I am standing in front of a mirror with a man holding me from behind. I’m giving bedroom eyes, my tits look perfect and I am making my mouth do the thing that I know drives him mad. I’m looking for a response, but not just any response; I’m looking for a softening in the eyes, a pull at the corners of his mouth and finally, almost begrudgingly and oh-so-earnestly, “You are so beautiful. I adore you.” That moment, that power, that intoxicating rush of blood was my vice of choice for years. Desperately, I wanted nothing more than to be desired.
I’m often asked about the moment I realized I was a lesbian. Usually, I think of something quippy and evasive like: “When you know, you know.” This is a lie. I didn’t know that I was gay for many years, and even when confronted with the truth I turned my head. This was, in large part, internalized homophobia, but it was also a symptom of a much more insidious societal sickness — one that teaches girls from the moment they’re born that their job is to be beautiful to men. It took me 22 years to embrace my actual identity and to understand that what I thought was an attraction to men was actually an outright addiction to the male gaze.
I first learned this lesson from my own father, who objectified women constantly and without much effort. I remember receiving a Victoria’s Secret catalog in the mail, my dad pointing to a model and saying, “She is the end all be all. Every other woman should get to the back of the line.” I felt myself turn white-hot and collapsed into my own shame. I was not that, she was not me and so to the back of the line I went.
I avoid saying that I suffer from Daddy Issues because it’s a phrase that has historically been weaponized against lesbians. The idea is that because I’ve never been shown what a “real man” is like, I cannot possibly know what I’m missing out on. Or rather, that because my dad hurt me, I’m intent on hurting men and thinking poorly of them. While these are at best tedious standpoints that question the autonomy of queer women to think and feel for themselves, they’re perhaps worth investigating within the context of my own life.
Indeed, I’m a lesbian who suffers from the absence (and occasionally unbearable presence) of my father. Am I gay because of this? Or worse, am I gay in spite of it? My childhood was spent watching my father retreat further and further from me in favor of his new (young) wife. In reference to other women, he said things like: “You’re either cute, sexy or beautiful.” I was tall, chubby and shy; I didn’t know where I belonged in the pantheon of female allure. Seemingly, nowhere. Unsure of why I couldn’t garner the kindness of my own father, I blamed my pocked skin and flyaway hairs. If I could be beautiful, I could be worthy.
Despite cutting off my dad in 2014, his words continued to ring in my ears. I lost my virginity at 18 to the first man who ever touched me. When I went to college, I spent more time under men than in classes and when I dropped out, I turned to men to distract me from my own feelings of failure. While I did on several occasions sleep with women during this time, it was men I pined for. It was men who made me feel cute, sexy and beautiful. It was men who gave me a rush.
Sex was a performance, a chance to act out my womanhood and control the male gaze. I did not enjoy the feeling so much as I enjoyed the power that came with being sexualized and degraded. Sure, he treats me like s—, but I know he wants me insatiably and miserably.
To be subjected to the same mistreatment and neglect at the hands of men that I had grown up with was not only exhilarating but comfortable. I didn’t want to be loved, I wanted to be worshiped and misunderstood like the girl in the Victoria’s Secret catalog all those years before. I molded myself into an object of desire and fell willingly into the arms of men who saw me as an object. I dated men twice my age, I dated men with children older than me, I dated men with wives. I never came closer to loving myself; certainly, I never came at all.
My identity was not found in a singular moment of clarity but a series of radical transformations. Leaning into the uncomfortable and unfamiliar, I stopped dating men and realized that I had mistaken desire for care. I ended the performance altogether, in favor of women who could see past the curtain. No more fake orgasms, no more agonizing blowjobs, no more wearing eyelashes to bed. I explored my queerness and understood real love for the first time. Only then was I finally able to see my own reflection in the mirror — standing gloriously and beautifully alone.