The first clear memory I have of explicitly being told that who I am is wrong was when I was a kid. I don’t really know how old I was; my childhood is very fuzzy. What I do remember is that I was staying with my grandparents for the weekend and was expected to go to church with them. My grandmother was furious that I didn’t have a nice (any) dress to wear. When I say furious, I mean that she decided that my lack of a dress was somehow a form of neglect on the part of my mother (why only my mother? Why not my father, too? That’s a question for another time.)
The thing is, my parents had long stopped trying to get me to wear dresses. There are pictures of me, young maybe 6 or 7, at holidays wearing a sweater and pants instead of a fancy holiday dress. At my grandparent’s 40th wedding anniversary party I wore leggings and a T-shirt while everyone else was in nice dresses and suits.
To be absolutely clear, I love my Nana deeply. She is a very important person in my life and she loves me exactly as I am, hairy pits and all. I think this moment sticks out to me so much partially because Nana wasn’t one to get angry. She was pretty strict, but she rarely got angry and never yelled. Except for this time: the first time someone specifically said to me that the way I exist, the way I dress, and who I am isn’t right.
This may have been the first time (that I remember) being told I wasn’t right, but it was far from the last time. As I got older and was expected to perform femininity more specifically the messages I received got both more direct and subtler in their delivery. By the time I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had come out as gay and not a day went by that I didn’t have to navigate someone’s opinion about how I moved through this world:
- When one of my bosses at the mall said, “You have such a cute little body, why do you hide it under these clothes?” (to be clear, this was a cishet woman and not some pervy guy)
- Being called “Boys Don’t Cry” by a coworker.
- Being called “Pretty Murphy” by a group of coworkers when I dressed more traditionally feminine.
- Wearing a dress to work as the prize for when our department won a company-wide food drive.
- When a coworker came up behind me a pulled up my pants because she didn’t like the way I wore them.
- When a girlfriend of mine didn’t want me to “look gay” because she didn’t want people to think she was gay.
- The countless times I’ve been stared at or harassed in bathrooms.
- The time I sent an email to my team at work to let them know what pronouns I wanted them to use and the director of HR told me I was being too political and hadn’t been working there long enough to send that email. (I quit two days later.)
- The family member who tells me when I come out as agender, after I’ve been an out lesbian for over 20 years, that they’ve been “trying so hard” to accept me for all of this time.
- The people who go out of their way to tell me how much my sexuality or gender doesn’t matter to them, how much they “love me anyway” or about how brave and vulnerable I am for sharing things about myself that cishet folks share all of the time with little to no fanfare.
- The people online who tell me that, because my body has curves, I must be a woman. As if the ratio of my waist to my hips to my chest is the one true formula for gender identity, the fool proof way to tell.
When I drank, it was often an attempt to dull the sharpness of microaggressions like the ones above, or to melt away the fact that I often felt like I didn’t belong.
In sobriety I’ve had to feel the sharpness, each dig like a cut – or more accurately – like a weight I’ve been handed. And when someone hands me a new weight, “you’d be pretty if you wore make-up,” they never offer to take any of the other weights I’m holding.
Because they can’t see them.
Microaggressions are something that most people don’t see. Even when you point them out, most folks will wonder why you’re making such a big deal since it was such a small thing.
And, sure. If someone handed you a ball bearing, it wouldn’t be so bad. Even if they gave you a handful to walk around with. But what about a hundred ball bearings? A thousand? A million? And you had to carry them with you everywhere? That has an effect.
Confusion, doubt, and shame often get stirred up when I’m reflecting on memories and situations like the one listed above. It’s confusing when you go along with something that you know doesn’t feel right, when you play along as someone is undermining who you are right in front of you. And does the fact that I have an hourglass shape mean I can’t possibly be agender? Am I a fraud? As someone who has been out and proud and vocal about my queerness for so long, it’s hard for me to admit that I still have these feelings. But, I also think it’s necessary to share that they exist within me.
I’ve been attracted to women for my whole life. I had my first crush on a girl when I was in kindergarten, though I didn’t realize at the time that it was a crush. I had my first girlfriend at 16, so unlike a lot of people who come out later in life, I didn’t have a delayed adolescence or feel the need to deny who I was attracted to.
Unfortunately, the majority of the messages I got from media about being a lesbian didn’t foster a healthy emotional connection to my Sapphic attraction. Movies, TV and books often portray lesbians as predatory. Straight women recoil when a lesbian develops feelings for them. They’re called dykes, or perhaps even more sinister are the storylines where the teenage girl isn’t a lesbian but the word dyke is written across her locker as an insult. Scenes where lesbians are seducing happily married women paint us all as predators, out here trying to ruin good, wholesome, heterosexual lives.
As I grew older and became an adult, I began acting out these messages. I was both extremely attracted to “straight” women while also being terrified that I would make them uncomfortable by simply being attracted to them. I worked somewhere that was known in my friend group as “…where even the straight girls are gay.” In my 20’s I pulled from the limited role models I had and patched them together with the few examples of lesbians in the media. The result was someone who often performed masculinity in a toxic way, never fucking the same girl more than twice, and feeling deep shame about how is was – WHO I was – but thinking that’s how I was supposed to be.
I was a mess, though no one realized it. Not even myself.
In sobriety, I’ve been able to figure out that the reason I’m often attracted to women who have a flexible sexual identity is because I’m not a woman. I want someone whose interested in me and not the fact that I was assigned female at birth.
But this predatory lesbian thing – that has infiltrated deep down into my bones. I’ve actually been trying to figure out the right way to write about it, and my resulting internalized homophobia, for quite some time now. As luck would have it, something happened today that made it click.
I’ve been experiencing anxiety at times that I normally wouldn’t. Since I have PMDD, I’m very used to handling the double whammy of anxiety and depression as part of my menstrual cycle. Except when I got my period a week and a half ago, the anxiety didn’t go away. It actually got so bad and concerned me so much that I started seeing a therapist.
This afternoon, I was taking a walk, letting my mind wander while also trying to figure out where this anxious feeling was coming from when it hit me: I have a crush on someone. I love hanging out with her, I love talking to her, she makes me laugh, she’s smart, she’s beautiful, and (of course) she doesn’t identify as queer. Instead of being able to acknowledge the crush and move on, I feel shame. So much shame with a heaping dose of good ol’ internalized homophobia. I worry about whether or not I make her uncomfortable. I get frustrated and angry with myself that I could possibly be attracted to a woman who isn’t queer, yet again.
Let me repeat that last part: I feel shame about being attracted to a woman. Me. A lifelong lesbian.
The predatory lesbian trope, the message that we need to protect the straights from the homos, the idea that heterosexuality is normal and queerness is wrong – I logically know that all of these things are fucking lies. I know that there is nothing wrong with me. I know that, OF COURSE I’m going to be attracted to women. I’M A FUCKING LESBIAN.
But the messages I’ve been receiving for the past 38 years are not so easily rewired.
The moment I connected this current round of anxiety to this crush, I immediately began feeling better. I started taking an inventory of previous attractions or crushes and whether or not they corresponded with bouts of anxiety or depression. Spoiler alert: they did.
I literally have no idea where I’m going to go from here with this discovery. I may just pause here, in this space where I can name what’s going on and acknowledge the existence of this discomfort.
Am I Even Worthy of Space?
Along with the drinking and playing along with whatever homophobic bullshit was thrown my way, came putting everyone else’s comfort over my own.
I spend so much of my time trying to make sure I don’t make people uncomfortable with my gayness, with my gender, or with my sobriety. I don’t want to be the cause of other people’s discomfort so badly that I allow myself to shrink back and absorb all kinds of bullshit.
Misgender me? Go ahead!
Make some sort of homophobic remark? Have at it!
Backhanded compliment about how I’m too pretty to be butch? Fair game!
Casual transphobia? Sure thing!
Statements and comments that fit into the above categories bring me physical pain. Every single time it feels like everything inside of me simultaneously being twisted tightly and getting stabbed repeatedly. Whether people are being directly homo/transphobic to me or when I hear someone say something so subtly homo/transphobic that they may not even notice, my reaction is the same: freeze and make sure whoever is saying the thing isn’t ever the slightest bit uncomfortable about the harm they just caused me and everyone else who heard them.
I’m conditioned to make sure other people are comfortable. I take up as little space as possible wherever I go, I don’t want to impose and I’m awkward when I go to friend’s houses. I’m awkward at my own house! Example: I have a parking spot in my driveway. I don’t currently have a car, but it’s my spot. I rented a car for this weekend and I had to convince myself that it was okay for me to park it IN MY OWN PARKING SPOT.
I’ve been prioritizing the comfort of others for so long, trying to make myself palatable, that my first instinct is always to bend and sway and allow whatever the other person wants. The emotional discomfort of standing in my power, of holding my space, of acknowledging that I deserve respect is so unknown it feels like I might die from it. The pain I feel from allowing disrespect is known, it’s accounted for – I can feel it and (kind of, not really) move on.
This was not some triumphant thing to write. I don’t have any answers for how I can ditch internalized homophobia or stand up for myself more. In fact, I think I have more questions now than I did when I started writing this. (FYI: I’m not looking for solutions or suggestions.)
I don’t have a set rules for how to not commit microaggressions beyond: stop applying your life experience to other people.
All I have right now is me, sharing these things that live inside of me, hoping that someone else might read this and know that they aren’t the only one feeling this way. That hope is enough for me to put this out there for other people to read, to push past the shame of being 38 years old, a card carrying lesbian for 22 years, and still fucking working through this shit.
This was not triumphant, but not everything has to be. Some things can just… be. At least until they change, because everything changes and I have to believe that these parts of me can change, too.