I told my mother that I was gay just a few days before Christmas when I was seventeen, the pair of us posed before our newly erected Christmas tree, the twinkling lights reflecting in the tears on my cheeks. In the immediate aftermath of my homosexual declaration, she claimed she “never knew”, had never had an inkling that I might have been gay. She told me my coming out had completely blindsided her and that was the root of her doubting it all. She compared my being a lesbian to other identities I had recently adopted in my teen years–“first you’re a vegetarian, now you’re a lesbian” was her exact turn of phrase–and insinuated that much like other adolescent monikers I had applied to myself, this too would fade. The goth stage went away before I left for college, my vegetarianism transformed into near-full veganism as time went on, but the lesbian thing never went away.
After several years of tension that included my partner and I never visiting my parents, my mother slowly came around, realizing she’d rather have a gay daughter than a daughter that never came home for the holidays. As we navigated the rocky territory of her gradual acceptance, she made some amendments to the statements she originally made on the night of my announcement all those years ago. She admitted that as she thought back through the years of raising me, there had indeed been signs–I never once had a boyfriend or expressed even the slightest interest in boys, I had papered my walls with pictures of Laura Croft from Tomb Raider despite never once having played the game–but she had always dismissed them because I was, as she affectionately put it, “a weird kid”. She didn’t see these developments as indications of my budding sexuality but as evidence that, as in so many other areas, I just did not fit the model set forth by my peers. My mother was happier painting a picture of “marching to the beat of a different drum” rather than recognizing the “Future Dykes of America” initiate sitting in her living room.
For a time we bonded over this rehashing of my childhood and Where’s Waldo-esque hunt for sapphic clues throughout my youth, but eventually my mother grew pensive during one of our conversations and admitted, finally, that there was one nagging memory that she had never been able to write off. She told me that when I had been young–younger than I can even remember, as it turns out–I had always fielded the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question so frequently lobbed at little kids with one simple answer.
What did I want to be? I wanted to be a husband.
The adults in the audience always got a kick out of it, this tiny girl child adamantly declaring her intentions to become a husband one day. My mother said she assumed, at first, I said this because I liked the reaction I got; I was a hilarious child (who grew up into a pretty funny adult, I’d wager) who easily made others laugh and loved doing so. Eventually though, she came to find I was saying this even when nobody laughed, like when one of my elementary school teachers was gravely disturbed by my “aspiration”. I said I wanted to be a husband and, for all intents and purposes, it sure looked like I meant it.
I’ve thought a lot about “the husband”. I told her story, which is my story, at Michfest on a few occasions, for workshops and while waiting in line and shooting the shit with anyone and everyone around me. Michfest let me become my most open, accepted self, and I was openhanded with everything I had, material goods and childhood tales both. Older dykes nodded knowingly when I described “the husband” as if they had known some version of that story their whole lives. They offered me sage smiles and a sense of understanding I didn’t know was possible. And I came to find there were other would-be “husbands” in nearly every group of womyn I spoke to; we all had some iteration of that narrative tucked away in our closets, a “husband story” wherein we were alienated, questioned, punished for expressing these innocent wants. I was humbled knowing they saw some of themselves in me, and in turn I realized I could see myself in them; I could see my future as an old dyke, a future I didn’t know was possible when I first declared I wanted to be a husband.
That obscured future is truly the root of “the husband” for me. That inability to envision who I could grow up to be, what I might look like as an adult and as an elder, defined “the husband story”. I did not actually want to be a husband. What I wanted from that fragile young age was to marry and create a life with a pretty girl, just like I saw on tv and in magazines and everywhere around me. And at the time, there was only one media-presented image of who married girls: husbands. Husbands married girls and took care of them, held their hands, lived in houses together with them. Husbands, and only husbands, did the things I wanted to do, so I wanted to be a husband.
A child has no concept of sexuality or identity, of representative media or nuanced political conversation. I did not have the language or mental faculties to understand I was a pre-lesbian, a girl who would grow up to be a womyn who loved womyn. I couldn’t conceptualize any of that as a kid, so in that very simple and very honest way that children do, I expressed those seeded feelings in the only words I had been given. All around me, heterosexual life was presented as the one true model of correct and acceptable behavior. I did not have models of lesbian couples to look at and I certainly didn’t see any old dykes on tv or anywhere else, cluing me in to what I might have become as an old womyn myself. I didn’t know womyn like that even existed until decades later. I had no frame of reference.
I sometimes wonder what my childhood would have looked like had I been a kid in today’s society. In the here and now, if I were a little girl and told people around that I wanted to be a husband, would I still be met with laughter or cringing? Or would trusted adults in my life have interpreted my simplistic child-talk to be evidence of my “true gender” lurking just beneath the skin? If my mother had raised her girl child in today’s world, might she have pursued that line of thinking, if it could mean her gay daughter was really another of her straight sons? She surely would have preferred it that way on the night I came out, so if it had been an option even earlier in my life, what then?
I dig a little further. If I had been presented with the option of being called by a boy’s name, dressed in “boy’s clothes”, allowed to do the things boys were allowed to do…wouldn’t I have taken it? Boys certainly had more freedom in their worlds, after all, and not just to grow into husbands. No one cautioned the boys about playing alone in the woods the way I liked to do. No one chastised the boys for being rowdy, for climbing trees, for running with abandon in the park. No one told the boys they were weird and disgusting because they let insects crawl in their arms, to look at the little feet and wings and feelers, during recess when their peers wanted to play double dutch. On top of all of that, my desires for these “boys’ things” over the “girls’ things” I was supposed to have a predilection toward left me feeling confused and outcasted even more as I progressed through childhood and especially during puberty. If someone told me I could have had all that freedom and escaped the uncertainty and ostracization, what reason would I have had to say no?
I don’t remember wanting to be “the husband”; her existence predates my memories. I do, however, recall my later childhood when all I wanted in the world was to be a deer or a wolf or any number of birds. I was a child fascinated by animals of all kinds and I spent the greater part of my free time out in the woods, motionlessly watching woodland creatures or else pretending to be them to the best of my abilities. When examined critically, “the husband” and “the animal” are both the same paradigm at their cores; they are an escape from constraint. The great appeal of slipping out of my human skin and becoming a nonhuman animal was that animals were not held down by any kind of gender roles or other social norms, they were free to live their lives, and they did so mostly ambiguously, a male animal indistinguishable from his female counterparts in many of the species I liked best. There lives were simple and also tended to be short, and that suited me just fine. Especially when I began to develop physically during puberty, when my body became public property and I grew needling feelings of hatred toward my female attributes, the draw of somehow “becoming” a nonhuman animal was intoxicating. I mention this side story not just because it is tangentially related and not because there is a huge trend of “transspecies” children out there, but because it demonstrates how fickle my desires were and how easily they evolved as I reacted to my environment and struggled through my turbulent adolescence. If I had been taken seriously as either “the husband” or more nonsensically “the animal”, irreversible changes could have been foisted upon me, an innocent child, by well-meaning adults in the name of progressiveness.
In truth, I was a little girl with no one to model myself after, a tempest of feelings with nothing to stick them to. I was suffering from a lack of representation of the possibilities of womanhood, trapped in a world that put restrictions and blinders on girls from the time before they can walk. My desire to be “the husband” was a direct result of the lack of lesbians (and of diverse womanhood in general) in my surrounding spheres and my volatile protestations against the gender box I had been put it. I was still a girl even when there were no girls or former-girls like me around to look up to, but in this day and age my rejection of gender conformity would be more eagerly interpreted as my “boy brain” trapped in my (tragically) female body. I might have been questioned about what other “boy things” I liked and had my answers used against me to prove my pre-failure of womanhood. I might have had trusted authority figures with good intentions encouraging me to “be a boy” if that’s “what I was” and you know what? If the adults in charge of caring for and protecting me began referring to me as a boy or even subtly encouraging that idea in other ways, I surely would have absorbed it quickly. Even if I didn’t “feel I was a boy”, I might have parroted these statements because it’s what the adults did, it’s what they said and what they wanted to hear back, and I as a child would have wanted to please others by getting the answers “right”. I would likely have followed that logic to the letter as a little kid: girl likes stuff for boys, girl only sees male representation for things she likes, girl must really be a boy.
How many little supposedly-trans female children are out there inhabiting the same space I once did? That nebulous zone of gender nonconformity where the world tells you to act this one way and your refusal to do so indicates the wrongness of your existence? How many “are boys” because there were never any girls or womyn like them around to tell them their desires, their behaviors, their wants don’t make them boys, just another perfectly okay kind of girl? How many would grow up to be lesbians like I did, if they had that chance, if they hadn’t been indoctrinated from a young age with rhetoric that tells them they are “actually boys” because they want to run and wear pants and kiss girls?
If I had seen those old dykes as a kid, I might not have felt so alone. If I had been allowed to live freely, to engage in what I liked and avoid what I didn’t without giving a thought as to whether these things were “right” for my gender, I might not have been so confused. If I had ever even once been shown that girls can grow up and marry the girl of their dreams, and hold her hand and take care of her when she’s sick and share a home together, I might never have wanted to be the husband.