a place where I was real

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.

9 thoughts on “a place where I was real”

  1. Two weeks ago, I was talking to a 17-year-old heterosexual woman who was wearing a T shirt said “Support Love” and had three couples on it– one men, one women, one mixed. I let her know how much the world had changed in my lifetime. That the first time I kissed a woman, I was 17. And that if you’d told the 17-year-old me that someday, kissing another woman would be a non-issue in high schools, or that heterosexual allies would wear shirts like that, I would have cried, I would have been so overwhelmed.

    There are ways in which who I see myself as being is Very Queer. I’m more aware and certain that I’m queer than I am about my gender identity. And yeah, it feels like I’m losing something.

  2. From my PoV, once the ENDA passess, and the entire US gains full marriage equality and the ability to openly serve in the military, the struggle will have succeeded – in large part becasue with those, public and mass media acceptance will follow very rapidly indeed. That will be wonderful, but also very odd. It’s both amazing and very frustrating at how close we are to this.

    I suspect all this will happen in less than a decade, and at that point, being lesbian or gay in the US soon becomes about as controversial as interracial dating – obvious bigots strongly object and a fair number of people are a bit confused, but it’s no big deal. At that point, will any sort of separate lesbian and gay culture have any reason to exist? I have no idea, but we’ll soon see.

    Of course, then the struggle moves on the trans-people and poly people…

  3. I don’t even know what to say. Because there are days I feel as though I’m going to suffocate from the oppressive atmosphere of my locale, of the world and I know the history that came before me, I need that history, the history of “Queer” reclaimed (though still not quite), the the differences in growing up gay in the various decades, how different the 90’s were from the 00’s.

    It’s hard for me to remember the happy days of my ignorance, when I thought, because of “Queer as Folk” and “Buffy”, that I could be out and be merry. I’m still disappointed that it isn’t so. But I find myself angrier at being told to “calm down” because the culture I feel a part of is more and more marginalised within LGBT culture itself. And at being told that things aren’t “as bad as they used to be”. Seriously, that should be a rallying cry to do more, imo.

    Thanks for this post.

  4. I’m happy that you had such a good experience there — I was expecting horror stories when I clicked on the article given my own experiences with the DC Lambda Rising store.

  5. I have very mixed feelings about the closing of ADL. I think I went through my mourning several years ago when it was sold to new owners, and it was never the same after that.

    I used to know where every gay bookstore in the country was located. Every single one. And that was long before I worked in queer publishing, mind.

    I guess I’ve been feeling like my culture vanished from beneath my feet for a while now.

  6. I knew and loved Lambda Rising as a very late comer, not being from DC or particularly in touch with my sexuality until relatively late in life. On the one hand, I’m glad it’s not as NEEDED anymore, on the other, I was sad to hear it was going because of the community, because of the safe/normal place it created.

    Another friend of mine worked there for a time but she’s a few years younger than you so you may not have ever met.

  7. When I had just come out to myself at about age 12, I remember walking by Lambda Rising on my way to Kramerbooks and glancing inside almost hungrily, but too scared to go inside when my parents were right there with me. I came back a few months later alonge, a detour on the way home from a dance class that had been unexpectedly cancelled, leaving me free to wander the city before my parents expected me home. I was terrified to enter, sure that people would look at me and /know/, but nonetheless exalted and validated to see that I was real, that real people beyond the internet felt the way I did.

    Years passed, and I came out to my friends and family, and my heart stopped thundering whenever I walked past or into Lambda, or any of the other stores with small rainbow decals in their front windows. My friends and I would go in and browse, understanding that the store really wasn’t for us, and probably never had been.

    But then I walked by about a year ago and saw the “store closing – sale” sign, and tears pricked my eyes for a moment. I was barely even born when you worked at the store, and I know it’s not nearly as significant to me as to you, but still. This post resonated.

  8. Thank you for this essay, and for these words in particular:

    “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 reminds me of Elizabeth Moon’s islamophobic rant, by expressing the opposite perspective on being an Other.

    I’m not Muslim, but I was seriously upset by her suggestion that immigrants should give up their native languages, and I had to wonder if she had the slightest understanding of what she was demanding. Because I do not speak my father’s native language–he doesn’t remember it either–we are cut off from Filipino history and culture. I didn’t have to personally bleed out in that way since I live in the same country I was raised in, but I am aware of the price my father’s family paid to stay here, and of the loss of community that my sister’s kids may feel when they’re old enough to see it.

    Your experience is a more direct refutation of the supposed reasonable-ness of demanding assimilation in exchange for citizenship (yet I fear that a quasi-liberal like Moon would find it harder to see the relevance).

  9. The sad part for me is, I can’t right now even remember the NAME of the gay & lesbian bookstore that used to be right around the corner from my old apartment, and my house. The one where I bought all my Dykes To Watch Out For books, and Tipping the Velvet. The one whose presence made me know I was in the right sort of neighborhood. It’s been gone for some time — changing neighborhood, the natural grocery also sold out to a corporation and isn’t across the street any more either, and, with the bookstore, the owners retired.

    But it was there, and it was a place for me, and now I can’t even remember its name.

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