It felt like such a big deal when I realized at 13, falling hard for a close girlfriend, that “gay” was a good word to describe how I felt. The idea was a fine-tooth comb run through knotted hair, an early watershed realization that bifurcated my life into before-I-knew-something and after-I-found-out. Liza Minnelli is Judy Garland’s daughter, a lime is not just an unripe lemon, and I was probably a lesbian.
The realization came just before I left for boarding school—an opportunity so precious to me it felt not only important, but also necessary, to become deeply involved during my time there. I wasn’t sure how to do that, though, since I didn’t yet have a group that felt like mine, where I could lead and share and learn and flourish.
What I did have, however, was some experience as a comfortably open and well-enough-adjusted baby gay who could heroically light the way for the closeted queer dumplings in my class I knew must exist (statistically, at least)—a rainbow Bat-Signal shining brightly through our otherwise quiet town.
So I helped found the school’s first gay-straight alliance, wore T-shirts that said “LEGALIZE LOVE” and “BORN THIS WAY” (which were kind of edgy in 2011), and played exclusively lesbian characters in a lunchtime sketch show I wrote. I effectively became a token gay in a small, interconnected school community which largely received me with indifference. I knew I had to stick to my guns.
Soon enough, my openness had backed me into a big, gay corner, where a marginally important detail of my life became—partly through my own bullhorn—a political and social statement, one that would prove difficult to amend or redact.
Unsurprisingly, as I grew older and my curiosities shifted, it became tougher to uphold the Fierce Dyke identity. I felt like my freedom to act on, or even voice, these changing desires was limited by the perceived absoluteness of the “gay” label, the firmness of the lines that kept me just a little different from my classmates. Coming to Columbia and beginning college, then, felt like a time to restart on a subtler note, a chance to not commit so hard and fast to another proverbial corner. I’d collect some data and return to the sexuality question some other time.
I grew out my iconic buzz-cut fauxhawk, changed my Tinder setting to “women” and “men,” and tossed out the gold spandex booty shorts I wore to New York City Pride in 2014. I started paying attention to straight TV storylines—for research!—and openly seeing dudes (who I still can only call “dudes”). At first, I was nearly as shocked by the turn of events as I was excited to be finally exploring heterosexuality in college the way everyone always says you will.
Over time, though, I no longer wondered how to fill in the “So, what are you?” blank. I figured I’d get around to it eventually; I was distracted by more thrilling inquiries into enjoyment and connection. I forgot to ask, and the time since then has been long and wonderful enough that I think I’ve forgotten to care.
To be fair, I am aggressive about this forgetting: When an online survey or subway ad or innocent acquaintance asks, “So, how do you identify?” I reflexively close the browser window, avert my eyes, or change the subject (in that order). A response to that question seems more elusive now than ever before, the inquiry itself a direct threat to my blissful not-knowing. It feels much easier, and more peaceful, to stick my fingers in my ears and shout lalalala until the question blows away rather than think about trying to answer it.
Frankly, I still can’t tell if this reaction is a principled practice or a defense mechanism; I don’t know if avoiding these words empowers them and their right to mystery, or only works to undermine them. Documenting an endangered language at a nonprofit downtown has shown me firsthand the impossibility of any purely “right translation”: picking a single English word or phrase to represent something in a totally disparate language is necessarily, to some degree, a reductive and imprecise art. Though our job is trickier when English translations are elusive, it is also more magical and humbling to sense the presence of something that feels inarticulable, like an image you can only ever catch out of the corner of your eye.
Obviously, this more spiritual element doesn’t totally account for my avoidance. Part of me now perceives the loudness of being LGBT something as off-putting, which is odd because I used to find it so comforting. The Pride flags and “love is love” posters that once decorated my dorm room walls now make me roll my eyes, like I’m offended by—or jealous of—the answers other people have to their questions, and the fact they announce them so publicly. I think, you’ll put down your bullhorn someday! I did!
I also recognize there is a kind of neutrality that comes with being, or at least acting, straight. It’s the base form, the unquestioned assumption. After identifying as a not-default for a long time, I’ll admit there is a relief to hanging out with the statistical majority. It also seems like, at least at Columbia, “looking good”—i.e., put-together, attractive—feels a lot like “looking straight.” As I assimilate to this passable neutrality in my wardrobe, ditching T-shirts and baggy jeans for blouses and cigarette pants in my embrace of femininity, I relish the concurrent assimilation to “looking straighter,” to looking less markedly something else.
In light of all this, maybe it’s understandable why I’m fine with not asking any questions at all, at least for the time being. I think there is a delicious joy in the feelings you can’t name, the loves that live too deep within to trivialize with everyday words. Being out for so long was exhausting work, so—if only for now—I savor my retirement into not knowing.
Harmony Graziano is a Columbia College senior who has lots of extra #NOH8 stickers lying around, if you’re interested. She may not know what team she’s batting for right now, but fear not: A Glee-flavored pride fire eternally rages on somewhere within. If you’re wont to criticize this piece as being latently homophobic, drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org for an HD photo of her on Halloween in 2011; she went as a gay pride Smurf, blue skin and all, though she’s since ditched the rainbow suspenders. The Bitching Hour runs alternate Wednesdays.
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