BY DANIELLE ARIANO
I’m a lesbian, but not the kind you can see coming from miles away. I don’t have a shaved head or short hair and I don’t wear big bulky clothes or stroll down the street holding hands with my girlfriend (now wife). And I’ve never had a mullet, although I confess that in the fourth grade I sported a hairdo known as a “rat tail” but it was the eighties and they were cool, I swear. It’s fair to say that there are clues to my sexuality — I love brightly colored, ugly, and yes, comfortable shoes; I love men’s watches and I am not particularly girly. Also, as I moved into my thirties, I found that my bare left ring finger in combination with my somewhat “normal” appearance and a decent enough set of boobs becomes a more telling detail for those who may be wondering, “Is she gay?” But still, for all the clues my body and my style of dress might offer, I don’t scream lesbian. At best I whisper it.
Most of the time, people don’t automatically assume that I’m gay, which can be a blessing and a curse all wrapped into one. It’s nice, because there are occasions when I might want my sexuality to remain a secret, like on job interviews, for instance, or the time I was riding on the Cape May Ferry and happened to find myself sitting near a motorcycle gang clad in leather jackets that had Nazi symbols sewn on. On the flip side however, this means that the coming out process never ends. This was a big shock for me early on. For some reason, I’d been naïve enough to think that coming out was something I would have to do only one time with each person that mattered to me. I thought it was something that eventually, I’d be finished with. It never occurred to me that every time I met a new person, I would have to decide when or even if, I should reveal the truth about my sexuality. It was probably the kind of thing that was too overwhelming to deal with in the beginning so, I just stuck my head in the sand and ignored it.
That didn’t last too long though because eventually I discovered that I had to go places and talk to people and sometimes there were personal questions I couldn’t avoid. Like at the gynecologist’s office for instance. When I first came out, never once did I think “What will I tell the gynecologist?” but when I got to my appointment, I realized quite quickly that this topic was kind of unavoidable. My first post-gay visit went something like this:
Are you on birth control?
Are you sexually active?
I paused. My mind filled with questions: Does lesbian sex count as sex? I don’t know. Does anyone know? Who can I ask? I should have prepared better. What do my other lesbian friends say when their gynecologist asks them this question? Don’t be ridiculous. It counts. It has to count.
You’re you using protection then?
Protection? They barely make protection for lesbians unless you want to count dental dams. Who even came up with that name? It sounds like some sort of device that will trap you and leave you half dead in its jaws until someone comes along and either releases you or shoots you dead, out of mercy.
Actually, I’m in a monogamous relationship…
I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally it was out there. But I immediately began to worry. Would she treat me differently? What if she was homophobic? She was holding a device in her hand that could inflict a lot of harm. I should have kept my mouth shut. I tried to relax by telling myself that she was a professional and surely, I was not the first gay woman that she had ever had as a patient. Coincidentally, this was the same logic that I used to calm myself down when I got nervous that I would fart while she was examining me. Surely, I had told myself in the past, if it did happen it wouldn’t be the first time. It helped, but not that much.
My sister was the first person I ever came out to. When I shared the news, she hugged me and said “That’s great!” which seemed strange at the time since being gay was, for me, a tragedy of grand proportions. Had I heard her correctly? Had she heard me correctly? Perhaps I needed to say it again? In the end, whatever she thought was so great about my being gay was a mystery too big for me to figure out, so I just nestled in her arms and cried, figuring that if she could see something great in my homosexuality maybe one day, I would too. Hell, I’d settle for seeing something good. Okay, I’d settle for seeing one thing good.
Aside from my sister, who I told without much forethought, I came out to every other person I knew twice. The first coming out was always an imagined one — a dress rehearsal in which I ran through the conversation that I intended to have with the person and then forced myself to think of the worst possible reaction that could result. I would then spend the next few days or weeks or months living with the imagined fear and when I felt certain enough that I could handle the worst-case scenario, rehearsal ended and it was on to the big show.
My parents were next on the list of those to be informed. I spent a good bit of time trying to prepare. To get ready, I pretended that they were disgusted at the news and that they decided to disown me. I thought about how odd and sad and lonely it would be to find myself suddenly without parents. I also listened to friends who shared stories about how their parents had reacted. One friend’s mother began calling her apartment. Armed with the new knowledge that her daughter’s “roommate” was actually a girlfriend, the mother took to screaming, “Whore,” in a thick Chinese accent any time the answering machine or girlfriend picked up the phone. Fortunately, my parents weren’t really the disowning type. When I told them, they were perfect.
Without hesitating, both of my parents told me that they loved me no matter what. I think somewhere deep down I had known that they would. What I didn’t know was that they’d be able to find the words to articulate their love so well, my mother especially. She had a knack for saying really awful things at critical times but at that moment, both she and my father were as poised and graceful as could be.
Unfortunately, the moment didn’t last. Soon after I came out, my mother’s tenderness disappeared and in its place came a series of conversations in which her attitude could be most accurately described as slightly less than accepting.
During one of these dialogues my mother lectured me about the fact that my sexuality was my business, no one else’s. I didn’t need to tell anyone about my “personal life”.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “People talk about their lives, they talk about their significant other. Why should I be any different?”
“That information is private.”
“Private? You talk about dad, is that private?”
We continued to argue but she wouldn’t acknowledge my logic. I was furious. Partly because it stung to know that my own mother was encouraging me to stay in the dark confines of the closet. I assumed that my sexuality was an embarrassment to her. The other part of my fury stemmed from the fact that I thought she was right. I would have to be selective about what I revealed and to whom, and besides that there was the fact that I wasn’t proud either. Earlier that year, I’d met a short haired, thin lesbian who cooked at the restaurant where I’d worked. She wore small rainbow colored earrings and told me they were her “gay pride” earrings. That was the first time I’d ever heard the phrase and it struck me as something of an oxymoron. The way I saw it you could be gay or you could be proud but you couldn’t be both. Managing to live with the shame I felt about being gay was the best I could hope for at that time.
In hindsight, I understand that my mother’s urgings were her way of trying to protect me, and probably herself a bit, too. I think she was afraid that I would go around announcing myself to everyone but I’ve never really been like that. To some degree, I’ve always tried to be respectful of her feelings. I didn’t invent boyfriends or hide my girlfriends, but I never came right out and said that the person I brought to Thanksgiving dinner every year was my significant other. Mostly, I just introduced my girlfriend by name and let people draw their own conclusions about why we lived together and called the dogs “ours”. People know what they want to know.
Of course I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me angry, the fact that my mother was right about this. There are a great number of times when I am struck by how often and freely straight people make remarks about their significant other. It makes me feel jealous and resentful, how they just sprinkle the term boyfriend and husband into conversations without thinking twice because when it comes right down to it, I never say the word girlfriend or partner without first assessing my situation with a series of questions: Am I safe? How will people react? Do I need to care?
Sometimes I dream that I’ll turn into one of those gay people who lives one hundred percent in the open. Other times I wish that I looked more like a lesbian. In fact, I used to entertain the fantasy of shaving my head and letting my baldness and boyishness do the talking for me. Admittedly, this fantasy was fueled ever so slightly by the scene in “G.I. Jane” when Demi Moore shaves her head and still manages to look stunningly beautiful. But as a prerequisite to doing this I’d have to be prepared to deal with any negative consequences of living a totally out life and I’m just not equipped to do that. My skin is paper-thin and if I’m being one hundred percent honest I think that there is a big part of me that takes comfort in the revolving door that my closet seems to have. My door is always spinning around. Sometimes I’m in, sometimes I’m out. Mostly, I’m out.
Danielle Ariano is a writer and cabinetmaker who lives in Baltimore. Barring any major catastrophes, she will graduate in the spring of 2013 with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. You can see more of her writing at www.daniwrites.org.