I was fourteen when I saw a lesbian, S, for the first time and it registered as such. It was my first day of high school. The subject of my infatuation was a junior, and my sister and her friends were seniors. She was sixteen, laughing, and being obnoxious around some of my sister’s friends, including S’s then-girlfriend who was also my sister’s good friend. The first lesbian ever had short black hair. Korean-American. Glasses. Exuberant and god, so confident. She seemed so care-free and laughative. I became obsessed instantaneously. She opened a door. I didn’t even know people had doors before then.
This revelation happened about seven days after I had managed to escape the invasion overseas and arrive back in the States. I’m impressed by this series of events. I’m impressed by the absurdity. The magnitude of those experiences being crammed into such a short period of time at an age when I wasn’t exactly self-aware or great at psychologically processing events was something I felt viscerally. Sometimes it was like everything in my body was flung upwards, and I was going to leave my body and become air — like when I saw S. It was like my blood changed the way it moved around inside of me. Sometimes my blood curdled, harrowed, waves of this substance inside of me heaving and mutating and sticking in all the wrong places, suffocating me. Sometimes the blood became so many needles flowing through me and pricking me with shame, guilt, and self-loathing. At any moment I would be seized by a specific emotion accompanied by natural disasters or flocks of birds or falling trees inside of my body. Before all of this, my body had just been a simple container. Now, reality was too forceful, and my body was trying to keep up as I very hurriedly became an adult.
My infatuation with S was agonizing because I had no idea how to approach her. Two years passed of me thinking about her all the time and only timidly acknowledging her when we happened to be in the same vicinity at school. Before one of our first outings together, I still remember writing out note-cards to put in my pocket of topics to bring up in case I got nervous and couldn’t think. Eventually, though, I became braver about approaching her, and then we became lovers. It was a living piece of art, the two of us. She made me feel like being a lesbian was the most natural, most precious gift anybody could be given. Her confidence was my confidence when I was with her. She drew me when I played piano and cello for her. I showed her Liszt and Chopin. She talked and thought about sex like she had been having it for decades. I was not ready, I was not ready to be vulnerable and naked, but I wanted to be, and so she drew me into that world and she tried to make it sacred for me when she could. And she drew me wearing only my prized boy briefs on the floor of her apartment when she went to art school. How could I hate my body then? How could I believe my father’s viciousness then? And the faceless F-16 pilots who dropped bombs in my neighborhood a few years before and nearly killed me? What idiots! I’m not ugly gun-fodder! I’m a beautiful, strong lesbian with ten new nicknames and a notebook full of animal drawings and portraits my lover gave to me. I disappeared into her.
We were highly romantic and emotional adolescents, but I still see some kind of stable truth on the path we walked. S helped me glimpse my lesbianism not as a burden, but as a portal to something otherworldly. It was hard to be a lesbian in the South in a Muslim family, but even after we broke up, I carried with me this stone she gave me. Lesbian Truth Stone (lol!). I turned it over in my figurative pocket. Between us, two women loving each other felt like a mystical union, a gift. What we had was infused with love and compassion that we had not been given enough of before. It is where we felt our own strength and created something through one another with each other’s goodness, our purity and curiosity, and also our darkness and confusion. Sometimes we just created ugly stuff, or even stupid penguin drawings after a drawn-out conflict, but no matter what, she made me believe that two women loving each other is rooted in the same thing art and music is rooted in, something beyond our world, and that two women together is a life-giving force. And no matter what my rational mind tells me, she turned a disillusioned atheist into some kind of spiritual lesbian — forever.
We broke up after some time. It was ugly because we were broken kids that didn’t know how to take care of anything properly. But soon after, my mother asked me why S wasn’t around anymore. I said, “We broke up. I’m a lesbian.”
And she goes….”Well, just please don’t shave your head.”
I didn’t for years. I didn’t cut my hair. I really love my mother and have been making peace with her opinions, even her accidental meanness. In retrospect I think her response, though insensitive, is hilarious and also reflective of reality. She knew what she was saying, even if her remark was flippant. You can be a lesbian as long as nobody else can tell you’re a lesbian. You can even secretly think being a lesbian will help you access some mystical alternate universe, and you can even secretly know that you would never push a “Become Straight” button if you could, but just don’t let the world know that via your appearance, please.
It has been the greater part of a decade since S and I were together. I have been gradually cutting my hair shorter. I kept my hair at a gender-conforming length for a long time. When I finally cut my hair very short — the kind of length that gets me sir’ed about 75% of the time — I liked it so much that I resented myself for waiting so many years. But after reflecting on S, I realize that my appearance protected who I am for long enough for that part of me to grow without being destroyed too badly. Perfect strangers could not take that Lesbian Truth Stone I had if they didn’t even know it was there. Of course, men in school tried to take it all the time when I told them I was a lesbian. Straight friends disrespected the stone all the time. But I could battle that.
Now that my hair is short and I’m with someone who kind of dresses and looks like Ellen Degeneres, people throughout every crevice of my life frequently try to take away the love I have for being a lesbian. They know I am a lesbian woman now. They can see it. I resemble their stereotype, so some people are rude and hurtful. Other people who fancy themselves as visionaries thinks it means I’m a man, or I’m at least not a woman — I’m something in between. Somehow my entire life of living womanhood just doesn’t matter now that I have short hair, and can’t I see that? That I’m not this? That this body isn’t meant for me? But I am this. I am a lesbian. I am a woman. This body is not a simple container anymore. It hasn’t been since I was fourteen, since life happened, since I woke up and opened the door and had to struggle with this body endlessly. It’s mine to struggle with, and it’s good enough. On top of that, I have carried and cherished that metaphorical lesbian stone for a long time. The stone is buried inside of me now. Not snatchable. People snatch handfuls of dirt trying to get to it, and it’s painful, but nothing more than that can be truly taken.
I was lucky enough to be a part of S’s life, even if it was a short and tumultuous relationship. I have no idea how a young woman whose father beat her furiously with a belt for being a lesbian the year before I met her had such enthusiasm and self-confidence about loving women. She didn’t teach me anything that was separate from who I am. She just showed me something all of us can access with time and maybe more practice than she ever needed: Acceptance of ourselves. Peace with ourselves. Enthusiasm about all the opportunities for connection and healing that loving women affords us in a world that is too often cruel. Compassion and support for our partners and lesbian friends. Creating art and ideas with and through them.