Two or three times before I officially came out even to myself, I switched my Tinder over to show me women. At first I set it up to show me both men and women, but I soon realized that this was more or less the same as having it show me only men, because there are way, way more straight men on Tinder than queer women. I would have to swipe through, like, fifty guys to see even one girl. And because the whole reason I’d made the switch in the first place was that I was still trying to evaluate whether I was actually interested in women or merely wished that I was, it was women I wanted to focus on. So I made my Tinder gay. That first time, I didn’t really want to match with anyone—I just wanted to see the girls that were on there, and to see how it felt to be there as someone looking for women. It was an experiment. I swiped left on women for ten or fifteen minutes, relieved not to feel anything more toward them than I did the men I passed over the same way.
But then a profile came up which made me pause. It belonged to a girl around my age, wearing a leather jacket and a beanie over shoulder-length brown hair. She was pretty, slightly tomboyish but femme-ier than any girl I’d been attracted to in the past, so much so that I was not sure whether I was attracted to her or wanted to look like her. My thumb started to hurt, and I realized it remained against the screen, suspending her in Tinder purgatory. And that’s where she stayed for two days. Instead of choosing one way or the other, I simply closed out of Tinder altogether. Because even though I wasn’t sure exactly what I thought of her, I didn’t want to reject her. Her bio was brief, but funny, and her pictures made her seem interesting and fun. She did not fit the extremely narrow idea I had then about what a queer girl looks like — which is to say, more boyish, or more androgynous — and that, more than anything, made it hard to look away.
Eventually, after I wore myself out trying to decide why exactly I was fixated on this girl and what that meant, I swiped right on her, and we matched. I was both flattered and panicked; I’d been so singularly focused on how I should proceed that it had not really occurred to me to wonder what she would do, or had already done. I did not have very long to wonder what would happen next; my phone vibrated with a new message while it was still in my hand.
It said: “Are you the same Katie whose articles I’ve read online?”
Well, fuck, I thought. She recognized me. And if she’d read things I’d written, she was probably wondering what I was doing looking for girls on a dating app. She had probably taken a screenshot of my profile and maybe even texted it to one or more of her friends. I am not proud to admit this is where my brain went, but I began to envision a scenario in which my sexuality (and by extension, my character) was called into question by any number of serious young book bloggers. My first book would be recalled for factual inaccuracies, and then I would have to go on an apology tour for a $20,000 speaker’s fee. And I wasn’t ready for all that. I didn’t have an explanation for myself, let alone anyone else. I did not want to take apart the person I’d spent twenty-eight years becoming only to find that I couldn’t make anything solid from what was left. I felt that if I replied to that girl and told her that I was the person she was thinking of, it would only lead to more questions. I didn’t want more questions. So I did not reply. I deleted Tinder. And almost a year’s worth of confusion and anxiety later, I downloaded OkCupid in its place.
This is not meant to be some kind of dating-app endorsement. Both of these apps have value. It’s just about knowing your audience and your intentions. For me, Tinder was an excuse. Tinder was what I used when I wanted to reassure the bossier of my friends that I was doing my dating due diligence. Tinder, for me, is pure performance. I swiped left on, like, everybody. I didn’t have enough information to work with, and I wasn’t putting myself out there in any meaningful way. I knew that I needed more than five photos and a one-line biography to work from. I also knew I was far too terrified to participate in low-stakes, first-date casual sex just yet. Tinder isn’t just a hookup app, but, at least where I live, among my age group, it has more of a casual-sex bent to it than OkCupid does. Plus, there just weren’t all that many girls on there. I would swipe through five or eight of them and then the app would tell me there was no one left, at least until tomorrow. And this was in New York City.
At work I complained about my bad luck to my friend Mackenzie, and she said a lesbian friend of hers said that all the gay girls were on OkCupid. “Ughhhhhhhh,” I said. “Fine.”
It was with great trepidation and a little excitement that I created a brand-new OkCupid profile. I uploaded my photos and described myself as charmingly as possible. I filled out my stats—5'11'', agnostic, not much drinking and even fewer drugs, a Sagittarius, not that I believe in all that. Then it came time to label my orientation, and I froze up. It was all well and good for my therapist to tell me it was okay not to know exactly what to call myself, but I had to enter something. It’s getting more acceptable and cooler these days to say “no labels” or that “labels don’t matter,” but when it comes to filling out forms, it sure helps to have a word handy. I had set my profile to show me only women, but that didn’t mean I was ready to use “gay” or “lesbian” to describe myself. I wasn’t sure it was fair, and I wasn’t out to my family or most of my friends, let alone the public. I remembered that girl who recognized me on Tinder, and I picked “bisexual,” in no small part because I was paranoid the same thing would happen again.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the number-one thing I’d always hated about OkCupid with men didn’t apply to OkCupid with women. I have since talked to women who’ve gotten their fair share of sexually aggressive messages from other women, but in my short time there, I did not receive a single gross or insulting message. (Full disclosure: I was on there for only about two weeks. But still. Spend a week on OkCupid looking for men and you’ll get enough garbage for a lifetime.) It was all, Hi, how are you, my name is Whatever, you seem cool. Or hi, you’re cute, I love The X-Files, too.
Each time I matched with a girl I’d “winked” at or whatever, I got heart palpitations. Then I’d talk to her, and usually our conversation would trail off after a few messages. For the first time in my life I did not feel racked with guilt if I didn’t want to respond to someone. Nor did I feel ruined if she did not respond to me. That was just what dating was; sometimes two people like each other and sometimes it doesn’t line up. People had been trying to tell me this for years, but it had always felt so much heavier than that. It had felt like endless failure. But talking to girls was different. I loved talking to girls. I’d been doing it my entire life. And if there was still something in me that felt like I was playing a character — Girl Who Effortlessly Flirts with Other Girls — there was a larger part that wondered if it was supposed to have been this painless all along.
Four days into my time on gay-girl OkCupid, I had two dates lined up one night after another. I know there are people out there who do this all the time, but for me, whose M.O. with online dating was to meet approximately one man, one time, once a year, this was, well . . . significant. I felt nervous, very nervous, but excited, too. Both girls were cute, and seemed normal. I was interested in one more than the other, which made me feel like a genuine casual dater. Someone with a roster of possibilities. Finally I understood why my friends had always told me to just “go on a bunch of dates”—it spread out the pressure. When you go on only one date a year, it is pretty easy to let it mean too much. Making two dates in the same week was deeply out of character for me, but then, the whole point of all this was to try out for another role.
My first date was on a Monday night with a girl named Lydia, and all day long all I wanted to do was throw up. It wasn’t the same kind of nausea I’d felt before a date with a guy — the kind I hoped would transform into a bona fide illness so I could cancel with a guilt-free conscience. I wanted to feel perfect — I just didn’t. I could barely eat, and that never happens to me. I couldn’t focus on work. I am pretty sure that all I did that day was get up from my desk to refill my water glass or to sit in the bathroom for as long as I felt I could get away with it without people thinking I was having some kind of gastrointestinal problem. Toward the end of the day I walked over to our office manager’s desk and quietly asked for some Pepto-Bismol. When she held out the box I took four.
I got to the bar ten minutes early, like I always do when attempting to get somewhere exactly on time. Sitting under an umbrella on the bar’s garden patio, looking at the straight couples on dates all around me, I wondered what people would think when they saw me sitting with another girl. Would they buy it? Was I passing? Would it be obvious that I had never done this before? How does a girl who dates other girls sit on a bench, waiting for one of those girls to arrive? (Hopefully, looking at Instagram and Twitter and pretending to text.)
When Lydia got there I stood up and put my arms out to hug her because I didn’t know what else to do. “Oh!” she said. “We’re hugging? Okay!” And then we did that kind of asexual one arm over, one arm under hug you do with someone you don’t really want to be hugging. Later she would tell me she hates hugging anyone she doesn’t know. Me too, but what was I supposed to do, shake her hand?
Anyone looking at us would have known immediately: first date, no question. But as soon as we sat down I forgot about the other people there. We spread two drinks apiece over four hours of talking, and hugged awkwardly again when we said goodbye. I felt nauseated the whole time. It was great.
Throughout the date I’d accumulated a dozen texts from Chiara, having a conversation with herself about how the date was going and if it was still going and what I was thinking. I’d started excitedly and slightly drunkenly responding, in caps and full of typos, as soon as Lydia and I parted ways:
I REALLY LIKE GET
She replied: OMG!!!!!!!!!!!
I hope she liked me too! Idk!
Text her! TEXT HER
Never before in my life had I made anything resembling “the first move.” I was always too nervous, I thought, and too afraid of being rejected. But that night, I realized that wasn’t quite it. I was nervous to text Lydia, and also afraid of being rejected, but my desire to talk to her again, as soon as possible, outweighed those fears. So while I stood in my kitchen shoving graham crackers into my face, because we hadn’t eaten dinner and I was starving and a little dizzy, I talked to Chiara about what I should say. She suggested I say what she’d texted Mark (the man she’d eventually marry) after their first date: “Mark! I think you’re great. Thanks for the fun night.” It’s simple and direct, she explained. It says you’re interested in them without having to explicitly say you want to see them again. I knew she was right, so I texted Lydia, slowly and carefully: “Lydia! I think you’re great. Thanks for the fun night.” Then I waited a truly agonizing six minutes, during which time Chiara repeatedly talked me off the ledge. And then Lydia wrote back and asked if I’d want to hang out again. I was so happy all I sent in return was “DUH.”
I liked Lydia so much I canceled the other date I’d scheduled for the next day, a Tuesday, and instead made a second one with her for the following Saturday night. In the meantime, we texted constantly, and I worried she would Google me. Our first date had lasted four hours, but I had not told her in that time that I hadn’t dated women before. I’d told her I’d written a book, but didn’t say much about its topic. I didn’t want to scare her, and historically, the book had scared people away. Or I had spent a long time thinking it had. In any case, it was a first date, and I don’t think anyone owes anyone much on a first date — it’s a very preliminary vetting. I figured that I would talk about it if and when it became more relevant, which would probably happen as soon as I really liked someone. I just didn’t expect to really like someone so soon.
On Saturday, Lydia and I met at the subway stop between our apartments and got on the Q to Coney Island. I’d bought us two tickets to a Brooklyn Cyclones game, realizing only after we got there that they were for “Star Wars Night.” At first we were under the impression that all this meant was that people had come to the game wearing Star Wars hats and T-shirts, and you could buy a promotional Star Wars soda cup for eight dollars. But then, after the first inning, a number of people dressed in Star Wars costumes ran onto the field and began acting out a plot-line involving Darth Vader kidnapping Princess Leia and hiding her somewhere inside MCU Park. As the actors mouthed their lines, their prerecorded voices played over the speakers. This provided a great source of small talk for Lydia and me, which was helpful because it was soon apparent that we were both considerably more nervous than we’d been when we first met. We bought two ciders, a Diet Coke, a burger, and a soft pretzel between us, and we barely touched any of it. In every moment I wasn’t talking, I was thinking about how to tell her who I really was.
Soon enough, she gave me my cue. “I want to hear more about this book,” she said. So I told her all about it, and watched her face, waiting for her to check out. But she didn’t. Instead she asked if I had gone out with another girl before, and after a record-breaking-long “um,” I said no, I hadn’t. Barely ten days earlier I had come out to Chiara as a woman who, after a lifetime spent trying to date guys, wanted to date women instead. And here I was on one such gay date, coming out as a former straight girl. I felt like apologizing and laughing and throwing up. Somehow I kept all three in. Then Lydia said, “But you still date guys, too, right?” And though I had labeled myself “bisexual” on OkCupid, not wanting to lie, not knowing how else to reconcile my past with my future, though I had spent years trying to nail down the exact breakdown of my attractions, I didn’t hesitate or hedge. I knew. “No,” I said. “I don’t.”
The baseball game ended (the Cyclones won), and a group of thirty actors rushed the field, beginning a mass, make-believe lightsaber fight that lasted nearly twenty minutes. When they were done, fireworks exploded over the park to the tune of, appropriately enough, Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Already it had been a perfect date, and it wasn’t even over.
As we walked away from the park, Lydia took my hand, and when I looked at her she said, “Just remember, I’m nervous, too.” We walked to Luna Park and bought tickets for a haunted-house-themed ride called the Ghost Hole, a complete waste of money, unless you want an excuse to sit very close to someone in the dark. We walked the boardwalk until we found an empty bench to sit on. Then she kissed me, and I felt the thing I was supposed to have felt when I kissed guys. A few minutes later, someone yelled, “Get a room!”
There was so much about the circumstances of our meeting that seemed crazy to me. I couldn’t believe she lived only one and a half blocks away from me, and worked in a shop across the street from me, and I had never seen her. I couldn’t believe that I’d had such a great first date (and second, and third . . .) with the first woman I’d gone out with. Or that I’d met her on the very dating website I’d spent so much time hating and avoiding. I couldn’t believe we were still together, and happy. I couldn’t believe how natural it all felt. All those times I’d opened a dating app hoping to find love with the very first person I met, and look — it actually kind of happened.
I told my parents about Lydia after we’d been dating for about two weeks, but not, initially, by choice. The plan had been to tell them the next time I was in Minnesota, at the end of August. But early one morning in late July, my mom texted me to tell me about a dream she’d had in which I brought home a man I’d fallen in love with. (Apparently his name was James.) Just to be clear: this isn’t something that happens with us. We don’t text all that much, and when we do, it tends to be something about something my parents watched on MSNBC, or a picture of their Australian shepherd, Kiah, or a brag about their snowfall. Nor has my mother ever been the type of mother who asks when I’ll finally bring a boyfriend home. She did not drop hints. This text was different, and eerie. I knew right then that I couldn’t wait any longer to tell her. So I called her, still lying in bed, and I told her I had met someone recently, actually. But she was a woman. Her name was Lydia. I felt relieved the way I feel relieved when I’ve gotten onto an airplane and the flight attendants have closed the door and I can’t get out of it even if I really, really want to. My mom responded to my news with a perfectly Minnesotan “Oh!” She asked all the questions she would’ve had I been telling her I’d met a man — age, job, how we met — and some she wouldn’t have: Did it feel normal when I kissed her? (Yes.) Was I nervous about holding her hand in public? (Not often, but sometimes.) She told me she was happy if I was happy, and that she would love me no matter what. Then she told me I should call my dad separately, but not for a couple of hours, because they were headed to Byerlys for groceries. Both she and my dad would tell me that day that my being gay may take some getting used to, but I said that was okay. It would for me, too. ●
Katie Heaney is a freelance journalist and the author of her upcoming memoir, Would You Rather. She lives in Brooklyn.
To learn more about Would You Rather, click here.