Thursday, June 02, 2005

Being Somebody Else (essay I wrote last night)

I have a column in an LGBT magazine based in Orlando, Watermark. ( This is my latest column for them.

Lipstick Graffiti
"Being Somebody Else"

Dedicated to Steve Kadar, the BiNetUSA e-mail list, and everyone who’s ever asked me "Why?"

Except for a few times when she’s wanted to look different and/or "respectable," my beloved Katarina has shaved or buzzed her hair almost continuously since our last year of high school. (And while we both look young, that’s a longer time than most people think—1993!) When people ask her about it, she gives smart-alecky reasons ranging from "aerodynamics" to "I want people to keep telling me I’m too pretty to do this," but really, it’s for the same reasons why I always wear my hair long with bangs. She likes it and feels most like herself that way.

As y’all can probably guess, she doesn’t work in an office. Circumstances and natural talent have led her to teaching martial arts at a gym, with a second job teaching gymnastics to middle-school kids as an after-school enrichment activity. She recently learned how much her influence can matter at her second job. A few weeks ago, Natalie Portman was photographed with her head shaved for a movie. This inspired a 12-year-old girl at that after-school center with alopecia. However, the girl wished she could see a proud, pretty bald woman in her world—a "real person," as K related in an amused tone. Enter the gymnastics coach. My gymnastics coach. The girl did not take gymnastics, or any other class that might have caused her wig to fall off or get wet or otherwise be detected. This changed when she talked to Katarina. She’s no longer wearing her wig, and she’ll be taking gymnastics this summer. We agreed that at a stage of life when all a person wants to be is like everyone else, this took some guts, and K is honored that she was able to help inspire her, even if it was by accident. Sometimes all a kid needs to be brave is somebody else around to be brave with.

"I couldn’t imagine being ashamed and holding a secret about myself like that for so long," K told me.
"Really, darlin’? You sure about that?" She didn’t get my meaning at first. "Did everyone know you liked girls when you were twelve?" I pressed.
"Oh, my God, nobody did. People guessed, but I never let anyone know."
"Exactly. Same here. So maybe we do know what it feels like, sort of."
She considered. "Perhaps we do," she finally said. "But at least I could do a backflip."

I never was able to do a backflip, so I didn’t even have that consolation. When I was twelve, I felt extremely weird because I liked girls, a lot. I also liked boys, a lot. I knew I wasn’t "normal" because I liked girls, but I wasn’t even really a "dyke", either! I didn’t know what I was, but it seemed pretty bizarre. When I told a counselor at school about it, her alarmed look said it all. She seemed much too hopeful when she told me it was a phase and I would grow out of it.

A couple years later, I knew that counselor was wrong, at least in my case. It wasn’t a phase. I even had a boyfriend, a really cute one, and I still wasn’t growing out of it! However, I found hope in the strangest place. I forget exactly which word I was looking for in the dictionary, but it was under the "B"s. What I found instead was the word "bisexual." Of course a new word that had something to do with sex interested me, so I took a look. I re-read the definition again and again. It was a word for people who liked males and females both! My heart raced. There had been others like me before, there were others now, and there would be others after. There had to be, or else why would anyone go and invent a word for it, one that ended up in the dictionary because people needed to know it? I savored the taste on my tongue. "Bisexual." I repeated it to myself many times. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but at least I wasn’t the only one anymore.

In my late teens, I started inching my way out of the closet. My best friend Maureen was also bi, and we supported each other. Another shaven-headed beauty was responsible for that. We were watching videos with a roomful of friends when Sinead O’Connor’s "Nothing Compares 2 U" came on. Maureen and I were both dating boys at the time, and both of us were extremely happy with this situation. We laugh now to imagine just how shocked our homegirls must have been when she blurted out, "I’d do her, man", and I said "Hell, yeah!" and high-fived her. Just that quickly and easily, the shameful secret that haunted my adolescence and the part of herself she knew she had to suppress until she was older became something to laugh about and bond with a friend over. Just that quickly and easily, we learned that the sky wasn’t going to fall when our friends found out. The genie had been let out of the bottle after what had felt to us like eons, and we were so relieved. Sometimes all a kid needs to be brave is somebody else around to be brave with.

Reading has always been a source of solace for me, and so I tried to find books about bisexuality. Unfortunately, that dictionary definition was the most supportive resource I could find. Even the gay stuff had nothing for me. Magazines did say things about bisexuality sometimes, but most of it had to do with men passing AIDS to their unsuspecting wives and girlfriends. I longed for something better. Then Basic Instinct, that horrible movie where Sharon Stone played a murderous and promiscuous bisexual writer, came out. Maureen and I literally cried, we were so frustrated. I kept saying, "Somebody needs to tell the truth about bi women." Finally, she replied, "Why not you?" It brought back a kernel of wisdom that my grandfather gave to all of us "cousins". Whenever any of us began a sentence with the phrase "Somebody ought to…", he’d automatically reply, "Ain’t you somebody?" It was annoying because it was true. I decided to apply his lesson in a way that I’m certain he never intended.

In the same month, I came out to my entire school in an essay for our newspaper and approached a local lesbian newspaper, the LCN Express, about writing a column for them. When I first started the column, I actually hoped that older bi women would correct my points and share their opinions and take me in hand. I was crying out for role models, women who would show me how to be a bisexual woman. That would happen eventually, and I would also find more bi friends. But mostly, I ended up documenting my own fumbling journey to bisexual womanhood in prose that makes me shake my head at myself now.

When the LCN Express folded, I came here to Watermark because I thought they needed a bi presence too, and because I had simply gotten addicted to expressing my opinions where others could read them. (Well, since I’m talking about honesty, why not be totally honest?) However, what I have stayed for is a sentence that I have heard and read a lot in the past few years, regarding issues from bisexuality to Paganism to censorship to abortion: "I thought I was the only one who felt that way." It is such a pleasure to convince people otherwise, and to be reminded otherwise myself.

Sometimes all any of us needs to be brave is somebody else around to be brave with.

No comments: