PART THREE – Wedding Bells
Over the years, I lost my wedding album, but one photo is forever engraved in my memory—the one of Dad walking me down the aisle, both our faces somber, expressions more fit for a funeral than a wedding. I don’t know what Dad’s thoughts were as I held on to his arm, but a few weeks before the wedding he said, “Are you sure, Joanie? It’s not too late. We can call it off.”
As I stepped out of my house in my wedding gown, several neighbors stood along the sidewalk to watch as I climbed into the limo. My gown and headpiece were beautiful, like something out of the film Camelot, but I remember feeling uncomfortable wearing it, as if someone dressed me for a costume party on the wrong day.
Driving the few blocks to the church, a gentle rain splattered the limo’s windshield. When we arrived, someone held an umbrella over my head as I walked into the church. He said, “Don’t worry, rain is lucky on a wedding day, so long as the bride doesn’t get wet.”
The center aisles of St. James Church filled with guests. My two flower girls, Sherri and Donna, were adorable in the same style gowns as my three bridesmaids. Susan was my maid of Honor. My cousin Carol, who by this time had gone back to being straight and was engaged to a man, was one of my bridesmaids, along with my friend Dee, and, God love her, my ex- lover and new sister-in-law, Ellen. They all looked beautiful. I think I just looked scared. Other than my walk down the aisle, I have no memory of the wedding except for this: after Jimmy and I took our vows; the priest hesitated before releasing us. He reached out to me and said, “I want you to know that I am here for you if you ever have a problem or need to talk.” His words didn’t alarm me because I didn’t know they weren’t a common part of a wedding ceremony. Although, afterwards, several people asked what the priest had said to me, and expressed surprise when I told them.
Six weeks later, when meeting with the same priest to inquire about an annulment, I asked him why he voiced concern during the ceremony. He said, “I just felt something was not quite right with Jim. I tried looking into his military records to find something that would raise a red flag, but there was nothing.”
Blaming Jimmy for our failed marriage would be a copout, even though on the outside, it appeared as if the breakup may have been his fault. He physically abused me. It was just the one time. But one time was once too many for me, so I walked out. I admit I was in a bitchy mood that evening, and my bitchiness made him angry enough to throw me across the room.
The comments made to me from the people I told stunned me. Most thought I was too hasty and should give him another chance. The harshest criticism came from my Aunt Lorraine, who, after I told her Jimmy threatened to kill me, said, “So what? You can just as easily walk into the street and get hit by a car.”
The worst reaction, however, was from the Italian divorce attorney who was the uncle of my Aunt Marge’s husband. He thought I had no reason to file for divorce, and said, “My wife knows I expect dinner on the table every night at five o’clock, and if my dinner isn’t ready, I have every right to hit her.”
I believe the biggest mistake I made before getting married was that I had been a virgin. I didn’t have intercourse with Jimmy or any other guy I dated before him. The only sex I had was with women, who are all about foreplay. Jimmy, however, was a graduate of the ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’ school of sexual intimacy. No wonder nothing happened on our wedding night other than me crying and Jimmy apologizing. The next day we left for our honeymoon in the Pocono mountains, which was a success only because I got drunk before every sexual encounter.
Through it all, Ellen and I remained friends, even though her family temporarily shunned her for taking my side. Ellen put up with a lot of shit from me. Not only did I marry her brother, talk her into being my bridesmaid, but I also made her date my brother. When I die, I may have to spend a few hundred years in Purgatory for penance.
After my disastrous attempt to go straight, I once again began dating women, but I was still in the closet with my family and at work. I tried confiding in a work buddy, but once I came out to her, she stopped speaking to me.
Fast forward several years, and many relationships later, I came out of the closet completely. I joined a gay & lesbian chorus, published a lesbian novel, and was out to all of my friends and coworkers.
And in 2011, I married again. This time to a woman. We married in Niagara Falls, Canada, four years before gay marriage became legal in the states. As I look back on that relationship, I know the reason I agreed to get married was because I wanted a “forever”—most likely because my mother abandoned me. Abandonment can fuck a person up. At least it did me.
My first marriage lasted six weeks, my second one, six years. The lengthiest, and best, relationship I ever experienced was the thirteen years I spent with Holly, my West Highland White Terrier. Looking back, I realize I’m much happier living with four-legged roommates.
Many gay men and lesbians have lost jobs, housing, or families, suffered hate crimes, or lost children to divorce. Not one of us emerged from the closet unscathed. We’ve come a long way since the 90s, when I marched in my first Gay Pride Parade in New York City. I never thought, in my lifetime, gay men and lesbians could be open about who they love, legally marry, have children together, and be favorably portrayed in movies and television programs. After everything we’ve been through, being accepted as much as we are today is amazing to me.
I’m not saying things are perfect. There are still people who are homophobic, and others who are ignorant about homosexuality. For example, a while back, I spent a week at a training center in Kentucky, during which I forged a sort of friendship with two very “girly” straight women. The three of us spent a lot of our free time together—lunches, dinners, shopping. We worked for the same corporation and our jobs meant we would need to interact with each other from time to time in the future. Conversations between the two women mainly comprised their favorite brands of eye-shadow, the importance of exfoliating, and which was best for nails—gel or acrylics?
One of the junior trainees in the program was an “out” lesbian—what we would call a baby dyke because she was young and boyish. During one day at lunch, the two women referred to the young woman, saying, “It’s such a shame that lesbians are too unattractive to find a man.”
That comment riled me. I said, “I beg your pardon, but I’m a lesbian, and I’ve never had a problem finding a man. I just don’t want one.” They laughed and said, “Oh, Joanna, you’re so funny.” When they realized I wasn’t joking, they apologized, but also stopped inviting me to join them for lunch the rest of the week.
I hesitate to come out to straight women unless we’ve established a solid friendship first., with good reason. I had become friendly with a Christian woman who lived in the same building as me. We were both recovering alcoholics, and would occasionally go to an A.A. meeting together. She knew I had written a novel, and that my protagonist was also in recovery. When she asked to read the book, I told her that my protagonist is a lesbian. I said, “Just skip the sex scenes if they bother you”.
A week later, as we walked to our cars in the parking lot after an A.A. meeting, she stopped short, turned to me and demanded, “Are you a lesbian?”
My mind raced, struggling to predict the consequence if I told her the truth. A little voice inside my head shouted, “Don’t!”
“No,” I said.
“That’s a relief.” She let out a huge breath and pressed her palm to her heart. “I thought you gave me the book to read because you’re attracted to me.”
“God, no! I’m not attracted to you.” Don’t flatter yourself.
“I thought maybe you were coming on to me.”
“I’m glad,” she said, “because if you were a lesbian, we couldn’t still be friends.”
As you can probably guess, I ended our friendship.
Although I mentioned the woman is a Christian, I don’t believe all Christians are homophobes. In my apartment building, for example, I’m friends with three born-again Christian women who know I’m gay and accept me for who I am, not who they want me to be. I’ve also confided in a few straight male friends who live in my building, and our friendships have become even closer—probably because there’s no sexual tension between us. I’ve since come out to my writers’ group, and I’m out on my website and social media as well.
I no longer engage with people who are homophobes, xenophobes, racists, anti-semites, or chauvinists. And if they don’t want to engage with me, all the better. I had spent way too many years in closets where it’s hard to breathe. The air is much sweeter out here, so I’m planning to stay.
PART 2 – Tangled Webs
While still living at home, my gay friends introduced me to a woman named Gloria, who also still lived with her parents. We spent weekends together once or twice a month at a mutual friend’s house, or she’d occasionally drive down to Newark to visit me for a few hours. Gloria lived about two hours north, so we wrote to each other during the weeks we weren’t together. Back then, cellphones didn’t exist, and using the house phone would not give us any privacy, so snail mail was our only option.
I told my parents that I had a boyfriend—Gloria’s cousin Michael. Michael didn’t really exist. When Gloria wrote to me, she always signed her letters with Michael’s name—except the one letter in which she revealed her shame and hopelessness over being gay. She said she feared despair would drive her to suicide. The letter frightened me, and so I tore it into tiny pieces and threw the pieces into a paper garbage bag. God forbid anyone else should read that letter.
After eight months, Gloria and I broke up. She had found someone new and left me heartbroken. I rebounded into a relationship with a woman I barely knew. Dottie Lee. Very butch, short dyed black hair, no makeup, masculine clothes. Plus, she was overweight. Not my type. The one thing Dottie did offer was a ticket out of Newark. She drove a ’57 Chevy and wanted a woman to share a house with. And I needed to escape my parent’s home.
Dottie and I rented a small furnished house in Lake Hopatcong and found jobs working at a tin can manufacturing company. I had never worked in a factory before, and had no clue how I should dress. I laugh when I look back on my first day, when I showed up wearing cranberry stretch pants and alligator boots from Saks Fifth Avenue (I had worked there as a wig stylist and benefited from a great employee discount). I wore a mohair sweater, a gold charm bracelet, earrings, full makeup, and shoulder-length blond hair. The women on the line hated me on sight. And to make matters worse, the manager offered me the job of quality control, which meant I had to reject the cans that didn’t meet QC requirements. I took my job seriously, so, when air bubbles escaped the cans after I dunked them in water, I rejected them—as if the women didn’t hate me enough already.
I had very little money, but as soon as I got the job, I applied for a Bamberger’s credit card. The card limit was three hundred dollars. That was a lot of money back then, when three rooms of cheap furniture sold for three hundred dollars.
The day after my new credit card arrived, Dottie left to go food shopping, returning later with a portable television set, dishes, a toaster, clothes, and I don’t remember what else.
“Where’d you get all this stuff?” I asked.
“Bamberger’s. I used your card.”
I eyeballed the pile of loot. “How much did you spend?”
“Three hundred dollars.”
Dottie did not make out as well as I did at work. She took time off right from the beginning, and because we used her car to get there, I also had to call in sick. After three absences within a month, the manager pulled me aside and said he was going to fire Dottie. He asked if I had other transportation to get to work. I didn’t, so that meant I was out of a job, too.
Being jobless didn’t seem to bother Dottie in the least. By pooling our last paychecks, we had enough money to feed ourselves for the next month, but not enough to pay rent, electric, or the Bamberger’s bill. Dottie convinced me to pawn my gold jewelry, including a charm bracelet my parents gave me, with a new charm for every special occasion. I balked at pawning the jewelry, but Dottie convinced me we would get my jewelry back when we found other jobs, but that never happened.
Neither of us applied for jobs. I had no way of getting to a job, and Dottie had no interest in working. Instead, she came up with a bright idea about how to get some cash.
“There’s a guy in Dover who passes counterfeit money,” she said. “He’ll let me keep ten dollars for every fake twenty I pass.”
My first thought should have been, No! That’s illegal. But I had grown up in Newark, in an Italian neighborhood where the Mafia had a big presence. My family lived near the Port, where longshoremen unloading crates from the ships would “accidentally” drop a crate. They sold those goods out of the trunks of cars in my neighborhood. I remember my stepmom buying some of those stolen goods. One day, when she and I went shopping, I switched price tags on a bathing suit. After we left the store, I bragged to my mother about what I had done.
“Don’t you ever do that again when I’m with you!” she said. What I heard was, stealing is okay if I do in when I’m alone. Therefore, passing counterfeit money didn’t seem like such a stretch. I told Dottie I wanted to go with her.
“You can’t. If my friend sees someone with me, he won’t give me the bills.”
“He doesn’t have to see me,” I reasoned. “I’ll wait a block away and when you get the money, you can pick me up.”
“No. I can’t take the chance.”
So, I agreed to wait at home. When she returned several hours later, she showered the couch with ten-dollar bills. We now had enough money to pay rent, but that’s not what we spent it on.
Dottie liked to drink. I drank, too, but only when I went out to the bars to give myself false courage. But with Dottie, I began drinking in bars during the day, every day.
When I think back to that time and see myself sitting on a barstool drinking seven and sevens for breakfast, I remember feeling kind of badass. But it took only two short months with Dottie before smoking, drinking, and eating crap changed me. I had lost weight. My hair was listless, and dark circles formed under my eyes. I had fulfilled my destiny—I morphed into my birth mother.
One afternoon, we came home from the bar to find an eviction notice on our front door. The Sheriff locked all of our belongings in the house, and we didn’t have the money to pay the rent to get our stuff back. We were so poor at that point that I remember taking soda and beer bottles off people’s porches to return them for the nickel deposit. Five returns bought us a pack of cigarettes.
My parents, however, thought I was doing okay. I had told them I worked for Sandoz, a pharmaceutical company as a secretary, and was dating a guy named George. During one of my phone calls home, Jay said she tried calling me at my job and they told her I didn’t work there. I gave her some bullshit story that someone must have transferred her to the wrong department. I don’t think she bought the lie.
“Your father and I want to see you as soon as possible.”
I said I would come on Saturday and that my boyfriend George would drive me down. George was a gay friend of Dottie’s who agreed to play the part of my boyfriend. The slang term is ‘beard.’
George was my beard. Because I’m feminine, I made a good beard for gay guys who needed a date for a wedding or company function. Lesbians use gay men, if they’re not too effeminate, for the same purpose.
My father was tending bar when we arrived in Newark, so I brought George upstairs where we found my stepmom at the kitchen table, her face wearing a flat affect.
“Hi Mom,” I said, a tentative smile on my face. “I’d like you to meet George.”
Something was up. She didn’t smile back at me, or greet George. All she said was, “There’s a pot of coffee on the stove.”
George sat at the table, and I poured coffee into a mug for him. Then, not thinking, I said, “How do you take your coffee?” Stupid. You shouldn’t have to ask your boyfriend how he takes his coffee.
“Your father wants to talk to you,” Mom said. “He’ll be up in a couple of minutes.”
I sat at the table wanting to make small talk, but something felt off and I couldn’t think of anything to say. Mom sat stone-faced until Dad came upstairs.
When he walked into the kitchen, Dad asked to speak with me alone. He led the way into the back bedroom my sister Susan and I used to share. I shuffled behind him, a knot in my stomach.
Dad’s pale face looked grief stricken. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m going to need you to be honest with me, Joanie. Susan found a paper bag in the closet that had torn pieces of a letter inside. She showed it to Mom and Mom taped the pieces back together and read the letter. The letter was from Gloria. Do you remember what the letter said?”
Oh my god, this can’t be happening. The color drained from my face. “I remember.”
“The reason she taped the letter back together is that we’re worried about you. Doc Lordi told me he saw your friend Gloria come into his restaurant with another woman and they were playing footsies under the table.” Under different circumstances, I may have laughed at Dad’s use of the archaic term “footsies”. I didn’t want to know what Gloria and her girlfriend were doing under the table. It infuriated me she drove two hours to bring her new girlfriend to my neighbor’s pizzeria and make it obvious they were lesbians.
Changing the subject, Dad asked, “Who is this guy you brought with you?”
“A friend.” I avoided eye contact.
“But not your boyfriend.” It wasn’t a question. “Do you have a job at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals?”
Close to tears, my voice cracked. “No, I’m sorry, Dad, I’m really, really sorry,” I sobbed.
He opened his arms, and I fell into them. “Mom is having a hard time with this,” he said. “You need to talk to her.”
“I will,” I said, sniffling.
Dad gave me his handkerchief to blow my nose. “I’m not mad at you, Joanie.” Then he smiled. “I just wish you had better taste in women.”
It was just like my dad to make a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood, and I loved him for it because it was his way of saying he loved me.
When I returned to the kitchen, George still sat at the table, gripping the coffee mug so hard his knuckles turned white. “Where’s my mother?” I whispered.
He pointed to the bedroom off the kitchen.
I tapped on the door frame, but she didn’t look at me until I spoke. “I’m sorry, Mom,” I said, my voice trembling. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
“Sorry. What good is sorry?” That was her go-to response whenever I apologized for anything—spilled milk or a broken dish.
“I don’t know what else to say.”
“You disgust me.” She made a face like she smelled something rotten. “I can’t have sex with your father anymore because when I think of you it makes me sick.” She flapped her hand in dismissal and turned away from me.
My cheeks burned with shame, and I ran from the room, motioning George to follow me outside. When he opened the car’s passenger side door for me, he asked, “What the hell happened?”
“They found out I’m gay.” I dropped my head into my hands and wept. “I kept on apologizing to them as if I have a choice in the matter, as if I wasn’t born this way. Like I could wave a magic wand and make myself not be queer.”
I didn’t know what to do, but remaining with Dottie was no longer an option. Not only were we evicted from the last place we lived, but I discovered, through an acquaintance of hers, that the ten-dollar bills Dottie brought home weren’t from passing counterfeit bills. They were from her giving blow jobs to guys out of a Dover motel.
I didn’t want to go back home, not after the awful thing Jay said to me, but what choice did I have? Dottie and I were homeless and jobless, sleeping on the floor of the apartment my cousin Carol shared with Joanie.
Dad requested a family meeting the following week. The three of us sat on the couch together, me slouching in the middle between mom and dad. Dad began by saying, “I discussed your situation with Dr. Dubinet.”
“Why would you talk to the doctor about me?”
“He can get you help.”
My jaw tensed. “Help how?”
“By referring you to a psychologist.”
“What?” I wanted to jump off the sofa. “What’s a psychologist going to do?”
“He’s going to help you get your life back on track. You don’t want to continue living the way you have been, do you?”
Of course, I didn’t. Not the way I was living with Dottie. I shook my head.
“All we ask is that you try.”
Try what? Try to be straight? Is that even possible? I gave in. “Okay.”
Then he asked, “How long have you been this way? Was it Gloria who turned you?”
“No, Dad. Nobody turned me. I’ve been this way since I was a little kid. I’m surprised you hadn’t guessed years ago.”
He frowned. “How would we have guessed?”
“Don’t you remember? I told you I wanted to be a boy.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Lots of girls are tomboys at that age.”
“I was more than a tomboy.”
“I’m sorry, but Mom says the only way you can come home is if you agree to therapy once a week.”
So, I agreed, and a few weeks later, I found a job and moved back with my parents. What I didn’t tell them was that during those few weeks, I started dating a cute, curly-haired young woman named Ellen and we fell in love. As much as I wanted to be accepted by my family, my attraction to women remained. I hoped the psychologist could help me.
My parents never questioned why I spent every weekend with Ellen and her family. Maybe because Ellen passed for straight, or because she still lived at home with her parents. The main reason could have been because Ellen drove me to my weekly psychologist’s appointments. The weird thing was, neither of my parents ever mentioned my gayness again, or asked how therapy was going.
On Saturday nights, Ellen and I joined friends at Fran Bell’s, the gay bar in Nyack. I wanted to be there, but I hated that Fran allowed straight people in for the entertainment. Sometimes I felt like an animal in a zoo, with straight couples gawking at and whispering about the gay men and lesbians.
I loved Ellen, but I was so unhappy. I still drank too much, but stopped drinking during the day. I drank to get drunk and always ended the evening vomiting in the bathroom toilet.
During the time I had weekly therapy with the psychologist, Ellen and I continued with our relationship. But I remained adamant about going straight. The psychologist warned me I was making a mistake.
“You need to accept yourself for who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Yeah, tell that to my family. I need to be cured.”
“That’s not possible. I can’t make you become something you’re not.”
I refused to listen, and because he refused to “make me straight”, I ended my weekly sessions.
In retrospect, I thank God that my psychologist wanted me to accept myself, and not use “conversion therapy”—a set of pseudoscientific techniques designed to quash gay people’s sexuality and make them conform to society’s expectations of how they should behave. I had enough self-induced shame, pain, and self-hatred. I didn’t need shock treatments, or God forbid, a lobotomy. What I did need was to accept myself. I wish I had heeded his advice.
I was selfish. I wanted Ellen in my life, but as a sister, not a lover. We had been together for four years and I loved her, but not in the way she wanted. I also loved her family, her mom and dad, even more than I loved my own. I wanted to belong to them.
In 1966, the United States was involved in the Vietnam war. Ellen’s younger brother, Jimmy, had been drafted and sent to Korea. I began writing to him, and during the two years of his deployment, he and I explored the possibility of dating when he came home.
I knew Ellen was still in love with me, but we were no longer in a relationship. I was so self-absorbed, so inconsiderate of Ellen’s feelings. Not to mention Jimmy’s. I wasn’t in love with him. But I tried to make myself believe I could be. I began fantasizing about marriage and children, and I prayed Ellen would understand how important that was to me. I no longer wanted my sexuality to alienate me from my family, and I hoped Jimmy was my ticket to a normal life.
When Ellen’s brother came home from Korea, he asked me to marry him, and God help me, I said, “Yes.”
PART THREE - Wedding Bells
PART 1 – The Closet
Growing up in Newark, I spent almost every Sunday afternoon at the Rivoli. The darkened movie theater was my escape, my safe place, filled with adventure, romance, and mystery. Hollywood promised me a happily ever-after life, where good trumps evil and the hero rides off into the sunset with the girl. Only I didn’t want to be the girl. I wanted to be the hero who rode off with the girl.
Why? The textbook answer could be that I used my first crush at seven (Sister John Mary, who taught catechism after church on Sundays) as a stand-in for a mother who had abandoned me. But abandonment by itself does not cause homosexuality.
When I was four years old, my father re-married. My new stepmother’s name was Jay, a woman with whom I should have been able to develop a loving mother/daughter relationship if my birth mother hadn’t convinced me that Jay didn’t love me because I wasn’t hers. So, whenever Jay attempted to show affection, I stiffened my body, pulled away, or smirked. It didn’t take her long to stop trying.
In fourth grade, an adorable blond-haired, blue-eyed girl transferred to my classroom. Totally out of character, I passed her a note telling her she was pretty, and asked if we could play together after school. Much to my delight, Gloria and I became friends, and I don’t remember their being any ‘hormonal’ feelings attached to that friendship. But I preferred to play at her house rather than mine because of the way her mother always treated her, and me, with kindness.
By the time I was thirteen-years-old, girls attracted me more than boys did, but I didn’t understand why and tried to not think about it because thinking about it scared met. No one back then talked about sexual orientation. Then one day, my best friend, Barbara, asked if she could fix my bangs. We sat close, facing each other, and when she reached her arms up to my face, all hell broke loose within my body. My face flushed, my tummy tightened, and my heart raced. I felt faint and made an excuse; I don’t remember what, and rushed home wondering what the hell that was about. Fear and shame slapped me in the face. I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what.
Growing up, I was a tomboy, so most of my playmates were boys—my stepbrother Jimmy, cousin Sammy, Sonny Nataline, and Butchy Napurano. There were girls my age in the neighborhood, but they went to St. James Catholic School, and I attended Oliver Street School. The parochial school kids didn’t mix with us public school kids. Butchy Napurano was the one exception.
One day, when I was ten or eleven, I asked Butchy to walk with me to Independence Park, a long block from our houses. Taller than most girls my age, I wore my hair cut short like a boy, and when I wasn’t in school or church clothes, I dressed in Wrangler dungarees and polo shirts. At the start of the walk, I plopped a straw cowboy hat on my head and pulled its brim down over my eyes.
Butchy frowned at my hat. “Why are you wearing that?”
“I want to see if I can pass for a boy. I don’t want to be a girl anymore.”
We walked up Warwick Street toward the park and passed two boys sitting on their stoop.
“Shhh,” I whispered to Butchy. “I want to hear if they say anything.”
As we passed the stoop, one boy asked, “Is that a girl or a boy?”
“I’m not sure,” the other one said, “but I think it’s a boy.”
Yes! We walked a little further, and I made us do an about-face. I wanted to pass the boys again.
“I thought you wanted to go to the park,” Butchy said.
“I changed my mind.” I pushed my hands in my pockets and put my head down as we passed the boys again.
That’s when I heard the boy say, “Aw, it’s a girl.”
That night, I threw myself into my father’s arms and cried. “I don’t want to grow up to be a woman.” I doubt he knew what to make of that confession. And when he asked me why not, I told him I didn’t want to turn into my mother. “I want to grow up to be like you.”
In retrospect, I consider myself lucky that I grew up decades before adolescents with gender dysphoria could, with medical and parental approval, begin hormone treatments. Given the opportunity then to opt out of being a girl, I may have begged for the hormones. But that would have been a gigantic mistake, because by the time I reached high school, I traded my dungarees for tight skirts and lipstick. It never was about my anatomy; I just didn’t love myself.
In high school, all the girls wanted boyfriends, and even though I still crushed on girls, I also began looking at boys. I mooned over pictures of Fabian and Elvis, but had secret crushes on Doris Day and Kim Novak.
When I turned sixteen, I discovered what was wrong with me after reading pulp fiction about women who loved women. I found the book in a pile of paperbacks one of my father’s friends had given him. The book, “A Different Kind of Love” perfectly described the feelings I had when I was around pretty girls.
I discovered that drug store paperback racks contained a number of lesbian novels. They were easy to spot because there were always two women on the cover. That’s how I learned the L word. And now that I knew what I was, I wondered how I would ever find a girlfriend. Two more years passed before I shared my first kiss with a girl. But in the meantime, I acted boy- crazy like the rest of the girls in high school. The most boy-crazy was Dee Dee. We were the same age, but her parents were more lenient than mine and allowed her to bleach her hair and wear makeup. She tried for a Brigitte Bardot-look and got lots of attention from boys.
Dee and I liked to walk around the neighborhood in the evenings carrying transistor radios tuned to “Cousin Brucie” or “Murray the K”. We were also looking for boys from school, but Dee had a tendency to attract older boys driving cars. Several times, Dee ended up in the car with one of them, while I stood outside with the unlucky boy who tried and failed to entice me into the backseat. I had my goody-goody act down pat so I wouldn’t have to kiss the boy.
I didn’t get away with that for much longer. Once we began double-dating, I found myself in the backseat with my dates shoving their tongues in my mouth and their hands up my blouse. No matter how much I protested, how many times I said, “No!” the boys didn’t stop trying. It would have made more sense for me to not date, but I couldn’t risk my friends or family suspecting I was different. I was so unhappy in those days, knowing I was gay, and not knowing what to do about it.
During my senior year of high school, I went to work part-time for New Jersey Bell as a Long-Distance Operator. I had just turned seventeen and still had never met a lesbian. I had hoped I would meet someone at work, but even if I had, I was too shy to do anything about it. But my luck was about to change in the most improbable way.
My cousin Carol, who worked for Ma Bell in Irvington, said she developed a close friendship with another telephone operator named Joanie. She talked about Joanie all the time, and during one of our phone conversations, she told me that Joanie shared she was gay.
“I don’t know what to do,” Carol said. “I really like her, but I don’t know if I should continue a friendship with her now that I know she’s gay. What do you think I should do?”
How did I respond? In a self-serving manner, of course. “I don’t think you should hold that against her, Carol. She’s been a good friend to you, and you shouldn’t allow the fact that she’s gay hinder your friendship.”
“So, you think I should still be friends with her?”
“I do.” Yes, yes, I do, I do, I do!
Long story short, three months later, my straight, but obviously bi-curious, cousin Carol called me to say she had fallen in love with Joanie and they were now together.
“Oh, my god,” I said. “I’m so happy for you. And by the way, I’m also gay.”
Their relationship didn’t last longer than a couple of years, but long enough for me to be introduced to the lesbian community. Joanie set me up on a blind date with a beautiful girl named Darlene. Blonde hair, blue eyes, dimples. The plan was that Darlene and I would be alone together in Joanie’s blue Plymouth Valiant parked outside of Fran Bell’s, a gay bar in Nyack, New York. I was so nervous sitting in the passenger seat, knowing any second Darlene was going to lean over and kiss me.
That first kiss. Darlene’s smooth cheeks, soft lips, the scent of her perfume, and the softness of the pink mohair sweater she wore—I know it’s a cliché, but I was in heaven. I thought Darlene was perfect. But, unfortunately for me, Darlene wasn’t gay. She had a definite preference for men, and only “brought me out” as a favor.
The year was 1962, a time when lesbians labeled themselves either butch or femme. I was femme, but not attracted to women who dressed and acted like men. Joanie, who identified as butch, warned me there was no way I would attract a feminine woman unless I became butch. Well, that wasn’t gonna happen—the eleven-year-old girl who wanted to be a boy was long gone.
The 50s and 60s were a time when homosexuality was against the law, considered a sin against God, and classified in the DSM as a mental illness. Shame and fear at the thought of being discovered haunted me. I knew I risked arrest by going to gay bars. I had heard and read about the women who had been pulled from the bars and strip-searched. Those caught wearing men’s underwear were carted off to jail. To protect myself, I frequented bars that were Mafia-owned, or bars where the owners paid the cops for protection.
Being a lesbian, I learned to lie to protect myself. Lying became second nature to me. Mis-using pronouns worried me the most. He/him instead of she/her. God, it was awful. I had to be on my toes constantly. Especially around my stepmom, who always asked where I went and with whom. One day, I came home with a hickey on my neck, compliments of Darlene. Jay was furious.
“How did you get that?”
“Dancing? With who?”
“Some guy at the bar.”
“How did he give you a hickey while you were dancing? Didn’t you know he was doing that?”
Ugh. I needed to move away from my family. The further, the better. A few months after my nineteenth birthday, I left to share a house with another woman.
I considered myself a closeted lesbian. I believed that no one outside of my gay social circle knew my secret. A gay male friend pretended to be my boyfriend. I thought for sure I had slammed my closet door shut, locked it tight, and nailed a board across it. But one day, someone close to me pried my closet door open in a most unfortunate way.