I originally posted this in July (it’s now late October), privately shared it with a few people and just left it there for those who stumbled upon it to read. After several revisions, I feel it’s time to go public.
Cowboy Bill and Louie Lilac
When I was three years old, I decided I want to be a boy. I might have been even younger…my mother said that after my younger sister was born when I was two and a half, she bought me a doll, and I said, “Dolls are for girls.” I adopted two male aliases, Cowboy Bill and Louie Lilac. The first, because I have no fucking clue, but there are pictures of me in cowboy clothes from that time and Louie Lilac because of Batman, which I watched religiously. Why did I choose a villain? Again, no idea, but Louie continues to be a nickname to this day, and I am far more likely to answer to that than I am to Pam (as opposed to Pamela), which I outgrew a long time ago. My toddler gender identity crisis was met with resistance from my parents. It began on the precipice of the ’70s, and even then, with all the hippie talk about peace and love, genderqueerness was stigmatized, even in liberal quarters. So, my parents sent me off to therapy, the beginning of my journey inward.
The First Therapist
This much I remember about the therapist. We played checkers, and she had dark hair and glasses. That’s about it. What happened afterward is more significant. I continued to identify as a boy, but so as to not be on a collision course with my mother, we compromised when it came to how I would dress. She decided what I wore one day, and I could choose my clothes the next. For several years I alternated between Florence Eiseman dresses and Lacoste shirts and pants. Even though fifty percent of the time I appeared to the outer world to be a well-dressed, well-adjusted little girl, that is not how I felt.
How did I feel? Like something was wrong with me. By the time I entered school, my sense of self was beaten down. This happens to a lot of queer kids, whether they are put into therapy or not. Society throws a bunch of messages at you that you’re not “normal,” and lesser than those who are normative, so you don’t feel comfortable in your skin. You can try to conform and be like everyone else, but you know deep down it’s a lie. Eventually, I internalized society’s phobias and talked myself into thinking I was the girl everyone else said I should be, but I still felt very isolated and mistook my differences for deficits.
The differences went beyond gender and sexuality. I was always a bit of a weird kid, at least when compared to most other children in my New York City suburban existence. I became a vegetarian when I was eight, listened to the Beatles incessantly, and was obsessed with baseball, especially the Mets. I had trouble making friends, one part shyness, another part missing a lot of school because of asthma, and a large part because I just didn’t relate to the other kids, and no doubt, the feeling was mutual. I used to write stories and felt solace reading books like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, about other misfits. My mother would tell me that I only needed one friend adding to the pressure. I had a beautiful, popular, and very feminine older sister, and I thought my ticket to acceptance and happiness was to be more like her. You might be wondering how that worked out? Stay tuned.
Until age 11, I went to Usdan, an arts day camp that I loved, but I hated the sleep away camps I was shipped off to for three years in a row. That started right after my parents split up, and I think they wanted to have childfree summers to explore their newfound freedom from one another. Most of the kids seemed to fit in with their upper-middle-class, heteronormative existence, much like a lot of the kids in school. It was super cliquey, and since I was marked not only as the new kid but also as a “space cadet” pretty much from day one, I was bullied. Sometimes I hung around with the counselors, who probably because they were older and in college, were cool with my eccentricities. At the very least, they didn’t pick on me. I inevitably ended up with a crush on at least one of them, making my Catskills summer experiences slightly more bearable.
Socializing got a little bit easier by the time junior high rolled around, but I often felt like an outsider, and once I was old enough to take the train by myself, I frequently cut class, left school early, and spent the afternoons walking around Manhattan, alone. When I was around 12, I started going to work with my dad nearly every Saturday. My great grandfather started a uniform business in 1892, and my father and aunt took it over when my grandfather passed away. In the ’70s, the company ventured into selling military surplus and developed a thriving retail business in a Chelsea loft, 50 West 17th Street to be exact. Saturdays were always the busiest day, and while my presence really wasn’t needed, I loved the scene and what it represented.
I can only imagine some of the people who came through from the downtown Manhattan art world. My father befriended an artist who lived in the Chelsea Hotel, and occasionally, he’d take me to his place for dinner. Les Davis, a jazz guru who had a primetime spot on WRVR, was a regular. The best part was that I got to hang out with my older cousins, Allan and Jackie, who were weirdos in their own right, very funny ones at that, and eat Rays Pizza. Yes, the original Rays on 6th and 11th. I hated my life Sunday – Friday, but on Saturday, I was in my element.
Falling in Love with Farrah
While I didn’t know what it was, I felt my first sexual attraction toward women when I was three, for my camp counselor. I was about seven when I figured out that there was a name for it, “homosexuality.” I made this discovery by reading Abnormal Psychology, a psychology textbook that was lying around the house. Even though I seemed to have all the symptoms of the affliction, I was sure, or at least hoped, that this illness was something I’d grow out of eventually.
My sister was boy crazy, and I consciously tried to mimic her behavior, adding another layer to the denial. By high school, I feigned crushes on boys who were handsome or charming in one way or another but didn’t have a sexual experience until I was 16. When it happened, I felt I needed to prove myself and in the process, degraded my self-respect. Still, throughout my teens, I went to bed thinking about women – Farrah Fawcett…actually, I went through all of the original Angels, but Farrah was the one. I had my first and only boyfriend in my senior year of high school, and that ended when I had a panic attack on a bus going down 5th Avenue when I realized I was gay.
The Fucked Up Therapist
That was not the first time paralyzing anxiety stopped me in my tracks and made me feel like I was losing my mind. I started having these episodes a year earlier and ended up seeing a therapist. Here’s what happened. I was on the bus, wearing a skirt, I think, playing the part when an older woman came on, so I stood up and gave her my seat. Granted, that is just common courtesy, but in a split second, that act triggered something in me, and I thought to myself, “only men do that,” and then I went into a tailspin. I told my parents about the anxiety but did not tell them what precipitated it. I did share my fear – this deepest fear – with my shrink, and she told me she was sure I wasn’t gay, but if I had a gay thought, I could talk myself out of it by saying, “No.”
We can try to let this school of fucked-up psychology off the hook by saying that it was 35 years ago. Still, even then, that was not professionally sound or with any scientific merit. This belief, in what was then called “reparative therapy,” was shared by my grandmother, who once told me that she thought homosexuals were sick but could be cured. How did I deal with this? I spent as much time as I could with my grandmother and thought that maybe if I shared her deep belief in God, I could be normal. I would tell myself that I’d rather be dead than be gay. Did I think about killing myself? I’m not sure. I don’t remember having serious suicidal ideation during this period in my life, but there is no question that I wasn’t in a good space. Anyway, we know how well this strategy worked out…I said no until I couldn’t. We’re almost there.
Coming Into My Own…starting to anyway
So much of who we are is informed by who we are expected to become, how much this correlates with who we see ourselves to be, how others react toward us, and how we digest our uniqueness. When you are given messages, from the time you are a young child that something that is part of your fabric is “wrong,” it stays with you forever, even if it just becomes a memory. In spite of this, I still had hope. Bonding with camp counselors and my cousins, and being exposed to the downtown scene in the ’70s, made me believe it would “get better” and that one day I’d find my people.
That started to happen when I went off to college. There were a few people in high school I liked, but I didn’t make meaningful friendships until I left home. The first person I met, my R.A., Vanessa, has not only become a lifelong friend but is one of the few people who gets who I am most, deep in my soul. Penn had cliques, many that were formalized under the Greek system, but it wasn’t the kind of place where your social life had to be ruled by one scene over any other. It drew a lot of the spoiled, superficial types I knew from high school and camp, but I was able to sift through that and meet people from all over the country with different backgrounds. I can see where just about anyone who gets into an Ivy League university has a certain level of cultural privilege, but my world and eventually world view widened.
Still, I had this nagging sense of dread. In an effort to deny who I was, I vacillated politically. I grew up in a family of Democrats. That doesn’t mean that my ancestors weren’t bigots or sincerely believed that Jews were the chosen people, but they idolized FDR, which knowing what we do about how many Jews he sent to their deaths, I find a bit crazy. I worked on the Mondale/Ferraro campaign in 1984 because I was too young to vote by two weeks, but come 1988, I was incredibly conflicted, and I think I might have even pulled the lever for Bush (the first). I so did not want to be the lefty, non-binary, hippie lesbian I was and still thought that if I could continue to say, “No,” I could be a conservative, heterosexual femme and fit in.
When you’re gay, you can’t fake it to you make it. When I left New York, nearly 28 years ago, I still thought that my attractions for women were something I’d outgrow. After three months in San Francisco, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. Basically, all it took was one weekend when two super-hot dykes visiting from LA hit on me at work, and I didn’t mind. I told my roommate, Kirk, probably on that Monday and then slowly started telling other people.
My father said, “I’ve always known.” And that was that, complete and total acceptance from day one. I didn’t tell my mother right away, but she started asking my sisters, and when I finally fessed up, she said, “You’re my daughter, and I love you, no matter what.” She followed this up with, “If you’re bisexual, you should try to be straight because you’ll have an easier life.” I told her I was not bisexual and that I was going to live my truth. Being an out gay person in 1992 was not as easy as it is today, but once I came out there was no going back in, and what I heard was that she still didn’t accept me but loved me, nonetheless. The problem is that if someone doesn’t accept who you are, it is hard to feel their love. Feeling that rejection all over again hurt, but I was no longer a child, and I made friends in San Francisco – queer and not – who were supportive, no questions asked. I realized that there was nothing wrong with me, nor was there ever.
Coming out is not just about telling people you’re gay. It’s about coming to terms with who you are, how you present yourself, and striving to be real. Living this truth doesn’t necessarily make you a more empathic person, but it does alter your perspective and the way you see others if for no other reason than it changes the way they see you. We all have our faults, make mistakes, lapses in judgment and behave in ways that make us cringe later on but who we are, and all of the qualities that make us unique, are something to be celebrated. Everyone has their own journey, and I think for many, there comes the point somewhere around our mid-century mark where we start to reflect on the paths we’ve taken. Our perspective begins to shift, probably because we realize we have more good years behind us than we have left.
Turning 50 just days after Trump was elected was seismic in many ways, and it is hard not to take the outright bigotry, personally. In addition to the terrible policies, rhetoric, and positions regarding LGBTQ+ rights, his racism, sexism, and xenophobia are a reminder that many people still think anyone who does not conform to heteronormativity is damaged. I re-evaluated nearly all of my relationships and realized that I no longer had room in my life for those who did not see or value me. I made some changes like going back to school and refocusing what I want to do professionally, and I’ve never felt better about myself or more comfortable in my skin than I do now.
Much of this has to do with changing times, and younger generations who understand that gender is a social construct and that binaries are restrictive if not oppressive. The LGBTQ+ community in the Bay Area has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to trans and gender issues, so we shouldn’t diminish the role my generation and those who came before me had in prying minds open. If I were my 25-year-old self coming out in today’s climate, I’d probably do some things differently, but coming out is more of a process than a single moment. For me and many others, it is part of continual self-discovery.
The Second Coming
As for how I identify, genderqueer/non-conforming/nonbinary best sums me up. Some think of gender as performance, not identity, and many say that it is fluid. I buy that to a degree because my sense of gender has undoubtedly been influenced by many experiences. Since I’ve been labeled “female,” I’ve faced many of the same challenges/struggles, and some might say privileges, most notably those that come with white skin, as self-identifying women. Other people’s biases strengthened my identity as a feminist, and no doubt, my identity as a feminist is tied up with identifying as a lesbian.
I identify as a lesbian because this is my community.. I’m not saying that I feel a special bond with all dykes. I often feel pretty disassociated from those who do not share my intersectional worldview, but since gay women face unique oppression, I call myself a political lesbian. I could and probably should write a separate piece on this, but in summation, many men – and women – find us very threatening. Those who are willing to overcome their discomfort become allies, yet others try to take us down, at times viciously. Strong-willed, intelligent, independent women, regardless of sexual orientation, are likely to encounter a version of this toxicity somewhere along the way. Still, a special wrath seems to be saved for ciswomen who are not interested in having sex with men. Go ask Freud for further comment.
Yet my identity as a lesbian was not borne solely from oppression. When I came out, San Francisco had a thriving lesbian sub-culture. It wasn’t just lesbian chic; it was also lesbian pride, and for the first time, it was not intwined with gay men’s pride. While most of us don’t drive motorcycles, hang out in clubs, or sleep around any longer, that very specific sense of personal and social liberation became a significant part of my psyche.
At the same time, I’ve often felt like and have been treated as “one of the guys.” I relate well to men and have close male friends, yet as I’ve borne witness to quite a bit of toxic masculinity, I can’t say I entirely connect with maleness either. I’m not going to blithely say, “people are people, their sex or gender shouldn’t matter.” We cannot deny that both shape us and affects our lives. In the old days, I would say I felt androgynous, with a fusion of “female” and “male” qualities. Now, I’m not so sure what male and female qualities mean…I occupy some third or other space…just being me.
This is what I mean when I say I’ve had a second coming out, and as was true the first time, it’s freeing but not final. Consciously and not, we continue to strive throughout our lives to discover what makes us tick. I encourage anyone who is reading this – no matter how you think about yourself – to dive in. Go to therapy or do whatever it is that allows you to get to know who you are. This isn’t a sociopathic narcissistic quest; it’s about becoming a more authentic human being, fostering honest relationships, and having a meaningful life.
Love and Freedom
All anyone can ask for is to be able to be who they are and find love and acceptance from those who matter most. That doesn’t always happen, so it’s important to know that if your loved ones don’t accept you for who you are, it’s on them, not you. This is so much easier said than done, and that is why if you know anyone who seems to be struggling with their identity, in any way, pay attention and please let them know you care about them, period, not no matter what. Tell them it’s ok to let their freak flag fly, and don’t be afraid to show them yours.
As for where things stand with my family, it didn’t take long for my mother to come around and accept that I was way gay. Compared to many other people, I’ve had it easy. When I’ve asked my parents why they sent me into therapy when I was young, I’ve gotten pretty much the same response: that it was a very different time back then. Realizing how detrimental it was to my early development, they feel bad now.
There is no doubt my childhood alienation impacted my entire life though not all for the bad. In many ways, I think I’ve benefitted from being the black sheep in the family, school, camp, professional circles, etc…At a certain point, you just stop thinking and caring about what other people think and realize that those “deficits” are actually strengths. I am who I am, and I know and accept myself probably more than most people. What you see is what you get and feel very lucky in that I have so much genuine love in my life.
I originally wrote this because I know some people who seem to be struggling. Yet, as I’ve gotten deeper into, I realize it’s something I’ve needed to do for me for a while. The few friends I shared it with, in various incarnations, said they could relate to parts of my story and suggested posting it. Even in families and communities that are accepting, coming to terms with being something other than heteronormative is not easy for a lot of people. From birth, we are force-fed societies preconceived ideas of who we should be based on our genitalia. It’s very destructive, especially for those of us whose gender doesn’t match our sex, and sexual orientation is anything but heterosexual. While I wear the war wounds, I wear them with pride.
I’m true to me. Be true to you —
PSB, Pamela, Louie, Pamelouie