For most of my life, I couldn’t stomach the thought of calling myself a lesbian. The word struck my young Southern Baptist ears as forbidden, and I’d only heard it spat from angry men in pulpits, as one would utter a slur. If I ever claimed it for myself, I thought, there would be no recourse.
Like any lesbian in Mississippi, I wanted to want men, seeking the vision for my life long planned before me: the family, the children. Instead, Fun Home answered:
“But how could he…end up saying ‘no’ to his own life? I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”
― Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
In my junior year of college, increasingly more depressed that my attempts to straighten myself out never quite succeeded, I met a girl. She made me blush, and grin, and laugh in a new way. The first time we kissed, I understood why everyone described kissing as so much more than mere obligation.
In an undergraduate creative writing class, I wrote a couple of poems expressing my feelings for her. In writing for class or just myself, I didn’t dare refer to her as my girlfriend. That might prove my lifelong hypothesis and solidify my newfound joy into a serious problem. I wrote about the strain of a strict upbringing against my desires, and at one point nearly cut off my relationship out of fear for my family’s eventual response.
My professor noticed the trend in my writing, an unusual subject among the religious student body. At that point, I was so shy and hesitant to share my writing with anyone that I didn’t speak much, to him or my classmates. But at the end of the semester, he recommended that I read Bechdel’s Fun Home, that it seemed like something I might enjoy. Unfamiliar with the name, I borrowed a copy. Had I known the story ahead of time, I might not have dared to read it. Once I began, however, it was impossible to put down.
"I felt as if I'd been stripped naked myself, inexplicably ashamed, like Adam and Eve."
In the panel accompanying this quote, Bechdel writes of a childhood memory seeing beautiful women on a calendar, and her body responding. The passage resonated in a deep place within me, one neglected and alienated for so long. For so long, it had seemed like surely no one else had shared my queer experiences. After Bechdel described the joy of sex with her first lover with beautiful tenderness, something inside me could no longer buy into the hurtful lies I’d been told about predatory gay women.
Not only did her experiences resemble mine, but her father’s life in the closet also mirrored what I sought, with its opposite-gender marriage and kids. Then her father kills himself. Though Bechdel doesn’t meet her wife in the story of Fun Home, accepting her sexuality answers many of her childhood questions. As Bechdel writes that accepting her identity felt “like finding myself fluent in a language I'd never been taught,” she offered me vocabulary to describe the sensation of kissing another woman.
In her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel offered company on my lonely journey, as I read so many fully developed characters. There were angry lesbians, funny lesbians, kind lesbians, and so many varieties of lesbian. For the first time, I understood the importance of seeing oneself represented in art. For the first time, in art, I saw so many women like myself, and who I could become.
Most of my poetry centers on my experiences as a lesbian, and from time to time, another student at my alma mater will write me to say how much they’ve related to it. “I’m just glad to know there’s someone else like me in this city,” one girl said. If only one person benefitted from my poetry, as I did from Fun Home, that would be more than enough.
The first woman I kissed sits next to me as I write this now, and we’re marrying in exactly three weeks. I'm so thankful to be a lesbian.
A Mississippi poet, Amy Lauren authored Prodigal (Bottlecap Press, 2017) and God With Us (Headmistress Press, 2017). Her poetry appears in publications including Cordite Poetry Review, New Orleans Review, and Sinister Wisdom. Read more at https://amylaurenwrites.com.