I’ve been reading some of the essays in Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women over the last few days. I got a copy of the Kindle ebook for only 99 cents from Amazon’s Sunshine Deals sale, which going on until the 15th of this month. (I also picked up The Lavender Scare for $1.99, and Queers in History for $2.99.)
I’m not much of a non-fiction reader and I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to directly relate to the types of personal stories in this anthology. But for a buck I thought it would be a great chance to read about the experiences of women different than myself who still are queer.
I’ve only read about a third of the essays so far, but what is abundantly clear is that there is in actuality very little difference between many of the women in the book and me. Oh sure, the details are different. But the patterns revealed? It’s shocking to realize that if it were not for a few twists of fate I could easily be one of those women.
In essay after essay the women talk about childhood and teenage experiences that are familiar to almost every woman who has ever come out. The difference is, they didn’t have a critical aha moment before becoming heavily involved with a man, or men. Most of the women in the essays I’ve read have been (or still are) married.
I’ve often been frustrated with my own process of coming out because it took me so darn long in retrospect. I was twenty three when I finally proclaimed to myself, “Yes, I am a lesbian.” This was before I’d ever even kissed a woman, so I didn’t have any sexual experience helping me realize the truth. (I’d made out once each with a couple different men, but it hadn’t done much for me and at the time I considered it practice for when I met a man I really liked.)
Once I made the proclamation it was so easy to look back and see all the blinking neon signs, stretching way back into my childhood. So I’ve always felt stupid that I couldn’t see the obvious any sooner. Heck, some people around me saw it, but I was oblivious.
I have hazy memories of thinking to myself at least a couple times during high school, is it possible I’m gay? But it was a passing question without much weight to it. My internal answer was along the lines of, how could I be? Lesbians are so much more rare than gay men, and gay men are rare, so what are the odds I’m one? And, I would know if I was, wouldn’t I? (That rarity belief was a “gift” from the media. Gay men were so much more visible than lesbians that I honestly thought there was probably only one lesbian for every 50-100 gay men.)
This quotation from one of the essays exactly describes my thinking:
“I thought that since I lacked the sort of brazen knowledge about my sexuality that they possessed, since I wasn’t sure, that I must, by default, be straight. That if I knew, I would know. And since I didn’t know, I must not be. I didn’t have any internalized homophobia, I wasn’t worried about what others would think, I just didn’t want to be an imposter.”
It wasn’t until my second year of college that I began entertaining serious questions about my orientation. I became consciously aware that I was at least to some extent in love with a woman who was one of my best college friends. I understood to an extent that any attraction I had to men was more on the theoretical and fantasy level, it never seemed to extend to playing itself out in reality. I wasn’t repulsed by the idea of having sex with a man. I just couldn’t seem relate to them on any meaningful level.
But it was all still a giant muddle. My feelings for my friend could have been specific to her and not an indication of lesbian orientation, right? And our cultural view of gayness puts all the emphasis on sex (homosexuality, sexual orientation, gay sex), not emotional bonding and romance. So if the idea of having sex with a man was okay with me then the mere fact that I only emotionally responded to women wasn’t enough to make me a lesbian, right? Plus, I was still hung up on the idea that if you actually were a lesbian, and not just someone wondering about it, that you somehow magically knew.
So by default I considered myself straight, maybe just not quite as completely straight as the women around me. This excerpt from one of the essays sums up that period of my process:
“Somehow I made it to adulthood without understanding that one could not know, that one could speculate and ponder but not conclude.”
It took me another three years, and moving to Capitol Hill in Seattle where I was exposed to queers and queer culture for the first time, before I finally came out to myself in 1985. (And immediately following, to others.) I was slowly heading that way anyway, but one of the final pushes, my biggest aha experience, was reading personal stories from lesbians in the book Our Bodies, Ourselves*. I finally knew because their stories were my story, and they had already concluded.
So why this common thread of all the signals being there, yet still not knowing? How is it that so many women do speculate and ponder, but never reach the correct conclusion until much later, if ever?
It works that way because society is set to straight as the default and it takes an enormous amount of mental gymnastics to make the giant leap to understanding you aren’t personally set to the default. Even questioning is built into the straight default setting. How many times have you heard it’s normal for girls to develop crushes on other girls? How many times have you heard it’s natural to question sexuality/orientation during adolescence?
The underlying message in these statements of normalcy is that you can experience all these things and be completely straight. And so many of us buy that until we reach a personal tipping point where “straight, but with a few nagging questions” is no longer an adequate explanation.
Obviously some women never go through this process, or it’s a very abbreviated one. They fall in love as a teenager and recognize it for what it is. They always felt different, and were always very aware of this difference on a conscious level. Or better yet, they had actual physical proof of their orientation, even if it was just a single kiss with another girl.
But our heterosexual culture actively works to prevent that from being the norm. Despite all the gains made in gay visibility, gay rights, and understanding of sexual/emotional orientation, our culture intentionally keeps us ignorant. They require us to work arduously to understand ourselves. They want it to be next to impossible to make that giant leap. They want us to struggle indefinitely to overcome our ignorance. They don’t want to help us see. They hope that we never actually do. If it was made easy, oh my goodness, there would be a lot more queers running around out there!
By compelling us to be straight, think straight, and act straight until we reach the point where it’s no longer possible in any way for us to continue in that direction our culture exacts an extremely high price from non-straight individuals. Countless families and lives have been violently disrupted or destroyed because that delayed point comes too late. And countless more lives will be similarly affected until our culture starts to aid, not hinder, us in our process of self-discovery.
Another common theme in the essays is being married for several years before full understanding hits. And by then the woman has lost her chance at an easier transition. It’s not just about her, it’s about her husband too, one she might honestly love. And it’s often about children.
Coming out and finally being true to yourself, being fully who you are, is a powerful thing. It’s exhilarating, cathartic, and mind blowing. But if you’ve been living a straight life with all the accessories for many years it’s also devastating. Here’s another excerpt from one of the essays:
“You just stand there, more exposed than you ever thought possible, and say, “This is my truth.” It has been the most liberating and the most shattering of experiences. I am free, soaring high, authentic and true, and I am broken, on my knees, sobbing tears that flow without end. I am both more than and less than I was before.”
I wish I could force everyone to read this book and truly understand what these women are saying. All the pain of fractured families isn’t necessary. If they’d been helped to understand themselves before it was too late they wouldn’t find themselves in a life torn asunder. Our culture absolutely must find a way to ditch compulsory heterosexuality.
What I’ve taken away from my reading is that I shouldn’t be kicking myself for being so oblivious and for taking so long to figure things out. I should be thanking my lucky stars I figured it out when I did. If it weren’t for some of my specific experiences I could have been one of these women. Our histories and our thought processes are too similar for that to not be true. Far from being unable to relate to many of the writers in Dear John, I Love Jane, I can relate all too well.
* I linked to the current edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. But if you’re investigating buying a copy, from reviews it sounds like acquiring an older edition is probably a better choice. My copy is either the first or second edition, but you wouldn’t want to go back that far or you’d miss out on important updated info.