I'm thrilled that this excellent piece is kicking off the BW guest post feature! I hope you enjoy it! And if you're interested in contributing, email me.
Baby Dyke; Baby Homophobe
By "Melanie Shortcake," ex-baby dyke extraordinaire
Growing up, I was a closet homophobe. If I felt even a twinge of excitement while looking at a picture of a girl in Seventeen, I’d force myself to stare at the image until I could control my reaction. Then, I’d force a fantasy about one of the male heartthrobs of the 1990s--J.T.T, Ryder Strong, Hanson (admittedly, I could never get off on Hanson, no matter how determined), or Jonathan Brandis (RIP).
Even though I didn’t have any out lesbian friends until late in college, those I did encounter seemed--to my dismay--to pay me special attention, offering a comment on my hairstyle or a masculine wardrobe choice (of which none of my friends approved).
In sixth grade, there was Betsy--the one student who would bring a same-sex date to prom years later. Betsy homed in on me, offering to carry my books and going out of her way to say hi during art, our one shared class.
Betsy, a particularly large 12 year-old, towered over me and weighed at least twice what I did. We were truly polar opposites--she outgoing and voluptuous and me, scrawny and reserved. The art classroom, tucked away in a far corner of the middle school, was equipped with metal shelving on which students dumped their backpacks. Making it to my next class on time proved nearly impossible due to the chaos of navigating the book bag shelf and the distance between the art wing and the rest of the building. One day, I made the strategic error of arriving at the shelf first, only to find my small self cornered by the oncoming horde of much larger preteens. There was no way out. Just as I resigned myself to tardiness, I was swooped up like a small child, backpack and all, carried over the crowd, and placed carefully on the other side. Disoriented, I looked around and realized that my savior had been Betsy. Too shocked to speak, I scampered away. I never spoke to Betsy again.
Lesbians like Betsy seemed to inhabit a world completely foreign to my own, yet on some level, I knew they noticed me because they picked up on what should have been obvious--that was I a baby dyke. Evidence of my this proved ubiquitous despite my determination to be “normal”:
When I was about six years old, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out with a line of underpants. [BW note: TMNT boxers still exist! Yeah!] I eagerly asked my mother to take me to the store for the big purchase. It hadn’t occurred to me that the company had neglected to manufacture Ninja Turtle panties. Did I still want them? asked my mother, concerned I’d feel uncomfortable in boys’ underwear.
Secretly, I wanted them more than ever.
As we paid, I wondered what the cashier thought of me. I hoped she assumed I intended to gift the purchase to my brother. But despite my self-consciousness, I refused a bag and carried the package home, cradled in my arms like a new puppy. When I tore into the plastic, I shyly asked my mother to explain how the boys’ underwear worked--specifically what the extra hole was for--and she patiently outlined the anatomical differences that allowed boys to pee without removing their underwear and pants. Now I was really jealous (my few attempts at peeing standing up had proved utter failures).
At age 11 or 12, when it was clear my breasts needed some control, my mother took me to a local lingerie store. The training bras horrified me, and I begged the crotchety saleslady for something androgynous: “no lace, not pink, and nothing shiny.” She stared at me, baffled by my lack of enthusiasm for both intimate apparel and my burgeoning breast tissue. When she busted into the dressing room with her measuring tape and went in for the kill, I screamed like an assault victim.
We left with a generic sports bra, which I left undisturbed, tags on, in the bottom of my sock drawer for years, toughing through puberty with baggy shirts and chafed nipples. After a year of breast development pain exacerbated by my bra phobia, I concluded that I had cancer. But given how little attention I wished to draw to that general area, I decided to wait for the cancer to spread to a less embarrassing body part before reporting my condition to my mother. By then, it would probably be too late.
In adolescence, I was the target of frequent makeovers. Girls would gather around, proclaiming that I had so much “potential.” Eyebrows were plucked, legs were shaved, hair straightened, makeup applied, heels and dresses awkwardly administered. Though I appreciated the rare (positive) attention of my peers, makeover days felt more like Halloween than the long-lasting transformation of romantic comedies. I never attracted the high school quarterback, and I inevitably made a swift return to baggy jeans and T-shirts.
When I came out in my twenties, I finally shunned the makeovers and embraced my androgynous style. For the first time, I allowed myself to walk, sit, and speak in a way that made me comfortable (studies suggest that women speak significantly higher than their natural voices). Being around other lesbians helped me feel at home in my own skin, but joining the “community” still terrified me. I realize now that I feared lesbians because they embraced qualities about which, in myself, I harbored so much ambivalence.
A recent New York Times editorial explored the intersection between homosexuality and homophobia, citing studies that suggest that many homophobic individuals actually harbor same-sex attraction. In college, before I came out, I was fascinated by a similar study that measured physical arousal in men as they watched straight and gay porn. The homophobic “straight” participants actually exhibited more sexual arousal while watching gay porn than their less homophobic counterparts.
When my father delivers a wildly inappropriate joke at a dinner party, I become irrationally angry. But at a recent Passover Seder, I myself had a few too many glasses of wine and started telling a group of corporate lawyers about strap-on sex. It wasn’t until the next morning (after the wine haze had lifted) that I realized why I get so infuriated at my father. The two of us are just alike, except that he fully embraces this inappropriate side, while I spend hours obsessing over how to phrase the apology letter to my host or hostess. Perhaps the studies are right: Watching someone else embrace a quality that you’ve invested considerable energy into suppressing can drive you a little crazy. Maybe even crazy enough to hate on the gays.