A few days after publishing my second installment of this column, I got a package from my mom. It contained two pairs of socks from one of those online novelty sock companies: The first was a gray pair, plain except for a rainbow heart near the ankle bone, bisected by the words “LOVE IS LOVE” (all caps). The other socks have no image, but the word “CALIFORNIA” (still all caps) is written over and over again down each side in alternating rainbow typeface.
I first came out to my mother by way of general ambiguity: I never said I wasn’t anything. And when I did finally say there was something I was, I used the word queer. She responded without commenting on my own feeble declaration. “Aren’t all people mostly pansexual? I’ve always thought so.” I assume she grabbed that particular word from an NPR segment, but maybe that’s unkind of me.
My mother loves me, and she always has. I am exceptionally lucky for this. Denialism, though, shaped much of our relationship for many years. I doubt she would call it that, and maybe I only see it this way from a place of retroactive necessity — attempting to make sense of my own repressions and difficulties by narrating my past in a way that could satisfyingly explain them.
I kept a lot of secrets as a teenager that may have, as my mother believes, prevented her from fully understanding me. My first relationship with a girl was kept mostly confidential, and I didn’t talk openly with my mother — or anyone — about sex or love. I ended up spending a great deal of my adolescence hiding things I thought were too personal to share. I’m just private, I would think to myself. It felt virtuous.
But when it came to being gay, I knew I had told my mother. I remember telling her in a variety of ways. My sneaking around with my girlfriend was less than covert, and my discomfort in my relationship to men at the time was, too, easy to see. I had told my mother these things, and she had responded. But no matter what I told her, the way she repeated it back to me held ambiguities rather than understanding. “Aren’t all people mostly pansexual?” Her acceptance was hinged on never fully believing that I was gay. Or at least not completely gay. Whatever that means.
It’s because of this relationship to my mother, and to the trouble of communication, that the word “lesbian” became so important to me. “Queer” is a word I love conceptually and for my body, especially of late; it’s the only word that has, so far, made gender more comprehensible for me. But “queer” is often, as with my family, misinterpreted. This isn’t a reason not to use it, of course (I still do, all the time), but it’s something that gets to me, as it represents the downside of expansive terminology.
For my mother, the openness of “queer” lends itself to some nebulous category of affinity. It implies that things aren’t quite figured out, and are subject to change. “Queer” was comfortable to her, but only insofar as it landed on no solid ground. The word seemed to suggest I could still marry a man, or maintain some semblance of fluidity that would keep me relatable and legible. To her, “queer” meant I was still a child.
I realize I can’t know, not for certain, if my mother felt this way. But I do know that when she saw me refer to myself as a lesbian in print, I got two pairs of Pride socks in the mail. It was a silly gift, maybe, but the gesture felt profound. I’ve been out for six or so years, and it took publishing the L-word to elicit an unambiguous moment of mutual understanding with my mother. I luxuriate in this false simplicity: how, unlike “queer,” “lesbian” is just one thing.
What does it mean, to be only one thing? I don’t want to go off about multiplicity or anything like that. Not right now, at least. But when I think about living in my body over my lifetime, particularly the last few years, it’s hard to know what singularity could look like. I’ve finally gotten my mom to understand that I’m a lesbian, it’s true. But complicated desires and dysphoria are parts of my life that feel large right now, and are things that the word “lesbian” hides. At least from my mom and other nonlesbians who are only used to thinking of the word in one steadfast way.
I was hanging out with my good friend when she asked me how I could possibly identify as a lesbian. “You hook up with nonbinary people who aren’t women,” she said, as if catching me in a lie. What I wanted to respond was, “Well, I don’t really think I’m a woman either,” but instead I just said nothing at all. I think about this all the time.
She was right, in a way. I’ve had sex with people who identify with many different labels, which could seem antithetical to the women-centric connotations of lesbianism. Personally, I don’t see the term as a prescription; I use it without allowing its strictest definition to define me, knowing that behavior and identity and gender and sex are all different things.
But if I’m so sure of this, so comfortable with the complications of my label, why didn’t I say anything? Khaled Alqahtani wrote recently about the policing of identity: “Everyone carries a cop within them,” they write, and I am made to think of the cop living in me.
The first time I used my pronouns was at work. It was difficult to say at first, but not too difficult. It felt easier among my co-workers than among my friends, if only because I wouldn’t be expected to explain myself. Another element of my privilege is living where I live, and working where I work — I’m rarely the only person to use she/they in a room, which is in itself a pretty cool thing.
I haven’t shared this with everyone. Not with my mom. But even when I have expressed myself this way, it hasn’t seemed to matter much. People always default to the binary pronoun when speaking about me. Am I OK with that? I don’t know.
“Woman” is not a category I identify with comfortably or, most days, at all. Sure, we can all be genderqueer lesbians now (I am), but I know that the word has other effects on me, often contrary to my broader academic understanding of it. What kinds of desire have I ignored toward the goal of rendering myself simple enough to be legible to my family?
I know that “lesbian” isn’t the cop in my head. It can remain divorced from gender if we allow it to, as we should. But I’ve felt how easy it is to exist through words my mom understands. It’s nice. And the risk of complicating this simplicity, of rewording myself again, is losing my mother’s understanding. I love my ugly, cliche socks because I love my mother and I want her to see me clearly, even if I can’t see myself that way. Love can be a form of control, too. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, or lose anything along the way.
Maybe these people are the cops that regulate me. Or maybe I am. I don’t know what I’m scared of; it’s a little like hiding again — feeling virtuous for keeping things to myself, and away from judgment. I’ve always thought that words were the thing that freed me from secrecy, though I guess I can’t be so sure. The socks are already mine, and I’ll never give them up. Which is the nice thing about owning an object. I decide where it lives, and is kept.
Scout Turkel writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]