I have been an enemy of television in almost all its forms and a person so allergic to gay bars that I’d find it hard to list three, even in the Sodomite capital of Gotham. Yet there I was, on a rope line, inside a queer club, a member of a hopelessly exposed queue winding back through a crowd of lesbians. We were secretaries from the Island and hotties from grad school, dyke daddies from Harlem, tourists from anywhere. We wore pinstripes and tank tops and those heavy silver rings that are the dyke equivalent of forward-projection briefs.
And when, finally, the bouncer flung wide the gate to the sanctum sanctorum, we abandoned whatever cool poses we’d struck and raced for the couches, elbowing our way into the best possible seat for a Sunday-night viewing of The L Word.
With its stylish soap opera about queer women in L.A., Showtime has our number—and it won’t stop calling. Not having cable, I met Bette, Tina, Shane, and the rest through DVDs of the first season. My wife and I started somewhere in the middle, with Bette and Tina mired in couples therapy. From there it was backward and forward through that season and the next, as fast as we could feed the discs into the machine.
The show was far from perfect. You could edit pages of the dialogue as you watched. The timeline was shaped like a pretzel. Characters hopscotched through the DSM-IV; some never woke up in the same personality twice. Take Karina Lombard’s role as Marina, that goddess—predatory, nurturing, flat-out insane. The L Word was terrific, but it had big problems, and on balance I couldn’t have cared less. I just wanted more. More talking. More flirting. More kisses that almost happened. More that did. More sex—sex in bathrooms, sex on boats, sex in beds, sex in the wrong beds, sex in swimming pools, sex in offices, sex in hotels, sex in jails. Wherever they wanted to have it, I wanted it had.
On fan sites like thelwordonline.com—yes, I started going to those too—women wondered which of the actresses might really be gay. I’d just as soon they all were straight. That the megawatt Jennifer Beals, Straight Girl, would play the power dyke role of Bette changes my worldview, if not my world. She’s not worried if I turn up at her table in the school cafeteria. She’s not afraid to stand next to me in the bookstore. Enjoy me? My God, Jennifer Beals will be me, with the whole world watching, and make it look sweaty, wet, and good.
“She plays us with great passion and conviction, and it’s very convincing,” says Ilene Chaiken, the show’s producer and creator. “There’s no question when we’re watching her that Bette’s a lesbian, and it’s hot.”
This is hard for me to admit, but Chaiken and her TV show have made me feel hot in a way I haven’t been too familiar with. I knew straight guys found girl-on-girl hot, but straight women? After all this time, now you tell me I’m not repulsive? Sounds silly, I know, but when you’ve spent way too much of your sexual experience accepting that you’re a pariah and then a soap opera gives you a plot transplant, it counts, as Marina would say.
It counts enough to make me edit my past, to go back to those scenes where this girl or that was flirting with me and just go for the satin sheets and soft filter. This is what fundamentalists fear, I know—that the media will make our decadence possible. They’re right, except that our decadence isn’t wrong.
If The L Word had been around way back when, I’d have folded that most beautiful girl at school into my arms, right after the part where she—in real life—asked if I’d ever thought about kissing her. And when she called me in tears after the Christmas party, I’d have done more than go over and sleep next to her in that little twin bed. I’d have made love with her for the next two days, as only a college kid can. And certainly by the time spring came and she lifted her shirt so I could kiss her breasts, I wouldn’t have said, Gotta go, and then run off to the miserably rainy Gulf Coast to ride around in a sailboat with some boy whose name I can’t remember. What about the years after, when she would call and ask me to travel to her city, would have I done it? Lord, yes, and it would have been so much better.
Maybe you can’t blame everything on the stranglehold of pop culture. Maybe if I’m dumb enough to trade a beautiful girl’s bed for a dumb boy’s sailboat, not even a really hot TV show can save me.
But I like to think it would have helped.
In my L Word past, that girl who confesses to flirting with me is mine. And the one who keeps saying, “I like you so much, and I can’t figure out why”—she figures it out.
How about my high school sweetheart, the one I loved for years, and even knowing she loved me back, almost never slept with? I remember asking a friend in college whether he had sex with his girlfriend of several years (this was an important question in our fundamentalist South), and he said, “Laura, we’ve been together since high school.” Yeah, well, so had we, and so would we, off and on, for years. Depending on how you count, we made love three times, maybe four.
Call us sorely in need of a diagram. With The L Word, we’d have had one, though I’d argue those actresses have way longer arms than I do. We’d have had a diagram for living too: Move to a city. Get hitched. Find jobs. Buy a house. You can do it.
Kids today, they have no idea. A high school girl from Mississippi, same as I once was, wrote an article for The Advocate this spring about the troubles she and her girlfriend face at school. Twenty years ago, we could scarcely show our faces, let alone face our troubles. We had no gay magazines, no gay TV, no gay anything. The whole world was straight, even Richard Simmons. We had one known lesbian in my junior high, and I spent several months in eighth grade trying to bring her to Jesus.
Little did I know Jesus was coming for me, in the form of that blue-eyed girl one seat over, or years later in the form of two women on-screen trying desperately to stay together.
I’m not saying The L Word or its companions—from Queer as Folk to The O.C.—have brought us all to paradise. Too many Americans still think it’s their birthright to deny us any rights at all. I don’t much relish a visit home, and I may never feel 100 percent comfortable around straight girls.
Another dozen or two episodes and The L Word may go the way of women’s professional soccer. These worlds of ours still seem so vulnerable. For now, The L Word lets us, and women in particular, cash the big checks and drive the fast cars and live in the perfect houses and drink perfect drinks in that perfect California weather. We’re in a better place—even if it’s just Bette and Tina’s bed on a Sunday night.