In 1985, I was a bridesmaid in my brother’s wedding. I wore a shiny pink dress with nylons and white pumps; my hair was super short, and my glasses were large. All three of my siblings got married a) soon after college, b) to someone of the opposite sex, and c) to someone from Pennslyvania (even though we weren’t from Pennsylvania). During the reception, my father stood up, microphone in hand, and said: “I have one more daughter. Are there any eligible bachelors here from Pennsylvania?” Everyone laughed, including me, nervously. I was a junior in college and hadn’t had a single college date yet, but I did have one male friend who I spent a lot of time with.
Doug and I would talk for hours about books, movies, and our classes. One time we chatted so long on the steps of Andrews Library that we started seeing some of the same students we’d seen going into the library coming back out. I adored Doug. He was funny, easy to talk to, super smart, and just the right amount of cynical. Plus, he was from Pennsylvania. But nothing ever happened between us.
After I graduated from college, I moved back home to live with my parents because I hadn’t found a man to marry and didn’t know what else to do. Two years later (while still living at home), I met a young man who, although not from Pennsylvania, had a lot of good qualities. We got engaged and, soon after, moved to San Francisco for the adventure of living in a new place. During one of our first weekends there, we toured Alcatraz Island. On the boat ride over, Daniel (not his real name) told me about his dreams of someday working for the State Department. I told him I would follow him wherever his dreams took him.
Daniel and I could only afford a studio apartment in San Francisco, but we managed to convert a walk-in closet into a small bedroom. One day I came home from work (at HarperSanFrancisco Publishers) with a poster for a soon-to-be-released book about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I hung the poster in our bedroom – our closet bedroom.
Some time after this, Daniel and I invited the pastor of our Lutheran church over for dinner. Jeff was openly gay, and his ordination had made national news. I can still hear the sound Jeff made when he noticed the poster in our bedroom. A soft huh sound that seemed to express confusion or surprise. Some deep-down part of me – the part of me that knew I was a lesbian – was right there with him saying “huh.”
There had been many clues along the way, of course, but they only seem obvious in retrospect. There was the time when, at age twelve, I leaned over and kissed my friend Becky on the cheek while we were playing pool in my family’s basement on my father’s billiard table. There’s the poetry I wrote in high school about same-sex desire – poems in my own handwriting that I still have. There was the crush I had on an “older woman” during college (she was a senior; I was a sophomore), followed by many more crushes when I lived in San Francisco. There was the time a good friend of mine from work came out to me when we were having lunch together on the grassy knoll outside our office building. A voice inside me said: “This is my story too.” And then there was the dream I had a year and a half before I came out, in which a man is asking me if I want to have dinner with him and I say no, pointing to a woman standing nearby: “I want to have dinner with her.” I woke up from the dream sobbing. For three days, I sobbed, praying to any god who would listen. “Please. I don’t want this. Take this away.” Then, as quickly, as it started, the crying stopped.
A year later, Daniel and I moved to Nashville, where I had been accepted into a graduate program in theology. I was so relieved to get out of San Francisco. I actually thought that by leaving the city, my “problem” would disappear. Little did I know, the divinity school where my program was housed was at that time a microcosm of San Francisco. Lesbians were everywhere, and the crushes continued.
One evening during my second semester, as Daniel and I were sitting on the couch flipping through catalogs and magazines, he pointed to a picture of a female L. L. Bean model wearing a fleece pullover and asked if I thought she was pretty. I immediately broke down in tears, saying: “I think I’m more attracted to women than I’m supposed to be.”
That night was the beginning of the end of our marriage and the start of my life as a lesbian who knows she’s a lesbian. It was rocky at first, challenging all the societal and familial messages I had received about needing a man to provide for me, but I made it through. A year after starting the process, I threw a big Coming Out party for myself. My brother Andrew and sister-in-law Anne (the ones for whom I had been a bridesmaid) drove down for it. My parents sent flowers. A bunch of my former San Fransisco coworkers sent me a box full of lavender items.
Two years later, a woman I’d recently met at a dinner party called to ask if I wanted to have coffee sometime. “How about now?” I said. And so began my 23-year, happily-ever-after life with Laurie.
And Doug, the guy who I thought I would marry in college? Turns out he was/is gay. No wonder we hit it off so well.
Lisa Dordal is a Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University and is the author ofMosaic of the Dark, which was a finalist for the 2019 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, and Water Lessons,whichwas listed by Lambda Literary as one of their most anticipated books for 2022.