by Allison Green
Recently, I worked with a woman for over a year before I realized she was a lesbian, and only then because I was talking about coming out in the mid-1980s and she said she had come out then, too. I watched her for awhile after that, trying to see what I had missed. When I told another woman, straight, that I hadn’t known, she said, “You can’t always tell, right?” And that’s true. But somehow I do expect to be able to tell much of the time. Thirty years ago, being able to tell was crucial for my survival.
I made my first lesbian friends in a college class on Virginia Woolf. In a photograph with them, taken on the day I graduated (still living with my boyfriend, as I would be for four more months), I wore a yellow rayon dress that had cost an excessive hundred dollars. I’d shaved my legs for the first time in years and wedged myself into nylons and low-heeled white pumps. The four women flanking me wore outfits that ranged from flowing slacks and cardigan to a button-down shirt and knitted tie. In my dress and heels, I was in a liminal state between straight hippy college girl and young dyke, trying out a grown-up version of feminine that seemed appropriate to me upon my graduation. Also, I had recently lost twenty-five pounds on a diet of candy bars and hard-boiled eggs, and I was proud of the dress’s tight waist. My hair was layered to my shoulders.
Within the next year, I left my boyfriend for a woman named Karen, mulled over my sexual “preference” with a therapist, and moved to Washington, D.C., when Karen got a job there. My hair got shorter and my clothes more androgynous. Although I was still not sure what my relationship with a woman meant for my long-term identity, I surrounded myself with the accoutrements of 1980s white lesbianhood: record albums by Lucie Blue Tremblay and Ferron, books like Lesbian Nuns and Lesbian Sex, photographs by Imogen Cunningham of nude women. My favorite places to go in the city were the gay bookstore, Lambda Rising, and the women’s bookstore, Lammas. It felt good just to walk around the stacks of books, peruse the bookmarks with quotations from Audre Lorde and Gertrude Stein, read the posters on the bulletin board, and check out the necklaces dangling the labrys, the double-headed ax associated with Amazons. At Lammas one afternoon, I got my copy of Dykes to Watch Out For signed by Alison Bechdel, whose comic strip I read in the alternative paper.
And I developed my “gaydar.” It was important to know who was and who wasn’t a lesbian because the community was relatively small, and I was a stranger in a big, new city. If I was going to make any friends and if those friends were going to be the kind to accept me in my new relationship, I had to both telegraph my lesbianism and learn to read the semaphore from others. But the need to recognize others like myself went beyond merely making friends. I had come out to my parents before leaving the west coast, and although they never stopped loving me, our relationship was tense. One night at midnight, the phone rang in my housemate’s bedroom. She brought the phone to my door. Thinking calls at midnight meant an emergency, I answered, heart hammering. It was my uncle, drinking with my father in Seattle and calling to say, “Who are you sleeping with?” My father apologized when I called back the next day – and nothing like it ever happened again – but it reflected the extreme alienation I felt at that time from my parents. On some fundamental level, they didn’t know or understand me.
At work, too, I kept my relationship a secret. Preparing for the interview, I crafted an explanation for how I came to Washington, D.C., that omitted my girlfriend and her job. Once hired, I carefully edited my evenings and weekends. On October 17, 1987, I noted in my diary, I went with a coworker to donate blood on our lunch break. She asked about my weekend. “Nothing,” I said. I had only marched with hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, cried as I walked around the 1,920 panels of the AIDS quilt, and danced with my lesbian friends from college, who had crashed on Karen’s apartment floor. “Nothing,” I said. “You?” She and her husband had shopped for tennis shoes.
If loving a woman sometimes felt like floating blissfully in a turquoise sea, hiding the relationship felt like reaching a foot down for sand and touching nothing. A constant undertow of shame, anxiety, and anger undermined my ability to feel worthy of living. That’s what I mean by survival; that’s why signaling mattered.
One of my first gay friends in the city was not a woman but a man, and our similarity wasn’t signaled through clothes and haircuts but through a book. My job was with a publishing company on K Street that organized and indexed government policies. Most of the women in the company wore skirted suits; most of the men wore ties and suit jackets. Far from my hippy town on the opposite coast, I took a copy of Diet for a Small Planet to work one day and carried it around with me like a teddy bear. Jonathan, who worked in the production department, said, “Frances Moore Lappé!” and we tumbled into a conversation about vegetarianism and the environment. Trusting each other on these topics, we were soon coming out to each other. It was a relief to have someone at work who knew the real me. In my two years at this job, I told only one other person, another gay man, about Karen.
Outside of work, I kept my antennae perked for lesbians. Clues included short hair, ear cuffs, multiple ear piercings, men’s clothing, boots, no makeup, labrys jewelry, and pink triangle pins. Demeanor could be a clue as well: a walk without hip sway, hands deep in pockets, a slouch or, conversely, a straight spine. Anything that suggested a disdain for feminine cringing might be a clue. When a woman like this passed on the street, I made eye contact. If she was a lesbian, she’d make eye contact back. We smiled slightly. A sexual current vibrated my bones, even if I was not particularly attracted. Our bodies telegraphed strength, independence, sexuality, and outsider status. We were saying: I’m here, and you’re here, and I see you.
Of course, there were many variations on the look, and sometimes the radar failed. Some straight women looked butch. Some lesbians were experimenting with a more feminine look. They got a whole new label – “lipstick lesbians” – which was dissected in the queer press. And, because I’d grown up in segregated, mostly white communities and gone to a mostly white college, at twenty-three my experience with lesbians of color was extremely limited.
By late September 1987, I was volunteering at the Washington, D.C., Women’s Center in their new office, an apartment with heavy, pea green drapes and multiple locks on the door. In my training, I’d been told to keep the door locked while I was there alone. On a night that I later recorded in detail in my diary, the buzzer sounded. I pulled back the drapes. A Black woman was standing on the dark stoop. She smiled. I registered my initial racist response: Was it safe to open the door? I told myself that this was the Women’s Center and I was here for all women; I let her in.
Josephine, like me, had recently moved here from the west coast, although she had grown up in D.C. She told me she felt desperately alone here; she had moved back to help with her terminally ill granddaughter, but she knew only straight women and didn’t feel that she could be herself with them. She had spent the entire day crying and walking the city, stopping at Lammas, the women’s bookstore, even though, she said, “I’ll probably be in bed tomorrow because of it; I’ve had seven operations on my knees.” She didn’t like to go to the bars. The women there looked like “Smurfettes,” she said. I thought I knew what she meant: young and vain, maybe, trying too hard to look cute and cool. We commiserated over the lack of coffeehouses here, the public places we had found most welcoming on the west coast.
I would not have guessed Josephine was a lesbian if I had passed her on the street as she walked the city that day. Although her hair was short, she was more feminine than many lesbians I knew. From one ear, comets and stars hung in a glittery spray to her shoulder. But the Women’s Center had brought us together, doing the signaling for us. I gave her a copy of the newsletter, circling the Monday night “rap group” for lesbians. I invited her to join me at the Gay Women’s Alternative Lesbian Resource night in two weeks. And we exchanged phone numbers. When Karen and I moved away from D.C. a year later, Josephine was one of the four people who came to our going away party.
My wife now, Arline, had different experiences connecting with lesbians. Having migrated from Panama in her mid-twenties, she was attending graduate school in Seattle in the 1980s. She remembers thinking that white lesbians tried too hard to look like they didn’t care how they looked. Women of color, she thought, tended to have more varied styles and took care to look good, whether they were butch, femme, or in between. Eye contact on the street was as often about connecting as women of color as it was about connecting as lesbians. To find each other in Seattle, lesbians of color gravitated toward certain classes, student clubs, and coffee shops. Her stories – and the memory of how I met Josephine — remind me that my experience of signaling was not universal to lesbians but, as experiences always are, mediated by other aspects of my identity, in this case, being white.
As the years went by and I settled into my queer identity, moving around the country and eventually returning to the Pacific Northwest, I forged a practical style that fit me and my surroundings. Seattle has always been a casual place, where people wear white shoes before Memorial Day if they feel like it and don’t blink at jeans at the opera. But more than living in a casual culture, time, stability, and social and legal changes have reduced my need to signal to other lesbians. In my fifties, I have my community of family and friends, and they know who I am and I know who they are. I’m not walking unfamiliar, busy streets, feeling both alienated and thrilled by my difference. I’m going with Arline to the grocery store, where a straight clerk wishes us a happy wedding anniversary every year because she has never forgotten helping us with our wine purchase. I’m teaching at an institution where I’ve been out and tenured for twenty years. I’m living a mile from my parents, who were thrilled, my mother in particular, at the announcement of our wedding.
Young people today, like the ones at my community college who join the LGBT club, must have a whole new set of signifiers. I don’t know how important it is to them to telegraph their sexual identity, or even if it is. The club is the first place some of them have found others like themselves, and they must have ways of knowing who is safe and who is not safe to reveal themselves to. I am old to them now, older than many of their parents. My dyke style is not their style, and they wouldn’t recognize it if we passed on a downtown street. Most likely, I wouldn’t recognize theirs either.
The recent election of a president whose explicit statements encourage hate crimes has led me to reflect on these changes. When do I still need to scan the environment for threats and safe havens? Last summer, Arline and I took a road trip to Montana. In Billings, we stopped at a grocery store and stood in line, watching the white male cashier chat with customers. His pin gave his name and hometown, a city near Seattle, so Arline said, “Oh, you’re from Bainbridge Island; we’re from Seattle.” Silence. He looked down at his hands scanning groceries. It was as if she hadn’t spoken. After awhile he looked up at the bagger to his left: “Bainbridge Island is a good place to grow up.” He never looked at us or responded directly. In the parking lot, I stood outside the car, trying to decide whether to go back in and say something or drive away. We were pretty sure his hostility was a reaction to her immigrant accent, not homophobia, although perhaps that played a role as well. We drove away, resolving never to visit Billings again. But if we did, we would certainly be scanning faces for clues: Where are we safe? Where are we not?
Now that new levels of explicit racism, sexism, and Islamophobia have been sanctioned by the leader of the so-called free world, it seems to me that we are going to need to be able to recognize and find each other, not just queers but all of us who value an inclusive, equitable world. Many people of color have no choice but to be visible as “other,” and women who wear the hijab should not have to make the choice to be less visible. For some trans people, walking into a bathroom is even more dangerous than it was before. Those of us who might not be obvious supporters – white, straight, cisgender, born in the U.S. – need to be able to signal our availability for support. Pins on book bags, “Safe Zones” sticks on office windows. Yes, even safety pins.
However — and this is a big “however” — if we are going to signal our support, we need to make sure we are truly trustworthy. Here, again, I think of how Arline’s experience in the 1980s was different from my own. The secret club I was excited to join was less welcoming to her — even hostile. Events organized by white lesbians often did not allow her young son: no testosterone, they said. White women made racist assumptions, like the one who guessed she was majoring in Chicano Studies. Others fetishized women of color, fawning over them rather than developing authentic friendships. Did I have an authentic relationship with Josephine? When I read my journal about that night now, I’m struck by the fact that, not only did I hesitate to open the door, I didn’t identify Josephine as Black in my writing, performing a false “color blindness” even in my own diary. While I had volunteered at the Women’s Center specifically to offer support to other women, I wasn’t fully ready to give it.
How, then, do we prepare, not only to signal that we are trustworthy, but to truly be trustworthy? Activists have been writing and talking about this for years, and I have nothing profound to add: Learn and listen. Show up. Be humble. Read about allyship and recent critiques of it. Identify resources. Among the LGBT community: be aware of how our biases and internalized oppression may interfere with our ability to support the more marginalized among us. I say this to myself: Don’t let your tenured position and Seattle cocoon and supportive family make you complacent; other members of the community, even now, even here, are at risk.
Signaling, of course, is not enough. Those years in Washington, D.C., I found solidarity, not only at the Women’s Center and bookstores, but on the AIDS hotline, where I took phone calls from worried people. I hiked with a gay and lesbian club, Karen attended gay and lesbian A.A. meetings, and we looked forward every year to Sisterfire, a festival of music by women, many of them lesbians. These organizations and events made spaces where we didn’t need to signal each other, although, of course, this is not the same as saying they were “safe”; racism, ableism, and transphobia were often on display. I didn’t necessarily recognize the manifestations of them when they occurred, but the feminist and queer newspapers reported on them and drew my attention.
Ever since the election, Arline has been saying, Who can we trust now? If large swaths of voters were not dissuaded to vote for a man who made fun of people with disabilities, boasted about sexual assault, used anti-Semitic images, made racist comments, and promoted a registry for Muslims, how can we know who is trustworthy now? Somehow, we’re going to need to figure it out. We’re going to need to trust, and we’re going to need to be trustworthy. We’re going to need to signal: I’m here and I see you.