Abby Archer (San Francisco, CA)
Fourteen years ago, I was turning 14, and it was both the end of a century and the start of a new millennium. A lot has changed since then. Back then, my telephone had a cord on it, and the Internet dialed up through that cord, so no one else in the house could use the phone if I was online. And I was either on the phone or on the Internet 99% of the time. Some things haven’t changed.
For my friends and I, the hours on the phone or online were consumed with gossip about who had just come out as Bi. Most of us — in a suburban town in the central valley of California — had no idea what it meant to come out. The idea that there were some among us who weren’t 100% “straight” or didn’t feel 100% right with their bodies or assigned genders was extremely radical to us — worthy of phone calls and folded notes passed in class.
We were taking Sex Ed that year as a segment in our biology class. Most of the discussions centered on videos we watched in class, dramatic reenactments of situations I’d never been in: a girl flushing with shame as her bookbag falls to the ground, revealing a box of tampons to the boy she likes; a boy nobly rejecting a group of menacing delinquents brandishing marijuana cigarettes. In the last 5 minutes of class, the teacher would field questions we were asked to write on scratch paper. (How much blood comes out when you have a period? Can you get pregnant from being in a hot tub? Is it normal if your penis curves to one side? Do you bleed when you lose your virginity? Does Mountain Dew really lower your sperm count?) Most of our concerns had to do with the blood and guts of sex — the blood, sweat, cum — and so much less with relationships, intimacy, and our actual desires and fears.
Our middle school had a Gay-Straight alliance that met once a week in the art classroom. Art Class was hosted by a very relaxed teacher, in a room with a very large closet. The kids were allowed to paint and graffiti the closet walls to their hearts content, so it wasn’t uncommon for students to sneak in there to “paint” and steal kisses from each other, and make the discovery that they themselves weren’t entirely as straight as they thought. The Band Closet was the other site for rendezvous like these. Under the guise of looking for a lost drumstick or spare clarinet reed, it was easy enough to sneak behind a pile of busted bass drums to grope each other upon the dusty orange shag carpeting. And if your were a girl that played the drums or brass, or a boy that played the flute or violin, if you had technicolored hair, and, most of all, if you attended the Gay-Straight Alliance, rumor would spread that you were Bi. Those who came out as Bi didn’t only endure stigma, but also skepticism. Girls would confess the fact that they were Bi and kiss each other in front of boys. They’re just trying to get attention, their less forthcoming friends would say. What counted, and what didn’t, as hard evidence of bisexuality? Did one kiss make you Bi? Some of us were having our first kisses for the first time. Others were getting suspended for giving blow jobs on the back of the bus on school field trips. Wouldn’t it be impossible to say, at this point, who and what anyone was?
It was in the spring of that year that two friends of mine, Marie and Helen, started dating boys from another school — Matt and Steve. They were elated — they were best friends, the boys were best friends. It was to be an endless double date — swimming at the pool, eating hamburgers, riding bikes down the greenbelt, throwing ice cubes on pedestrians from the roof of the movie theater — all summer long. The two girls constantly chatted with each other about their new loves. They giggled and whispered in each other’s ears. They squeezed each other’s shoulders with excitement. They were never apart.
At the spring school dance that brought students from both of the two middle schools in town together, I met Scott. Pushed together by our two cliques of friends, we slow danced. Afterwards, we chased each other around on the soccer field in the dusk. We started going to movies with groups of our mutual friends, and talking on the phone late into the night. I supposed that made him my boy friend. We lived on opposite sides of town. I assumed that he would, of course, know Matt and Steve. “They’re best friends, they’re always together,” I told him on the phone. But he didn’t. When I mentioned this to Marie and Helen, they brushed it off. “Oh, no, our boyfriends go to Christian Brothers,” they said, hand in hand. That was the Catholic School the next town over. “Really? I thought you said they went to Emerson … “
In a place and a time where the overarching frame of thought appeared to be Straight thought, it was assumed that being Bi was somehow not serious or real. You were either Straight, like 99% of people we knew, or you were Gay, 100%. Coming out in school took an incredible act of courage. The word Queer — a word in which we now can find empowerment and inclusivity — was used in my school as an expletive, an insult, and in the context of games like “smear the Queer” — where a ball is thrown up into the air, whoever catches it is “the Queer” and the crowd does everything they can to tackle the person, retrieve the ball, and throw it up into the air again before they too are “smeared.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Helen and Marie chose to invent boyfriends rather than to come out as Bi or Queer. Their invisible boyfriends gave them the chance to become close, hidden in plain sight. It bought them some time to figure out who they were and what being together meant for them, before being smeared by their peers. At the moment when, after 6 months, they announced that Matt and Steve were, in fact, not real, they began fielding the kind of questions from their “allies” that they’d been happy to avoid (who’s the boy in the relationship? when are you going to tell your parents? which one of you turned the other one gay?) Like most middle school relationships, like mine, theirs didn’t last into high school. Marie continued to date both boys and girls. Helen, who’d only wear dresses when forced to, stopped wearing clothes from the girl’s side of the Junior’s section. She cut her hair short, and changed her name to just Elle, and then to just L, and then to Leo. It wasn’t until high school was receding safely into the background that Leo was able to change genders on Facebook, and publicize who he was. I hope, 14 years later, that we are moving towards a world where we can be Queer in whatever way we are, without having to twist up elaborate fictions for the sake of others.