If I am to be honest I vascilate between “quit your bitching and live your life” and “I just want to talk about it”. It is like my version of the devil and the angel on my shoulders. I think a lot. I emote a lot. I like thinking and I like emoting, actually. I love to cry but its not always appropriate to cry. My kids even like to make me cry sometimes. Have you ever read the childrens book “I Love You Forever”? My kids used to hand me that book to read them with a devilish grin knowing I could not get though it without balling my eyes out preemptively mourning my kids becoming adults although they were 7 and 10 at the time. I will admit I am ridiculous.
What is sitting with me this morning is internalized homophobia. I have joked since I came out–which was shortly after my husband moved out–that I would look at my internalized homophobia after my kids were gone and I had some brain space. Well, in avoidance of my emotions about my forced retirement from day-to-day parenting of child number one, and even though I still have one kid at home, I am going to start looking at all those old feelings and why I didn’t come out sooner.
Many folks have asked me did I know when I was younger, or did it change as I got older, or which of my female high school friends I was attracted to. The resounding answer to that last questions is NONE! I will admit I can keep myself in the dark pretty well. I have sat and thought about the arc of my life and tried to piece together why I made the decisions I did; in a different place and a different time would it have been different. How could it not, really, but I think you get what I am getting at.
In early elementary school I was goofy, happy, plump kid. Not cool-kid material I would say, but really friendly. I remember feeling like girls were tough to be friends with, lots of cold shoulders and feelings of rejection. I did have my two girl friends on my block–both named Megan although pronounced differently. So, there were some connections to females in my early years that felt okay, but most intimidated or confused me. In my memory, my best friend growing up was a boy. Our families spent a good amount of time together. We would go catch frogs at the park, ride bikes and just talk about nothing. I distinctly remember in the fourth grade him saying he could not be friends with me anymore. The gender divide was happening and I was not happy about it. I did not feel that I fit with the girls on the playground, I didn’t know what to do. Some days I tried to be very girly to fit in. Then, there were other chunks of time I was just what felt like me when I wore old jeans and my dad’s old dress shirts with a rat’s nest of tangles in my hair. I felt really lost even back then. I really wanted to fit in and be liked as many kids do. I didn’t know how to do that while also being myself. The people-pleaser in me was and still is to some extent a strong force.
For many years I would bop between trying to fit in, be girly, and then let my inner quirky shine a bit; the pendulum would swing between those two ends of the spectrum for years. It felt like walking on the ocean: I never quite knew what my footing was or who I was or where I fit in. I still feel like that sometimes as an adult. Although I like the idea of dressing up, wearing any makeup past mascara and chapstick or sporting fancy dresses and heels leaves me feeling like I am in drag. On the flip side, sporting men’s dress shoes and a tie also is not my jam. I have always been drawn to the Annie Hall look although I would never feel comfortable walking though the world that feminine. I still love wearing white linen oversized button down shirts like my dad’s old dress shirts. I have a solid cardigan colection. I love my striped Dickies overalls and my Frye boots; this leaves me feeling occasionally like I am dressed like an adorable toddler, but I love it. I am getting better at not fitting in but it still leaves me a bit uncomfortable.
There is a saying “Do I want to be you or be with you?” when looking at female icons or even folks on the street. This is what I wonder now, and honestly I probably have always wondered this without knowing. I am personally attracted to more androgynous women who often can be like chameleons as to what energy they hold on whatever day. This is also intreresting as to what that does to my energy – am I more masculine than my partner today or more feminine? After being raised with gender-assigned stereotypes, it is fascinating to walk through the world with another person when we can interchange those gender boxes that we live in and sometimes be beautifully neutral. The gender programming is so real, though, and very pronounced to me some days.
I am fascinated by the gender neutrality that it spreading into the mainstream. I am overjoyed as a parent to have so much more variety normalized for my kids as they explore who they are in this world. I do wonder what path I would have taken if I grew up when and where my kids are.
I want to come back to “Do I want to be you or be with you?”: this is a real thing and a big source of confusion for those of us who are a bit more naive. The first time it really smacked me in the face was with my first close female friendship in Ann Arbor. I made a friend at the restraunt where we worked, and we hung out all the time. It is like she became my right arm. She liked men and dated. I did not date so much; I more flittered around non-committally. I just really preferred hanging out with my friend. A couple of years into this friendship, I was at her apartment one day and her boyfriend was there. She was in the shower getting ready and he looked at me and very flattly asked “You know she is not your girlfriend, right?” This smacked me in the face. Not that I thought she was my girlfriend, but that he would make such an observation. I felt a huge wave of shame and did not know what to do with myself. I am not sure what I said after that. Most likely I replied with “Yeah” to save face and get out of there. My friendship with her dropped dramatically after that day, with little follow up. In retrospect, I think I was an old hat at dropping friendships when I could not mentally define them. Especially with women.
I did have very close male relationships that felt safe because my gut knew that I just wanted to be friends. Male friendships were easy for me. Female relationships puzzled me and I could not figure out why. Having close male relationships did get me in trouble sometimes, though. My nickname in highschool was D.T. for “dick tease”. I was super comfortable and friendly but did not want to have sex with anyone. I would try to date some nice guys in high school but it was just so confusing, I didn’t like it. I was trying to date because I wanted to understand why everyone else dated. I did finally have a boyfriend at the very end of high school: he was my friend’s prom date (they went as friends but I found out later she was interested in him…oops). That relationship was terrible and unealthy. It was followed by a string of other unhealty relationships with men. In my late teens and early twenties, the men I dated were hot messes; I could mother them and take care of them. Not a good foundation for healthy partnerships. But I always had great close male friends. Only as an adult did I realize that these close male friendships could have been seen as a pre-dating from the guy’s perspective. If I thought like or was a heterosexual female, things could have been much different. I loved my guy friends because they were safe to me. I could construct the boundaries in my head around those friendships: “I love you and do not want to hook up.”
Women, on the other hand, were a mystery to me. My response to my confusion was bitchiness and keeping my distance. I had quite a few hippy-like women around me in college. They would hug, kiss and sometimes sleep together and I wanted nothing to do with it. It felt so terrible in my body when I was around it. I could not explain my aversion to their affection. All at the same time I wanted to be friends with them and have that closeness. I wanted them as close friends but I could only handle them at a distance. I kept a huge wall up, a wall I don’t think I have totally taken down yet to be honest. I didn’t know how to be close to a woman in any way–platonic or otherwise. I know I am capable of attachment to my women friendships but how is that seen from the outside? It was too much to sit with the question “You know she is not your girlfriend, right?” What was I doing wrong? What was I missing? Those were questions I was too afraid to ask myself. I was wearing a very heavy blanket of shame that I couldn’t quite shake off or didn’t want to take off, fearing what I might find.
When I was in the process of coming out I had mentioned to my therapist (who was heterosexual) that I felt more comfortable around women after I came out. Before I came out, I was very averse to or didn’t know what to do with female friendships and realtionships. My therapist’s reply was “Well, that doesn’t make sense.” In that moment I felt like I was in the wrong place talking about this. Her assumption was: if I am a lesbian then I should always want to be with women and want to be close to women, right? No.
If you are closeted with internalized homophobia you have no context of how to be close to women; it is terrifying, so you just keep them at a distance. Bringing anyone in too close is too vulnerable. You don’t even know why because you can’t look at it. At least that is my experience. I stopped seeing that therapist after that comment and didn’t bring up the topic again with anyone for quite a while because that is my way: it is uncomfortable, so let’s tuck that away.
And then: being a formerly-heteronormative homeschooling birthworker (childbirth educator and birth doula) mom of two kids at the age of 36 and coming out was also a challenge in its own right. That deserves its own post. Part 2 of Internalized Homophobia coming soon.