Call me Ishmael.
Well, that doesn’t quite work.
Okay… how about Cher?
Hell. Forget about them. The only thing I’m really sure about is that I fit and I don’t fit in nearly equal measure, and that simple fact is proving to be the one immutable constant in my life. But I’ve also learned that being a misfit is fine if you’re dressed for it. The confusion of what to call myself (in an era where what we call ourselves has assumed titantic importance) persists. Let’s face it: it took thirty years of determined avoidance and another five years of therapy, twice a week, for me to get my head around the word “lesbian” – and that was only after claiming the horrifying string of monikers that preceded it. Things like incest survivor, domestic violence survivor, and adult child of alcoholic. Frankly, “lesbian” was a celebration after ther est. Something savory to rake into the big pot on the back of the stove – that simmering stew of all the things I am.
I now understand that I did derive comfort from finally have a lexicon to define my unique self. I was, at least, all of those things. And that gave me a framework for navigating not only my future, but a safe egress from my past. Having this confluence of identities was like being handed the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. I became, as comedian Kate Clinton once joked, “a full-front, Shiite Lesbian.” My lesbian identity precided me into every room like a politician’s advance crew, or an opening act that warms up the crowd for the main attraction. I routinely scandalized family gathering by stubborning sporting a miniscule, enameled pink triangle pin on my collar; I, as a proud denzien of my new lesbian identity, was viewed as a greater threat to my family hegemony than either of my government-hating, gun-toting brothers. Just like in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, my world was becoming “curiouser and curioer.”
Sadly, that ambiguity has gained even greater steam. As one queer writer noted, we’ve been tainted with each other’s blood and now fight amongst ourselves. “We’ve come full circle,” Lynne Stahl opined in The Washington Post. “The same bogus ideas that queers have spent decades figthing are now promulgated in our names, and sometimes from our mouths.” Too often, this infighting enters on what we call ourselves and who claims the right to decide. Stahl notes that gender theorist Judith Butler once warned against adhering to such rigid idntity politicls for gender and sexuality. Butler observed that such categories are rightfully dear to us, “but what we’ve fought for – the freedom for people to define themselves and love whom they love – transcends them.”
“I don’t care what the newspapers say about me,” P.T. Barnum once proclaimed, “as long as they spell my name right.” A century later, Barbra Streisand turned that idea on its ear when she quipped, “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name wrong.
So does that mean I can still claim my identity as a lesbian? And if so, should I be afraid to say it out loud?
“This new dread,” Stahl continues,” conveniently frogets how exclusionary thinking has chronically plagued gender activism… Lesbians are not a species, and we feed existing racist, ableist, and homophobic agends when we evoke extinction.”
It’s a lot to take in.
Still… I think I might hedge my bets and go unearth that little pink collarpin. At least I’ll be able to recognize myself when I look in a mirror.
Ann McMan, who resides in Winston-Salem, NC, is the author of twelves novels and two collections of short stories. She is a two-time Lambda Literary Award winner, a Foreword INDIES medalist, a five-time Independent Publisher (IPPY) medalist, and a recipieint of the Alice B. Medal for her body of work. Her newest mysetery, Dead Letters from Paradiser (Bywater Books) was published in June 2022.