I first stepped foot in a gay bar when I was barely 21 years old. The bar was in Mobile, Alabama, and I found myself a little disconcerted when the people who’d invited me to undertake this rite of passage entered the place saying, “Oh, and if you have to go to the bathroom, uh, don’t touch anything.”
I was the new kid. They had never asked, so these women admitted later that they weren’t even sure I was gay. I’d never seen a drag show, and probably made no friends by playing “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family during my first trip to the jukebox.
(In my own defense, I hadn’t heard it in a very long time, and I was eager to enjoy the incongruity of song remembered from childhood laid against such an alien and [to my mind, though only for a while] very adult backdrop. Unfortunately, judging by the sour looks of confusion on the faces around me when the song started, nobody else thought a fake harpsichord solo was suitable mood music for cruising chicks. Also: why was that song even on a jukebox in 1991?)
That evening I wanted to have a more than just two eyes—I’d wished I had four sets lined up on each part of my head so I could watch everything at once. I’m sure I was being watched as closely as I was watching. As it happened, though, I only had two eyes and could focus little more than polite attention on my crew of hostesses, which was growing in number at the table where we sat.
Finally, I turned my scattered interests back to my new “sisters.” I was puzzled when I noticed the group had gone very quiet: each woman was looking cross-eyed at the center of her own face. They were all trying to touch their noses with their tongues.
Maybe I didn’t understand every joke I’d strained to hear over the music. Perhaps I caught myself thinking from time to time, My God. If my mother knew where I am right now…
However: what they were doing? That was simple! I knew I could touch my tongue to the tip of my nose. I had no idea why these ladies were concentrating so fiercely, but—ah, what the hell?
A wild cheer rose from our table. The woman sitting next to me clapped me on the back, nearly dislocating both my shoulders, and said, “Ooooh yeah…You’re gonna be a greeeaaaaat lesbian!”
I shrugged, swiping saliva from between my nostrils with the back of my hand. I took a sip from my Coke, looked around me, and grinned sheepishly.
I didn’t get it.
Comically misbranded Society Lounge, that hole-in-the-wall is now closed (though friends tell me the idea of the bar, and its regulars, relocated to a new building around the corner under the same name). I walked through the doors of Society Lounge numerous times during my early 20s. It was there I witnessed many firsts, my favorite being an “only” as well: a super-fat drag queen performing a graceless routine to “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”—the original by Vickie Lawrence, not the cover version by Reba McEntire.
During my sporadic visits, I found that there was an upside to my apparent faux pas of playing the Partridge Family on the jukebox. For some reason, every time I went into Society Lounge after that, the bartender—a sad-looking, balding man who was probably in his early fifties and must have had a crush on David Cassidy back in the day—would smile at me and shove a few dollar bills into my palm after I paid for my Coke.
“Here,” he’d say. “Put this in the jootbox. Play some music.”
The names of my comrades from that place and period are lost to the mists of time more than a dozen years later, but that kindly bartender with so much faith in my tune-choosing ability holds my fondest remembrance.
It took longer than I expected to appreciate the compliment paid regarding my bright future as a lesbian. But it certainly didn’t take long to realize that the Partridge Family incident should have served as an omen regarding how I would always be a little out of step with most of the women who share my sexual orientation.
When I think about the reality of my life as a lesbian (roughly, about every six or eight years) I sigh, wondering how disappointed those Society Lounge regulars would be if they knew just how bad a lesbian I turned out to be.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m very out—none of this “Don’t ask, don’t tell” stuff for me. I never went back to dating guys just to break the monotony or to increase my social credibility. I’ve kept (and still wear) the t-shirt I bought during my first Gay Pride weekend in the summer of 1992. I was as emotional as anyone else while watching C-SPAN’s coverage of the March on Washington for gay rights in 1993. I’ll admit I’ve had, in my life, a crush on a Federal Express delivery girl (we even went out: a disaster). And, yes, I once saw the Indigo Girls live—but only because they happened to open for REM during the Green tour two or three years before I knew for sure I was even in the closet I would, sooner or later, exit.
From there, though, things start moving downhill. In addition to my lack of interest in most lesbian singers—kd lang, I have to say, has a fabulous set of pipes on her; on the other hand, Melissa Etheridge is torture to listen to for more than two seconds—I’ve exhibited my tendency to be a bad lesbian in other ways, beginning with the unfairly obvious and moving into the territory of the merely incidental.
Camping? Forget it. Camping while attending a Women’s Music Festival? Not unless the “women’s music” line-up also includes men whose music I love more, and not until the definition of camping incorporates staying in a nearby hotel with my favorite traveling companions, Jim and Zach.
Softball? Not even if someone threatened to cut off my pitching arm at the elbow. Drag Kings? Yuk! “Xena: Warrior Princess”? Sure, if you kill me first and shove my dead body in front of the TV.
The saddest thing, of course, is that this is the best I can come up with. I feel sometimes that I’m as out of touch with the world of lesbians as any card-carrying member of “The 700 Club.”
I don’t really care if Sarah McLachlan married a man after writing all those songs geared toward her lesbian fans. (Okay, okay. Just one song. And it’s only a big maybe.) And Jodie Foster? Jesus. Until she takes out a full-page ad in Variety denying her homosexuality, learn to appreciate the poor woman’s discretion is what I say. Imagine if Jodie Foster expended the same amount of time and energy acting gay that lesbians expend debating whether or not she’ll ever “do the ‘right’ thing” and come out during the Academy Awards. I think even the most Sapphocentric of us would eventually feel uncomfortable enough to say, “Can’t she tone it down a little?”
If you don’t believe me, ask Ellen Degeneres about her old sitcom the next time you see her. You’d think someone who’s been so often considered a comedic genius (not by me) would know better than anyone that introducing network TV viewers to an oxymoronic concept like lesbian humor could only spell “cancellation” with a capital “L.”
Of course, most of the main points on which I feel my redemption should rest are moot. Yes, I’ve read more than one book by Lillian Faderman. I know who Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier were, and the places of these “womyn” in “herstory.” (Ugh. Don’t get me started on the spelling-thing.)
The thing is, most of the lesbians I know have never heard of Faderman, Beach, or Monnier. Honestly, I think my only chance of canceling out my lesbian demerits would be running across a few million women who might laugh at a joke that begins, “Okay, so May Sarton and Natalie Barney walk into a bar…” and ends with a reference to Camille Paglia challenging them both to an arm wrestling match.
“Gia,” though: now there’s a name a lot of lesbians recognize. Why they’re so hot to rhapsodize on a predatory supermodel/junkie who’s been dead for more than twenty years is something I’ve yet to figure out. While she was certainly no Elizabeth Bathory, Gia Carangi should still be remembered as a lesbian p.r. nightmare from Hell—Tallulah Bankhead for the final decades of the twentieth century.
As for the obsession seven out of ten lesbians seem to have with Angelina Jolie, who brought Ms. Carangi to life in a made-for-cable biopic, there is only one word to describe my feelings about this: aaarrrrgh!
It’s impossible to say what Madonna has ever really wanted from us as a subculture, but I’ve grown immune to her antics over the last decade or so. It became obvious to me a long time ago that the only person Madonna fantasizes about having sex with is, most likely, herself, perhaps with a stack of thousand-dollar bills rolled up and strategically placed to function as a device for penetration when desired. Besides that, she’s not the worst of the lesbian wannabes we’ve had to endure—for most of us that prize goes to non-celebrities we’ve actually dated at some point.
Real queers, pseudo-queers: I don’t pay any of them much mind these days, maybe because of the word “queer.” Call me old-fashioned (or “not gay enough”), but I stand firm in my belief that “queer” should only name something very strange or peculiar. I’ve never felt there’s anything strange or peculiar about having sex with another woman. In fact, I like it.
Of course, there are some who say that we must embrace the word to eventually rob it of its power when used by homophobic heterosexuals. But I’ll believe that works the moment the Promise Keepers change the name of their organization to Breed-N-Beat, LLP. Hence, if I’m ever caught calling myself “queer,” it’s because I’ve been known to throw away a perfectly good sandwich if someone mistakenly slathers it with mustard, a condiment to which I have a pathological aversion.
So where does that leave me? I’m not sure. But every once in a while I like to cross my eyes and touch my nose with the tip of my tongue. Then I sit back and imagine the applause.
This story appears in Bitchcake Madness!, a collection of short autobiographical essays.