On departed friends, music, femme drag, football, sex, marriage, and getting into the women's bathroom. These articles originally appeared in Toronto's Xtra! biweekly.
Better to be a lesbian than a snap bean Identity politics
Lesbians need a whole album to lose their virginity Musical memories
Kick it with your own kind Football
My city's gayer than yours Queer as ordinary
Disguised as a femme fatale Dressing up
Those never met AIDS
Mind your own business Washroom police
Search for meaning Same-sex marriage
Freeing my inner faggot Switching identities
Roses for the lady Jo
Nothing means more to me than for my writing to touch someone in the way this essay has--both people who knew my friend and readers who never did.
Corkscrews & knives Fritz
Kick it with your own kind
For guys who think the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is what you dip into for solace when your boyfriend leaves (or shifts orientation and/or gender), save your girlish figure. I am here to tell you that football is not just for lesbians any more.
A (female) quarterback I know told me she thinks the whole concept of American football is homoerotic. For Canadian football, you only go “down” three times rather than four, but it’s quality not quantity, right?
Many of you women will already know what I’m talking about. My father always wanted a kid who was interested in these things and he got one, a daughter-in-all-but-law. Myself, I can’t run very fast and have only the dimmest grasp of strategy, but I did finally learn to throw the damn thing.
The spiral, you see, is crucial in throwing a football. You do not want to throw like a fag; you want to throw like a girl. (My lover’s mother, for example, had an uncanny knack for throwing a spiral the first time she touched a football, when she was in her sixties.) Think of the football as what it is: a tool of textured skin used to penetrate the other guys’ (that’s an orgiastic plural) end zone.
Now, I’m from Tennessee, where American football is pretty much like the Bible. You can get away without knowing anything about the subject, but you run the risk of being labelled an infidel. So before I came to Canada, the Grey Cup was just half a brassiere.
But then, in exile, I saw the light of the CFL and my great gay salvation in what used to be called the Skydome. Of the Toronto Argonauts games my nearest and dearest football fan and I have attended, by far the most exciting was this past season, when Toronto defeated regional rival Hamilton en route to the Grey Cup.
One of my oldest friends, who looks a lot like a cheerleader herself, is a football fan. When she came to visit, we had to take in an Argos game. It wasn’t very exciting, but as she pointed out, there were cheerleaders to scope. The great thing about football is that even when the game itself is less than exciting, there is always something else to look at. Like loads of men in tight, slick pants. Never mind those padded diaper things worn by the big babies of the NHL (which holds my personal record for the sports league I was most quickly bored of). No, in football it’s all tight ends and wide receivers. Bend over, baby!
There used to be rumours in football that guys were spraying their already skin-tight uniforms with cooking spray to keep opponents (admirers?) from latching on. Gentlemen, this is not healthy. The Crisco era is over. What you want is a water-based lubricant . . . but I digress.
All right, third down. You are at the line of scrimmage, which is one crotch-grab short of that delicious rugby setup, the scrum. Those big, hairy men in front of you, bearing down on you—those are the linebackers. What, you have yet to try linebacking on a Saturday night?
Once you realize how comprehensively queer this sport is, the straight commentary will take on a surreal edge for you. As you watch the game, po-faced men with fake tans and bad toupees will narrate the penetration, cut-backs, play-action fakes, even the ecstatic and blasphemously named Hail Mary, all without a touch of irony. You will know that there is no imaginable glory to rival the locker room, with its ripe jock straps and row upon row of glistening, over-developed male bodies. And if you doubt that the pros like to “kick it” with their own kind, I have an E. Lynn Harris novel or two to show you.
The surrealism continues, of course, if you choose to watch or even discuss the game in your local pub, rather than in the company of your fellow men or a lesbian support group. After the aforementioned playoff game, I was out with my drinking buddies when two of them, presumably straight men, began talking about what would happen when Toronto went to play Montreal. They were sitting beside me and until that moment we’d been having a three-way conversation, but when football came up, they turned to one another and spoke in a different tone, their entire life experience having taught them that their wives or girlfriends would not be interested in football. Hello, I’m a dyke! So I spoke up and told them that yeah, I’d been to the game and wasn’t there a fight over in the Ti-Cat fan section?
Oh, and my friend with a penchant for cheerleaders? She married the quarterback. Of course, they met playing football.
© 2005 J. E. Knowles
My city's gayer than yours
In the gym the other day, I caught a glimpse of a trailer for Million Dollar Baby. I hadn't seen Hilary Swank since Boys Don't Cry, so the prospect of her in another challenging role (as a boxer) grabbed my attention.
In the context of a locker room it made sense to look at what a weight trainer can do for an actress whose career might have tanked after she portrayed a transgendered character. It was only when women around me started murmuring about how old Clint Eastwood has gotten that I realized I was the only queer there.
Remember, long ago, coming out and chanting "We are everywhere?" Where I'm from--not just the States but one of those Red States--that did not appear to be
true. It was only too obvious that I was the only queer in whatever room I was in. But now I live in a city that seems so queer and queer-positive that it can be unnerving.
For example, after years of immigration hassles, my lover and I were happy just to live in the same country for more than months at a time. We didn't ask to be recognized as same-sex partners, so when the realities of Canadian law found us being proclaimed such in a taxman's office, it was awkward. It seemed we should be celebrating something, but how romantic is H&R Block?
We have so far held out against what some see as the ultimate domestication of wild homos--marriage. Otherwise, we aren’t a very radical couple. Before I lived in Toronto, I always figured that not being straight was radical enough for most people. If nothing else, I figured it got me off the parenting hook, as the last thing straight society wanted was for us to breed.
How surprised I was by the Toronto phenomenon of straight co-workers who actually ask if marriage and/or children are in our future. These people all know we’re lesbians; they take lesbians so for granted now that they expect us to wed and go on maternity leave. No wonder other queers look at the same-sex marriage fight and wonder where we went wrong.
In the minds of our neighbours, it seems, the girls are all getting pregnant, and the boys have all quit the bathhouses and are lining up to pose in Condo Living. I feel the need for resistance--or at least harness shopping--just to maintain some clarity in "We're all gay now" Toronto.
My lover, who seems determined to remain a woman, nonetheless has a running joke about being, at heart, a gay man. In the Pride run, she observed that never before had she been handed water by a man in a thong. She seemed so thrilled, I hope it was only the affirmation of community and not pushing the boundaries of gender. Are her fondness for men in black leather and mania for cleaning the house signs that I live with a queen? Perhaps this is the ever-queerer future for some of us.
But what do I tell my friends in America, who are fighting legislative efforts to scale back rights they already have? “Forget marriage laws, pass the latex and lube?”
Let's face it, the longer you do something the more you have to seek bigger and bigger thrills. Even committed monogamists know that a little renewal can be a very good thing. We haven't come all this way in the sexual revolution just to register at Canadian Tire.
On the other hand, we can get a bit spoiled here. After the U.S. election lesbians down south were e-mailing me wondering where to go from here, now that bashing gay marriages had been used to re-elect Bush and to take away much of what Americans have gained over the years. Beyond North America, things are far worse. We do have it better up here than down in the States, but at least they’ve got rid of the sodomy laws.
Having grown up breaking those laws myself, I was floored when a Toronto colleague said that her young daughter had been called a lesbian at school. “And the first thing I said was, ‘That's not an insult!’” I’ve heard other parents say things like that, and they seem to have no idea how remarkable it is. On Remembrance Day, I heard a client talking about the Holocaust and mentioning the homosexuals and others who also died, as if that were the most natural thing in the world. What does “natural” even mean any more?
So I appreciate those locker-room moments when I'm watching Ellen while everyone else is looking at Jude Law. Then we get in the elevator with a pumped guy and his sugar daddy, and breathe a sigh of relief. All is well. For now.
© 2005 J. E. Knowles
Disguised as a femme fatale
There's a butch-looking woman whom I see every day on my street. I think of her as the Husky Lady because she is always walking two big husky dogs. Among other reasons.
It was almost Hallowe'en and my friend Pamela (not her real name) and I were trying to figure out what to wear. Then one of our co-workers said, "Why don't you just 'dress up'? Nobody here has ever seen you in a dress."
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. It's been many a year since I went to an office and worked in what I consider femme drag. (I was a "secretary" when they were still called that.) But Pamela despaired. "What can I do with my hair?" she cried.
Great, she was already into the part. I lent her my black beret. She strutted and gyrated in her borrowed dress, wiggled in front of the mirror, but something was still missing. Finally, she picked up a stuffed dog and began to saunter about, speaking French.
Then there were the other dreaded accoutrements of high-maintenance femmes. Where do those girls find the time? Choosing a shade of lipstick seemed to take the better part of an hour. Pamela was really into it and even painted her nails, something I have never done.
But the worst was the pantyhose. Opaque black was, of course, the only choice. Here in a city where it is more common for a woman to shave her head than not to shave her legs, even the Dyke March looks like a cyclists' convention. I had runs in my stockings before they were halfway up my thighs. We laughed a lot.
The effect that Friday was hilarious. People snapped photos of Pamela and her Parisian dog. Our francophone colleagues were especially amused. Another co-worker, whom no one has ever seen in jeans, could not get over my brisk secretarial sashay, files in hand. Frankly, I was alarmed at how much I resembled myself at 21, trying to "pass" in the world of work.
It took more than undressing, and returning the clothes, to restore us to what personal ads used to describe as "soft butch." On Saturday, quite contrary to our habitual avoidance of shopping in general and malls in particular, Pamela and I found ourselves going from one store to another, looking for blue jeans. "We really do need them," we assured each other. After all, our old jeans were fraying badly, and what were we going to wear to work the rest of the year?
Our search took much longer than expected, naturally, and we ended up with an enthusiastic (and, as far as I know, straight) salesgirl bringing us pair after pair of jeans that were either too tight in the waist or too long in the leg. Finally, hesitating, she suggested to Pamela, "Why don't you try the men's?"
Imagine my shock when my [shopping] buddy took several minutes to get comfortable with this idea. "You see," she confessed, "I spent so many years forced to wear boys' clothing and boys' equipment, because it just wasn't available for girls. They didn't even sell cycling shorts for women when I first needed them. But I'm not a big woman, so the men's things never really fit right. I swore I would never be forced to wear ill-fitting men's things again."
The salesgirl, oblivious, insisted that the only difference is that, with men's jeans, the waist and the hips are closer in size. For a woman of whom this is actually true, a men's pair might be worth a try.
Pamela bought them and then I had to listen to a lot of "Who wears the pants around here?" Sunday morning we slept late, and I woke to find that we were out of milk. I pulled on a baseball cap (always a challenge for the gender-rigid) and my old jeans, and dragged myself to the convenience store.
On my way out I passed an equally bleary-eyed Husky Lady. Only I almost didn't recognize her, because that day, she didn't have the huskies. Clothes may make the man, but a dog makes the outfit.
© 2004 J. E. Knowles
Love a girl in uniform
The other day, my girlfriend was stopped by a shy young woman asking for support for air cadets. Normally, she would have said "No, thanks." But my girlfriend has a soft spot for military types. She grew up wanting to be a sea cadet, when girls were not yet allowed. As an adult, she seriously considered joining the Royal Air Force.
Unfortunately for her, even when the RAF started admitting women pilots, it was still not interested in the kind of woman who might have, or want to acquire, a girlfriend. So when she saw this young air cadet, she thought of what she might have done, and gave the young women something. In return, she received a little sign that said, in English and French, "I support air cadets," which she hung on a nail outside our apartment door.
We had forgotten all about this by the evening, when we heard, and then saw, repeated explosions coming out of a ground-floor apartment in the building next door. Now, I realize these could just have been fireworks being set off under someone's balcony, but we aren't from Canada. An explosion could be anything, and it's best not to take chances. So I called the police, and the next thing I knew, there was a gruff voice on the intercom downstairs.
"May we come up and see you?" the officer asked. A female officer. Sure, she could come up.
The officers rapped at the door and when I opened it, I had to grin inside. Not that women in uniform do anything in particular for me, nor do I have a quasi-military fetish. It's just that the officer I had been speaking to was much smaller, physically, than her voice made her sound. In fact everything about her demeanor suggested an individual empowered by the uniform and the swaggering self-confidence in which police are trained.
She stood in a stance I imagined a 1950s butch must have practised for hours at home, before going out to a bar to pick up ladies. Not that either of us could remember the '50s. She leaned on her elbow against the door frame and said "Yeah, we found some boys over there, setting off these," waving several alarmingly large rockets at crotch level.
"Well, thank you," I said as the other officer, a taller woman about to burst out of her Kevlar vest, wrote down every word I said. "From the look and the sound of it, the whole building could have been catching on fire. Suppose it had been an electrical explosion, or--" I realize living overseas can taint a person's perception, but surely anything is possible, these days.
"We appreciate it," the officer went on in her baritone. "What did you see?"
I thought, She thinks I'm a frightened woman, fantasizing at home. So I turned to my girlfriend, who was sitting in another part of the room. "You saw it first," I said, and she stepped into view.
Now my girlfriend is shorter than I am but still towered over the interviewing officer, who gave a little finger wave and said "Hi," in a distinctly higher, less gravelly voice.
After describing the incident and answering questions, we said our goodbyes. After the officers left, my girlfriend mused, "Do you suppose we'll see them at Pride?"
I could barely contain my laughter. "Do you realize we have 'J'appuie les cadets de l'air' on the door? These women are going to think we called them here on purpose, just to ogle!"
"The only question is, who's ogling whom?"
Happy Pride, and happy ogling!
© 2003 J. E. Knowles
Those never met
When Larry Kramer came to Toronto last year for the International Festival of Authors, I was interested to read Xtra's interview with him. He said some surprisingly hard-hitting things about what has happened in the last twenty years. "It’s as if all those people in the ’80s died in vain," he was quoted as saying. "I don’t see a lot of us fighting and campaigning, I see a lot of us dancing and going to the gym."
Now if anybody else said that, he or she would probably be dismissed as a nagging big sister, like someone who says everybody should quit smoking. But this was Larry Kramer, the founder of ACT UP. His comments made me start thinking about those earlier days and who "all those people" were.
In my life, the people who died were not often those I had known personally. More of them were people whose paths I probably would have crossed eventually, had their lives not been cut so short.
These relationships are defined by their absence. Someone I might have known, I did not know, and the opportunity has been lost forever.
A decade ago, as a newly out lesbian, I discovered that I was a member of something called "the gay and lesbian community." "Gay and lesbian" had a particular meaning in the 1980s and early 1990s. It meant a degree of cooperation between queer women and men that had not happened before, and which has probably not happened since.
That cooperation was around one particular issue. AIDS was seen by those outside our community as a problem for us alone. It was not recognized as a problem for heterosexuals, let alone for the developing world, where it is now an unprecedented catastrophe.
So gays and lesbians responded to AIDS. There was caretaking within the community, and outrage directed at those outside it who expressed indifference or revulsion. The impetus to community was hard to deny: People were dying. Men, many of them young, were dying around us in disastrous numbers, and if "the gay and lesbian community" did not do something about it, who would?
Now there are drugs that did not exist a decade ago. These treatments are "good news," in the way that chemotherapy is good news to someone with cancer. They keep something deadly and incurable at bay. They do not restore any of us to the world of the 1970s, when no one knew about AIDS. And nothing can bring back all the people we lost.
There can be no nostalgia about that period, because it was a time of death. As in a war of self-defence, people really were fighting for their lives. Great love and great art came out of that time, because that was all we could do. What we really wanted to do was to change the way the world was, to open the bathhouses and not have to worry about a deadly disease.
The gay playwright Scott McPherson, who was living in Chicago at the same time I was, wrote about the caretaking that was going on in the gay community. He described the presence of AIDS in his life, in the life of his lover, Danny Sotomayor, and in the lives of their friends.
I wish I had known this writer, but I never met him. He died ten years ago. Danny Sotomayor, a gifted cartoonist and AIDS activist, also died. There is no collection of this man's work. He should have been drawing for many more years, but instead, he gave his energy to the political fight for AIDS funding and research.
Not enough is left of these men. There is not a lifetime of work for us to appreciate. There should be many more plays and cartoons and other works of art, and they should be about the many joys of life, not just the pain of loss. There is nothing redemptive about the loss of so many people, so many relationships cut short or never started. It is a massive tragedy.
Because there was so much death that could not have been expected, gay and lesbian people were forced to deal with mortality--our own, as well as others'. In many cases, these were people whose families or communities of origin had rejected them, who did not have the comfort of traditional faith. Instead, women and men who may not previously have considered themselves allies came together and supported each other.
It should not have taken tragedy to bring us together. Community life should not be one more life we've lost, along with so many other lives. Art and memories are not enough.
I hope we can continue to love those around us as if it were, as it can be, a matter of life and death.
© 2003 J. E. Knowles
Mind your own business
By now, the story is a familiar one. A youthful woman, marooned in the 905, heads for the door marked "Women." The usual skirted pictogram is missing from the door Of course, this woman bears no resemblance to the pictogram anyway.
"This is the women's room," says the self-appointed washroom monitor who meets her. Perhaps she thinks the woman cannot read.
"I know, that's why I'm here," comes the testy rejoinder.
Really, that should be the end of it, but no. "What do you mean, that's why you're here?"
In the past, I have been flabbergasted by such incidents. Why am I the one who feels uncomfortable, although it is the other person who is being incredibly rude? Later, I have thought of many things to say in return. But this time, I gave her four sweet words: "Mind your own business."
Sure, I could have said worse, much worse. I have been storing up these insults since I was fourteen years old and still not wearing makeup or the right kind of earrings. This was in the American South, and Southern speech, like French, is laced with small courtesies. So I've been called "sir" more times than I can count. But is that rudeness, or just misplaced politeness? I always want to say "Thank you, ma'am" (if it's a man). Many times, however, it's the women who are the rudest ones. (Incidentally, I've never known a French speaker to make this mistake.)
Maybe it's my Southern background, but I think courtesy is undervalued. So it really isn't my natural instinct to be insulting. I'm still surprised, and offended, when grown human beings flout the rules of adult interaction. If you have a problem with the way someone else looks or acts or what s/he does, at least keep it to yourself!
I have no interest whatsoever in imagining what it is about my appearance that causes someone else to lose all manners. This goes beyond rudeness, though. For lack of a better word, it's really sexist.
Sexism is often reduced to mean discrimination by men against women. I think that definition is itself sexist. What I mean by sexism is anytime one person can't handle another's failure to conform to gender expectations, whatever they may be. Anyone can be sexist, in this sense. And anyone can be the target of sexism.
For the washroom monitor, who clearly doesn't get out much, a baseball cap was enough to send her running for the smelling salts. But other gender expectations can have more serious consequences.
There is a Peggy Seeger song based on the statement "You can't be an engineer because you are a woman." I think this sounds an awful lot like "You can't be her lover because you are a woman." "You can't be his lover because you are a man." "I won't let you go about your business, because I can't decide what I think your gender is (as if you owe me an explanation)."
Homophobia is a particularly virulent form of this, because everyone gets heated up when sexuality is involved. Centuries of history have accustomed people to dictating the sexual behaviour of others, and they get especially offended when their gender expectations in this area aren't met.
But intolerance for any sexual minority is intimately tied up with sexism. The basic problem is making gender an issue in all kinds of areas that are nobody else's business. Is being told that you can't marry the person of your choice because you are a woman fundamentally different from being told that you can't wear skirts because you are a man? In my fantasies, if everyone (including me) could get over their own sexist expectations, homophobia would disappear.
But I am realistic enough to know that prejudice is not just going to disappear. Some attitudes really will change. Ignorance can be overcome, but prejudice remains. If people cannot get comfortable with the existence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in their world, then the least they can do is shut up about it. This is where courtesy could really make a comeback.
If I have nothing better to do than guess the gender of someone going into a washroom, I'll decide based on which door the person actually goes in. If my guess turns out to have been wrong, it's my mistake.
We want to be out and proud. We want to hold hands, kiss, wear gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered on our T-shirts and be "in your face." We want to say, in the words of the old hymn, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!" But truly, there are some people out there who are just beyond hope. The best they deserve is a good old-fashioned "Mind your own business!"
© 2002 J. E. Knowles
Search for meaning
"So," I asked my love one recent morning, "will you marry me?"
"Certainly," she agreed.
This has become rather routine for us over the years. My latest proposal was occasioned by the Ontario court ruling that two people, regardless of sex, can't be prevented from getting married. If we wanted to, we could have our relationship recognized as a marriage, once the municipal government quits stalling and the province passes the buck to Ottawa and two more years pass and . . . you know this by heart.
For many, marriage is a touchy subject. In a society that takes divorce for granted, straight people could be forgiven for doubting that their marriages will last, or passing the formalities up altogether. For different reasons, many less-than-straight folks don't even want the right to get married, or at least don't want to waste valuable resources fighting for it.
These reasons range from the passionate belief that we are different, to sour grapes, to real problems with the historical inequality and financial implications of marriage. Is it really just about a man's power? Does marriage make sense in a context where people are willing to entrust a lover with their bodies and their emotional health, but not their money?
Last year my partner and I visited the Netherlands, which had just become the first country to pass one marriage law for same-sex and heterosexual couples. But neither of us is Dutch. In Canada, where we immigrated two years ago, neither of us had to be Canadian for us to be recognized as a couple, but that recognition was not called "marriage."
However, under Canada's new law, we would still be living apart after ten years. Now, two non-Canadians have to live together for a year before they are a couple--something we were prevented from doing by our respective home countries. Britain, where my partner is from, recognizes lesbian and gay relationships, but only when a couple lives together and one person is British. The U. S. does not recognize our relationships at all.
What if we wanted official validation but we couldn't find a government that would give it to us? The other place people go to get married, if they're religious, is their house of worship. In my own religion, Christianity, some churches have proposed or even tried to marry same-sex couples. As with secular institutions, fights and foot-dragging invariably ensue.
But who does the marrying? A gay Episcopal priest I knew once explained that from earliest Christian tradition, the spouses marry each other. Everyone else present at a wedding, even the priest or minister (and presumably God), are witnesses. As with any other act of worship, marrying Christians go to church for God's blessing, not the church's.
Asking an institution for validation is offensive to many queer people, and with good reason. Take those churches that proclaim themselves "affirming congregations." It's nice, but why should we have to wait to be accepted? Everyone is supposed to be welcome in a church. But many people don't feel welcome, and it's no wonder the church is the last place they would look for support.
So who gives our relationships validity? We do. We decide what we are to each other, which is what every couple should be doing when they marry. If we are not faithful or don't want to keep our commitment to each other, no one can make us (as so many straight couples have found).
But the reverse is true as well. If we marry each other, who is going to negate that? Deportations and persecutions happen all the time. So does falling in love.
Gay and lesbian people and our allies, in whatever relationships we choose, are trying to live our lives with integrity. Year in and year out. That, and not the choices of others, is what gives our lives and relationships meaning.
© 2002 J. E. Knowles
My brother the dyke
My brother Ben called me during Pride. I told him we were on our way to the Dyke March, and he said that was appropriate. He had just been to a performance by one of the many Indigo Girls-type women he loves, and it was like a mini-Pride. "Yeah, I was probably the only straight guy there. Somebody told me I should wear Birkenstocks and I said, No thanks. I'm almost a lesbian, but not quite." My brother is more at ease with his own and everyone else's sexuality than anyone I have ever known.
Ben is a geometric artist. The arts community being rather more gay and gay-friendly than the world at large, he often finds himself the object of attention from either sex. If he were not so sure of his own sexuality maybe he would handle this badly, but as it is, he enjoys the attention.
I'm thinking about what the world would be like if all straight men were more like my brother. For one thing, they would handle their anger a lot better. Women would probably come across as the more violent or aggressive sex in such a world. Men would be relaxed, not worried so much about impressing each other. When they did, they'd be flattered.
Maybe it's my brother's art that sets me imagining a world where machismo and homophobia would all but disappear. He has a way of making me think of things in a different way. For example, he has dated women of different ethnic backgrounds, and the racist remarks he sometimes hears makes him very impatient. Once he remarked to me, "I wish everyone would just hurry up and have children with people of different races so that everyone would be mixed-race! Then, maybe people would get over it." We both realize things are a lot more complicated than that, but I appreciate his insistence on "thinking outside the box."
Ben's friendship with a gay man has outlasted multiple dating relationships on either side. Naturally, when the two of them go out dancing together, neither of them has much luck picking people up because everyone assumes they're a couple. Being taken for a gay man doesn't bother him, but Ben protests that he is an "honorary lesbian" (not only music, but he recycles and doesn't own a gun). Besides, he thinks women are so damn sexy (and of course, we are).
The fact that my brother and I even have these conversations is remarkable. There are plenty of queer people who have no support from their families of origin at all. When we band together as a community, we sometimes think of ourselves as sisters and brothers. Or sometimes just "sisters," and that itself tells us nothing about the sex(es) of the people involved. We play with notions of gender and how we are related to each other because it empowers us. We claim brothers or sisters because of what those people mean to us and how we love each other, not because of how they were born or which way they're pointing.
I am happy with who I am, so calling someone--male or female, straight or otherwise--an honorary lesbian is a way of making him, or her, family. But a lot of the comfort and confidence I feel in myself was learned from someone who's always been family. And that helps me to envision a world where honouring each other is the norm. Something a painter might paint, or a better dancer than I might dance.
"What would you think if I wrote a story about you?" I asked Ben before I began this column. "I'm thinking of calling it LesBro."
"Of course I would be honoured," he replied, "if you are inclined to write about your lesbian brother and how you've accepted him for who he is. I love publicity too."
© 2002 J. E. Knowles
Freeing my inner faggot
I once heard that there is a Spanish word that means "female faggot." My Spanish isn't very good, but I've always secretly liked this translation. You see, I have a very good relationship with what I like to think of as my inner fag.
Words like fag can be offensive and so can the stereotypes they call to mind, but I like to play with words and stereotypes until they are not offensive anymore. Imagination, which includes imagining one's own life, is all about turning things inside out. Coming out reveals the inner fag or dyke, or possibly both, to the universe and says "Deal with it!"
While I am biologically female and couldn't be happier about it, I speculate that had I been born male, I would have been gay. What I mean by this is that the essence of my sexuality is not my attraction to women, but just being queer. A lesbian friend of mine disagrees; she says that she "knows" she would be a straight man, if she were male, because women are just so much sexier than men. Of course I agree with her. And I don't. I think men can be terribly sexy, with other men or indeed with women. Just not with me.
What do these speculations mean? It might be possible to transition from one sex to another, but it is certainly not possible to have been born differently. Yet I find the imagining both fruitful, as it were, and fun. It is as if there is more than one possible world and I have different lives going in each of them at once.
I love to imagine alternative universes. Think about it: we could all have different lovers and friends and careers, none of which would come into conflict with one another because they would all be fulfilling our different needs and desires. We would never run out of time or energy to do the things we want to do. If there were these alternative worlds, we could all be more relaxed about our differences, honouring and even celebrating them, without allowing them to limit us.
Worriedly, I am asked, "What do you mean about your inner gay man?" Isn't that just a stereotype? I love theatre and the gym. But am I being less of a dyke there than when I watch hockey or football?
One of my straight friends had her wedding shower at the home of an aunt, who has been in a lesbian relationship for many years. The aunts' basement was decorated with NFL paraphernalia. Hmm, not my kind of dyke household, I thought, before going upstairs and admiring a kitchen that was much more to my taste. My inner fag was screaming, "Let me out! I want a piece of that fabulous recessed lighting!"
Of course the real attraction of being a gay man is the reason gay men are gay: sex. My gay brothers, according to stereotype, have more sex than anyone, and we lucky lesbians are supposed to have the least. The inner fag could have sex on the terms of "That's what I want," with little danger of it leading to complications like laundry and exhaustion. Men who may or may not be queer-identified can meet, get off, and move on. Whereas with women you risk having to clean their hair out of everything, if not hear about their boyfriends the next day.
This "whoomp, there it is" school of sex is one of the most appealing furnishings in my alternate universe. But I am not alone in having such a pleasantly divided personality. An acquaintance of mine once confessed, apropos of absolutely nothing, "I dream of being a Jewish lesbian, but instead I'm a gay Catholic male." I have had serious, rational discussions with a woman (in search of a boyfriend) about her "perfect woman," for whom she would make an exception, and with a straight man whose best friend is a gay man about his own inner lesbian. Hey, some people are serious about astrology.
Maybe the really turned-around thing about me is that most of my close relationships have been with men. Stereotype has it that people in every group are supposed to be closer to women than to men. Straight men are supposed to be close to their wives, mothers, girlfriends, sisters, and not to know how to be close to other guys (because that would make them "faggy"). Gay men are supposed to cry on the shoulders of "fag hags" and think the men they date are dogs. Straight women know that men are dogs and confide in their girlfriends. And lesbians are supposed not to like men much at all.
Which is the problem with every "supposed to." I fit none of them. Does anybody?
© 2002 J. E. Knowles
Roses for the lady
Jo was the kind of woman who in a less prurient time would have been called a spinster: an educated, world-travelling single woman who cherished her autonomy and kept her love life strictly to herself.
And I loved her. More than that, I admired her hugely. She was the kind of woman I used to dream of being, though I realized as I grew older that we were different in one important way.
I don't remember coming out to Jo or really talking about that difference. She was not the type of person who would discuss her own relationships or the absence of them, so I didn't feel the need to explain myself.
Jo was simply "an aware woman." In being aware, she represented the possibility of a world where people could get beyond issues of sexuality.
Jo had been a friend of my family's for years, but I really got to know her when I was at university in Chicago and she was in her early fifties. She took early retirement in 1994, the year I graduated, and we both had lots of plans. So I was shocked to hear, just before Christmas, that she was sick with lung cancer.
The awareness of a life-threatening illness made me wonder whether any of the challenges I'd faced--coming out, a long-distance relationship--could compare.
I had lunch with Jo in January. I was working at a temp job, which in the U. S. meant no health insurance, and she urged me to do whatever it took to get coverage.
"I don't care if you have to buy it privately," she warned, "it will be nothing like the hospital bills if anything should happen to you. Believe me, I know."
I remember the awareness of that winter, when the outcome of Jo's cancer was still uncertain and we could only believe in the possibility of recovery. For Valentine's Day, I sent her a half-dozen red roses.
Now I've sent women flowers out of flirtation, out of lust, because I had nothing better to spend my money on, and when I had no money to spend. But I've never sent red roses to anyone but Jo, and it wasn't for any of those reasons. Just because it was Valentine's Day. It turned out to be the last time I saw Jo alive.
When we spoke for the final time, on the telephone, she thanked me for the flowers, in a conspiratorial voice. Or maybe it was just her lungs giving out. She congratulated me on my new job, which, I assured her, did offer health insurance.
Jo died on Mother's Day, 1995. Her friends came to clean out the house where she'd cooked and decorated much more tastefully than I will ever do. Someone remembered that I was about to move to a new apartment, and offered me Jo's dishes. Another person recalled that I own a turntable, so I got her records, too.
Now I cook with her pots and pans and listen to her recordings by Barbra Streisand and Roberta Flack. Every Christmas since her illness, I begin the season with God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen. I feel closer to Jo now than I did when she was alive.
What kind of a romance was that? For despite the completely non-sexual chemistry, I have no doubt that this was a romance, in the classic sense--an adventure in friendship. Loving people and wanting to have sex with them do not go together nearly as often as the movies would have us believe. Jo was one of those people whose words and ideas, music and zest for living, buoy me up and carry me along in my life.
Jo was not old, but somehow words that come to mind to describe her are old-fashioned--words like lady and class. And the old-fashioned romantic in me believes that every classy lady, every beautiful woman, deserves red roses sometime.
© 2002 J. E. Knowles
Corkscrews & knives
I grew up in the rural American South, which wasn't (and still isn't) the best place to be an out lesbian.
But it was there, in the late 1980s, that I met an extraordinary friend, a retired ex-Army man who had emerged from Vietnam a changed person.
Fritz Bernshausen was known around town as an eccentric who owned no car or television and walked everywhere wearing flip-flops, carrying a large American flag and handing out cards. He had once taught high school, but was later banned from the premises as a bad influence.
Always more curious than suspicious, I picked up one of his cards and learned that he was waging a one-man campaign against global warming. I was impressed and wrote to him myself. Thus began a friendship that was to last for years.
We started writing back and forth, even though we lived in the same town. We were more than 40 years apart in age and had very different life experiences, but shared a love of ideas. Fritz and I would argue, first in letters and later in person, about whether or not we should vote, or whether it was worthwhile to go to university or church. But the thing that always impressed me most was the way Fritz regarded other people.
To him, each human being was unique and interesting. We would go out to eat and Fritz would always get involved in a conversation with the waitress about something other than food. He treated everyone the same, whether she were sitting across the dinner table from him or clearing it.
When I moved to Chicago, and even when I left the country, I continued to get letters and postcards from Fritz. He wrote to me at least once a day for the next two years, scribbling his thoughts on any conceivable subject. Fritz never regretted his Army experiences, but they gave him a distinct perspective on the way war was conducted. The flip-flops he walked around in were a tribute to the sandal-wearing Viet Cong who had been his enemy.
Fritz reminded me that political issues are always more complicated than they appear, and that every community has more than one story to tell.
I came out to Fritz before any other friend or relative of an older generation. It did not matter to me that he was both male and straight; that was part of what made him interesting. I knew that my friend appreciated people for who they were, and would be supportive of me no matter what I did.
I don't think that Fritz was surprised at all to find out I was a dyke. He simply said, "To the corkscrew, the knife is crooked." Fritz believed that gay men and lesbians were stigmatized in the same way as interracial couples or people, like him, who had had psychiatric treatment. He offered to officiate the marriage of my partner and me, since no one else would.
In March '93, there was a freak snowstorm in my hometown, and two feet of snow fell. Fritz had developed a heart problem, and when he came back from one of his walks in the snow, he failed to wake up. He was 64. One of his daughters called me in Chicago, and the following week, I was in town helping to clear out his apartment.
While we sorted through Fritz's papers, mostly correspondence with me, his daughters and I laughed and reminisced. They told me how they'd thrown their father's ashes from a helicopter over the road where he used to walk, singing "Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die!" One of them confessed that she hadn't been able to resist burying a handful on the grounds of the high school, where Fritz is forever trespassing.
My old friend has been dead for eight years now, and I miss him every day.
© 2001 J. E. Knowles