My first date ever took place at a Planned Parenthood rally. It was autumn. Northampton, Massachusetts. We drew up posters in her dorm room and hot-glued them to yardsticks she borrowed from the Physics department. We took a public bus.
I was a first-year at Mount Holyoke College; you can’t say freshman because it’s a women’s college, and you’re constantly reminded of this through verbal wrist-slaps involving discussions of the complicit biases in language working to center men and other masculine-identified people in the largely patriarchal social landscape.
My date’s name was Jenna and it was her idea to go to the rally. She said it was our duty as privileged women to go, to help marginalized women who are also more susceptible to unwanted children, or pap smears, or lack of funding, or something like that. She was a year older than me, so I agreed.
The street crowded with students, mostly women, some with shaved heads or piercings, wearing shirts with clever sayings that might have been funny if I was in on the joke, and big, stomping boots. There was yelling. The wind carried voices, leaves, the frizzled onion smell from the burger place down the road. A billboard on the side of a brick building displayed an advertisement for the upcoming Fifty Shades of Gray movie.
“I would consider seeing that,” I said, pointing to it.
She sighed, annoyed. “You know, Kathryn, Fifty Shades of Gray is really problematic, the portrayals of BDSM culture depicted are really inaccurate and unhealthy.”
“Yeah, but like, as a joke, maybe.”
She didn’t call me after that.
In a parallel universe, I might be good at being gay. I only date women. I drive a Subaru. I love hummus. But in this reality, something about the extracurricular activities that come with such a prestigious title have always been too serious, too time-consuming. I don’t have time to volunteer for refugees in the Czech Republic. I don’t care about the effect my meat consumption has on the ozone layer. I don’t want to join a co-op urban garden.
I went to an open forum at The Jeanette Marks House one time, which served as the LGBT Center at the college, built by the acting president in the 1900s as a secret house for her female lover. Lesbians congregated there to have polite discussions about oppression, or body hair, or the sodium level of the vegan options in the dining hall. This particular forum facilitated a dialogue surrounding the adoption of the word “queer” as a catch-all term.
This didn’t mean much to me, but some girls from my Geography course were going, and I craved their approval the way neglected children might seek it from their parents. They were the cool girls. The political girls. The ones who wore their pants high on their hips and rolled joints under the bridge. They cut each other’s hair in the communal bathrooms.
The Jeanette Marks House had a chalkboard wall, complete with a list of rules written in yellow, things like “be respectful” or “wait your turn,” but one rule shone golden above the rest, and one participant picked it apart like a pus-filled cyst.
“Yeah, I see you have ‘Step Forward, Step Back,’ up there,” she said.
Step Forward, Step Back was a campus initiative, meant to get the overbearing to shut up, and the socially inept more involved.
The girl continued, “Well, I think that’s great, but I just want you to know that we should probably change it to ‘Move Forward, Move Back’ because ‘step’ indicates an ability that not everyone has.”
I glanced around the room. Legs! Legs everywhere! Legs on the carpet sitting crisscross applesauce, legs slumped over the sofa. Groups of legs intertwining with each other like snakes. A purple hairy leg wearing a stiletto drawn on the wall. There were no paraplegics, no wheel-chair bound people in sight.
I laughed. Hard. I expected everyone to join in, the petty change of phrasing a sure waste of breath. Or a dry joke. No one said anything. No one else laughed.
After the meeting I found myself cornered by four people, a council of elders.
“That was really not cool, laughing like that. Really disrespectful,” said one.
I still thought they were kidding.
“Look, when you laugh at other people, that makes this space unsafe, because it makes them feel like their ideas aren’t worth taking seriously. You see?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t come back.”
My ex-communication was immediate, and word spread fast. Like someone had pinned a red “A” on my chest, except in this story it stands for asshole. I was the bully. The instigator. No doubt, the cause of suffering for all of humanity. I made safe spaces unsafe, could flip them inside-out like empty pomegranate halves. No one would talk to me in class or sit with me at dinner. I wasn’t a real feminist and I didn’t belong.
There’s something strange about being a freak among freaks, the sensation that comes from being glared at by members of an inclusive group. It’s the way sporty moms with long ponytails stare at kids with tattoos, or crash landing on a foreign planet where no one can communicate with you. Alien.
Soon I dropped out, returning home again.
My best friend’s older sister owns a t-shirt that says, “DIP ME IN HONEY AND THROW ME TO THE LESBIANS,” written across the front.
She says lesbians are vicious. Always looking to pick a fight.
In a way, she is right. It is impossible to remain politically flawless forever, and when black spots appear on your record they spread, cancerous. In queer circles, no one shows mercy for the ill-informed.
I’m on a date with someone whose name I forget on purpose. We get Thai food and go for a walk.
She asks, “Can I hold your hand?”
“Yeah, I mean, I guess. Sure.”
“Is this okay?” she asks.
“What about this?”
“You good with this?”
“Yeah. Great. Sure.”
And it goes on. This is nothing like the movies. There’s no frenzied rush upstairs, no romantic thrust against the wall.
“Can you just like, stop asking me?” I say. “It’s sorta weird.”
She asks me about consent, like, how will she know if she doesn’t ask? But I feel like I’m inside a high school PSA—too forced, too rehearsed, too awkward.
“Yeah, this is weird. I’m over it.” I start getting dressed.
I’ve been dumped for being mean-spirited. Selfish. Not feminist enough. For treating everything like a joke and having a lack of emotional vulnerability. Are these things true? Yes, probably. But I’ve also been called a Republican. A rape apologist. A male sympathizer. A traitor.
I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve been preached to in inappropriate situations. The amount of “you know’s” and “actually’s” and “well, but’s” that I’ve come into contact with are too numerous. There’s never any irony in these lectures, no sense that maybe I didn’t want a social purification lesson to go with my bowl of cereal or while brushing my teeth. At 21, I’ve given up trying to adjust to these teachings.
At 21, I have no gay friends left. I can’t get a date, either. My classmates from Mount Holyoke have abandoned me, pretending that I never existed. And maybe I didn’t. Not there. Not me.
An old classmate shares pictures from a violent protest she attended on Facebook. There’s caution tape, a light dusting of tear gas hangs from the images like morning dew. People are on the ground, crying, shouting, bleeding.
In the comments someone writes, “You should really preface this with a content warning, these images could be mentally harmful to sufferers of psychological disorders.”
Someone else reminds us that not everyone has the capacity to loiter on the steps of the Town Hall, so protest organizers should really keep accessibility in mind when planning for location in the future.
Additional comments billow in like smoke. They move quickly, engulf everything, swallow up naysayers whole.
I am at home at the kitchen table, watching the battle from behind my computer. I want to join in and call out participants, peel apart their arguments like scabs. But I stop. I can’t bring myself to challenge them or engage with the discourse. So the fight rages on as I watch in silence, until one triumphant lesbian lays down enough buzzwords to scare off her foes. Until someone else attacks. And the dust settles again.