Where’s My Lesbian Bumper Sticker? A Coming Out Story

When my mother told my grandmother I was a lesbian, my grandmother listened politely then went right back to describing her salad. “The most delicious little tomatoes,” she said. “And what’s that type of lettuce that’s sort of bitter?”

The next day she called to follow up.

“What you told me about Sarah?” she said, “I know that sort of thing bothers people of my generation, but I’ve thought about it and I just don’t care.”

My grandmother and I have always been on the same page.

Coming out, I knew, was politically important. The journey toward acceptance begins with visibility, a willingness to upend expectations and fight for one’s rights. Yet, even at 19, my burgeoning queerness a fizzy little mystery, I wasn’t sure just how personally important my sexual identity was. Still, as a women’s studies major surrounded by eligible lesbians, I felt sometimes desperate to be counted among their number. I should wear a sandwich board, I joked. To myself. Because no one else would talk to me. They all thought I was straight.

At UW-Madison, my cohort papered their dorm rooms with rainbow flags, joined the lesbian avengers, couldn’t spit out a sentence that didn’t include the word “dyke.” So I bought the pride rings; I attended a parade or eight. For about a year, I wore a silver ear stud, a pair of linked women’s symbols which no one could see beneath my hair. Yeah, my hair was part of the problem: Long, feminine, sometimes tied back with pink ribbon. But slowly, I learned to say the right things (“Well, speaking as a middle class Jewish lesbian….”) and show up at the right places (“Herbal tea at A Room of One’s Own? See you at Womyn O’Clock.”). For a while there, my queerness stole center stage.

My friend pianist/comedian Kathryn Lounsbery was briefly, similarly fixated on her sexuality.

“When I was first struggling with coming out,” she says, “it was the most important thing in my life. ‘Am I gay? Am I a lesbian? Why is that word so weird? I don’t want to be a weird word!’ It got a lot of real estate in my head. And it deserved that space.”

What’s compelling at 19 however, can fade in importance by the time one hits adulthood, and maybe that’s how it should be.

There’s a capitol D Dyke in my neighborhood, all pride rings and “Sorry-I-missed-church-I’ve-been-busy-practicing-witchcraft-and-becoming-a-lesbian” bumper stickers. She’s a telemarketer or accountant, I forget which. She shows up at any event with Sappho in the title. Her dog wears a rainbow kerchief around its scrawny neck. Caught in conversation with her, I feel sucked into a time warp; she can’t be a day under forty but I might as well be sprawled across a rainbow quilt in her dorm room, Melissa Etheridge in the background, growling about angels.

“She’s lucky she’s gay,” I tell Kathryn, aware of my judgment. “Otherwise what would she do with her time?”

What I mean is, when someone’s focus on her sexuality eclipses all other parts of her personality, I tend to assume those aspects aren’t that interesting…at least not to her.

Like me, Kathryn’s interested in integrating all aspects of her personality.

“I’ve been an out gal for over 10 years now,” she says, “and [though] all who know me know that I am drawn to women in a romantic and sexual way, one of the best parts of coming out is having thoughts about my sexuality take a backseat to other roles in my life: daughter, aunt, musician, friend, teacher, cousin. These are way bigger facets of my life than being a gay lady.”

A few years back, my coworkers and I were discussing for whom we’d switch teams. Predictably, most of the straight women picked Angelina Jolie. Momentarily confused, I chose Scarlett Johansson. It wasn’t that I thought I was straight, exactly; for me, sleeping with Scarlett Johansson would be a significant leap. (Often when looking for a celebrity crush I default to someone like Robert Downey Jr. who, let’s face it, would make a super hot dyke.) Really the episode had more to do with top/bottom logistics, butch/femme desire. But it made me think a little about my self-concept. My queerness seems at this point a given. I’m out professionally and in my personal life, yet walking down the street, I pass as straight.

So what’s my responsibility, especially on National Coming Out Day? Should I take that ’80s motorcycle jacket out of storage? Buy those rainbow suspenders I’ve had my eye on? As a femme, how do I not only come out, but stay out?

When Ellen Degeneres outed herself on the cover of Newsweek with a pert, “Yep, I’m gay,” her career may have briefly suffered, but ultimately she emerged stronger, more famous and with a wider reach than ever before. And her visibility affected people. One of the only times my grandmother and I discussed lesbianism was in the context of Ellen’s notorious break up with Anne Heche.

“Poor Ellen,” my grandmother said. “It’ll take her a while to recover from that.”

My grandmother would have been happy to see Ellen happy, her marriage to Portia celebrated on People Magazine’s cover. But without Ellen standing beside Portia, I’m pretty sure my grandmother would have thought Portia was straight.