“This is Caroline,” a friend said, announcing me to her party guests. “She’s a lesbian.”
Wait, what? I’m definitely gay, and I’ve always been very open about it, but this introduction shocked me to my core.
My sexual orientation is certainly a big part of my identity, but it’s not my singular defining characteristic. It’s not my occupation or penultimate accomplishment. It’s not all I am or all I ever talk about. It’s not what I’d like to be “known for.”
Think of how ridiculous similar proclamations would sound to total strangers:
“This is my friend, Anna. She’s into dudes.”
“Meet my co-worker, Tommy. He gets off on vaginas.”
“Hello, I’m [your name goes here]. I am sexually attracted to [insert preferred choice of genitalia here].”
Because it does sound like you’re reducing queerness to a sexual predilection and nothing more, doesn’t it? Though I shook off the awkward feeling and the party went on, I never forgot the experience of being introduced by my sexuality. I was sort of taken aback when I wasn’t greeted with the chorus I so often hear when my orientation is revealed:
“But you don’t look like a lesbian.”
Okay, well, what the hell does a lesbian look like, anyway? Do you mean to say that I don’t have short hair and wear cargo pants so I don’t fit your preconceived stereotype of how a gay woman should dress? Please. I’ll wear what I want. Sweatshirt, no bra — Liz Lemon style.
There’s also the intersection of heteronormative gender roles and sexual orientation to get hung up on if you’re baffled by my femininity.
“So, which one of you is the man?” a lady recently asked me when I mentioned my wife.
“Um… neither of us. We’re both women. That’s kind of the point.”
“But she’s more manly since you’re so feminine, right?”
“No, she’s pretty feminine too. But that has nothing to do with her sexual orientation.”
“But doesn’t one of you have to be the guy?”
Yeah, no. A big, fat, resounding no. She meant no harm, of course, but she inadvertently imposed her straight, binary gender expectations on my same-sex marriage. Apparently, she couldn’t fathom the existence of a successful, loving relationship lacking a penis, or something sort of resembling her big-box store idea of masculinity. Let me reiterate: Gender identity is not necessarily correlated with sexual orientation. Lesbians can be feminine, masculine, androgynous, non-binary, all or none of the above. Just like anybody else.
I’ve even been called “Mr. Mills” on the phone with customer service representatives when I’ve mentioned my wife — after I’ve told them that my name is Caroline. I’ve never met a dude named Caroline, have you? You’ve been calling me “Miss” up until now, so you clearly thought my voice sounded female, didn’t you? You only made the switch to “Mister” when I brought up my wife and you thought you’d made a mistake — this caller can’t actually be a woman, you said to yourself. Because only men can be married to women, right? Wrong. (Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but don’t slow my roll).
I’ve also endured the sloppy, drunken attempts of female friends to make out with me — some strove to impress their nearby boyfriends while others simply craved experimentation, but none explicitly asked for my consent. I was not flirting with these friends in the slightest; I merely existed as a gay woman in their immediate presence. Case in point:
Sloshy Susie leaned in, beer-scented lips puckered up for a smooch, and I jerked back out of the line of fire.
“Whoa, what are you doing?” I stammered.
“I wanna kiss you.”
“I’m… not really feeling it.”
“But you’re a lesbian. Of course you wanna make out with me.” (Or as Boozy Betty once told me, “It’s okay! My boyfriend will like it.”)
Sloshy Susie leaned in again, obviously assuming that her weak-sauce “argument” totally convinced me to swap saliva with her. Spoiler alert: It did not.
Of course I want to make out with you, you say? I kiss women, so I must want to kiss all of the women? What if a guy sauntered up to you in the club and tried to stick his tongue down your throat out of nowhere? Imagine yanking your mouth away as he says, “But you’re straight, and I’m a dude. Of course you wanna hook up with me.” “Oh, really?” you’d say. “‘Cause I don’t think I do.”
News flash: I am not indiscriminate in my affections. I don’t want to get with any girl I meet, especially not my friends and co-workers — and definitely not now that I’m married. And as for Boozy Betty, I’m not a sex toy for your straight sexual gratification. You can’t use me to “turn on” your man, so thanks-but-no-thanks. He can watch lesbian porn for the same effect because god knows that stuff’s not made for women.
Now, these were not necessarily ill-intended remarks. These comments were, I believe, made by curious individuals who simply missed the mark, but I felt the sting of their words nonetheless. I didn’t feel despised like I did when I was called a “sickening sodomite” online, or when a Facebook acquaintance told me that I should “get the hell out of the country,” but I did feel misunderstood and overlooked. It still sucked.
The blatant hate hurts, too, though. I remember sitting in a cubicle at the ICU, waiting for the phone to ring and the doctor to update me on the status of my father-in-law’s emergency triple bypass surgery. My wife had left to drive her disabled mother to the bank to pay a bill, and I’d volunteered to stay behind and field phone calls from the operating room. As I sat on a blue loveseat, scrolling through my iPhone and yawning profusely, an older couple strolled into the private waiting area. I was newly married and hadn’t met my wife’s extended family yet, but I assumed these were relatives of her dad. They were in fact family, but I didn’t know that at the time because they completely neglected to introduce themselves to me.
“Hi, I’m Crystal’s wife, Caroline,” I said, holding out my hand toward the lady. She did not shake it.
“You’re Crystal’s what?” she asked, incredulous.
“I’m her wife.”
She turned up her nose at me as she glanced at her husband. “Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know we had that in our family.”
“Excuse me?” I cut in. “You didn’t know you had what in the family?”
“Wives,” she said bitterly, “with wives.”
I immediately texted Crystal, shaking with anger, and she rushed to my rescue. The relatives never said another word to me as I waited for my wife to return, though the lady did complain loudly to her husband about the lack of parking at the hospital. It took her 30 minutes to find a spot — the horror! I was told later on that they already knew about my marriage and said those snarky things just to get under my skin. Yeah, well, it worked.
There are, however, more serious issues to consider than offhand comments or hateful remarks. I recently submitted a rental application for an apartment complex — my first private (read: no in-laws) residence with my wife. Because I was required to list both of our names on the form, my own under the heading “spouse,” I worried what the leasing agent would think. This is the Deep South, after all. “What if our application is rejected based on our sexual orientation?” I asked my wife.
We were scraping together money for the big move, a full month before my wife was scheduled to start her new job. I was working hard to earn the cash at my part-time gig, and I’d just shelled out a couple hundred bucks for the administration and application fees at the complex. You don’t get a refund if you’re rejected, and I couldn’t afford to lose that money while saving up for pet fees and security deposits. Plus, losing that apartment would leave a ding on my credit report with a hard inquiry, and I’d have to take another hit by applying somewhere else.
Anyway, I fretted over the outcome for a while. In Tennessee, as in many states, it’s completely legal to deny housing and employment based on sexual orientation. I’ll say that again for the people in the back:
In many states, it’s legal to deny homes and jobs to qualified people just because they’re gay.
I know, right? It doesn’t feel like America, land of the free. But federal discrimination laws don’t include sexual orientation as a protected class. That means I could be “Employee of the Month” for a whole year, and if my hypothetical boss found out I’m gay, he or she could fire me on the spot and I’d have no legal recourse. I could face financial ruin — again — because of the biological sex and gender identity I’m attracted to.
Luckily, my bosses are totally awesome and the apartment complex was nothing but nice when setting us up in our new place. They are the Good People. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to fear in the future — unless the laws are changed. And that doesn’t mean other queer folks aren’t currently suffering the effects of discrimination based on orientation.
In fact, my limited struggles pale in comparison to the violence, ostracism, and bullying that many in the LGBTQ community face or have faced. I can’t speak to these experiences personally, but I can speak out about the need for compassion and change. I was recently told to get off my soapbox because “the gays have equal rights now,” but we aren’t quite there yet. And even when we achieve full equality by the letter of the law, we still won’t be safe from personal and systemic violence. We won’t be shielded from prejudice and homophobia by legislation alone. I’m still afraid to hold my wife’s hand in public sometimes, looking over my shoulder and wondering who’s toting a gun in their waistband and if they “hate gays.” That ain’t right.
Did the fight for racial equality end after the civil rights movement? No. Of course not. We have a long, long way to go as a country — and as a planet — before that serious problem is resolved, if it ever is. We keep speaking out against racism because it remains a sobering reality across the United States.
Though I want to be careful about comparing the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement, I will say that the fight isn’t over after the first victory. It isn’t over after the second, or the third, or even the fourth or fifth. These are complex, nuanced issues that have many layers to dissect and address. They can’t be fixed in one fell swoop, unfortunately. Full equality wasn’t achieved for the LGBTQ community when gay marriage was legalized. That’s my point.
So I’m not gonna get off my soapbox just yet. I want to speak truth to my lived experience. I want to get to work on the issues and make my voice heard. I want to shout my reality as a queer woman from the rooftop. Because, like the immortal refrain of Flatpoint freshman Jerri Antonia Blank, I’ve got something to say — and I’m damn well gonna say it.