I came out once before I came out.
My first coming out was in a beautiful white dress. I was paraded across a stage hanging on the right arm of a man in a tuxedo. A perfect symbol of feminine subservience. Miss Katharine Walsham, Wellesley College, danced with her father and her escort and her mother’s friends’ children. Only one of my close friends was there. No one else knew I was “that girl.” I couldn’t stomach the embarrassment.
Hours of reminding myself to follow, sashaying around a dance floor in white satin heels passed. I had just been presented as eligible for traditional, “high-class” marriage. The other girls were either thrilled or so high they hardly had to act like it. We made our exit from the ball room and out to an underground Manhattan bar. I got myself totally smashed. I found a boy, someone I had never seen before and would never see again and kissed him hard for a long time, willing myself to like it.
In the morning, I stumbled onto a plane back to San Francisco. My mother, in the seat next to me, was flying higher than the plane on excitement from the party. She had had the time of her life with me as her proxy. I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl who’d walked out before me, Timothy, tall and thin and spectacular. Who names their daughter Timothy?
A winter vacation full of flip-flops followed. I worked to forget the girls and to distance myself from the framed photographs of myself in a wedding dress that sprang up around the house. Two years later when my Wellesley friends drove across the country with me they discovered the photos and wondered if I’d been married and holding out on them. No, I had to tell them, no. I’m just a daughter of absurd privilege which entails traditions of misogyny I’d just as soon not discuss. They left it alone.
After my first coming out my mother developed a perma-grin that my father and I took turns ridiculing. She relived her own debutante experiences and told stories of being escorted by “Dade Dooland, the Debutante’s Delight,” and marines, and any number of other wonderful men.
She laughed as she recalled my first encounter with a photo album chronicling each of her ten debutante balls, her “coming out book.” I’d been maybe five years old. I’d asked her the difference between “coming out” and “making out.” She patiently explained the difference like this: “coming out” involves presenting yourself to the community as being ready and available for marriage, “making out” involves a boy’s and a girl’s tongues in a car somewhere dark that smells like summer. “Making out” inevitably ends up sounding and feeling sticky. It was a distinction I never forgot.
I did discover, after my first coming out, that her explanation of “coming out” had been incomplete. She had not described the fear or the tears or the screaming that resulted in coming out as gay. Nor, in fact, had it ever crossed her mind that making out might involve two girls’ tongues in a dark car somewhere sticky.
My second coming out lacked all the glamour of my first. It was raw and angry and honest. Mother came to visit me at Wellesley in October of my junior year. I’d just gotten my first tattoo. She wanted me to go out to dinner at some fancy ladies’ club in Boston. I insisted that I would wear pants. She, as always, tried to shove me into a dress. The tattoo (very subtle, on my ankle) was my last hope to wear pants. “What else have you been hiding from me?” she shouted. “I have a girlfriend” I’d shouted back. I was disinvited from dinner and deposited on my dorm’s door-step.
Eventually things got better.
Recently I donned my white dress once more. It swirled around a torso and legs unused to skirts and tule. This time, I promenaded across a stage of sand toward a raging sea. I stood next to a different beautiful person in a suit. We held hands and shivered.
A man, reading from the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and an Apache blessing, married us. Our community reminded us that we are loved. Even my mother smiled at the ceremony, though she claims she didn’t have fun. I’m told there was weeping. I know there was laughter, so much laughter that my sides hurt for days.
When I came out, “dyke” and “lesbian” and “gay” and “queer” had already been reclaimed by my community through decades of public struggle. There was no movement, no signs or posters, no shouting in the streets, only quiet tears shed in closed bedrooms that allowed me to reclaim my dress. And each tiny more personal, reclamation of each artifact of my un-queer past cultivates my dyke future.
“May happiness be your companion and your days together be good and long upon the earth.” Said the assembled. We kissed.
RELATED STORIES – These three are all by Kate W., which are all relevant in one way or another to today’s story. They’re almost like prequels, all leading up to her marriage.
Story 1: “Perhaps I should have known when I first identified with my community – in seventh grade. My lesbian french teacher became pregnant with her first child. As a child of San Francisco, I thought nothing of it. A few weeks after Mme G’s announcement, I overheard my mother speculating with a friend’s mother about the origin of the second set of 22 autosomal and 1 sex chromosomes required for conception. They laughed, declaring “certainly not the natural way!” I was incensed. I asked my mother why the mechanism of pregnancy mattered. She confidently proclaimed, “you’ll understand when you get older.”
Story 2: “I find my femininity sometimes, lurking, like the sticky film left when melted ice cream is too-quickly mopped up with an unclean sponge. It’s cloying but almost ignorable. It’ll emerge while I’m showering. I’ll think of how silky my legs used to be when I shaved them. I’ll pick up a razor, contemplate it, turn to my shampoo, rinse, towel off and don boxers. Sometimes the skirts that still hang in my closet call to me but their persuasiveness has waned as I’ve aged. I’ve noticed that each skirt and dress, while she employs different words, sometimes different languages, always speaks with my mother’s voice.”
Story 3: “When I started dating C, my junior year of college, I came out to my mother to tears and screaming. It took three years before Mom would allow my partner to come to Christmas. She finally allowed C to come to the annual Boxing Day Leftovers party. From its 1989 inception – neighbors gathering to divest themselves of extra Christmas food, the Boxing day party had developed into a blow-out in its own right. The year C would come, Mom had invited sixty people to her house.”