A few months ago, I turned 25. Almost immediately, everyone over the age of 25 felt suddenly qualified to give me the exact same piece of advice that sounded like something they’d read on a tote bag once: your mid-twenties are for exploration. You know — for finding yourself. I was urgently instructed to try new things, as if I hadn’t been doing that for the 24 years of my life leading up to this day, and to take actions that would put me outside my comfort zone. The whole notion felt kind of unnecessary, but I obliged. I engaged in difficult career conversations with my manager; I cooked recipes that were from actual cookbooks and not the Tasty website that I normally relied on. Despite all this exploration, though, my main takeaway was something that I’d been somewhat aware of all along, as it continues to crop up time and time again in my everyday life: I am exceptionally bad at being a lesbian.
In my defense, being a “good” lesbian is easier than it looks. When I finally checked off the queer box, I was prepared for a world of endless, rainbow tinted opportunities that would allow me to embrace myself fully. The reality, though, looks a lot more like me drunkenly stumbling over to a guy right before the bar closes and asking what he’s up to next. Which is not, unfortunately, because I’m bisexual — it’s because I’ve had one too many Coronas and really want to hold someone’s hand. Someone. Anyone. I settle on a red-headed Irishman because he reminds me of Ed Sheeran, but in doing that I’m violating the cardinal rule of being a lesbian: liking women. It’s right beneath the Times New Roman header of our unwritten social contract. Thou shalt not engage with men. So that’s one big, angry strike across my lesbian profile.
Strike two comes in the form of vernacular, meaning that I’m bad at being a lesbian because I hate the word and avoid saying it whenever possible. If that’s not a red flag, then I don’t know what is. Imagine being a Red Sox fan but not wanting to come outright and state that. Whenever someone asked you what sports team you root for, you’d cough, bring a hand back to rub the small of your neck, and mumble something about how all teams are okay and that you respect people who like other teams but you personally prefer the Red Sox. It would look ridiculous. So whenever I call myself ‘gay’ or ‘not really straight,’ it feels like I’m disrespecting the very essence of a word that defines myself, a word that I should love and cherish and want to shout from the rooftops. I’d never censor my voice when talking about ‘nitro stout’ or ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ or ‘Soulcycle,’ so why do I take every opportunity possible to avoid saying the word lesbian?
I like to think it’s because lesbian is a phonetically stupid word. It sounds like an over-priced, over-consumed Whole Foods product that’s crammed between garbanzo beans and whole-wheat quinoa on a refrigerator shelf. Middle-class plebeians who buy groceries at Shop Rite or Market Basket wouldn’t be able to afford them. I can practically imagine a tight-faced woman in her late forties suspiciously eying the plastic container of lesbians, pursing her lips before eventually thrusting it in the direction of a shaggy-haired teenage employee. The kid would jump, stumbling backwards as his black-apron billows with the unexpected movement. The woman’s suburban screech is jarring: “How many calories are in a lesbian? What do you mean that you don’t know? Don’t you work here?”
Slightly more important than bougie foods that the word lesbian sounds like, though, is the various implications that it holds. While it’s easiest for me to pin my distaste on the slightly clunky way that it rolls off my tongue, I doubt that is the reason why I half-cringe whenever it’s mentioned in conversation. That, I suspect, is because I’ve heard it used so many times as a negative that I can’t shake the association. No matter how many years have passed since high school, whenever someone says the word lesbian I’m immediately transported back to the locker-clad hallway, where I’m in the process of tugging my iPod headphones out of my ears one morning when I overhear the word lesbian in conjunction with my name. My entire body stiffens. At the time I’d never really heard the word lesbian used in a sentence before, but that didn’t stop me from understanding the way it was being used: like an insult. I’d pretend not to hear because I didn’t know how to begin to respond, but it hurt just the same.
Nowadays, life is simultaneously easier and harder. While I’m no longer ashamed of myself and my sexuality — though I would love to set the word lesbian on fire and throw it out the nearest, preferably two story or higher, window if I could — there are new complications with identifying as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in this day and age. Almost all millennials are expected to be socially and politically aware, but the pressure on people who are minorities is double-fold. And this isn’t something that just queer people experience: people of color, people of different genders, and people with disabilities are a small handful of many more communities who are put in this compromising position by the current administration.
My straight friends can simply grumble when Trump incites another homophobic policy, but all eyes are on me for the official statement as I scramble to string together something of that nature on the spot. Sometimes I’m in the mood for this and am eager to charge headfirst, chin out into debate, but other times I’d rather exhale a deep breath, take a sip of my iced coffee with whole milk and two sugars, and turn on a Broadway soundtrack instead. It’s not that I don’t care, because I do. I care so much that it physically and mentally pains me, to the point where I will unintentionally work myself into knots for hours, staring blankly at the ceiling while my dog confusedly licks at my heels. I care, but sometimes I’d like the option not to.
I desperately long for a sense of community and try to find solace in others who feel the same way, but this is easier said than done. I learn this quickly on dates. When I’m out with one girl, l absentmindedly grab a plastic straw instead of a paper one and she spends the rest of the afternoon glaring at me. When I’m out with another, I tell her how I live with two Republicans and her eyes almost bulge out of her skull in genuine shock from that being a possibility in the first place. When I’m out with a third, I mention that I went to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner the night before and she proceeds to go on a tirade, rambling about how toxic capitalism is and how she hasn’t gone to a chain restaurant of any kind in over two years and how it’s irresponsible for me to not do the same. Her voice bites and the whole thing is so aggressive and rampant and unnecessary that I almost burst into tears right next to the black-owned, vegan falafel stand that we just purchased food from.
I hadn’t been looking for a lecture or even for a hook-up: I had been looking for a friend. Boston Pride was a few weeks away and I wanted someone who would drink in the street and catch the rainbow colored beads and other free trinkets being thrown from the parade floats with me. I’m so bad at being a lesbian that I couldn’t even successfully befriend a fellow lesbian and instead actively offended her. I have a ton of straight friends, so why is it that much harder within my own community?
Sometimes it feels like we’re breaking down barriers only to instill new ones just around the corner, more fortified and exclusive than ever. Because I don’t check certain boxes within the lesbian community, I sometimes feel that I might as well not exist within it at all. There are people who are working to make the LGBTQ+ experience more intersectional and I applaud them for that — and try to engage as best as I can — but that doesn’t change the fact that I feel like the token odd, rarely used piece of cutlery in any given silverware drawer. Granted: I’m a middle-class white girl who grew up in a fairly privileged environment, so there are certainly people who have it much worse than me, but this is still my experience. There isn’t a distinct spot in-between the spoons and forks for me.
I’m also bad at being a lesbian for stupid, shallower reasons. Let’s lump all of these together and call them strike three. I’m bad at being a lesbian because I own flannel, but not that much flannel. I’m bad at being a lesbian because I don’t identify as a ‘butch’ or a ‘femme.’ I’m bad at being a lesbian because when I was ten years-old I yelled at my brother for saying the lesbian word out loud. I’m bad at being a lesbian because I don’t know what the general policy on public displays of affection is: one girlfriend is uncomfortable when I don’t hold her hand when out on the street, but the next gets even more uncomfortable when I do. I’m bad at being a lesbian because I actively hook up with guys, despite the fact that I am, in fact, a lesbian. I’m bad at being a lesbian because I don’t like wearing snapbacks. I’m bad at being a lesbian because even after writing this entire piece, I’m still scared to embrace this part of my identity and am second-guessing publishing it at all. Maybe I won’t. I don’t know.
There’s no right or wrong way for someone to identify, so technically speaking there’s no way of determining whether I’m actually bad at being a lesbian. It’s all relative to what my expectations for myself are. Some people might look at my behavior and shrug it off, saying that that’s how they act and they’re perfectly comfortable with it. That’s great and I don’t mean to diminish their experience at all. I’m just not quite there yet. Everyone goes through the paces differently. What I can say, though, is that the final reason I personally feel like I’m bad at being a lesbian is because I’ve never explicitly come out and said it. Is that my responsibility, to define myself for the convenience of other people? Maybe not, but I’ll do it just the same. I might be bad at it but at least I made it here.