It started when we left the land. She was riding in her car with her best friend. I was in another car with a friend and my daughter. I hadn’t seen her since the day before, on the land in Hart, Michigan where we’d attended a womyn’s music festival. Where we met. I’d stayed in Detroit. She spent the night in Grand Rapids. We met up somewhere in Ohio, on the road from Michigan to New York. I wanted some time alone with her so I told everyone, the two adults and my daughter, that we were going outside for a few minutes. My friend who is 63 and came out when she was a teenager, who is seasoned and protective, reminded me: “We’re not on the land, V.” She didn’t have to tell me what she meant. I knew and I resented it. I resented not being able to hold my love, to kiss her and feel her arms around me. I insisted. I leaned into my love and puckered my lips. She kissed me quickly. Just a tap kiss. It wasn’t long and deep like it had been on the land. She looked around and stepped back. I frowned. We were in the parking lot of a Mexican Restaurant in a random, small Ohio town along a heavily traveled highway.
Back in New York we were safe. This is a cosmopolitan city with a huge gay population. No one actually said anything outright but when I walked hand in hand with my love, to the supermarket and the liquor store, to the park and the hardware store, in a neighborhood I’ve lived in for twenty years. Where my family has roots since my grandmother first arrived in the late 1960s. Where I know the bodeguero by name and the lady who sells the icies and the street vendor who sells everything from sunglasses to boots to movies. where I walk into the Dominican restaurant on 207th and my coffee is made without me having to specify how I want it. I couldn’t help but notice the eyes on us, leering. A few sneers. Outright staring. The manager of the supermarket, the one I go to a few times a week, who asks about my daughter when she isn’t with me, just stared, he looked down at our clutched hands. His “Hello” felt forced. A womyn I’ve known since I was a teenager who always gives me a wide smile from her always heavily make-upped face (bright blue eyeliner and crimson red, matte lipstick), snapped her head away quickly when I noticed her, she looked puzzled, her lips were tight. It’s the first time she didn’t greet me with a smile and an “Hola, ¿como estas?” When I turned, she was staring back, her mouth in a perfect “o.”
My love has been out since she was fifteen. She’s a butch who says she’s used to the stares and reactions. She giggled at my discomfort. How I stared right back, daring someone to say something. “You’ll get used to it,” she said. I thought about my Millie.
I was raised by a self-proclaimed butch in late 1970s, early 1980s Brooklyn. She wore her hair in a short push back. A man’s cut. She wore faded Lee jeans and nylon bell bottoms. Men’s pants. She wore guayaberas and polo shirts. Men’s shirts. She put her large breasts in bras and wore women’s underwears, the cotton Fruit of the Loom, full coverage kind. She wore kangols on her head and men’s shoes on her feet that she bought at Fabco on Myrtle Avenue, the shopping area closest to our railroad style apartment in Bushwick. Millie hung out with the men. They sipped on small latitas of Budweiser beer while they took swigs of pints of Bacardi and Palo Viejo, wrapped snug in a paper bag that they passed around. They cut open cardboard boxes and laid them out flat on the ground to slide under their cars, hands greasy, cheeks smudged.
I only saw Millie shrink into herself when she and mommy fought and mommy pulled out her strongest artillery: spitting maricona at Millie, whose lower lip trembled in response. “Yo soy butch,” she yelled, over and over.
One time when I was a teenager, during an argument about I don’t know what, our Ecuadorian next door neighbor sneered at my mom and yelled, “Maldita maricona.” My mother slapped her so hard, she fell back onto the wall. When her mother went for my mother, I grabbed her by the neck and with my face inches from hers, teeth gritted, I whisper-roared, “No te atrevas.” She stepped back, grabbed her daughter and pulled her into their apartment.
When we visited the storefront Pentecostal church where her brother was the pastor, Millie who was usually raucously loud and boisterous, grew quiet and sullen. She didn’t stand with the men like she did when we went to Long Island or Hancock Street or Highland Park where she played dominoes and stood with the men, talking about their carros and the mujeres that swished by. But Millie still dressed like the men in the iglesia, in her polyester slacks and crisp off-white guayabera. She didn’t stand with the women either. She stood off to the side. By herself. I went over, grabbed her hand and looked up at her. The rusted elevated train trestle framed her face. She’d look down and smile. But this wasn’t her trademark chipped tooth smile. It wasn’t wide and joyful. It was small and sad. She didn’t belong there though she tried. She always tried.
When we walked in the street, Millie held my hand and stared straight ahead. I was too young to notice if people stared but I imagine they did, like they stare at me and my love when we walk. When we kiss. When I lean in and she takes me into those arms where I feel the safest and most protected I’ve felt in lifetimes. I won’t stop doing that, loving her publicly, but I am having a visceral reaction to the stares. “You’ll get used to it,” she says. We shouldn’t have to.
The day after our first kiss, I knew I had to tell my daughter about my love. They’d already met and spent time together. We were at a womyn’s festival where there were concerts and activities throughout the day. Vasia already liked her, but this was different. I don’t keep secrets from my kid. Not these kind, at least. I knew even before the kiss that I liked this womyn. That I wanted to see her in New York. That I wanted to get to know her romantically. I’d always kept my daughter away from anyone I was involved with. If we’re not going anywhere beyond casual dating and sex, there’s no reason for you to meet my kid. But this felt like more than that. I had to say something.
We went for a walk on the land that morning. I bought her a doughnut and myself some coffee. My heart thrashed in my chest. My hands shook. We’d talked about my sexuality being fluid before, but she’d never seen me with a womyn. She’d only seen me with a man once. A situationship that didn’t last. It’s been just her and me for so long.
“How do you feel about mommy liking a womyn?”
She stifled a giggle and searched my face. She shrugged. I was quiet.
“You like Katia, don’t you?” I laughed and stared at this child who is so wise, I don’t know what to do with her sometimes.
“I do.” We both giggled loudly. Playfully.
She threw her head back then looked back at me, “Finally, mom!” She said it loudly, in an exasperated tone, like this was something she’d been waiting for. Then she hugged me tight. My eleven year old little girl doesn’t care who I’m with. She just wants to see me happy.
Weeks after we got back to NY, she was watching me get ready when she said, “You smile more now, mom.”
She invited my love to her birthday BBQ. “You okay with your friends knowing?” I asked, knowing she’d invited more than 15 of her friends from school. She shrugged. “I don’t care.”
When I took her and her bff out to the movies on the day of her birthday, I asked, “Did you tell her?” I was purposely evasive. “What? That you’re a lesbian,” she said this in a matter of fact tone, while she looked from me to her friend. “Yeah I told her.” Her friend smiled her wide, gummy smile, “It doesn’t matter as long as you’re happy.” They skipped off ahead of me, not a care in the world.
I blinked hard to push back the tears. These kids are more open and understanding than the adults who stare and judge. Adults who are supposed to lead the future generation in the right direction. Adults who are more lost than the kids they’re raising.
When my kid was five, she came home from kindergarten with the word faggot in her mouth. “That’s nasty,” she said. I knew she didn’t know what she was saying. She was parroting. I sat her down. Asked: “What do you mean faggot? What does gay mean? Why is it disgusting?” I didn’t reprimand her. I just listened. When she couldn’t answer, I told her about my Millie. She’d heard my stories, so many about my childhood and how Millie loved me. “Millie was gay,” I said. “And so is Tio tio.” I was referring to my now dead brother, her favorite uncle. “That’s love, baby girl. Love has many faces. Love is me and you. Love is daddy and his wife. Love is a man and a woman, a man and a man, a womyn and a womyn. Love is so many things.” She stared at me with those big brown eyes that tell me I am her hero. “And all love is beautiful.” I kissed her cheek. “Remember that I told you that God is love and love is in you.”
She nodded emphatically. “Yes, God is in everything.”
“Yes, and in everyone, right?”
She nodded again.
“God is in all of us. Gay and not gay. Ok?”
Later my daughter told me stories of how she’s stopped her friends when they’ve used the term gay as a slur. When they’ve yucked at the mention of homosexuality. “I tell them love is love,” she says, neck swiveling, all attitude and bad ass. “And all love is beautiful.”
My love asked me to be her girlfriend under the supermoon on Coney Island beach. She took pictures of us kissing and posted them on her Facebook and tagged me. That’s how we announced our love to the world. Friends celebrated with us, leaving supportive comments and hearts. I got messages in my inbox. A few texts. I thought of the stares and the silence.
Some time ago I was having a discussion with someone about my fluid sexuality. She insisted that my femme presentation protected me from the vicious homophobia she experiences as a boi identified lesbian. I got defensive. I know better now. She was so right.
Today I posted this status on my FB page:
“I’m receiving an incredible education now that I’m in a relationship with a womyn. While my sexuality has always been fluid, I have been in many ways safeguarded from blatant homophobia because I’m femme, but walking with my love hand in hand & witnessing people’s reactions, from the manager of the supermarket to strangers to the silence of “friends” on my FB, I’m having flashbacks of my querida Millie, the self-proclaimed butch who raised me and taught me the face of unconditional love. I see now how she protected me from this kind of voyeurism, eye rolling and sneering. Here’s the thing: I’m not looking for approval. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like it. You will, however, get bit back if you come at me or my love. I was never a quiet girl nor have I ever been afraid to defend those I love. As a kid, I once punched a girl in the face for saying, “You’re dirty like your lesbian moms.” I’m older now so I won’t swing on you but, make no mistake, I won’t be silent either. This life is mine. This love is so good. I will protect and defend it with all of my five foot two Bushwick fierce. I. Am. Not. Playing. One warning is all you get. One. Word.”
People have responded with incredible support and love. They’ve told me to ignore the haters, to enjoy my love, that silence is sometimes the best response. That’s just it: I’m a writer and an activist, and I have a big mouth. This education I’m receiving is making me even more fierce and loud in my defense and support of LGBTQ rights. There is no silencing this womyn. I sit on my haunches in the cut and I watch. Then I pounce. I am Loba, afterall. This is how I howl.