That time JD Samson and I were in a lesbian bar and the whole room asked us if we were in costume. We were not.
– Every Ocean Hughes
I was eight years old and in a standoff with a floor-length mirror, noticing the way my hair slicked back after a shower made me look like a fancy rich boy in a movie. Like Ralph Macchio in Crossroads. Lightning boy. My parents had promised to take me to see fireworks. Or my mom had, in that excited-whisper where the thing is almost a secret just because the prospect of it is so unusual. I’d never seen them before. In my mind, they were larger than life, blurry but luminescent in the way that things are in dreams — overly exaggerated but not quite there, looping. I was thinking that I would meet boys or make friends with girls and life would come together in that buzzing-summer way with light and neon and phosphorescence. I got dressed and held out the collar of my shirt so that when I brought it down it would keep the boy-shape of my locks intact. It was crucial. It could dry, but only a little. My first fireworks would be seen as a handsome boy.
It was one of those moments where a mirror offers more in a way that both unsettles and steadies. I looked and jumped a little. The feeling of falling when waking up except the shock was that that was me, and the relief was also that that was me. Later, I wouldn’t remember what I wore: if I changed my outfit thirteen times or threw on my favorite jeans and the dusty orange Tootsie-Pop owl t-shirt I wore three times a week for a brief period. I was elegant and confident, freshly showered and not yet dried. I paced from the bathroom to the hallway mirror, staring hard into my own eyes. I willed each strand into place.
But we ended up staying home, and I lost my slicked style to my sheets at an early bedtime.
I spent an extended amount of time in the groove of the music video for “Crave You” by Flight Facilities. Ninth grade was defined by a playlist I found online with some title about desire, and “Crave You” was the song that never left my head. I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen probably. I wanted to look like the girl in piano-key shorts and a tied Hawaiian button-up and the boy with shaggy hair, eyes covered, lanky and tough in a white tank top. Both were alone. Dancing. Hiking. Lazily petting a dog. Cascading curls and a choppy mop clouded my vision. I spent ages pressing replay. Googled the names of the models only to find out that the boy in the video was played by someone named Annie. Boi, with an “i.” Girl. There was surprise, but maybe —
The spelling bee was a special occasion for me. I went every year, whether the teacher picked who they felt were the top three students or made everyone in the class compete for a spot. The Petersburg playground always felt like it was about to rain. They sent us out there after the competition, during recess, so that we — all the kids from other schools — were the ones intruding. There was a kid near the slide castle in fourth grade. I don’t remember who else was there; it could’ve been Elena, my best friend, or Taylor, an enemy if I ever had one. The kid had shaggy platinum hair, a blade on primary-colored plastic. They had to be a Petersburg kid. No one knew if they were a boy or girl or what. Elena or Taylor or someone else asked the question to their face but they didn’t answer. Ran off. Elena or Taylor chased them. I followed. They asked again. No answer. More running. When we drove back to school after the awards ceremony, it was all anyone could talk about, on the bus and in the classroom. The kid looked like a boy but also a girl, and kind of like Alex, who’d moved away a year before.
It was a very mixed-class bar, which gave the impression that once you dove into the lesbian realm your sense of time and place got lost.
– Eileen Myles
Androgynous was my favorite word in late middle school. I lived online and changed my name a thousand times. Beatrice Winona, like Ryder, whose haircut in Girl Interrupted came to mind at random and sent me to the mirror to pin back my own and pretend. Bea. Bee. Frances Valerie, the Frances from Crossroads, Ralph Macchio’s kind-of girlfriend. Coolly feminine, but emphasis on the cool. Valerie like valentine because it was my favorite holiday even though it meant little except that every year of school that passed I told myself I’d find a boyfriend. Daphne Theodora. Theo.
One time, it was Nix. For a long time, it was Nix. Nix for one of Pluto’s moons. Pluto was my friend Leah. She lived in Kentucky. I lived in West Virginia. We watched my first ever (and I think her first ever) gay movie together online. But I’m a Cheerleader will always feel like interstate laptop screens, ads and popups screaming over Putlocker, play pressed at the same time on one, two, three, go. It’s my bed at home in West Virginia and food stamp snacks and all the things I did to my room that no one ever cared to stop: one wall of shaken clouds drawn in Sharpie, blotches of splattered acrylic, and one area just to the side of my bed where I’d tried to cover splotches with metallic paint and make circles from malformed squares. When one of us had to go the bathroom or sneak off quietly into a sleeping house for a snack, we’d send a message in all caps saying PAUSE, and then count down once more upon our return. Sometimes we’d message in the middle of a scene just to say something like “her skirt is cute.” No pause, just movie-whispering.
What is it to experience your first love online? How do butterflies work when there is no eye contact, no brush of skin? My laptop overheated when we stayed up for hours clicking back and forth. We sent each other mail. My family bought groceries with gathered change but I found other ways. I packaged a clear backpack filled with stickers and tiny doll furniture because I knew she liked tiny things. She sent me soap she made with her mom and a pillow shaped like a heart. I made her mixtapes like a teenage boy in the 90s and sent her the link on 8tracks. On special occasions, CDs in the mail were paired with covers drawn in colored pencil, held in blank cases siphoned from my dad’s junk piles.
We tried out pronouns on each other. They or he and usually she but with a sprinkling of the others. Maybe something fancy like xe. Once, Pluto told me he might be a boy. And then she went back. We both did it. I put the word androgyne on my profile for a little while. We lived on this writing website that most people knew for its quizzes but that everyone we followed and were friends with kept more as a diary. When we were feeling different, all we had to do was make a post and everyone would mention us in others saying things like “I love (name), (pronoun) is so cool!” and then that’s who we were for a little while.
Everyone wrote poetry. If you logged in and scrolled the feed there would probably be two or three in the last few hours. It was very simple, effortless, poems about flowers in lungs and love for boys or sometimes girls with under-eye bags. It was pretty and not much else. None of us knew what life was or love except through computer screens. We were kids from small towns or homeschooled, with disagreeing families and schools and parents who didn’t watch anything we did or who watched everything. We went online to search how to know if you’re gay but we typed the words out slowly, hoping autofill would complete things we suspected but didn’t want to admit by writing fully. We were whoever we wanted.
On long car rides, I made notes on my phone: during two-hour drives to my mom’s house to visit for the weekend, two-hour drives to Morgantown for doctor’s appointments. Things to tell Leah. Took pictures of the sunset to send. She told me everything, too. Her parents went to high school with Cage the Elephant. She had her first kiss when she was younger and still in public school but didn’t count it. She loved snails. She always wanted to go to Portland. She wanted to go back to public school but was worried she was too behind on her schoolwork because her mom didn’t really make her meet deadlines. We watched movies and made lists of what we had watched and what we planned to: Into the Wild, Being John Malkovich, Wristcutters, The Brass Teapot, Mr. Nobody. We always wanted to watch Silver Linings Playbook.
We made plans to run away. We would meet in the middle; I’d pack the bare necessities, and probably a CD, and ride my bike until I found some other mode of transport. There were no buses or any kind of public transit in my small town nor hers. I’d leave the second I got my license. When we were together, we would go to a big city, somewhere like New York or Portland or Seattle. We’d live out of a van, maybe an old bus converted into a mobile home. (Where do you get a thing like that?) Paint it bright colors and grow plants inside. Eating, driving, paying for gas, working, surviving, none of it mattered.
Sometimes an internet shutoff lasted months. I took to writing letters. Leah sent me long messages with life updates until I could read them and respond from the bathroom between classes on school Wi-Fi. Going home was different — I read in every free second and went to bed early, clutching my plush oversized heart. I was cold. I screenshotted her messages and read them when I was alone. Everything else was loud. Garrett telling Elena he’s scared of me because I’m weird and I dress like Lady Gaga. Michael calling me a dyke on the bus but mostly just laughing, sitting beside me and passing it off like he’s just there to talk to his friend that’s across the aisle except he’s actually turning and asking me to agree that Adam is a queer. Me telling him to shut the fuck up and pushing him out of my seat. Someone talking about gay marriage in class and then Taylor pointing to me and mouthing something for everyone to see, including me, and she’s not really whispering.
Always looking for something.
If I ever learned to be a dandy it was there, where dancing meant getting out on the floor and fully commanding your little piece of ground.
– Amy Sillman
A drag show freshman year of college. Washington. Sitting beside a girl I’m fixated on. Prefixing everything with maybe. There are drag kings — in a room full of people, my coworkers and classmates and people my age and older. Orpheus, who’s got drawn-on abs and lime green corduroy and bottles of soda that shoot streamers when he grinds on them. Jack Goff dancing to Weird Science. There’s something about spiky blue hair and laced up black boots that feels godlike. Ryder Lo. This is his first show. The highlight is when he runs up the stairs to the side of the audience and pushes someone unknown to us against the wall, bodies melting in the spotlight.
I cut my hair off for the first time in 7th grade, inspired by pixie-cut Emma Watson after my first watch of Perks of Being a Wallflower. My wardrobe took a turn towards sweatpants and men’s hoodies. The second time was in January as a high school freshman after more than a year of trying to grow it out. With the cut came a wash of cotton candy pink and a more flamboyant collection of rose-colored jackets, shimmering tops, blazers, velvet on velvet. I wore heels and doorknob hoop earrings with a tint of aqua. Heightened femininity shined in glitter scales, and the portrait flashed pink green orange red purple with subsequent hair dyes.
The girl from the drag show — she gives me this men’s jacket. She asks me what books I’d assign my students to read as a high school literature teacher. I say Frankenstein, Things Fall Apart, The World According to Garp, The Glass Castle. A few others. Rubyfruit Jungle. We get coffee once every week or two and she tells me about the geography of Mars. Arizona. How she always wanted to cut her hair just to try to style it in a mohawk. Me too. She’s been talking about it for a long time. In January, we cut her long hair into a bob in the dorm bathroom. Boys from across the hall stop by to share cake picked up from a meeting or a church thing or a campus club. And then it’s May and she’s still thinking of going shorter, but I don’t hear about it for a bit; after spring break, our coffee dates slow down because I don’t know what they are and I’m not sure if she does either, and I have papers piling up and a political science class twice a week that comes with unstoppable dread. Except I walk into our anthropology class on a Wednesday and she’s there, pixied and pink. It’s suddenly very clear that either I have a crush on her or the hair.
I take a week. Two. Google hair salons near me and prices and ask where she got hers done. I open online booking links and close my laptop before hitting enter.
Seeing my image in a water-reflection, a window, passing by. A butch girl with short hair in a men’s button-down, everything perfectly smooth and creased where it works. She sees me. I’m at the lake renting a kayak with my friends and we make eye contact. I’m at dinner with other students and her name tag reads feminine but she is everything cool and stoic, pierced ears and clean white sneakers, her ensemble undoubtedly from the men’s section. I see her. I think maybe my overalls are too feminine. Or maybe it’s the shirt underneath — a Goodwill t-shirt, maybe men’s, maybe not, definitely cropped. But my hair is recently chopped. My ears, pierced, but one earring dangling and the other held high by a stud. Boots are sturdy. I’ve been making a checklist, the reverse of the stilettos to suit, red lipstick to leather jacket rule. I can still find freedom in a trailing floral dress but I prefer it with a men’s jacket and clunking boots.
A book about Pussy Riot assigned for political science starts something. A Spotify radio off Police State revives a love for Screaming Females and gives me Le Tigre. Dyke March 2001 becomes my mantra: Proud to be a dyke! Proud to be a dyke! A Google search for the dyke in the band gives me JD Samson, beautifully butch, mustached and in another band called MEN. I watch a thousand interviews where she talks about being butch, being a lesbian, being nonbinary. Find out she was a pizza delivery boy in a scene in Russian Doll, the entire first season of which I’d watched in a binge session with a friend down the hall until 2 am, and then stayed up for another two hours talking about high school and reading old journal entries to each other and talking about love, and the lack of it, like something had broken — opened — softened.
The summer before college spent in the aftermath of a girl from my hometown coming out to me across a social media platform that erases the messages in a blink.
A year spent in the aftermath of years. Trying to watch Silver Linings Playbook with my college friends and all of us hating it.
We could be our true selves: Softball-playing lesbians mixed with the leather-clad crew — all were permitted. Good music in a safe space was formative to my identity, to getting brave and coming out.
– Catherine Opie
Crave You. Like boy. Like girl. Like something in between, pretending my hair is short. Undergoing a Ruby Rose-esque transformation in my bathroom from prom dress to John Bender for spirit week.
Funky New Year. I’m alone in the dorm while everyone goes home for Thanksgiving. The entire building is empty. Empty hallways, empty laundry room — the perfect environment for washing everything I own and dancing between loads. On my way to take everything out of the dryer, a boy and a girl have taken up the lounge and are making a meal in the community kitchen. Carrying several full baskets past them makes it harder to keep my bubble.
Viz(ibility). Comes with the haircut.
Who Am I To Feel So Free. I can enjoy wind again.
My hometown and I have been apart for years; I have scrutinized, built, and they have thought of me only fleetingly. I’m packing my clothes for summer and trying to lean on the feminine side because the length of my hair will require some justification. Maybe this is the prime time to be meticulous when shaving. I should be clean, wash and dry myself and go to bed early. Keep routine as a shield. Maybe I should be the soft down comforter for my hometown. Maybe I will.
Or maybe I will see fireworks.
Read more “Reveries From The Gay Bar” on Artforum.
Sophie Hall writes creative nonfiction and poetry about collage and clutter, even though she is somewhat of an organized person these days. She grew up in Mount Storm, West Virginia, but currently studies at Western Washington University with the goal of becoming a cool English teacher. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Jeopardy, Mawth Magazine, and The Helix.