Monday, June 13, 2016
I've never been one for clubs, and I've never hung out at a lesbian bar in my life. Not on purpose, anyhow. Still, when someone sent out this tweet, the morning after the massacre in Orlando, Florida, it struck a chord.
The late 80s. I am in my very early 20s. Looking back at it, I am still just a girl. I am traveling with a beautiful woman. After driving all day, we stop at a small town motel and ask for a room. The clerk gives us a strange look when we ask for the room with just one queen-sized bed, instead of two full beds. It is not a look we can ignore. It is not a look we can forget. We don't mention it to one another but, for the rest of the trip, wherever we stop for the night, we make sure always to choose the two-bed option, even though we always sleep together on just the one.
Jump ahead. 2001. I am with my partner, a woman I live with, and believe I will live with forever. We are riding a ferry between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. It's always a lively trip - the Cook Strait is never calm, and people riding this ferry are generally on their way to a holiday, so folks are talking and laughing. We are looking at a copy of Vanity Fair together, laughing at some item about some celebrity. When I reach over to take her hand, she pulls away and, suddenly, it feels strained. "What's wrong?" I ask, "I was just going to hold your hand. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were on the DL." "I'm not comfortable calling attention to ourselves among so many strangers." she says angrily, under her breath, "I don't know any of the people on this boat."
We don't end up living happily, ever after, that woman and I, but we have many years together. Most of them happy, but sometimes the happiness is made slightly sour by circumstances. Like the long trip we plan to Independent Samoa - the holiday of a lifetime. We spend months planning, looking forward to remote tropics, clear, blue water, long nights spent not in a hotel room, but in a rustic fale on the beach. We pick up some papers at the travel agent before we leave. This is the young man who has sold us the tickets, booked everything. We know him. We like him. "Listen, girls," he says, "You seem like an old married couple to me, but I have to give you some advice before you leave: don't let anyone in Samoa know that you're anything but friends. Better yet - tell them you're cousins, that way no one will think it too funny, you two sharing a fale. Kin always stay with one another over there, but the whole gay thing? Friendliest place on earth, but they don't do the gay thing. Cousins, ok? You'll be safer." We spend a month in tropical paradise. As cousins. When strangers ask my partner about the ring on her finger - the ring I gave her - she laughs and makes something up. Sometimes there is a husband back home. Other times she is divorced, but can't bring herself to take off the ring. Always, though, we are cousins. An American and a New Zealander. We even have a back story. Nosiness is considered friendly in Samoan culture, so we concoct a whole back story. Our grandmothers were sisters, one of them raised in NYC, the other, raised in New Zealand, by an aunt. We two have found each other - second cousins! - through the magic of internet genealogy searching, and become fast friends, and now we are traveling through Samoa together. It is a beautiful trip. The trip of a lifetime, but parts of it leave a sour taste in my mouth. A whole month of being careful. A whole month of leisurely beach days, and not being able to hold hands or even embrace, for fear of being seen.
Even today, safe places can be few and far between. I'm not sure this can be imagined, if it isn't your experience. I live in a bubble, these days. I live in San Francisco. When my ex and I were still together, and living stateside, we ended up taking vacations to places like NYC and Healdsburg and Palm Springs. I work in a field practically run by gays and lesbians. I have doctors who, because they work in San Francisco, have probably received training on how to be culturally appropriate with and sensitive to the needs of LGBT patients. A bubble of queer-friendliness and never having to pretend some woman is my cousin. This bubble is small, though. The rest of the world is big, and often ugly.
Orlando's Pulse Club was supposed to be a tiny, little bubble.