The first time I get called a lesbian is in the fourth grade. I attend a University lab school, and instead of taking fourth-grade classes I go upstairs and take advanced classes in English and math with the eighth and ninth graders. My best friend at this time is a bit of a math genius, and she goes upstairs to take classes with the junior high students as well. Because we’re in the fourth grade, and because we’re best friends, we sometimes hold hands.
“Lesbos!” the junior high boys repeatedly yell at us. “Dykes!” As a matter of principle, I feel that we should continue to hold hands, but my math genius best friend refuses to hold hands with me any longer after several weeks of sustained heckling. Before this happens, though, a well-meaning eighth grader gently takes me aside and tells me that I should really stop holding hands with my best friend. “You don’t want people to think you’re a lesbian, do you?” she asks with concern.
I have a little crush on this girl, this well-meaning eighth grader. Her name is Karen, she has white-blonde hair that she wears feathered back, and she has a charming way of blushing bright red all the way down to her fingertips. I also have a crush on a boy named Robert. He has dirty blonde hair that he wears feathered back and he is nice to me. Sometimes I fantasize that, like a real-life junior high stoner Barbie and Ken, Karen and Robert will date. I’m not really sure what this says about me.
I have no idea what a lesbian is, only that I’m clearly supposed to not want to be one. That it’s terribly important to do whatever it takes to keep people from thinking that I’m a lesbian. That I’m already geeky beyond all human comprehension, too brainy for my own good, bi-racial, and for God’s sake, the last thing I need is for people to think that I’m a lesbian!
I’m in the fourth grade. This is Laramie, Wyoming.
The last time I’m called a lesbian (as an epithet) is about one year ago, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I’m still seeing the Canadian Dyke at the time, and she’s come down for a visit. Seeing the rainbow sticker on the rear window of her car as we’re driving through Sioux Falls, a baseball-hatted young man in a bright red pickup truck with oversized tires revs his engine and pulls up alongside us, then throws his lit cigarette at us. Honking and obscene gestures ensue.
He continues to tailgate us until the Canadian Dyke finally pulls into a parking lot. He squeals into the next space, and spits a wad of tobacco out of his driver’s-side window. His truck has a gun rack. (If this were fiction, his character would be such a stereotype, a cliche, that it would be problematic–a cardboard cutout character that I would have to revise.)
“Faggots!” he screams at us. His face is bright red. He’s apoplectic. He’s probably around the same age as some of my undergraduate students. “You’ve got a fucking faggot sticker on your car. Fucking faggots!”
I stare at him, astonished, through my window.
He stares back. “Fat fucking faggots!” he amends.
I have the absurd desire to burst out laughing. Doesn’t he even know the right slur or epithet to use? A part of me hates him right back and wishes him harm. A part of me wonders idly if he has a loaded gun inside the truck to go with that gun rack. A part of me wants to counsel him: “Honey, we’re not faggots. We’re lesbians. Dykes. Are you retarded? Are you a fucking moron, or what?”
The Canadian Dyke is attempting to leap out of the car to beat the shit out of him, or so she says. I have her firmly grasped by the collar of her shirt and I’m telling her to simply drive away. Undoubtedly, she can probably take him. But I have no desire to see her beat up a young man who’s around the same age as some of my undergraduate students. I’m not convinced that he doesn’t have a gun or a baseball bat inside his truck. The rage I feel is suddenly replaced by exhaustion, hollowness, and depression. Eventually, I talk her into sitting back down into her car and driving away. She’s pissed off at me for the rest of the day.
I’m not really sure what this says about me.
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