Cameron Esposito is a comedian with a fascinating intellect, and she’s also a close personal friend of mine. And by “close personal friend”, I mean we once got our hair cut next to one another, sitting side-by-side for nigh on twenty minutes. Although I only realized the blob next to me was a comedian I follow on Twitter in our final moments as haircut neighbors, because I hadn’t been wearing my glasses. Would I have said anything had I known the blob was Cameron Esposito? Probably not, but I knew who she was, because I’m a fan. I’m an even bigger fan after listening to her on The Nerdist Podcast.
The podcast was recorded the day SCOTUS made public their equal marriage decision. So it was a good day, but also an emotional one and that comes through in the interview. The conversation ranges from Esposito’s personal coming out story, to the different challenges that men and women, both gay and straight, face. They talk about how boys are called “gay” from an early age, generally as an insult and for a variety of behaviors. Some of those boys are actually gay and some aren’t, but they’re all aware of the concept and familiar with the terms from a young age. Not so with girls, says Esposito. It’s easy for girls to grow up without even knowing lesbians are a real thing.
That was the first part of the podcast that really hit home, and there would be more to follow which I’ll write about separately.
I grew up in a small and conservative town, where women were, essentially universally, male-identified and no one was gay. Being gay didn’t exist. The first time I saw, in person, two women show romantic affection for each other, I stared at them in shock, because I never even imagined I would witness such a thing. I was probably 19–a baby Angeleno, who’d moved to the city for college after visiting it only a handful of times.
I stared and stared, and the tumblers in my mind started to shift and turn and line up to unlock a truth that I’d both acknowledged and denied since I had the words to do either. I was attracted to women. I still am, which is why I’m going to marry one (that’s lucky).
When I was a senior in high school, Matthew Shepard was killed and enough of us had the internet to know why. I was talking to a good friend of mine about it at lunch and he informed me that no one is born gay, people say they’re gay because they want attention. My friend was a good Christian who took in the story of a kid our age being brutally murdered and turned it into a simple parable about why you shouldn’t hog the limelight. And then he finished his sandwich. I was horrified, because that’s a horrifying train of thought and because of something that happened to me a year before.
When I was a junior in high school, I was picked to attend Girls State, which is basically exactly where you hope to end up if you are equally a fan of girls and legislative LARPing. If you don’t know, Girls State is a leadership conference, but instead of watching panels and praying for Q&As to end, you’re grouped into cities that elect officials and do mock versions of a lot of other legislative processes. I was a reporter for the Girls State Star and declared my allegiance to the Whig party (you could either be a Whig or a Tory). At party meetings and voting sessions, I’d see a girl who looked cool and kind of boyish and had very short bleached blond hair that she eventually dyed blue. We never spoke. I don’t even think we made eye contact, but I was completely transfixed by the look of her and could sense whenever she’d entered the room. I’d had crushes on a few boys, but this didn’t feel like that. I had no idea what exactly I was feeling and I didn’t tell anyone about it. Mostly, I just figured that maybe all girls get those feelings sometimes. I wasn’t different, and I wasn’t gay, because I didn’t want attention.
Here’s how I sensed that “gay” was a terrible thing before Matthew Shepard, and before I even knew what gay was. I was a young kid and we got a new babysitter who was bright and bubbly. I told my mom she was probably the gayest person I’d ever met. My mom’s facial expression hardened in an instant and she asked what I meant. “She’s so happy all the time.” “Oh,” my mom said, “don’t EVER say that about anyone.” We had Free To Be You and Me on tape and laser disc. My parents generally encouraged me and my brother to express ourselves and accept others, but in that moment my mom’s tone was unmistakable: whatever alternate meaning “gay” had, it was really, really bad.
And then there was Melissa Etheridge.
Some little lesbians have Ellen, but out in the country it was Melissa Etheridge. Yes I Am came out when I was 12 and my dance teacher used it to choreograph numbers for some of the older girls at our studio. Somehow without using any specific language like “gay” or “lesbian,” we knew who was coming to Etheridge’s window.
One of my uncles mentioned to my parents that he liked the album and my mom said “Melissa Etheridge?!” And my uncle said, “well I don’t like her lifestyle, but I like her music.”
Adults, parents… please be careful what you say in front of children. That 12 year old with long blonde hair and a closet full of dresses, who loves to cook, arrange flowers and read books about orphan girls is listening to you. She will remember what you say and how you say it and she will replay it over and over in her mind when she finds herself inexplicably attracted to a girl whose name she’ll never know. And the resonance of your disgust will come in between whatever she thinks she wants for herself and whatever she thinks you need her to be, and the dissonance between the two will be quietly shattering.
She’ll become a teenager who manages to have crushes on boys, and then feels physically ill when they like her back and want to hold her hand. She’ll become a college student who goes through LGBT Safe Zones training, just because she “wants to be an ally”, but the sight of real lesbians will freak her out and make her withdraw into herself. She’ll date men, and stay with one from the day she turns 20 until she’s 25 and a half, mostly having fun with him and wondering if that’s all love is, and dodging questions about when they’re finally going to get married.
And then when she is 26, she will leave the old boyfriend for a new girlfriend and that act will cause the bottom to fall out, shattering everything she thought her life would be and ejecting it into space. She’ll float into the void, powerless against the shards of her old life that bump and bruise her as they scatter. She won’t know how to answer the question, “so what are you now,” or know if it’s a question she even needs to answer, although it will be one that is asked. She’ll stop eating and start chain smoking, and chasing weed with whiskey until she falls into a dreamless sleep at night, and wakes in the morning with a start, frightened that now there is a whole new day she needs to fill with answers she doesn’t have.
And eventually, she’ll rebuild. She’ll find people who get her. She’ll fall more deeply in love with that new girlfriend, who seven years later will become a fiancee. She’ll find a great hair stylist, who, apparently, also cuts the hair of Cameron Esposito. She’ll go to bed at 33 thinking “life is good, man” and she’ll mean it.
My girlfriend listened the podcast too, and she reflected on a bit where Cameron Esposito talks about how hard it was to come out and start being openly gay in the world. “I don’t think I could do that again,” said my girlfriend.
I don’t think I could either. I’m surprised I made it through the first time.