I wasn’t going to write another blog until I had figured out what I meant by saying “put on some shoes” in my last blog. I was mixing metaphors, I know, what with the walls and the shoes. I will get back to that once I figure out what I mean by shoes exactly.
I had one of those moments last night, however, when things suddenly came together and made sense. Real sense, not just the “I read that and know it reasonably applies to my experience,” kind of sense. This was more like describing the laws of physics while watching a trebuchet. It made sense because I could see it all happening at once.
To begin, I must again make the confession: For the years between my twelfth birthday and my thirtieth I was convinced I was straight. I was CERTAINLY NOT GAY. One of the main reasons why I knew I was CERTAINLY NOT GAY was because I was deeply involved in writing this novel – or series of novels, or collections of short stories, or poems, or long, involved journal entries – about a man. There were also a lot of drawings. Like, a lot of drawings. Like I would probably say the foundations of my current drawing skills all go back to trying to draw this one face. I wrote once, “You have been a fact of my life for years – every story, every image, every song.”
Some serious dedication there.
When I finally came to my senses the summer I turned 30, I said, “Everything is broken. It’s all broken.” What I meant was that I could finally wipe out all those years of being dedicated to the search for That Man from my Books. I was quite happy to do so, too, because by 30 the whole ordeal had become very tiring and a little embarrassing. Still looking for that guy you wrote about in high school? Yeah, that’s normal. It was wonderful to throw myself into all the actresses and singers and female characters I’d held at arm’s length for years, grin foolishly at attractive women I saw out in the world – glimpses of them everywhere! – and feel like I was finally experiencing real life. I kept writing, of course, but now I wrote about a varied cast of female characters, all different from one another, all unique. I reveled in their differences and how none of it was at all like that man in that story I’d been obsessed with for so many years.
But it didn’t stop bothering me that for 18 years of my life I had been, as far as I knew, dedicated to the idea of loving a man. It wasn’t just the idea, either – the whole “I need to be in love with a man/a man will fix everything” was entirely subconscious. What I felt in day-to-day life, what I felt while writing, while drawing, while searching for him in the faces of men I would certainly never meet, was a very intense emotional attachment and, dare I say, love. I don’t know how else to describe it except to say it was really deep-seated, really emotional, and really loving. As mad as it was, it brought an amazing richness to my life because it allowed me to express my own love – it allowed me, at times, to open up wholeheartedly to the richness of human feeling – and that’s where the whole key to this lies.
In the past year I’ve been introduced to a lot of terms I’d never heard before. Heteronormativity. Compulsory heterosexuality. Internalized homophobia. For the first time, I felt like I had an explanation for those eighteen years. I grew up in a very heterosexual household with very clear gender roles and not a hint of an alternative anywhere. Combine that with all the movies and TV shows stressing how romance between a man and a woman is the key to a life of happiness and what else was I to reach for? So all of that writing and drawing, right down to the “find my Alexander” goal I had published under my photo in my high school yearbook, all of that must have simply been an elaborate coping mechanism for a terribly repressed young lesbian. I may never have gone on a date with a boy, but no one – including me – could suspect I was gay with all those notebooks and sketchbooks filled with this man.
All that makes perfect sense. Heteronormity. Compulsory heterosexuality. Internalized homophobia. I was dedicated for 18 years to finding this very specific man to love because I couldn’t wrap my head around being a lesbian. Makes perfect sense.
But it still bothered me.
It bothered me more when I started writing my book over, that very same story I had written when I was fifteen, with the characters who had been in my head since I was twelve. I spent a good amount of time trying to figure out how to rewrite it “correctly.” The first thing I did was banish Alexander, that male love interest, from the plot. He was The Man. He could not be used in a story of a lesbian who now would fall in love with another woman. But he kept sneaking back in as possible side-characters; I just couldn’t get rid of him. Finally, I said, okay. Fine. Be that way. Stick around a little longer. But now, instead of being a man named Alexander you’re going to be a woman named Alis. Go right back into the plot as you were and we’ll see how we all like it.
The way everything clicked into place once I did that was almost spooky. Back in the day, I had beat up on Alexander as much as I could in order to make him fit the narrative. He was at times a recovering womanizer or a recovering alcoholic, he had one leg cut off at the knee. He was a tortured creative soul forced into the military, forced to make war instead of music. He was homeless, he was jilted, he was broken-hearted. He was downtrodden. He was – somehow, somehow he had to be – oppressed.
What magic happened when I made him a woman I never would have understood until now, until I’d grasped the basics of feminism and what the patriarchy is. Alis, the woman, doesn’t need any of those contrived character attributes. She has two legs. She doesn’t drink to excess or play the sympathy card of being a recovering anything. She hasn’t been deeply wounded by not being allowed to chase her dream of playing the cello. She’s simply a woman and a lesbian in a patriarchal culture which oppresses her. Her entire story, all its heartbreak and triumphs, unfolds naturally from there. The entire plot, including the relationship between the two main characters, suddenly makes perfect sense.
And the character never changed. I find myself writing the same looks, the same smiles, the same phrasing of dialog that I wrote for that male character over a decade ago. The same exact personality. It has disturbed me at times, making me question if I ever really left Alexander or still have some ties to that man. I think we all question our sexuality sometimes, and this kept making me question mine, until it all unfurled last night as I was trying to get to sleep.
You see, radio dramas have been bothering me, too. I’ve been listening to BBC Radio 4 Extra while I draw lately, and I can tell, nine times out of ten, if a drama has been written by a man or a woman by the way the female characters play out. At times it’s been really, really grating. I’ve heard similar perspectives from female artists who have said they can almost always tell if a woman has been painted by a male or female artist. One female artist I was listening to on a podcast this past week was asked why she most often paints women instead of men. She said, “It’s the body I live in. It’s the experience I know.”
That was lingering in my mind last night as I tried to get to sleep. I was thinking of Alis and the deep, emotional attachment I feel for her – that feels just like what I’ve always felt, a fact of my life for years. And I was thinking about the creative process and what it means to be a man or a woman, and how often I see reblogged by radfems, “A man can’t feel like a woman. A woman can’t feel like a man.” The experience of the opposite sex is something totally foreign to us – I learned that when I went through my trans thing last summer. We can learn about what it means to be a man or a woman and try our best to replicate it, but it’s always a replication and never the real thing. How the hell did I think I could write a deeply emotional portrayal of a man when I was fifteen? What was I actually writing? What was I actually so attached to?
Sure, we’re surrounded by men. Our media is inundated by men, and by poorly-constructed women created by men. That struck me, too – my female characters are nothing like the female characters I hear on Radio 4 Extra. They are, however, just like me, and just like the voices of women I read in blogs, in articles, in intelligent online arguments where they pull out all the stops and state things as they are. They are like women written by women – even though I never thought they could be. How ruined was my image of women by the world around me, by the media I consumed? So ruined I couldn’t relate to the women around me. So ruined I couldn’t accept myself as what others called “woman”. So ruined I could certainly never realize I was actually writing a woman – what I knew, what I loved, what I was myself – and not a man.
How could I have written anything but a woman? In my own voice, in my deepest, most sincere desires for love and attachment, with no effort at all – oh, it never took any effort – how could I have written anything but a woman?
After all, that man Alexander – I never drew him naked. Not once. I never wanted to. I never described his body in any other words than the most soft and elegant. I insisted he was soft and elegant and not hard-edged or “masculine” in any way. I toned him down from the default male excessively, which made him almost impossible to draw. I kept trying to draw a man who was actually supposed to be a woman. Page after page after page of the same face, the same portrait, never looking quite right to my eyes, because I was using the wrong body, the wrong format, all along.
I can draw Alis without thinking. She falls onto the page. Last week while practicing short poses I gave every one of them her hair and her face because the model had a body like I imagine hers to be and gosh was that ever motivating. When she’s introduced in the book, her features are described as “tight and hardened” because her innate female “softness” is automatically covered by her sex. There’s nothing to prove, nothing to search for, and all the same love.
This realization flowed over me last night with the kind of comfort that only comes by seeing a theory proven, by knowing the laws of nature and watching them play out before your eyes. Maybe I had gotten the body and the pronouns wrong because of all those other things – because of heteronormativity, compulsory heterosexuality, internalized homophobia – but I had been writing her, loving her, all along. I had been a lesbian all along.
It would have been so much easier, had I known. So much less angst and loneliness. So much less tearing myself and the world apart searching for what I loved. That what I loved should be female hadn’t been an option for me for 18 years. Thank heavens it is now.
This is all deeply personal, deeply internal stuff, I know. This is all stuff up in my head, all fiction, really – but you’d better believe if I happen across a grey-eyed, ginger-haired woman with a particular smile I am asking her out for dinner. What matters in all this, though, is the latent personal truth so often flowing just beneath our consciousness, sneaking out even when we’ve closed ourselves down, even when denying ourselves has become part of our daily chores. I scroll through the creative richness of tumblr sometimes – and yes, it is so often madness – and I see the drawing, the writing, the anguish and the desperate hope for love all spattered across the screen. Set against all that expression rings the constant questioning: What am I? What am I? What am I?
Some night, some afternoon, some dark and rainy or clear and sunny morning, the pieces fall into place, and you know. Some afternoon, far in the past, more than a decade ago, I watched a TV show I can’t remember and heard the words “No love is ever wasted.” Those words made me start sobbing when I heard them. They have always stayed with me, have always meant so much, and I never knew why.
Now, I know.