone whose blog does exactly that, eh?), but I disagree. When I first came out, I was scared of the word "butch." I thought it meant that I wanted to be a man (I don’t), or that I could fix cars (I can’t), or that I’m attracted to femmes (I’m not). But since then, I’ve come to embrace the word "butch." Here are five reasons why:
1. Identifying as butch made me feel less deviant. Instead of seeing myself as "failing" at being a woman, I could see myself "succeeding" at being a different kind of woman. I could finally put a name to my collection of “defects”: wearing cargo pants, feeling like an alien every time I opened a women’s magazine, or finding it inexplicably crucial that I learn to tie a tie. Viewed through this lens, countless moments of frustration and discomfort suddenly made sense. Before identifying as butch, I had a collection of random dots; when I connected them, they finally made a picture.
2. I wasn’t alone. Putting a name to my masculine-of-center femininity allowed me to identify others with similar traits--most importantly, to find others whose experiences echoed mine. In some fundamental respect, there were people like me. Even before I had butch buddies of my own, simply knowing that other butches existed made me feel less alone.
3. It helped develop my fashion sense. Wearing women’s clothes made me feel like I was in drag. This was part of the "defectiveness" I mention above; I just wasn't "doing" attractiveness properly. But "butch" put a name to my style and categorized me as a possible recipient of others' sexual interest (though not my DXH's) even if I dressed as I wanted to! Clothes became a source of fun rather than frustration once I realized I could be myself and look attractive in some recognized "sense" (albeit not a conventional one). These days, I even enjoy shopping with my girlier female friends for their clothes, because I feel zero pressure to look like them.
4. It helped me define my attraction to others. I spent a long time believing that if I wasn’t attracted to “feminine” women, I couldn’t be a lesbian. If Rachel Maddow made me swoon, but Rachel McAdams left me cold, I was attracted to masculine people... So, I reasoned, I was actually straight. (This reasoning may strike some of you as silly, but I performed all kinds of mental gymnastics to convince myself I wasn’t gay.) Recognizing “butch” as a category showed me that there was a common denominator among the objects of my attraction. Yes, I was attracted to women--specifically, women of a certain type. This helped me come to terms with my sexual orientation.
5. It gave me a useful vocabulary. "Butch" is a great shorthand to express the idea of "a chick who looks sort of, but not really, like a dude," which was frequently something I wanted to express. The term also came with useful attendant vocabulary, such as "bro date" (hanging out with a platonic buddy who also sort of, but not really, looks like a dude), "boi" (a queer woman who looks like a gay male high schooler) and "soft butch" (somewhere between androgynous and butch, which I studiously practiced through online use of the phrase, "soft butch seeks same").
Theoretically, I didn't need to identify as "butch" to accomplish any of this. And maybe if I had been more confident, I wouldn't have. But we are social creatures, and the word "butch" validated aspects of me that had never felt valid. Ironically, putting a label on myself was pretty darn liberating.