Last July when I was in San Francisco, I went into Cliff's, a big, gay hardware store in the heart of the Castro. I needed a flashlight and pegs for a tarp, because I was about to go camping in Michigan. As I stood at the checkout counter, I noticed a bin of canvas rainbow wallets sitting by the register. I picked one up and set it on top of the camping gear. The cashier was a plum-shaped bear with ear expanders and glossy chest hair spewing out of the neck of his Morrissey t-shirt. He raised an eyebrow at the sight of the wallet. "Really?" he said.
"Really," I said. Ed, an unusually tall trans guy and good friend of mine whom I'd forced to accompany me on the errand, shook his head. Ed dresses mannequins for department stores, and he has good taste in everything. "Don't buy that," he said.
"Deal with it," I said, and I bought it.
I was a late-life gay. When I came out, I understood almost immediately that it wasn't OK to be overtly enthusiastic about your queerness. In hopes of seeming cooler, I deprived myself of all the clichés that go hand-in-hand with an identity renaissance. Consequently, I felt cheated. So now, as a 31-year-old queer, I am finally allowing myself to advertise my pride. I wear things like studded rainbow belts and rainbow flag hats like a clueless Jersey teen at the mall, or a Midwestern PFLAG mom at a low-rent Pride event.
Most queers I know came out at 16 or 17. They had awkward, gay, teenage sex with some closeted girl or boy in their town who didn't go to their school, or a tortured teenage romance that they hid from their families. They watched bad gay movies like The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love and Go Fish and had all the lyrics to every embarrassing female folk singers' repertoire memorized before they could legally drive.
When people reflect back on their teenage years, there's usually a recollection of where they were when they saw the Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford shaving KD Lang on the front. They remember the 1997 Ellen episode when she finally came out.
Not me. I fumbled through a culturally embarrassing decade in the straightest of ways, yet my retro-zeitgeist nostalgia for this period fuels my plight for fluency in '90s lesbian pop culture. I plowed through high school in an asexual frenzy, spiritually high-fiving everyone whose path I crossed. I was friends with everybody, but didn't understand how anyone ever actually had sex. I felt alien and undesirable and worried that I'd die a virgin because I'd never be able to have sex with a naked boy. The crushes I formed were sometimes on sporty straight girls but more often on sullen, greasy, androgynous straight boys. Now, when I recount my teenage experience, I feel compelled to be apologetic for not being gay earlier, fostering shame about my G-rated heterosexual yearnings.
In the '90s, I wasn't sitting in lesbian coffee shops reading Judith Butler. Instead, I got drunk on Baileys and danced to Destiny's Child in my North Face jacket and Diesel jeans. In 1997, the word queer and all its consistently vague connotations had yet to be introduced into my lexicon. In high school, the only two girls who were out looked like roosters and smelled weird. I dismissed lesbians altogether, because I assumed they were all some blazer-clad variation of Paula Poundstone.
The first girl I ever made out with was a slam poet in boot-cut yellow corduroys who waxed poetic about mythology, celestial prophecies, conscious hip hop, her grandmother, and other things I pretended to care about to seem deep. I had weaseled my way into Bar 13 in the fall of 1999 with a fake ID featuring a crooked picture that cropped out the left side of my face. When she finished her poem, she sidled up next to me on a bar couch and straight up went for it. "That was cool," I thought, and then headed back to my vehemently heterosexual college in upstate New York, where the only 12 lesbians on campus had short, practical haircuts, wore homemade patchwork skirts, and kept to their surly, hyper-political selves. No thanks. Instead I spent the next three years dating a foppish Ecuadorian who did all my Spanish homework and bought me candy when I threw irrational fits because everything felt intangibly wrong.
Fast forward four years. I had just started bartending at a brand new bar in the East Village. On my first shift there, I was being trained by a girl named Felicia. She wore a fedora, a belly ring, and a cropped football jersey. Lord knows what look she was going for, but most people would probably guess that she was some variation of queer.
"Are you gay?" she asked me, after explaining how the register worked.
"No," I said. "Are you?"
"Yes," she answered. "Wanna come with me to Meow Mix after work?"
"OK," I said, and later on we headed over there.
Within 30 minutes of arriving, I'd gotten fall-down drunk and had bagged my first girlfriend.
She was 28 and I was 22. She had been out since she was 15. She was drunk, angry, and bore a striking resemblance to Eminem. One night at her house, when I suggested that we listen to Bitch and Animal, in hopes of impressing her with my knowledge of quasi-obscure gay music, she laughed. In spite of the tribal tattoo encircling her flimsy bicep, her backwards visor, and the aged soft pack nestled in her oversized pants, she said, "Please. That's so gay."
She meant it in both the derogatory and literal sense. I think she thought I was kidding. She had already seen all the movies, gone to all the concerts, and had been temporarily banished from her home by her hyper-conservative mother. She'd read every book in the lesbian literary canon and knew about every angry lesbian manifesto. She'd gone through a phase where she wore t-shirts with interlocking women symbols on the front, rainbow suspenders, and a silver wallet chain securing her wallet in place, as if she had any cash.
Either way, it made me feel cool to smugly dismiss anything markedly gay in the realm of mainstream lesbian culture. I quickly adopted her over-it attitude toward embarrassing '90s celesbians like Melissa Ferrick, The Butchies, Alix Olsen, and Genesis from The Real World. I adopted this attitude as I became acquainted with them. "You saw High Art, right?" she'd asked me at one point.
I rolled my eyes. "Yes," I replied. "It was awful." I knew this was the thing to say, even though I'd never seen it.
"Tell me about it," she said, and we both shook our heads in disgust. That day, I ran home and rented it from a video store and watched it, for fear that she'd later reference a particular scene or character about which, of course, I knew nothing.
The next person I dated had the same over-it attitude as she did. Any time I tried to reach for a Jeannette Winterson novel or was caught googling Pat Califia, I was met with a snide, "You're kidding, right?" to which I always answered, "Totally."
In 2005, I started working at Curve magazine and felt I owed my girlfriend an explanation, using the alibi that it was "the only place that got back to me" when I sent out emails looking for a job.
Fast-forward almost 10 years and many a jaded girlfriend and queer boyfriend later, I'm single for the first time since I was straight. But rather than troll sweaty Brooklyn parties for mediocre dates, I've been hibernating in solitude, drowning myself in all things gay. On most nights, I can be found karaokeing "Closer to Fine" at neighborhood karaoke bars. Instead of heading to theaters to see movies like Drive or Footloose, I'm lounging at home in the oversized Melissa Ethridge t-shirt I bought on eBay, eating probiotic yogurt and netflixing But I'm a Cheerleader. On the rare occasion that I do go out, I use the rainbow wallet, with pride.