I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment. I was hoping to approach questions of race, gender, and class. These moments happen in context: the grid and grids of power within which I exist. In the end, understanding myself is not enough. I have to see and work to change the context in which I exist.
I. HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?
When I was twelve, my mother explained homosexuality: Remember those two drunk men you saw on Christopher. You said they were up against one another, fighting. They were not fighting. They were homosexuals.
2. DON’T TELL
I was a school child
Don’t tell jobs and work.
not even your best friend
and if you ask why,
there is something wrong with you.
Don’t tell about, you know.
Someone could use it against
We could be eaten alive.
3. FILL IN THE BLANKS
Another piece of instruction about homosexuality and lesbianism from my mother:
I was in late high school or early college. She told me about The Well of Loneliness. She said it was about lesbians. She said it was about unrequited love. She said in the end the main character kills herself. She said it was a good book. I never read it.
4. HIGH SCHOOL FOLLIES
We were painting at our easels, the room redolent of oil paints and turpentine. Nancy went to wash out her brushes and the classmate at the next easel said, “She and Lisette were kissing at the party last Saturday.”
“Siciliano?” as if there were more than one Lisette.
Another easel said, “They were making out.”
The easel next to me said, “It was disgusting.”
Thursday. We sat in a horse shoe, working on contour drawings. The door opened. Harry of course. Late of course. People sniggered, yes, actually sniggered, as usual when Harry appeared. He was a pimply sixteen year old with a shock of hair as red as an abrasion, and he wore a soft green crew neck sweater. Everyone knew, if you wore green on Thursday, you were queer and anyway Harry had never made any attempt to conceal his lisp or muscle up on his wrist. He entered classrooms alone. He ate alone in the lunchroom. Some times, he wore a bow tie. I had heard he lived on The East Side, which in Manhattan tended to mean money, tended to mean WASP.
He pulled out his pencil case and set to work. Maybe it didn’t help that he was unskillful and timid as an artist.
“Faggot,” someone said, not too quietly, but below the teachers’ radar. Maybe we wouldn’t have treated him any better if he’d been an artistic genius. It was the late 50s. Though some of our classmates were openly funny, they were otherwise conformist. No one stepped forward to advocate for him. We left him alone as if he were poison because he was flagrant and defenseless and alone.
There was the gym teacher, tall, lithe, with sleek dark hair, gold skin, olive dark eyes. She was a “Mrs.,” but she and another woman teacher were always together and I think maybe someone had seen them kissing or someone had said they had seen them.
There was my classmate Joaqin, tall thin, his shoulders bony, his eyes dark and haunted. It was the era of the female model Twiggy. Joaquin’s art was wispy, more line and inference than the abstract painted blocks and buxom Matisse imitations so many of us produced.
At the senior varsity show, Joaquin brought down the house when he appeared as the popular gym teacher. He did it so convincingly, piling cliche upon cliche. In those days, to declare you were queer, you flamed and ignited the imaginations, hopes, and fears, of the rest of us in our shocking pink turtlenecks and button down shirts and denim skirts and bohemian black tights. Joaquin and Barry, Nancy and Lisette: the faggots burning among us chicken shits, most of us “liberals,” but afraid to step up.
I was at Barnard College when two women were expelled. Two Columbia “men” had scanned the windows of the Barnard dorm with a telescope and seen the two women “in bed together.” The men talked about it in The West End Bar and were overheard. The two women were gone, expelled, sent home. There was no outcry. No one came forward and said, “These are my friends. This is wrong,” or, as was the case for me, “I didn’t know these two, but this is wrong.” The fear of being tainted by association? The fear of retaliation by the college? In this era, a Barnard classmate, not someone I knew, was reportedly sent home. She had brought her horse with her to college and stabled it near Central Park. The college heard that she was dating a groom, or perhaps he was a riding instructor. Quel horreur. Shades of Lady Chatterly. Acting in loco parentis, the college expelled her( and, I assume, her horse).
From at least high school forward, I was schooled: homosexuality was something vague and awful, despite the popular gym teacher and Joaquin’s open and affectionate parody. Its consequence could be life-destroying, even when the particulars of what homosexuality might actually be, were vague in most of our minds. It wasn’t simply high school pecking order and a college’s exercise of power. I was a child of the McCarthy era. I knew that adults had lost their livelihoods and their reputations, never to be regained, simply because it had been alleged that someone was, you know, fill in the blank.
My god-mother grew up in vaudeville, where her father was a star. He sang and danced with a coquettish young woman from France. The French singer spoke no English, so my teenage godmother was charged with teaching the singer English. They remained inseparable, one might say bosom (somehow the theatrical secrecy, both fraught and silly, from a distance lends itself to amusement), friends from my godmother’s adolescence, through her many-decades marriage, until the singer’s death in the 1950s. I remember a Christmas when I was in early elementary school when the singer gave me a child’s sewing machine and I remember the magnetism of her small, elegant person, the choreographed strands of black bangs over the dark saucer eyes, the pearls gleaming at ears and on her hand. The entire apartment, and especially my godmother who usually paid great attention to my sister and me, was focused on the singer.
I remember my godmother standing in the hospital room where my mother was dying, although, that death, too, was unspoken. The setting sun from the Hudson was enameling in gold and red the banks of apartment windows facing us. My godmother said, “The night She died. I knew.” And I, by then a declared and “practicing” lesbian, knew whom she meant.
A decade or so later, I spent a week at my god parents’ apartment in New York City. My Godfather was out of town. He asked me to come up from West Virginia to be with my godmother who was now legally blind. It was the week I ate duck for the first time, sitting over trays in the very French living room which was two steps down from the small platform which was their dining room, outside the minute kitchen where you could stand in one spot and simply twirl around to go from sink to fridge to counter to window to stove and arrive back at the sink without ever taking a step.
After dinner one night, maybe that dinner of Chinese duck, my godmother began to of her mid-teens years, around WW I. She had a friend, a girl her own age and they were very close, inseparable in fact, in their bourgeois childhoods on the West Side of Manhattan. I had known this girl’s name (so talented, so gentle, so fine) from my mother, but never in connection with my godmother. I, the West Virginia outlier, the out but quite ordinary school-teaching lesbian in the room, the mother of two, pricked up my ears. A younger girl, maybe an eleven year old, entered the picture. This younger girl was star struck by my godmother’s friend. This younger girl was my mother, my god mother told me, turning to me with her unfocussed eyes swimming in her lenses. And then the girl, the object of both my mother’s and my godmother’s affection, caught diphtheria and died. My godmother sighed and said no more.
Both my mothers, knowing I lived as a lesbian with a woman in West Virginia, never said a word to me. By 1979, both had died.
II. WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD?
LESBIANS ASSAULTED AND/OR KILLED FOR BEING LESBIANS
To counter this history of concealments, I had in mind to finish with an inspirational list of queer women, including my mothers. I began by listing a few writers and musicians like Bricktop, figures like Gladys Bentley, but wasn’t satisfied.
I googled, lesbians assaulted and/or killed for being lesbians. This was not research. This was a ten second button push and yet, here they are, important and human members of our community: people brutalized for who they are. We’ve not come far from that classroom of adolescents frightened by Harry’s undeniable queerness. I want to un-deny and embrace lesbians assaulted and/or killed….
An overwhelming number of people on this list are trans women, and/or African American trans women.
Just one hit. All these names. You know there are uncounted more.
Eudy Simelane, Rebecca Wight, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, Julianne Williams and Lollie Winans, Gwen Araujo, Saskia Gunn, Brandon Teena, Chanelle Pickett, Fred Martinez, Nizah Morris, Terrianne Summers, Nireah Johnson, Emonie Spaulding, Ruby Ordenana, Stacey Brown, Ebony Whitaker, Duanna Johnson, Ashley Sweeney, Sanesha Stewart, Angela Zapata, Nahkia Williams, Ruby Molina, Lateisha Green, Tayzia Elzey, Caprice Curry, Patti Hammond Shaw, Dee Green, Maria Malina Quails, Myra Chanel Ical, Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar, Toni Alston, Dana A. “Chanel” Larkin, Sandy Woulard, Victoria Carmen White, Stacey Blahnik Lee, Chrissie Bate, – Chrissy Lee Polis, Rosita Hernandez, CeCe McDonald, Lashai Mclea, Camila GuzmanShelley Hilliard, Cassidy Nathan Vickers, Dee Dee Pearson, Githe Goines, Crain Conaway, JaParker “Deoni” Jones, Coko Williams, Paige Clay, Brandy Martell, Mollie Olgin, 19 years old, and her girlfriend, Kristene Chapa, Tracy Johnson, Tiffany Gooden, Kendall Hampton, Deja Jones, Kyra Cordova, Janette Tovar, Sondra Scarber, Sasha Fleischman,