I’ve always considered myself to be mild-mannered, easy-going, a bit on the meek and wimpish side. Imagine my surprise to learn I’ve had my self-view mirror adjusted cock-eyed, maybe even upside down. One day I woke up to find that I actually am the ferocious lion I thought had been lurking inside me all these years.
The cowardly lion has always been the literary character with whom I most closely identify and my life has been like his, one long quest for courage. But I may (or may not) be different from the cowardly lion: I was born gay. I have an image of all these tiny newborn butches springing into the world upright, in a wide-legged triumphant stance, labyrises pointed at male physicians and shields held up to hide our nakedness. “Get me some goddamn swaddling clothes!” we bellow in what’s taken for crying. Imagine what that first slap by a male hand does to us.
Early baby pictures of me reveal a deeply unhappy-looking infant. “Why,” I hear myself wondering, “is my big brother out there where I want to be, free and independent, in long pants and a tie, while I’m stuck in this stupid carriage wearing a sissy pinafore?” By the time we come out we’re raging mad. We become defiant baby dykes in denim and boots, with strides more butch than our brothers’ ever were, our chins raised to challenge the world, our cologne the scent of young femmes and curious straightgirls on our hands.
What I have said, but never recognized in myself before, is that coming out and staying out are not only a great joy, but also great acts of courage. Some gay people cannot find that courage at all and settle into uncomfortable places in the het world. You’ve seen the butchy-looking woman in Safeway with her three kids and taciturn hubby in tow. And the bold-eyed pretty woman who’ll meet another woman’s frankly appraising gaze in the WalMart cosmetics department (where the nail-clippers are hidden).
Other lesbians have just enough courage to live life in a closet. They play bingo down at the church hall and get invited to their neighbors’ barbeques, convinced their co-workers buy the spinster second cousin story. Well into her sixties my late friend Norma, queer as the three dollar bill she bequeathed me, at last let her hair grow out straight. She looked fantastic, but was afraid that without permed hair someone would guess she was gay. When I hear the term lipstick lesbian I always think of closeted butches in scratchy wool skirt suits and lipstick working in the financial district, not femmes who paint their lips to—why do they do that—to make a woman like me weak in the knees?
Joan Nestle has written about the defiance implicit in making love with a woman, and somewhere inside I’ve felt that to be true, but I’ve never heard it explained in a way I truly could understand until I read Joy Parks’ words: “Butches turn their backs on what they are expected to be. Femmes turn their backs on the world by loving and desiring that which is deviant...” Tell me our defiance doesn’t take courage, whether sealed in a safe house or out in the streets. Parks writes elsewhere, “And we can’t ever forget what any of us mean to each other, that we are each other’s safety and each other’s soldiers...”
Soldiers survive by courage. I never gave myself credit for courage, because I’ve always just done what comes so naturally. Then I listened to Melissa Etheridges’s song “My Beloved,” which feels like our own 1812 overture. She makes “my” and “beloved” simultaneously words of love and words of defiance. When I hear her sing about bigots shouting “you’re all going to hell,” my fists clench and raise of their own accord. This is the album where she sings “Scarecrow,” the song she wrote for gay martyr Matthew Shepard. Listening to this and then to “My Beloved,” I was blown away by Etheridge’s courage—and recognized my own: “Someone’s getting louder and that someone could be me.”
There have been times when I wished I could live in a closet with a devoted woman who thought marches were for patriots and Melissa Etheridge just a pop singer. There have been times when I did hide in a job or chemical highs or illness. Times I didn’t know I was hiding. Times when I roared out a book or column only to scare myself back into my lair.
But I never took off my dyke clothes, never stopped writing, never stopped holding a lover’s hand in public. It takes its toll, but in the end I’m stronger for the acts of defiance I can muster. Strong enough to admit that I have courage. And that’s the hardest part—now I have to live up to myself.
Email Lee Lynch at email@example.com