An abridged version of this essay, entitled “When Your Husband is Not a Man,” was recently featured on YahooShine.
I’ll tell you a secret.
I still have some internalized homophobia. I get squeamish when I have to come out, even if it’s a circumstance where nobody gives a damn, which is pretty much my circumstance most of the time.
I don’t have to come out very often, but the situation does arise if I have to say, switch opthamologists. Or if Ray wants to play with a child whose parent I do not know.
I have my reasons for hating the words, “I’m gay” or “I’m lesbian” and yes, I realize that I am not a very coalesced homosexual because of it. I understand that I have my work to do, but like, whatever. If I feel more comfortable coming out by saying my spouse is a professor and she works at a small college in Poughkeepsie, than that’s my choice. Leave me alone. Don’t be hateful.
People hear what they want to hear, though, and sometimes they aren’t expecting something so subtle as a delicately placed she; sometimes, you must still spell it out. Sometimes, you must still use the G word. The L word.
These words confer identity, I think, and sometimes I’m not up for the branding.
When I figured out that I needed to be with someone of my same sex, the first terrifying image that came to mind was a bald woman in birkenstocks and army fatigues. You know the one. Because of the patriarchy, she doesn’t wear a bra.
I’m simplifying for the purpose of a joke, obviously, but now I’ll further complicate the matter by saying that I respect what these women are doing. They bear the brunt of a homophobic society. I can pass as heterosexual; they embody the stereotype and they pay the price.
So it’s my own internalized homophobia that causes me to worry about being identified with a subgroup. But at the same time, I know that in being who they are, in being authentic, these women are doing something brave. Whether they intend to or not.
Society takes gender boundaries very seriously. Violating them doesn’t win you an entree into a life of wealth or privilege. Let alone physical safety.
What’s truly sad is that heterosexuals never fear getting lumped into a category where they’re identified with the attributes society disapproves of most intensely. Do heterosexuals have to worry about being reduced to a stereotype? Maybe. But not as much as homosexuals do. It’s a sad state of affairs. It’s changing as more people come out, but we still have a long way to go.
One time, when I was alone in Asheville, North Carolina (highest lesbian population per capita!) I decided that I wanted to live there forever. I approached some women in a coffee shop to inquire as to which neighborhood was the most likely to be heavily populated with Billie Jean King lookalikes.
Which neighborhood had the highest concentration of lesbians? I wondered. The women I approached resembled the ones I’ve been talking about, the subset of a larger minority. Their hair was short. Their brassieres (if worn at all) were clearly not living up to their job descriptions.
I went right up to them, excused myself, and in a polite, if quavering and timorous whisper, said, “Excuse me, but are you…community?”
When I was married to a man and having an affair with a woman, I learned about this secret code word, this password to a club into which only homosexuals are invited, this community. One utterance of this word at any time or any place and a sun shower of homosexuals will fan the rainbow flag and throw out flavored dental dams. Try it some time. Even if you aren’t gay. It really works.
The two women looked up at me suspiciously and said, Yeah. What’s it to ya.
Fine, they didn’t say what’s it to ya, but they did say yeah. For a second I wondered if they were going to pull a gun out from under their cheesecakes and shoot me in the toe. But amazingly, when I asked them my question about gay neighborhoods, they put down their quinoa brownies and suggested a number of streets and intersections. They didn’t exactly ask me to sit down with them, but they were nice enough.
The trouble with using the word community to talk about yourself as a gay person, however, is that it’s a word only other gay people use. It’s not like I can tell my friend’s mother-in-law, oh, I don’t have a husband. I’m community. She’d probably think I was telling her that I just joined the JCC.
Just recently, after I told the parent of a child in Ray’s Suzuki violin class that I was one of two moms, she looked at me with a completely straight face and said, “There was a girl in my daughter’s class who had that.”
Had what? The malaise of homosexuality? The disfiguring disease of conjoined motherhood?
Once, when I was adjuncting at St. John’s university, the topic of homosexuality came up.
“I heard it runs in families,” I heard an English professor say.
“Oh yes,” I chimed in. “My brother and I both inherited homophilia. Haven’t you heard? It’s very catching. Do you want your spoon back?”
I don’t want to be labeled, see. Who does? Even if only a portion of the lesbian population have wiffles, I still have trouble coming out with it in ordinary conversation. I hate the word “lesbian” because it makes me think of a bunch of women wearing patchouli and making out with each other on some Greek island. Gay is generally a term for the boys (although I do use it) and queer still means strange to a lot of people. I do love the word homosexual because there’s a whiff of the scientific there, and it’s funny, but admittedly I say the word in a humorous way as a coping mechanism.
Hi, I’m Amy, and I’m a homosexual. A homosexual.
To call oneself any one thing — a homosexual or a writer or a parent or a squirrel killer, for that matter, is just plain reductive. Nobody want to be any one thing. I am the sum of all my complicated and contradictory parts.
But sometimes, as with the Suzuki violin mother, introductions occur, and you have to come up with something better than same-sex touchmonkey or Zena warrior.
(Incidentally I hate it when heterosexuals refer to Lynn as my “wife.” Lots of lesbians have no problem with this, but as a writer I’m particularly sensitive to language, and I just can’t stand it. If Lynn is my wife, then I must be her husband, which must really suck for her, since she is a homosexual. A homosexual.)
I have found a solution to this issue, though. I have my own special little stock phrase that I integrate into a conversation, and so far it has worked out beautifully.
Here’s what I do: from time to time, when I have to let someone know that my spouse is female, I simply work the phrase my-husband-has-no-penis into the exchange.
This is a very effective strategy. It is funny, it is fast, and you don’t have to use the words transgender queer.
Fine, I give you that it’s a lot longer than the word gay, but it’s infinitely more original, especially when you are at a gas station having a cigarette and you can casually blow smoke out the side of your mouth and say, oh, you know, my husband has no penis, so we just use the same rest room at the truck stop.
When Lynn and I were first trying to get pregnant, we spent a lot of time at the fertility clinic. We spoke to many physicians at the outset who tried to convince me that we needed to use medical intervention in order to get pregnant. Conversations generally went something like this:
Fancy Fertility Doctor: Let’s stimulate your ovaries to make more eggs. This will increase your chances of getting pregnant.
Me: (holding Lynn’s hand as she sits next to me): Can’t we just thaw the stuff out and throw it in there?
FFD: It’s not an efficacious way of doing it.
Me: Yes, but, it seems so aggressive. I’ve never even tried to get pregnant.
FFD: How old are you?
FD: All right, so we’ll start you on the Gonal F —
Me: But isn’t this a fertility clinic? For folks with fertility problems?
Me: I don’t know if I’m infertile. I mean, do you have any statistics?
FD: What kind of statistics?
Me: Like, how many women come to the infertility office to get pregnant not because of low sperm count or advanced maternal age, but because, you know, their husband has no penis. Ha ha. HA HA HA HA HA.
Me: My husband has no penis! HA HA HA HA HA HA
I can’t get pregnant, I’d go on, pointing to Lynn. We try and try but something must be very wrong with him, doctor, I really do think something is terribly wrong.
At this point Lynn turns purple and looks out the window. Sometimes she’ll smile meekly and say this is Amy from the Catskills Resort, and her next joke will be….
For some reason I find my little joke absolutely hysterical. I realize as I am writing this that it sounds inane and embarrassing and puerile, like I’m in the seventh grade in Gloria Vanderbilts and feathered hair. But every time I say it, it just gets funnier and funnier. More importantly, it also makes real sense. What could be a more banal, a more pedestrian and reasonable way to work into a conversation that you are gay than to say that your husband has no penis?
Since my husband has no penis, we don’t have federal marriage protection under the law.
My husband has no penis — of course we love the Indigo Girls.
Sure do wish my husband had a penis. If he did, he surely wouldn’t need to adopt his own three kids.
Since my husband has no penis I had to drive all the way to Mt. Kisco to get my ovaries fluffed before Tuesday’s insemination in Manhattan.
Usually nobody laughs at my private joke, but I am always happy to have it. It means I don’t have to say it. Lesbian. Gay. Homosexual.
I hate the label, so I make a joke. I don’t want to be reduced, so I make a joke. I make a joke, I make a joke, I make a joke.
I wouldn’t be the first now, would I?
One time, at one of my poker games, my friend Melissa, a dentist, told me that after I had gone in for a cleaning, her administrative assistant shook her head sadly after me, saying, “That poor woman. Did she tell you? Her husband,” and here she lowered her voice to a whisper, “Her husband has no penis.”
Melissa said she was very confused for a few minutes and tried to figure out what in god’s name her poor office worker could be talking about.
Her husband, the assistant repeated, and I imagine her looking around the office at all the other patients reading their magazines, and lowering her head behind the computer monitor to finish her sentence.
The husband. He has no penis.
It took Melissa a while to explain to the woman that I was a lesbian, and that I didn’t have a husband at all.
“But what about the penis,” she insisted. “What happened to it? How did it come off? How terribly painful that must have been. For both of them. In different ways, of course.”
Melissa said they had to go around a few times before it was all straightened out and the next patient could go in for his bite wings.
At this point most of the women around my Texas Hold ‘em table were wiping their eyes and crying over this poor office assistant who seriously thought the reason I was having trouble conceiving was because, despite vigorous attempts, my penis-less husband was unable to squeeze any seeds from her fruitless loins.
“She’s a lesbian, Roz,” I imagine Melissa saying. “A lesbian. And, she’s weird,” Melissa adds. “Most of the time she makes jokes that nobody understands. People don’t know what she’s talking about. It’s sad.”
Readers, I am very sorry you had to read this post. I am only now rereading and I must say, this type of writing breaks new ground in the personal narrative genre. Melissa, I am sorry I dragged you and your office worker into this.
I must admit that I would love to know if any of you use different terms to get around the discomfort of coming out. If you are reading this and you are not a homosexual, then try and drum up a gay memory or two, perhaps the time you made out with your best friend in college. Please share your experiences and thoughts on my very public forum. What do you have to lose? At worst you’ll be deeply humiliated. At best there is always deep shame. It’s all good. Everybody wins.