Meditations on the L-Word

Janet, Donna, Hillary, and Me

A friend A I'll call him Alex A phoned to warn me before I read it. Though at the time, I didn't understand the call to be a warning. The year was 1985, and Alex was calling from Wisconsin to tell me that a mutual acquaintance had just published a second short story in The New Yorker. Before Alex hung up, he said casually, "You're in it."

The news came as a surprise, although in retrospect it probably shouldn't have. The mutual acquaintance A I'll call him Peter A had a habit of basing fictional characters on real ones. Though only in his early twenties, he had already published one story in The New Yorker, a deft, unhappy little piece populated by characters that were based, in part, on students Peter had met during a stint in law school. Alex had made a cameo appearance in that story. Now, apparently, it was my turn.

I hurried to a bookstore to buy a copy of the magazine. Sure enough, there I was: a central character in a story about a rather aimless and forlorn group of young Americans living in London, where I had recently spent nine months, writing, or trying to write, and where I had been introduced to Peter. My character's name was "Katherine." No great imaginative mind, Peter had attributed to Katherine an alarming number of my actual circumstances: my native state (Virginia), my hair (blond), my flat (in a London suburb, above an eccentric British woman who bred guinea pigs), my job (ghostwriting a how-to book for an American decorator), and some of the comments I'd made during our conversations, practically verbatim.

Then I came to another familiar scene: a dinner Peter and I had had with another male writer in an Indian restaurant. During the dinner, my character gets up and goes to the bathroom. While she's gone, the male-writer-character says to the Peter-character: "Poor Katherine. She's just a failed writer and a repressed lesbian."

A failed writer and a repressed lesbian. I stared at the words, unable to read further. It was, I instantly perceived, a brilliant double play A one that sliced directly to the core of my identity. At age 25 I wanted more than anything to become a successful writer A and, eventually, to meet that fabled perfect man. Yet I had to admit that I hadn't produced much memorable prose during my stay in London. And that my array of male admirers had consisted mainly of an odd, reclusive American who telephoned me at strange hours of the night; an unemployed British actor recovering from a mysterious illness he declined to name; and a British engineer who lusted powerfully after American plumbing A and after me, I strongly suspected, because I represented his best (probably only) hope for obtaining a good hot shower of his very own. Not an impressive list. And how easily explained by the words before me: a failed writer and a repressed lesbian.

Words written A in The New Yorker! A by a man I had regarded as a friend. And spoken A in the story A by another man I had regarded as a friend. Plundering my memory, I recalled a spring weekend when Peter and I had taken advantage of London's cheap international air fares to visit Paris. At some point he had commented on the romance of the city. I had shrugged it off. Had that been an approach? Had I rejected him? Was this vengeance? Or was he on to something about me, something I myself didn't realize? Mulling these questions over, "repressed" seemed the cruelest, most ingenious stroke of all. Writer, know thyself.

Back at my apartment, the phone rang again. It was a friend calling from my hometown. "Hello, Katherine," she said when I picked up. Evidently the likeness was a good one.

That was some seven years ago. I haven't reread the story, and I haven't seen, or spoken with, Peter since it was published. I have, however, encountered other women who consider themselves on fairly good evidence to be heterosexual A yet who have also heard the L-word levied against them. I've gotten married. I've gotten tougher. I've gotten to know some genuine lesbians. If somebody called me a lesbian these days, I'd probably be flattered; if somebody called me a repressed lesbian, I'd probably laugh and ask my husband what he thought.

But at 25 the charge hurt. It embarrassed me. My liberalism told me that there was nothing wrong with being called a lesbian A except that in my case, the label was incorrect. And my sexual self-image was certainly as important to me as it was to anybody. I didn't like to talk about the incident, and still don't. But I think about it from time to time A thought about it in 1991, for example, when a Republican senator alluded to Anita Hill's "proclivities," presumably to deflect attention from Clarence Thomas's sexual behavior and somehow discredit her charge of sexual harassment against the then-Supreme Court nominee.

But never have I thought of my little brush with dyke-baiting as frequently as I have in the past several weeks, during which time Janet Reno, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and now first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have faced charges of lesbianism from both the right and the left.

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