This is someting I wrote in 2000 for my comprehensive exams. I’m taking quite the risk here, considering how many brainiacs there are around here. But I would be interested in your thoughts.
Self-worth, identity, and a sense of community have fundamentally depended on the production of a shared narrative or life history and on the assimilation of individuals’ life histories into the history of the group.
–Biddy Martin (Femininity Played Straight 143)
Fitting In and Coming Out
We were taking a break during drill team practice. Our high school JROTC group was one of the best in the county and we took our duty seriously—we had a competition to win. A few of us used our break time to practice the particularly difficult maneuvers. Then it happened. He called me over. Of course I went to him. He was a Captain and I was merely a Sergeant—he out ranked me. I assumed he needed to talk to me about my squad’s performance in class that day. What I didn’t expect was for him to pull me out of eyesight of the others and kiss me.
“Breathe,” I told myself, “just breathe.” What was happening? Why was this happening? Where did this come from? We were friends—had been for nearly two years. He was a senior, I was a sophomore; what did this man see in a not yet 16 year-old girl? Sure we flirted with each other, but no more so than with all of our other friends. WHAT was happening? And just why was I kissing him back?
I dated Jim for a couple of months. Actually, “dated” is not the appropriate term. We’d walk arm in arm across campus; we’d make out in the parking lot; and he would drive me home. That was the extent of our relationship. To be honest, I can’t even remember his last name. Breaking up was a very easy thing to do. It just seemed right. We remained friends for a long time, even after he graduated. I think he regretted that things didn’t work out for us “romantically,” but being together was just too uncomfortable. We didn’t know why.
That was 16 years ago. At that time, I was a conservative, fairly naïve teenager making her way through the world. I did what I could to “fit in”—I was definitely a conformist. I never rocked the boat. I didn’t fight back when I was automatically dropped from a class teaching the basics of electricity so that a boy could take the class. I simply went to Home Economics at the designated time. I didn’t insist that I was a better squad leader than Patrick Yates and was being passed over for the position because I was a girl. I merely fell into formation and took orders. I “dated” Jim because that is what high school girls were supposed to do. I certainly did not consider myself a feminist; and I definitely never considered myself a lesbian. I wouldn’t fit in.
Over the years, the ideal figure for a woman has changed, from eras that accentuate the differences from the male body to those that minimize them. In this century alone we have seen rapid shifts from the Lillian Russell/Marilyn Monroe standard, which was voluptuous and curvaceous, to the 1920s Flapper/1960s Twiggy standard, which was unisex slim, to today’s odd hybrid: full-breasted but narrow-hipped.
–Carol Tavris (The Mismeasure of a Woman 30)
In retrospect, I realize that I was unable to truly fit in. I didn’t meet the criteria for a teenage girl in the 1980s. I didn’t dress like Madonna, striving for an ultra-feminine appearance; I didn’t long to be a cheerleader; I preferred practicing spinning a rifle over talking to the cute boys. But more than that, I was what some delicately called “big boned.” I have always been overweight, even as a child. I was always the tallest in my class or on my softball team. I was intimidating. I was masculine. And, as Susan Brownmiller aptly states, “When a woman stands taller than a man she has broken a cardinal feminine rule, for her physical stature reminds him that he may be too short—inadequate, insufficient—for the competitive world of men…To show a man that he may not be needed is a terribly unfeminine stance, and she knows she will pay for it unless she can compensate in some other manner” (29). And pay for it I did, because I did not compensate.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to compensate, to fit in. I just didn’t feel comfortable trying. I tried out for the school musical when I was a senior saying that I had a crush on a boy that was also auditioning. I didn’t really have a crush. But that was a more acceptable reason than because my best friend was auditioning and I wanted to have an excuse to spend more time with her. Not that I had a crush on Zorina or thought I was in love with her. That wasn’t the case. Zorina is a very attractive woman (she looks like Goldie Hawn in her prime) with a great personality. Who wouldn’t want to be near her? That is what I told myself anyway.
But in order to audition without arousing suspicion, I had to feign a crush on Ricky. I had never participated in drama before, so my desire to audition couldn’t possibly stem from a clear theatrical desire. No, there had to be a reason why I wanted to be there. Ricky was the perfect excuse—tall, good looking, intelligent, popular. It was perfectly normal for me to have a crush on him; most of the girls at school liked Ricky.
I was cast in the show. Zorina was cast in the show. We rarely rehearsed together—I got a lead role, she was in the chorus. I was stuck. I couldn’t sing, I had to give up ROTC, and I didn’t get to be with Zorina. Worst of all, my role reified my image as an outsider. Since I am not the ingénue type, I got to play the old maid English teacher who barked orders at the students. I wore an ugly costume and used my size to be intimidating. I still didn’t fit in.
All my life, I’ve been taught that gender is something essential, something we’re born with. Well, for the last decade or so, I’ve become increasingly convinced that gender is some sort of social construct.
–Kate Bornstein (“Queer Theory and Shopping” 15)
I spent the next 10 years not fitting in. In college I hung out with the athletes who lived in my dorm. They accepted me, but they also transgressed “normal” expectations for women. Therefore, I was still a misfit. I had no desire to join a sorority (a dangerous move for a woman at a southern university). I preferred arguing with the fraternity boys over a close call in a softball game than date them. As one of a very few students studying Oral Interpretation and Performance as an undergraduate and, later, a graduate student, I was given the roles of the androgynous “narrator” in our performances. Again, I tried to compensate. Again, I failed to do so.
I became a math tutor for the men’s athletic teams, hoping to meet some guys. That is what I was supposed to do—study hard at college, but “make time for boys” and have some fun. The problem, however, was that I should have been better at English, not math and science. I was intimidating again. Butler notes, “we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right” (140). Well, I obviously wasn’t “doing my gender right,” because I made it through six years at the same university without so much as one man asking me out or showing an interest in me—other than to help him pass his algebra exam.
But that didn’t bother me for some reason. I didn’t want to date the guys I met—even the one man with whom I became very good friends. We worked together, went to movies together, studied together, and generally spent a lot of time together. I visited his home in southern Texas when he transferred to another school; he came to visit me when I had to stay on campus because of my RA duties. My mother said she would like him as a son-in-law. I laughed it off and said, “you’ll have to talk to him about that.” I secretly hoped she wouldn’t talk to him about that.
When I received an invitation to his wedding a couple of years later, I was upset. I wasn’t upset because I was not the woman he was marrying, although that is what my mother believed. Andy was the one man who didn’t put my gender transgressions at the forefront of our relationship. He accepted me for me, not for who I was supposed to be. For a brief time, I fit in. But that was over. I never heard from Andy again.
Passing demands a desire to become invisible. A ghost-life. An ignorance of connections.
–Michelle Cliff (qtd. in The Lesbian Menace 162)
As I look back on my experiences with gender transgression and relationships with men, I realize that I didn’t really want to fit in. On a subconscious level, at least, I preferred remaining on the outside. Oh, I wanted friends, a relationship and all of the other things in life that people are supposed to desire. But I didn’t want them in the ways in which I was expected to want them.
My mother and I have had the same conversation a number of times over the last 10 years or so. She wants me to find a man that loves me and that I love in return. She wants me to get married. She wants grandchildren. I tell her that I don’t want to get married; I have too many things to do with my life to worry about finding a man. I don’t want children; I don’t have the patience for them. If love finds me, that is one thing. But I am not going to search for it. I don’t have time to screw up my life plans by having a man around.
The more often we had this conversation, the more I began to believe it. I fell victim to a thought process that began to fold in on itself. It isn’t that I don’t want a man, it’s that I don’t have time for a relationship. It isn’t that I don’t want a relationship, it’s that I saw what my dad did to my mom and I don’t want to put myself through that kind of pain. I have to finish my education before I can think about a personal relationship. Once I get my degree, I won’t have time for love and romance because I will be busy securing a teaching job. Once I find a position at a university, I will be too busy trying to get tenure to worry about a personal life. Once I get tenure… I could go on forever.
These were acceptable excuses, though. They were believable. I had set up my life in such a way that these were feasible reasons for being single, for being unattached. I believed in these excuses and made them known to anyone and everyone. I talked the talk, but I didn’t walk the walk. Inside I longed for companionship, for someone with whom I could share my life. I was in denial. I kept myself from fitting in.
Due to the low visibility of lesbians for much of this century, even up to the present, they are particularly susceptible to being “created” by popular representations. In other words, since the dominant culture has marginalized lesbians, representations of them, such as those found in articles in Cosmopolitan or juvenile books, can constitute the “reality” of lesbianism for many people, particularly those who have little or no acquaintance with real lesbians.
–Sherri Inness (The Lesbian Menace 3)
I met my first openly gay identified friend while in my second graduate program in Ohio. Until I met Tom, I had not known anyone who identified as gay. He fit many of the characteristics of a gay man—effeminate, in a predominately female profession (costume designer), etc.—but I did not immediately see him as gay. Many of my straight male friends had many of the same traits. He certainly didn’t “flame” like the media’s representations of gay men said he should—he didn’t lisp, he didn’t equate every conversation with something sexual, he didn’t ogle men on the street. So, finding out that Tom was gay was an eye opening experience for me. The stereotype was all I knew of gay men; and Tom did not fit the stereotype.
But my sense of denial was so deeply ingrained that I did not extrapolate this new discovery to lesbianism. As far as I was concerned, lesbians were man hating, shaven-head, leather-clad feminists. As for myself, there was no way I could be a lesbian because I liked men, I had long hair and found leather clothing to be uncomfortable. I was still a tomboy. I preferred jeans to skirts and I certainly didn’t consider myself to be a feminist. After all, I shaved my legs! There was no way I could possibly be a feminist! I wasn’t transgressing; I was just being me.
“I’m not a feminist, but…” As both the news and entertainment media have construed this statement, they emphasize and reinforce what comes before the comma: “I’m not a feminist.” They pay much less attention to the “but,” and virtually ignore the comma itself.
–Susan Douglas (Where the Girls Are 270)
My first foray into considering feminism as a part of my identity was in the spring of 1998. I wrote a personal narrative about my experience teaching in men’s correctional facilities for Performance Of Gender—my first course in gender studies. I prefaced my performance by saying, “my performance isn’t that theoretical.” Afterward, I was gently criticized for making this comment. This criticism, and the discussion that followed, made me rethink my claim that I was not a feminist. Exactly what did feminism mean to me? It obviously didn’t mean hating men.
Another performance for the same class dealt with intersexed and transsexual individuals. Research into the experiences of these cultures helped me to examine the ways in which those not fitting society’s norms for gender and sexuality are marginalized and oppressed. What did this tell me about feminism? It certainly didn’t tell me that all feminists want to overthrow the system.
After completing this class and reading Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media by Susan Douglas the following summer, I came to realize how the comma in the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…” functioned in my own life. Slowly, what came after the “but” took precedence. I began to pay attention to what came after the “but.” I would discuss my new discoveries with my mother. Well, there is no better way to understand something than to have to explain it to and argue with another person. To my mom, refusing to buy my friend’s new baby girl a pink frilly dress meant I was a feminist. While there may be some truth in this (I once thought the same way, and still do to a certain extent), I find it reduces notions of feminism to boy vs. girl, man vs. woman, us vs. them.
I don’t consider myself a cultural feminist; I do not wish to “form a woman-centered society and create a women-oriented culture, ethics, and even religion” (Lorber 10). I don’t know to which type of feminism I espouse, but I know that it is not cultural feminism—I don’t wish to resist, so to speak, patriarchy. I don’t believe that separatism is the answer. I fall somewhere between “gender reform feminists” and “gender rebellion feminism” (Lorber 10). I wish to see reform in the patriarchy—acknowledgment of a woman’s value as a human being equal to that of a man’s.
At the same time, I believe in the “deconstruction of the categories of sex, sexuality, and gender” in order to question “the dualities of male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, masculine and feminine, man and woman” (Lorber 10-11). That is to say, I believe gender and sexuality are fluid, ever changing. The amorphous nature of gender and sexuality, therefore, opposes the notion that we can be “identified, named, pinned down, understood” (Scott 67).
Gender and sexuality refuse dichotomous labels. Male and female, straight and gay are not exclusive binaries. There are most certainly an unlimited number of in-betweens. These in-betweens serve to create heterogeneous genders and sexualities—biological sex should not be conflated with gender. “Female” and “woman” are not the same thing. “Gay” and “straight,” while polar opposites, are not exclusive categories. Biologically, I am a female—I have female genitalia and hormones. However, categorizing me as a “woman” does not mean that I am a “woman” in the same way as, say, my mother or grandmother. My womanhood is based on historical and societal context.
My grandmother grew up during the depression. She had no choice but to quit school and go to work to support her family. Her opportunities were severely limited. She did not have the freedom of choosing a career—she had to take what a woman could get. My mother, on the other hand, was able to choose her type of employment, albeit from a still narrow list of options. Their identities as women were restricted to societal norms. Mom was required to wear skirts, hats and gloves when she traveled to downtown Chicago for work. Her economic status demanded that she follow society’s criteria for womanhood.
I, on the other hand, find myself open to many more possibilities. I spent three years in human resource and training management—I wore jeans to work, made decisions that influenced the future of the entire company (including it’s sister company), and did so without previous HR experience. My mother recently celebrated her 36th year with the same company. She will retire in a year. What will 37 years of service to the same company bring her? She’ll get $600.00 a month in pension and will have to get a full time job to compensate for her decline in income. She doesn’t have a college degree, so, while she is the most experienced and knowledgeable Sales Team Assistant in the country, has worked in nearly every area of the company, including management, and is fully licensed, she doesn’t rate a compensation package worthy of her expertise. A college education was not a natural choice for her—unless she wanted to be a teacher.
For my mother, being a woman in the 1960s meant something very different than it does for me. My gender, my womanhood, is greatly influenced by having grown up in the 1980s and entering the workforce in the 1990s. It means something very different for me to be a woman in the world. There was no question as to whether or nor I would go to college. My degree and my work ethic earned (and continues to earn) me the respect of my employers. The strides made by my mother and others of her generation have paved the way for me to have a future. Because of them, my identity is open to more possibilities.
While heterosexuality is assumed in the absence of significant evidence to the contrary, lesbianism is ignored or denied except in the face of compelling evidence.
–Jacqueline Taylor (“Is There a Lesbian in This Text?” 289)
My identity is open to more possibilities. These possibilities did not make themselves known until I reached my 30s. Coincidentally, I turned 30 during my first year in the Speech Communication PhD program at SIUC. It wasn’t until I was exposed to the faculty and students here that I discovered the possibilities available to me. How could I, a successful woman with multiple degrees, have lived such a sheltered life? How could I, a citizen of many diverse communities, have fallen victim to essentialist and stereotypical thinking? How could I, a seemingly strong, confident woman, have been so blind to my own false identity? I must have been lacking compelling evidence. The evidence came to me slowly, but it did come.
In her essay, “Desire in Evidence,” Stacy Wolf analyzes her explorations into the sexual orientation of Mary Martin. She claims that “My search for ‘evidence,’ then, became intimately linked with my desire—my desire for knowledge, answers, proof—and my desire to see a lesbian presence in musicals, and to see ‘lesbian’ on Martin’s body, to hear it in her voice, to read it in her self-presentation” (349). Wolf’s investigation resonates with my own experiences. However, my situation is reversed. My desire to see a lesbian presence in my own research regarding sexuality in Xena: Warrior Princess led to a search for evidence of my own sexuality.
My increased interest in lesbian identity as a performance and a rhetorical strategy made me examine my own previously held views of homosexual identity and heteronormativity. I began to seek out “real life” examples of lesbianism. How do “real” lesbians—as opposed to the images of lesbians from literature and media—function in the world? In what ways do I identify with this particular ontology? Using “research” as my cover, I sought out lesbian literature, web sites and news. PlanetOut.com presented itself as a means of obtaining some of this information. The chat room—“grrlhood”—provided a safe space for me to explore my burgeoning sexual identity by talking to other women who were either confident in their sexuality or, like me, seeking confirmation of their own orientation.
Juxtaposing this saturation with lesbianism with my previous heterosexual encounters, then layering that with my newfound academic information, helped me to finally confront my own false identity. I had been living according to society’s rule of compulsory heterosexuality. I fell victim to the trappings of heteronormativity. I sought out men because that was what I was supposed to do, not because I wanted to. I claimed heterosexuality to students, colleagues and family because I thought that was what was expected of me. I denied my own sexuality in favor of passing in hegemonic society. I was trying to fit in.
Mama, I’m strange.
The thoughts and the wants are the locks
on the back of my brain.
I’m descending, pretending I’m blending
I’m going insane.
Mama, I’m strange.
–Melissa Etheridge (“Mama, I’m Strange” 1999)
I have a girlfriend. I have a lover. I have a partner. I have a soul mate. I have an identity with which I am finally comfortable. I have found a community that accepts me for who and what I am—and they don’t expect more than I can give. This is not to say that the road ahead of me is lacking hills and curves. But it is a road that I am willing to travel—head up, eyes wide open, Karen at my side.
The first hill I had to climb did not have a steep grade. Since Karen is now living with me, it has become necessary to come out to my friends and colleagues here in Carbondale. Due to the nature of the Speech Communication department, this is not a difficult task. Those I have told have responded with congratulations and well wishes. It is a safe space; one in which heteronormativity is critiqued and variations in sexual orientation are accepted. It is an easy climb.
But a much steeper hill awaits me. I have not yet told my mother or the rest of my family. Only one person outside of Carbondale knows that I am out, and since he is also gay, it was an easy transition. But I do not anticipate an easy transition with my mother. Oh, I do not doubt that she will eventually accept my decision; but I know that her ultra-conservative, Roman Catholic identity will initially resist my lesbianism. I am torn between wanting to tell her all about Karen the second I get home and wanting to ease into the conversation, dropping subtle hints that will cause her to ask me before I tell her. But then I think of Jacqueline Taylor’s essay, “Is There a Lesbian in This Text? Sarton, Performance and Multicultural Pedagogy” and what I tried to teach my SPCM 201 class last semester: “Performance asks the student to stand inside the poem, to experience what it is like to be this speaker in this situation” (292 italics in original). So must I stand inside my lesbian identity. Having shed my old identity, I must become comfortable in this new skin. And as I told my students, it is necessary to “get it inside my body” in order for it to be natural. The only way I can do that is to get on my feet and say it out loud. That is what I intend to do. By coming out, I am finally fitting in.
Bornstein, Kate. “Queer Theory and Shopping: Dichotomy or Symbionts?” In PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality. Eds. Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1997. 13-8.
Brownmiller, Susan. Femininity. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1984.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Random House, 1994.
Etheridge, Melissa. “Mama, I’m Strange.” Breakdown. The Island Def Jam Music Group, 1999.
Inness, Sherri A. The Lesbian Menace: ideology, Identity, and the Representation of Lesbian Life. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1997.
Lorber, Judith. Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company, 1998.
Martin, Biddy. Femininity Played Straight: The Significance of Being Lesbian. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Schimel, Lawrence. “Diaspora, Sweet Diaspora.” In PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality. Eds. Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1997. 163-73.
Scott, D. Travers. “Le Freak, C’est Chic! Le fag, Quelle Drag!” In PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality. Eds. Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1997. 62-69.
Tavris, Carol. The Mismeasure of Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Wolf, Stacy. “Desire in Evidence.” Text and Performance Quarterly 17 (1997): 343-51.