Closet Case

A producer from a cable music channel recently called me to see if I'd be interested in being a talking head on one of those pop culture decade-in-review-type shows. He said it was about queer people's memories of high school (the working title had the phrase "closet case" in it), and the rest of the conversation went something like this.

"The show is almost complete, and this piece is great, but we're missing, um, is 'lipstick lesbian' the correct term? Basically, we're missing the hot lesbian."

Now, I know they already had several lesbians on the show, so I assume they're butch, un-girlified, or not L Word–standard chic. But I am sure some of them are attractive, even hot; they're just not hot by this straight guy's standards or the idiotic executives he answers to. I should have hung up on him right then and there, but I didn't. I thought maybe I had something to contribute, so I played along.

He asked me to tell him about my high school years, paying particular attention to any hints I was a dyke that I can now see in hindsight. Well, a bunch of the boys I just adored, romantically or otherwise, turned out to be gay. I think it's a common experience for pre-out queers to be drawn to one another but not know why at the time. My favorite musicians were singers like the Cure's lipstick-and-makeup-wearing Robert Smith and tortured andro-geek Morrissey, who later came out. Like most teenage girls, I was having a rush of sexual feelings that were new and sometimes overwhelming. I thought my only option was to express them with boys, since that was what everyone else around me was doing. Plus, I do like boys; I've never denied that from day one, even after I came out. So I dated and fooled around with and fucked boys. Maybe too many boys, maybe in a rabidly heterosexual kind of way.

Alongside my guy-crazy ways, I had very charged and intimate female friendships. I had this really intense bond with one of my friends in particular, and she and I were joined at the hip. I worshipped the ground she walked on, and thought I would die without her in that high-drama, teenage-girl way. Although our relationship was never overtly sexual, to this day the first image of her that comes to mind is the two of us in her bedroom in our underwear. On one such occasion, we were goofing off, and she was making me laugh uncontrollably. She just had this smart and wicked sense of humor, and could always get me going like no one else. So this one time, I laughed so hard I peed in my panties, and on her bed, where we happened to be rolling around at the time. She didn't freak out (even though she had expensive Laura Ashley sheets), and we just laughed some more, then proceeded to do some laundry. In college, when I came out to my high school friends, many of them asked if she and I had secretly been a couple. I was shocked, at that point not even connecting my feelings and interactions with her with my newly defined queer identity. I remember one friend telling me, "When you two had your big falling-out, we all called it your breakup. It was so intense, not like two friends, but like a couple breaking up."

After I recounted my tale (minus the pee story, since I knew that was gonna be irrelevant to him), he said, "Well, it sounds like you were straight in high school. Most of the people I talked to, somewhere deep down inside, knew they were gay all along. And there were these clues. You don't really have that." Excuse me? And you are? Oh, right, a straight television producer. He continued, "You had sex with boys, you went to the prom, so you were straight, basically; then at some point, when you came out, changed your mind." Wow, here I was in therapy for more than a decade when this guy could have summed it all up for me in one phone call!

He went on to reveal that all the men he talked to knew they were gay because they were infatuated with replicating Madonna's dance moves, they loved Farrah Fawcett's hair but never noticed her hot bod, and always zeroed in on the fashion (rather than the fucking) when watching straight porn. The women he spoke to were sports-playing tomboys who had crushes on their softball coaches and loved wearing boys' clothes or even their fathers' clothes. He was disappointed my story didn't fit in.

I am not denying that there are certain gay and lesbian archetypes: We acknowledge them, celebrate them, poke fun at them. After all, I'm the daughter of a gay man who loved Judy Garland, musical theater, and shopping. Shared experiences—the oh-my-god-you-were-obsessed-with-that-too? factor—are part of what binds us together as a community. But it's dangerous to distill us all down to just one narrative of nelly guys and tomboy girls. What's missing is not only a diversity of experiences, but a range of gender expressions, like butch gay men who played high school football, femme dyke homecoming queens, punk-rock kids, and so on.

Mr. Producer's dismissal of my story because it didn't line up with the others was exclusionary, frustrating, and offensive. I know he wasn't working on a PBS documentary on being gay in high school, but a silly package of soundbites and video clips. Maybe my experience is not ideal for TV—it's not archetypal, stereotypical, or simple. It's not easily distilled into a few images, some chirpy words, and a cool, retro graphic treatment. But it's still fucking valid. I know, I know, it's just empty, fill-the-time-slot TV. But shows like his contribute to telling the same story over and over, one in which there is never room for other experiences, identities, and people whose stories are nuanced, complex, or real.

There are plenty of potential lesbians in high school right now who are not on the field hockey team, don't want their hair to look like Johnny Depp's circa 21 Jump Street, and aren't being called bull dykes behind their backs. For these girls, I think it's important to show how different we queers can be. There is not one typical high school narrative or one coming-out story that they must identify with in order to join the club. They just have to dig girls.

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