If you know me, you’re probably heard me do the whole hand wave-y, Oh, I’ve always been out thing about my sexuality. But that’s not true; I just didn’t always know what it was that I was hiding; after all, I went to an all-girls school through 9th grade and I was attracted to men. Therefore, it was pretty easy to grow up at least pretending to be sure that I was a girl, and that, like all good girls, liked boys.
I was way more preoccupied by how weird I felt in a generalized way — my face was too long; my uniforms never fit right; and I hated everything from the way my voice sounded and to the shape of my eyes that made me, I thought, look perpetually sad (okay, truth be told, I still think that). I was other, and being queer sort of never really entered into it. In fact, I remember calling myself queer when I was 12, before it was a reclaimed word, before I knew it was a slur against gay people; I thought it just meant peculiar, and I was.
So while I was never really in, I also certainly wasn’t out until college, which sort of happened with a bang I didn’t have all the control over I would have liked (opinion piece in the university paper about how my being bisexual didn’t make my roommate a lesbian? did that seriously happen? can I get a do-over?), but it is what it is and happened over 20 years ago now.
My first experience of being a real-live gay person in a world where everyone knew I was a real-live gay person, was working at Lambda Rising, a gay bookstore in Washington DC. I worked in the stock room, with a dude we all called Millie. We took the phone orders that came in, found the books people wanted, shrink wrapped them and packaged them up in plain brown boxes.
We loved that stupid shrink wrap gun, the way we made the warning beep on the Mac SE that ran the stock room into a clip of Millie squealing about something, and the ice cream shop next door than the manager would sometimes buy us cones at. It was my first normal job in that it was an appropriate fit for my age and skills. It was the type of job people in TV shows had. It was what you do, when you’re in college.
But it was also the type of job that made Millie and I spend a lot of time talking about what it meant to be gay. We sort of had to, after every order, when callers would ask if we had foot-fetish books (I can still hear Millie drawl, are they gay foot fetish books? then yes!) or proclaim they were doing their once-yearly order from a town of 351 in Alaska or check and recheck that the boxes wouldn’t be labeled with anything that might let their neighbors (or their wives or their parents) know that they were gay.
“Sometimes, this job feels like a public service,” Millie would say.
“Don’t you feel guilty sometimes?” I’d ask.
“What do you mean?”
“The way people call like they’re perverts or it’s a dirty secret or they can’t believe I’m actually saying lambda when I answer the phone.”
“We do stock a lot of porn,” Millie would reply.
“Look, I just want you to know, all girls that like girls are not interested in Wonder of the Labia coloring books.”
I was 18 and I worked a gay bookshop in a gay neighborhood across from an independent cinema that often played gay movies. And even if I was never, ever going to get a TV sitcom style romance because I didn’t work as a cashier, I loved it. It was movie magic and hope over and over and over again.
Today, LGBT bookshops are largely disappearing, driven out of the market my a changing culture and by changing technology. Twenty years ago, they didn’t save my life, but they taught me I could have a good, happy, small, non-combative life and be queer, at a point when my life was big and public and very combative in ways that no one really gave me a chance to choose or not. In a life of big blessings, Lambda Rising was for me a small one, but a critical one.
One day, a lot of the things that have defined my queer experience just won’t really exist anymore. I mean, no one really keeps little maps in their dorm rooms anymore of what states they’d broken sodomy laws in, not since Lawrence v. Texas, but that happened in 2003, and we did, back in 1993. And ACT UP seems like more a part of history than the thing, along with Queer Nation, that taught me about what it meant to be gay as a teenager.
One day, this stupid, awful equal marriage rights fight will be over; one day kids won’t risk getting all the clubs in their high schools closed down just because they want to start a Gay-Straight Alliance; one day people won’t even understand why we had to have these conversations. That world is a long way away, but I also know it’s closer than I think most days, because where we are now in this struggle right now? More than I ever could have hoped for when I was 18 and working in a bookstore warehouse and reassuring people about plain brown paper packaging.
But sometimes, I feel like we’re losing things out of order. Or get really scared that my culture that makes me me is disappearing. Assimilation hurts. Sometimes it’s a prize, and, sometimes, it’s a bargaining chip; how much of your history would you be willing to bleed out just to get treated like you’re normal? It’s a shitty question, and one no one should have to answer.
Gay books stores mattered. They were a place where I was real. And I don’t necessarily feel like I’m real enough in this world as it is now for them to be gone already.