Love Is a Dirty Word
I am eight years old the first time I hear the word ‘lesbian’. I’m flipping through the channels on the television, nose plugged and eyelids just barely able to stay open, when I come across a movie in which some men are flirting with these two women. They shake their heads in response to the advances and say, “We’re lesbians.” My eyes widen as the women on the screen begin to move closer to each other, not like friends but as something else. Before I can find out what this word means or why it constitutes a rejection, my mother dashes across the room and shuts the television off. And so I believe she’s trying to protect me—lesbian, whatever it means, must be bad in some way.
I’m nine years old when I sneak onto the only computer in my house, determined to find out just what this word that has stuck with me for so long really means. Strange sounds like heavy breathing and pleasurable crying come out from the dusty speakers of the old computer. The women on this screen don’t look like the ones from the movie, holding hands and gazing happily at each other. There’s none of the love I must’ve only imagined. I decide lesbianism isn’t something real, but a fantasy made up by men for their perverted pleasure. But then I find some different images. They’re not sexual but more like the women I’d seen before. They are kissing, holding hands, smiling. The happiness I feel and the belonging swelling in my belly at seeing these pictures is followed quickly by panic. There must be something wrong with me if I enjoy this—that I must be a pervert of some sort. Convinced that I’ll be sent to a mental hospital or get in trouble, I shut the computer off and shut lesbianism out of my life.
Except it’s not so simple, and for the next four years I live in silent paranoia that someone will find out. That when I hear that word, whispered with fear and disgust as an insult under people’s breaths, it’s me they’re talking about. That during my doctor’s appointments, they’ll somehow find out that there’s something wrong with me. That the girls I’ve started to like will notice I’ve been staring at them and be sickened. So I do everything I can to make up for the flaw that won’t go away no matter how hard I try to hide it from others and myself. I tell my friends I love them but tack on, ‘as a friend’, to the end so there’s no mistaking my intentions. I talk about my love for the other sex so much that once I’m in middle school, I’m known as the ‘boy crazy friend’.
I’m thirteen when I get my first boyfriend. I don’t like him so much as I like being in a relationship. I walk around the school with him at my side. He’s my living breathing proof that I like boys, that I’m not a freak. He breaks up with me two weeks later and I’m more horrified than I am broken hearted. What will people think? I get another boyfriend, then another and another; if I’m always with a boy then no one will ever accuse me of being anything but straight. Except that logic doesn’t hold up very well and I’m fourteen when someone finally notices.
“You hang out with Suze a lot.”
“Yeah, she’s my best friend.”
The girl sitting across from me falls silent, narrowing her eyes at me a little suspiciously. I can feel my heart racing and try to focus on anything but how much she’s scrutinizing me.
“Are you,” she pauses, her eyes wide now, like a child who’s about to say something they shouldn’t; her voice is barely above a whisper as she finishes her sentence, “dating her?”
“What? Of course not. I have a boyfriend,” I tell her this fact even though I’m planning to break up with him after class.
She apologizes like there’s something wrong with having confused me for a girl who likes other girls. Later I tell Suze, mostly to see how she reacts to it. Maybe she won’t think there’s anything wrong with that and will laugh it off with me. Maybe she’ll tell me she actually does like girls. Maybe…
Suze cries when I tell her about the simple mistake. She tells her mom who tells the school who then calls my mother.
“Why didn’t you tell me people were bullying you?! You shouldn’t let people call you a…” she scowls, her lips pursing like she’s just eaten something rotten, “A lesbian.”
I’m fifteen when I’m at the mall during winter break with my friends and they’re all talking about their first kisses. They ask me which boy my first kiss was with and I don’t have the courage to tell them that the thought of even kissing a boy repulses me and instead just tell them I haven’t met the right guy yet. A man carrying mistletoe at the end of a stick walks over and wishes us happy holidays; he wants to know if any of us are interested in a holiday kiss. I’m not paying him any attention, drinking my scalding hot holiday coffee just to avoid making eye contact with anyone, until my friends teasingly tell me I should kiss him so I don’t turn sixteen without having ever been kissed. It’s only a joke but I can’t risk taking it that way; I can’t risk being mistaken for something that there’s no worse thing to be. I stand from our table and give him a quick peck on the lips. When break’s over and we’re all back to school, the entire grade is talking about how I kissed a stranger but all that matters to me is that they’re getting it right—that he was a man.
I’m sixteen when I meet her. People call her a slut, she calls herself bisexual and I call her Laura.
“So… You like girls? Isn’t that sort of…” Weird? Wrong? Disgusting? Sick? I can’t bring myself to use any of the words I use to describe myself and so I just shrug.
Seeming to understand what I was getting at, she shrugs back, “There’s nothing wrong with loving someone. What does their gender matter?”
I’m seventeen with newly equipped knowledge of sexuality and gender; what it all means and what it doesn’t mean. All that’s left is to try and figure out what I mean. I’m lying on the cool hardwood floor in my living room with my brother, trying to escape the heat of the summer while trying to find the words for who I am.
“I think I’m bi-romantic—‘bi’. So that means I’d romantically be with both sexes, right?”
He makes a grunting noise, having already grumpily told me it was too hot to be talking.
“And sexual orientation is who you’d have sex with? So I’d be… Homosexual?”
At the realization of my words, my heart stops, like it thinks that if it stops beating then time will stop passing and I won’t have to deal with what comes next. I hadn’t meant to say it; I’d just been thinking aloud. My brother sits up, looking at me with surprise more than anything else.
“You’re lesbian?” He says the word without any hesitation or lowering of his voice and it feels too loud.
I’m eighteen and I flirt with boys because, in spite of knowing who I am, I still want to fit in with ‘what every girl want’s’. I’m scared my parents won’t just hate me but will be heartbroken to have a child who will never be able to give them the future they dreamt of, so I convince myself that I might be able to be happy with a man, even while I dream of marrying a woman someday. I stand up against the belief that it’s a lesbian’s choice to love women and that they could change their minds if they really wanted to, yet force myself into that belief because it’s my last chance of being normal. I live and breathe as a contradiction, both proud and self-loathing because, though I want to love myself, I will never forget I exist as something mothers try to hide from their children and that best friends cry about being mistaken for. And even though I’m known to swear like a sailor, when people ask what I identify as, I can only whisper the mumbled words:
“I’m a lesbian.”
Writing is Brittany Talbot‘s way of escaping the reality of a world that would otherwise tear her apart.