Who were we? We were going to find out about us. What was us?
It was 2000, and I was a sixteen-year-old girl in need of sisterhood. Having recently come out to my mother and father — who were extremely supportive, thank gods — there was a keen sense of loneliness that I hadn’t expected. I had a gay uncle, and several cousins who had flirtations with girls. But, I still couldn’t help but feel like a ship out to sea, with no lighthouse to guide me.
I’d always been a voracious reader. Spending a Saturday browsing Borders Books and Music was a favorite past time of mine. After conveying my loneliness to the only other girl in my group of friends that I knew to be lesbian, we decided that something had to be done. We begged my mother to drop us off at Borders, and headed right for the Gay & Lesbian Studies stacks. Who were we? We were going to find out about us. What was us?
One particular book caught my eye. While my friend was busy nosing through 101 Ways to Date Girls or some such, a copy of Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg fell into my hands.
The person that stared out from the front cover was like many I had met growing up in a steel town, in Central New York. There were lots of women that called themselves “butch,” and worked the mill with my father. They would walk the strike line with him and I, finding some sort of solidarity in fighting for fair labor and fair wages. When my feet would get tired of walking back and forth, these were the women that snuck me extra donuts, and cider straight from the thermos. Hell, I’m pretty sure my first crush on a woman was for my father’s “foreman.”
She would sneak me blessed coffee, on our strike line breaks. If there’s one thing that’s holy grail to a ten-year-old kid at 3:00 in the morning, it’s coffee with lots of sugar. It was so naughty. My dad pretended that he didn’t see, I know.
The story of Jesse, the protagonist in Stone Butch Blues, reminded me so very much of the women* I already knew, and had come to love. Until this point, I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t realized that they were lesbians, or queer, or even transmasculine* — a word that I would learn much later in my studies of gender dichotomy in lesbian history. Maybe I just hadn’t known the word to ask. How do you ask a woman old enough to be your mother, “Are you a lesbian?” Could you, without the word? Without getting into trouble? How does one go about asking in front of the hundreds of men around you, making the space very… not female? Without being rude? Without being unsafe?
I decided then that I’d give my younger self a break, and delved into Jesse’s world. The book Leslie Feinberg wrote was heart wrenching, almost too close to home, and very scary. This was not only my history, but the history of women-loving-women (and transmasculine/genderqueer people) gone before me. It was set in an area so very near to mine, with industries and words I knew well, and some that I had only come to take as my own – union, dyke, lesbian. Lesbian.
I’ve come a long ways from those fledgling forays into the world of lesbian fiction. I no longer identify solely as lesbian, but as lesbian and pansexual, the secondary label for my attraction to trans+ people of both genders. But if I hadn’t the opportunity to learn about myself, or the opportunity to read about women like me, struggling through this thing called life while outside the parameters of heteronormativity, my self confidence and actualization would have taken much longer. I know this, because we see it often in countries or areas where being LGBTQIA+ openly is still rare, due to the danger. Having to keep secrets about yourself, in any way, can be damaging to the psyche, and the development of self worth.
I learned about lesbian love, lesbian sex, and lesbian history by reading books. Nobody was going to let me buy Tristan Taormino’s how to’s at sixteen, but I could infer from the lesbian fiction novels that slid just beneath the Mature rating. I see this today in the reading of F/F Fan Fiction by young women aged 13-18, sneaking by the Mature Rating by clicking “Yes” to the question prompt asking if they’re of age. It’s silly, isn’t it? The age of consent in most states is younger than eighteen by far — at least for heterosexual sex acts, so I digress. My point is, lesbian fiction written by lesbians, or those that once identified as such (queer, pansexual, bisexual, etc.) is so very important.
I’ve read some “lesbian” fiction that described someone licking a G-spot, and for years, I couldn’t figure out how in the world they did it. Older and wiser, I know that the character in question must have a) been Reptilian, b) had an extremely long, muscular tongue, or c) was written by a straight man masquerading as a queer woman author. I’ve watched shows, movies, and yes, read stories, where lesbian characters are described colloquially as catty, hard to understand, or worse. They rarely, if ever, get a Happily Ever After. Why is that?
For one, it’s because the market of Women’s Fiction that involves Lesbian Characters is over saturated with male voices. Sure, over the past ten years there’s been a surge of lesbian-run small publishing companies, but they’re no Big Ten. It was harder to find the titles that they published, until big sites like Amazon made it easier for independent publishers to get their books out there. Until a book in particular was a best seller across the board, it was rarely stocked in a big box bookstore.
Lesbian Fiction needs lesbian writers, just like lesbian characters on TV and in movies need lesbian producers, directors, and actors. We are the voice of a generation, time and again, and we must be loud over the clamor of stereotype, of sudden death, of misrepresentation.
Some sixteen-year-old girl in the middle of nowhere is looking up to you, now.