LGBT

That Girl Is What Freedom Looks Like

Paige Cohen writes about her struggle to come out and the girl who inspired her to kick open the closet door

Chris Ritter

When I was living in Los Angeles and struggling with coming out two years ago, my friends often said to me, “Who cares what other people think? You don’t have to explain anything to them if you don’t want to. You don’t even have to tell people about your past.” I understood what they meant: You don’t owe the world anything. It is OK. You have permission to do what you want and to be yourself. But I was fearful. Through my college years, I had dated men whom I genuinely cared about as partners and friends. I felt that if I cared about these men, then how could I also identify as a lesbian?

Even now, in New York, when I meet new people, gay or straight, I am hesitant to share this part of my past. I fear once people know, they will call me a liar, tell me that I am not really queer; when I lived in Los Angeles, this fear always kept me from coming out as a lesbian. It is true that I loved some of these men. But, most times, when it came to sex, I would grow frustrated and angry with them. It is a normal and healthy urge, I realize, for a man to want to sleep with his girlfriend, but back then I thought of sex as a selfish act. In my mind, sex was something they wanted or simply expected from me and that I did not want to give to them. I would lie in the crack between the bed and the wall and become flooded with a feeling of want. I didn’t know what the want was, and so the feeling bloomed into emptiness. There were times when I thought there was something wrong with me, that I was some kind of sociopath. Why couldn’t I love these men the way that they loved me? Why wasn’t I capable of that?

Looking back, it is easy to recognize the countless crushes I had on women over the years. “It is normal,” I told myself in high school and college. “I merely admire them.” Growing up, there were, maybe, two lesbians and one gay man in our small town. The only time I heard their names was when they were gossiped about. The queers were presented to me as “the others,” and so I repressed the queerness in myself. As a child, I masturbated, not to women, but to sexless, faceless aliens who kidnapped me in the night and rattled me from inside out. What turned me on was the lack of control. If my hands were tied above my head, then I remained innocent. I didn’t have to reach out and touch what was unknown.

It took me a long time to recognize my attraction to women for what it was, but I remember very well the spark that set it off. I was visiting a boy I had been dating up in San Francisco. We spent many nights at his apartment playing poker with his friends and drinking glass bottles of thick, woody beer that made my eyes water and my throat grow raw. It didn’t matter that I drank more than my body could handle, to point of vomiting when his friends had gone. As long as I fit in, I was happy. As long as I could keep up.

One night, one of the boys brought his friend to the poker match. Her name was Syd, and she was a lesbian. She had bleach-blonde hair cut short and spiked around her head, rainbow earrings swirling up her cartilage, and a silver hoop curled through her bottom lip. I wasn’t shy around the men. I would tell jokes and laugh, say whatever I wanted to them. But when Syd walked into the room, my entire body prickled with sweat. She held her cards and smiled at me, confident. My cheeks became warmer. I was hot and then cold again. I stumbled over my words to the point of apology. I was too aware of my body, my hands, every sentence that spilled so awkwardly from my lips. What was stranger to me was how I sat there, quiet, imagining Syd having sex with women. Where would she put her hands? Her mouth? I wanted to know what she would do to them, and later that week, I made myself come imagining what she would do to me. In this fantasy, my hands were not tied above my head. My queerness was not obscured by darkness or aliens.

I saw Syd only twice in my life, and I was usually too nervous to say anything that made sense. And though it feels strange to admit this now, she did unlock something inside of me, some spark that I recognized as the attraction I could never before feel, the lust. I was so thankful to really experience lust, to want to look at someone closer, to open them up, be inside of them, and smell their skin and feel their sweat. When I began dating women, I found I could love and lust after them.

There are still days when I sit alone in my apartment filled with anxiety and self-hate over my past. Self-hate for being frightened, for lying to others and myself, and for hurting others and myself by doing so. Even now, as I try to write the truth about my experience, I fear there is a man out there reading this, who calls me a liar, who remembers how I loved him, or maybe there is a woman who remembers how weak I used to be, how hesitant and frightened I was, and who doesn’t accept or believe me. There is still a part of me that wants to please other people, to have their love and acceptance. Every day is struggle to be myself, to tell the truth, and to love myself for who I am, and even for who I used to be.

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