A few weeks after Nelson and I got married, an Evangelical man being interviewed on the radio said earnestly “Yup, if we had to choose between a womanizer and a person who would permit gay marriage, we would choose the womanizer.” I hate men, I thought to myself.
Growing up, my father taught me to beware of men. Words like dirtbag, scuzball, skel, lech, pervert were the words used to describe the men he knew growing up. He never described how a man should treat me, what I should expect or demand. As a teenager, I wanted to wear white V neck T -shirts, the kind that were supposed to be undershirts. My best friend Cheryl wore them, stretching the V out significantly. And she was beautiful, had painted lips and hoop earrings. Those shirts, on me, enraged my father. Once, when combined with eyeliner, he made me change. I never believed I had to allow unwanted touch and for the most part, I never did. But, from a fairly early age, I wanted sexual arousal and sexual attention from these untrustworthy, penis-having beings and at the same time, I pined unusually for my female friends. My father’s words reminded me that the condition of being feminine meant that I might be aggressed upon in some way.
I was a failure at femininity anyway. Soft, fat with frizzy hair and a bit of a waddle. And for many years, I felt like a failure at being gay. Nowadays, people read me as queer, but for most of my life, even at times when I looked some way that people might define as queer or lesbian, donning a shaved head or dirty ripped t-shirt and jeans, I was aware of some awkward discrepancy between how I felt and how I presented. I wanted to be and to be seen as gay, but I feared that I was actually truly and terribly straight. My partner –– my spouse –– is gender nonconforming, which for them means that they do not identify as one gender or the other specifically, all the time. We are two white people, both assigned the female gender at birth due to our having of vaginas. I started coming out as bisexual when I was in high school, after a summer college program where I studied gay and lesbian history.
Wanting women made me feel aggressive and guilty. One night in my senior year in high school, I went to an abandoned pier on the West side with a close female friend and some boy. We kissed and touched one another, propelled by that nearly painful teenage lust to get into the architecture of one another’s bodies. I left wanting more of her. In college I waded through the muck of an on and off relationship with a boy and entertained numerous crushes on straight girls. I lingered outside of gay bars on the Lower East Side, but didn’t go in. I drunkenly made out with girls when the opportunity arose, but it was always meaningless, we never had sex. My first semester of college, I formed a friendship, which I though was a courtship, with a girl named Mara. We hooked up once. A few days later she told me she felt I had taken advantage of her. This lead me into the kind of shame that incises and buries itself. In order to survive, one forgets it immediately and moves on.
My first sex with a vagina-having person was with a woman named Elena (eerily also my mother’s name). It was drunken and sweet and I hoped it would usher me into lesbianism.
First girlfriend, Lara was around the same time as Elena, six long years after that night on the pier. Lara let me court her at a slow and clumsy pace throughout the latter part of our senior year in college. The hot weeks of late spring preceding graduation were spent working on my artwork for the thesis exhibition, dancing at gay parties, riding bikes between Brooklyn and Manhattan, drinking, smoking and flirting with Lara.
I loved the word queer, but never considered myself important enough to use this term that was a badge from an age of activism that had come to an end. I lived for Lara’s long curly hair, just like mine, and her loud declarations in Puerto Rican Spanish, and the skin that covered her curves that I could touch for hours. I loved watching her be a boss around the darkroom in the photo department, her large shirts and baggy pants attempting to make her body a neutral place. I wanted Lara to go out with me; to the Clit Club at Mothers on 14th Street, to the Pyramid, to Meow Mix. I wanted to hang on sweetly to her masculine gait and be seen, to be officially, publicly gay and partnered. She liked to stay home in the window of her apartment on East 6th, watching TV and talking on the phone.
During this time, I was thinn-ish. My head was shaved, I wore hoop earrings and a mess of eyeliner. I rode my bike in a corduroy mini skirt that shimmied up my legs, which were always bruised from biking. I felt tough and strong and I secretly liked the parts of me that felt feminine.
When we broke up two years later, I had no idea how to meet women. Even though my social life was spent in the gay world –– I was a bit of a fag hag –– I somehow felt I didn’t belong and I returned to the swamp of men, which for me was a muck of longing. Men liked me, some loved me, some thought I was cute, but they never wanted to be with me. Then one day, one did and we spent five years together. That man loved me. We had some good times together and the best sex I have had with a man and by the time I left him, he had turned my life into a minefield, a muddy mess of weird smelly little traumas.
My father was devastated. He loved that man, cared for him and believed he was a good man. The man needed help and I asked my parents to continue a relationship with him if he needed them. This came in handy three years later, when the man went to prison and desperately needed the emotional support my parents excel at. I continued to court men, to obsess over men and to look at women, perhaps a bit too ravenously, the way my father feared men would look at me.
I planned my wedding to Nelson in May and June and we were married in July. Even though we were throwing an alternative wedding, really just a fancy party at a bar, I had clear ideas of what I wanted. Colors, alcohol, food, music, dancing, a feeling that everyone belonged, light debauchery and lots of queers. Every attempt I made to be laid back and let a thing slide, failed. I needed to speak up in the planning. Nelson was working full time and I worked from home part time. I was more available and more inspired to make the thing the celebration I wanted. Nelson loves this about me, the knowing how something could and should be that comes from within. It is a quality that anybody can have, and one that I find to be distinctly feminine.
The Pacific Northwest summer days are long as ever, I scurried around, frequently visiting a consignment shop to try on dresses. Finding my dress wasn’t a magical moment as seen in movies. I did not have anyone advising me. It was efficient and cheap and perfect. I left the consignment shop with a $38 dress, a faux frock thing, old looking with a sage and pink tea pattern. It was cotton, fit well and felt a little more innocent than I had imagined.
At some point that summer, I found myself in a ritzy outdoor mall, typical of the wealthier parts of Seattle. My father hated malls and considered people who enjoyed them to be petty and materialistic. People who liked malls were dumb. Shopping for fun was a waste of time. Of course my anti-capitalist framework, which today, my father tries to dismantle with ill-informed arguments, was born straight from his nexus of judgments. But his poking fun, his scathing had something else in it. The things he made fun of were classified as feminine. Getting your nails done, talking on the phone for hours, being excited about clothes were all excessive. Weddings and wedding dresses never escaped his taunting. That taunting left me suspicious of all things feminine. Femininity was frivolous at best. At worst, it was dangerous.
Lipstick. Two pink lipsticks is what I picked out that day at the mall. One, a bubblegum color that went on easy for another friend’s wedding reception and one, a darker pink, a matte gloss with staying power for my and Nelson’s coming celebration.
In the week leading up to my marriage, people close to me came forward like an army to do anything I asked. When we went to meet the manager of the bar, he opened champagne and congratulated me. My friends Betsy and Bee dropped everything last minute to come up with some decorations, a “color story”. My mother and friends, made art and floral arrangements. Michael made a hundred cookies. His partner picked up balloons. Everyone wanted to do what I wanted. I am a strong leader, but this was different. This was bride power, a term I cringed at. This was the power of the belief of a romantic union combined with the power of queer friendship striking the same bell.
A week before the wedding, I went to a dance class with my friend and tried the pink lipstick. It lasted for the entire class. “That might be the one,” she assured me at dinner afterwards. All summer, I tingled with this movement in me, drawing me into a feminine energy and power. A power I had avoided and coveted for my entire life. I confronted the version I had been handed by my father –– femininity is dangerous and dumb, waste of time. And the version I had been handed by culture –– that I would never be feminine enough. Would never be pretty. Would be a waste of time for boys. Would waste my time on boys, my father said, because men were treacherous leeches. The version I was learning was a strength to know what I needed and how it needs to be done.
Getting married, brought me out of hiding. It was in every way conspicuous to celebrate my love for another. Sometimes I wanted to call it off. It felt foolish, frivolous, selfish, silly. We two queer bodies in public, making ourselves the center. But during that process, I became able to say to people “I want it like this.” Able to say, exactly like this. And do not project your misogynist bride dreams on me. We were both so low key, acting like it was business as usual, that we almost forgot to celebrate. We thought we had to be low key, because we didn’t want to be heteronormative. But what we had to do was celebrate and be fully ourselves.
All of this dawned slowly on me as the summer wore on. How I did not know my power in any of its dimensions until I also realized how fragile my human body is. How open to speculation, how vulnerable to injury. I saw how I had cringed at the feminine and clawed at the masculine all these years. And now I sometimes (often) think –– I hate men –– because they don’t really care about us, don’t really see us. And when we are really clear with them, they call us aggressive or “yes” us into quietude.
My Dad was great because in his older age, he has curtailed his skepticism about weddings, he was thrilled about me and Nelson. He loves Nelson and I am teaching him how to love us better. Mainly, while we planned, he drank coffee or wine and talked happily with people. Sometimes he came out of left field with thoughts he was having, often he shrugged at our attention to detail. Moments before the ceremony, my father mentioned the man, the one I used to be with. I don’t remember what Dad said or why. I’m sure he had his reasons and he meant no harm. We often talk about this man. But upon hearing his name, there in the kitchen, with the community buzzing around and flowers on our shirts, I felt a no rise in me and I said in a clear voice, “that will be the last time we say his name today”. Suddenly, at 41 years old, I learned to set boundaries with my father and that came with the rude awakening that my father is one of them, not one of us. That these boundaries would make me forever an adult in ways that are painful and necessary.
We were married by my roommate moments later in the patio outside the house. There was a fire lit and a circle of lavender and twelve invitees. Nelson sabered a champagne bottle, drawing the knife swiftly over the cork, which broke clean, arching upward with our shouts and landed in the bushes. We at waffles. Then everyone went back to work on stuff for the celebration.
I never understood what people meant when they said “feminine power” and when femmes in the queer world started proclaiming their femme identity proudly, I was confused. Yes, they were beautiful, but I had believed one needed shoes they could run in that what made me feminine would make me victim. (I also thought that femininity was sanctioned by men and whoa was that wrong). That guy on the radio who would rather vote for a rapist than someone who would permit gay marriage, that guy is why we are in danger.
Once a queer kid on the street in Seattle, called me and Nelson “funny looking dykes.” She was young, tall, feminine presenting and drunk. We still feel awful and also we laugh about that comment because she saw us as funny waddling dykes, not at all how we wanted to present ourselves. But throughout this summer, I was received exactly as I wanted to be. I could see myself, looking feminine, curvy, fat, 40, and I could see something lovely and something strong. In those dresses I was trying on, I gathered heaps of sorrow, anger, and sexuality. I tried them on again and again. Felt them on my skin and pulled them off my body. Alone in the dressing room, I knew immediately when they weren’t right and left them without a second thought.
Originally published in Silverneedle Press in 2019.