*a version of this article was published on Curve, Oct 24, 2016 and Huffington Post, Nov 04, 2016
I remember the year it all began. The twin towers still stood proud. Manhattan still seemed indestructible. My faith in the general goodness of people wasn’t yet marred. And although I was suffering my first real heartbreak (the kind that has you trying everything to win back the girl—everything from candle magic, to palm readers, to therapy), I still held a certain innocence.
Caught somewhere between the comforting teenage fluff of my stuffed animal collection and the harsh screeching sound of the 6 train coming to a halt on 23rd, I didn’t realize what I’d be in for when I decided to come clean: The dance studio owner that would tell me she’d have to “speak to the parents” (to see if I could continue to teach classes at her school). The strange looks that I’d get when the word “girlfriend” came up in conversation. The disapproving stares that something as mundane as holding hands would invite. The word ‘lesbian’ seemed to invalidate everything else about me… It held so much stigma.
After leaving the college bubble, the urgent idealism of campus life followed me wherever I went. I walked to work with the confidence of a girl who’d been fed widely-used platitudes her whole life: absurd things we love to tell our youth, like, “You can do anything you want to do, if you work hard enough.” I was naive. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to put an end to the awful stares that so often managed to push me into seclusion.
Books were the perfect escape. A great way to avoid eye contact.
At the time, my desire to read books was insatiable. I loved the feeling of curling up on the subway with a good paperback. I loved everything about it: the cover, the feel of the pages, the cup of scalding-hot tea warming my right hand. I read constantly, but quickly ran out of books that were really well-written pieces of fiction with lesbian protagonists—there were only a handful. However, I never ever ran out of really well-written literature with straight protagonists. This really bothered me, so I decided to write a nice piece of fiction, hop the barb-wired fence, and sneak it into mainstream publishing.
After all, why shouldn’t someone like me write a fiction novel and attempt to integrate it into standard genres? Is it detrimental to readers and society to segregate literature because of a character’s sexuality?
We live in a world where we’re constantly fed media images, T.V. shows and movies, with straight protagonists and straight love stories. My life was rarely represented as more than a cliche or a punchline. After a while you start to wonder if this world is a place where you really belong.
I didn’t want to feel like such an anomaly—so I decided to write a book about someone like me and publish it through a mainstream publisher, because a book like this would help normalize a life that seemed so abnormal to society at large. After all, millions of people around the world were being singled out, and so much worse.
If my black and white department had a lull, instead of sitting in the dark, waiting for the next custom order, I’d take out my laptop and type.
A book that crossed barriers could help young people who were struggling to feel like they belonged, and maybe even help the older generations who’d grown up with such cruel stigma, that they often found themselves fading into the shadows. I’d only just begun to fade and it was a terrible feeling.
The book wouldn’t end like other well-written lesbian novels. My protagonists wouldn’t die or be robbed of all hope. The characters would often face harsh realities, but their sexuality wouldn’t take center stage. Instead, the girl-meets-girl love story would be somewhat cradled in a tight-knit town, with a sort of unspoken acceptance. It’d be craftily woven into a bigger story, about a haunted county in the 1950s with lots of secrets. It would read like any other good piece of mainstream literature and there’d be no need to pigeonhole.
Those platitudes we tell our youth were still so fresh: “What the mind can conceive, it can achieve.” Access to a wider audience was essential—reaching the bullies and the people who sat by and said nothing, parents who disowned their children and leaders of the free world, so that we, the rainbow people, wouldn’t seem so strange to outsiders. I embarked on this challenging path with the unwavering faith of a child in the confession booth.
In 2006, I met my wife—the kind of girl I’d been writing about for so many years, the kind you don’t think really exists till you meet her. It was time to finally try to get my stories out there. The submission process was disenchanting. In the years to come, asked to rewrite the characters “straight” more than once, I stubbornly clung to my principles.
By 2007 my dance company was hailed by Curve magazine as “the sexiest dyke-dance troupe on the planet.” I was making my mark and using all things girl-cliché to do it: high heels, lipstick, push-up bras, fishnets. But at the same time, I was craftily using all things girl-cliché to put andro-chicks into the spotlight. The old bait-and-switch. If a venue had a problem with it, I wouldn’t bend. Our shows were for women (even when we took over a straight venue). There was a mission in this. Visibility. Something dangerously lacking for categorically ‘butch’ lesbians.
There was always an underlying mission to push the boundaries with the hope of normalizing what was seen as so abnormal to the outside.
By 2008, when I said things like “This is my wife,” people gave me a new kind of look. The kind that assumed we’d snagged a California marriage certificate during the brief window of marriage equality. It seemed like the perfect time for a book like mine…so the rejections felt as nonsensical as the “Yes on 8” signs littering lawns all over L.A.
As those rejections kept coming in I was faced with one awful conclusion: The work was too gay to be mainstream and “not gay enough” to be pigeonholed. The mainstream didn’t seem to have a place for me. I realized something else: I’d been pitching to the very mainstream publishing world that lead the matriarchs of lesbian publishing to start up their own small presses.
I hadn’t even considered that courting the mainstream could put off the matriarchs of my own community. They’d carved out a safe-haven for the next generation. A cozy rainbow-quilted pigeonhole so we could have a voice and a place to go when the outside rejected us. Carving that corner took a great deal of courage when they did it. I was ‘growing up’ and developing a deeper understanding… Starting to realize how vital it is to have lesbian autonomy and publications.
My generation was trying to push too. We sang along to the semi-melodic feminist rantings of Ani DiFranco and snickered at the half-joking, wrist-slapping, homophobia of modern media. It was never my intention to turn my back on the rainbow; on the contrary, the idea was to wave it as far and wide as possible.
Over the years, as I typed and typed, the whole world changed around me. The beloved skyline of Manhattan, Starbucks popping up on every corner, MySpace and then Facebook. Soon we were Snapchatting and Instagramming. Somewhere in there, I left Saint Theresa Avenue, the Bronx and the 6 train, where I dreamed all those lofty dreams. Somewhere in there, I went to California, started a dance company, met the love of my life and became a better writer. Somewhere in there, I came back to the land where Lady Liberty still watches over the towering hopes and dreams of the city.
In the summer of 2015, a small lesbian press wrote to me. They wanted to publish my novel.
So: Is it detrimental to readers and society to segregate literature? Is there no place for a fiction book about someone like me among the standard genres? Can’t I be standard? I’m an anomaly, but I think most writers are. I’m an anomaly, but not in the way society might think I am. In all actuality, my love life might just be the most normal thing about me.
My sister recently put it into very plain and perfect words: “[Segregating literature] perpetuates the thought that people who read mainstream ‘straight’ love stories need to be somehow ‘protected’ from gay or lesbian characters that would make them feel uncomfortable.”
No one tried to protect me from the plethora of straight love stories. No one gave a second thought to my comfort. I didn’t need protection; I just needed to see myself reflected in the landscape. To know my existence had a place outside the bubble.
As far as we’ve come, it’s not enough. I still get those stares and still think twice before taking my wife’s hand to cross the street. If we go into a barbershop, the barber will likely insult my wife. If we go to the market someone is sure to intentionally call her ‘sir.’ So we stay home a lot more than we should, and we do our best with a pair of clippers.
I end this with my new favorite quote, because these words need to land themselves in as many places as possible: “There’s plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women.”—Madeline Albright.
I grew up in a world that told me I was limited—On television, in magazines, and in my own backyard. And at the same time, I was enveloped in platitudes—Words that weren’t written for ‘people like me.’ I don’t have the luxury of being mediocre, not as a woman, and certainly not as a lesbian. I feel the weight of this responsibility. In everything I do, I have to claw and fight.
Part of me still resides somewhere on the 6 train, full of big dreams, riding to and from reality, flipping through pages, lost in the gentle comfort of a great paperback. The other part of me finds herself exhausted, falling back onto the rainbow quilt in the cozy corner that was carved out for ‘people like me.’ But make no mistake, I, along with so many others, will fight from that corner until the words ‘people like me’ are as antiquated as the glimmering platitudes of childhood.
Julia Diana Robertson is an award-winning author (without a publisher).