This week when beginning to write a piece for my LGBTQ Narratives Activist-Writers group, I was in a fog. The prompt was a broad subject, gender, and in fact I had suggested it. It is a topic that interests me. It’s a dynamic subject, it affects perception, language, challenges assumptions, and forces us to adapt to our changing culture, roles and identities.
Then a light bulb went on for me. I have witnessed an evolutionary change in gender identity in my lifetime, spanning six decades as lived experience of my own gender journey. The changes have informed my writing in ways that are not always conscious. I remembered a play I wrote last year and submitted to Queer Shorts 8, Madison’s StageQ annual production of LGBTQ-themed short plays. The play was a story of three generations of women who lived in the same house in a neighborhood in Madison sometimes referred to as Dyke Heights. The one act play in three scenes is entitled, Jenifer Street. The play addressed themes of butch-femme roles in the 1950s, the sexual revolution and second wave of feminism in the 1970s and the present as we challenge the binary way of thinking and our language, perception and identities change.
Following is my personal journey…
It was 1955 in Racine, Wisconsin, my birthplace. I was the eldest child of young working-class parents. I was a curious, observant child, exploring my environment, trying to make sense and understand the behavior of the people who inhabited my world. Even at that young age, I tried to find my place and learn how to navigate the world around me. One of my strongest early memories was my first day of school.
My mother curled my long hair and placed a color-coordinated satin bow above each ear. I wore my new dress with polka dots and ruffles, white socks trimmed in lace and my brand new black and white saddle shoes with hounds tooth laces that I learned to tie myself. Mom grabbed the Kodak Brownie camera and took a series of pictures, Linda on her first day of school. “Wave to the camera.” “Smile” “Fold your hands in your lap.” “Stand like a little lady.”
When I returned that first day, I ran home, and without greeting my mother, quickly climbed the stairs to my room, removed my dress, extricated the bows from my hair, brushed out the curls, pulled my hair tightly back and with a rubber band, made a pony-tail, put on my t-shirt with the pocket on the left breast just like Dad’s, and slipped into my corduroy pants with the elastic waist band and deep pockets. I jumped into my sneakers, without socks. Mom called up to my room. “Come tell me about your first day of school and I want to take a couple more pictures of you in your dress, so I can finish this roll of film.”
My mother, who seldom expressed dismay when she saw her children, was disappointed that I had changed back into my tomboy, comfort clothes. Her smile quickly returned as she laughed and said enthusiastically, “Let’s finish this role of film!” I dug my hands deep into my pockets, tipped my head forward, relaxed my belly, and furrowed my brow, as my smile turned into a slight pout. Still today, I don’t like having my picture taken, yet my true self was revealed and preserved in those remaining Brownie camera photographs in contrast to the pictures taken earlier in the day of how my parents hoped I’d be.
I stopped wearing a bra before the second wave of feminism migrated to the Midwest. It was a holdover from my hippie days in the late sixties. I got married in 1971 to my first love, Frank, in an unconventional and cheap wedding ceremony. My roommates at the time, Frank’s best friend Mike, and my gay friend, Dick, plus a couple of our other friends bought my wedding dress, a cobalt blue, shimmering mini dress from the one fashionable boutique in my hometown. Dick was my fashion consultant. We often traded clothes. Frank shopped at the Salvation Army for his wedding day outfit. My mother and Frank’s brother were our witnesses.
We were married in the courthouse by our local right-wing, conservative judge, his honor, Richard Harvey where we had appeared earlier in the year for loitering. Yes, they arrested hippies for assembling at Monument Square until we hired an attorney who represented political activists, drug dealers (translate: pot sellers) and hippies for all sorts of crimes against society, (translate: nonconforming). Frank and I found jobs in neighboring Kenosha and worked there for awhile before moving to Madison so I could return to school at the University of Wisconsin.
The unspoken reason we moved to Madison was I had fallen in love with Gloria, my coworker at Jockey Menswear. Gloria, as in G-L-O-R-I-A, swaggered into my workplace and life. I discovered that I had an insatiable desire that lived just under the surface, a hunger and curiosity awakened by this handsome, raven-haired woman with fair skin, ebony eyes and a sailor’s walk. We became fast and inseparable friends. I wasn’t ready to act on my attraction. It was complicated. I was married; loved my husband, but I wanted Gloria.
After settling into our life in Madison, I began yearning for a stronger connection with women. The feminist movement was gaining momentum. I joined a consciousness-raising (CR) group and then became a member of NOW (the National Organization for Women). Soon I was doing community outreach locally, setting up CR groups and training facilitators. For NOW, I began travelling the US and setting up programs, first in Wisconsin, then the Midwest and finally nationally. I marched and worked for equal rights for women, equal pay and a woman’s right to choose.
I met Catherine at a Women and the Law Conference at the University of Wisconsin where I setup and staffed a NOW booth. Our booths were next to each other in the expo area. We talked all day and I was mesmerized by this long dark-haired woman with ice blue eyes and porcelain, freckled skin who passionately spoke about the feminist restaurant collective, Lysistrata, she was launching. We broke down our booths and Catherine asked me to join her at a private party at the Edgewater Hotel. Without pause I said yes. She squired me the rest of the evening, the palm of her hand resting in the small of my back, guiding me to our destinations. We moved from the party to her white Alfa Romero convertible for a top down drive under the stars, to an early morning breakfast at the Curve Restaurant, finally delivering me to my door, when she said with unbridled certainty, “I want to see you again.”
I both dreaded and wished for this moment to come. I had neglected to tell Catherine I was a married to a man. Almost pushing me out of the car, she declared, “Call me when you get rid of him.” I did call her a couple of weeks later and told her that though I didn’t get rid of him, I desperately wanted to see her. We made a date for an evening of wine and dinner in her basement apartment where she seduced me and I surrendered completely, soon discovering that I was home where I was always meant to be, in the bed and the arms of a woman who knew exactly what she wanted and how to please a woman. My surprise was how natural it was to love another woman and how capable I was as her lover.
Frank and I opened up our marriage. I had women lovers, but our agreement was that he was the only man in my life. That lasted for a couple of years until we separated and I came out as a lesbian. It was challenging at first to tune my “gaydar,” as a newly out dyke. A byproduct of feminism in the 1970s was androgyny in dress and behavior. The butch-femme roles of the 1950s were frowned upon as politically incorrect and an unwanted legacy of the patriarchy.
The problem with this was that many lesbians dressed alike: jeans, flannel or denim shirts and boots. In the Midwest even farmer’s wives looked liked lesbians. There were still some women who held on to gender identities of butch and femme and many of us continued to play out our gender roles in our homes and our beds.
When I came out to my family, gratefully, I was accepted and supported. I offered to answer any questions they may have and one day months later my father said,
“Honey, can I ask you a question?” I was unprepared, but glad that he was asking. He looked at me very concerned and serious and asked, “Are you the boy or the girl?”
I was surprised by his question and tried to explain feminism, androgyny and the deconstruction of gender roles, but I could tell by his expression that he was asking something very heartfelt and important to him as my father. I paused for awhile and answered,
“Dad, if I had to choose a role, I’m the girl.” A look of relief immediately followed. He didn’t care so much that I was a lesbian, but he didn’t want to lose his little girl.
In the 1970s I needed to tune my “gaydar” as a newly-out lesbian to find women of a like mind and preference. Today, gaydar no longer works, in fact, gaydar can be misleading. Gaydar works by interpreting visual cues, but today those visual cues may communicate a multitude of identities: gender identity, gender expression, biological gender and sexual preference, each of those may possess different points on a continuum from woman, genderqueer, to man, from feminine to androgynous, to masculine, from female to intersex to male, and from heterosexual, to bisexual to homosexual. Add to that mix asexual, pansexual, omnisexual, and ambisexual and you begin to see a picture emerge. It’s impossible to rely solely on what we see.
A new vocabulary for gender identity and preference has emerged. We are no longer simply gay or straight, heterosexual or homosexual, male or female, butch or femme, masculine or feminine, or top or bottom. The binary way of thinking is outmoded. “Gaydar” needs to evolve into “gendar,” the ability to remain open and accepting, curious and tolerant to introduce ourselves by our preferred pronouns and identities and ask each other for the same, to not make assumptions. It’s a more auditory way of identification. It requires us to listen, to pay attention to our stories, and to learn from each other. It is a more intimate way of being. “I hear you” is one of the most affirming statements we can make. And, if we truly hear someone we can really see them. See them for who they are.
To read my play, click on this link, Jenifer Street.