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.