To come out in Washington, D.C. in 1980—to stand with the closet door flung open on the very threshold of Ronald Reagan’s arrival in the White House and the decade of the AIDS epidemic—was my queer generation’s personal dare, our collective challenge to the Moral Majority and to the many ultraconservative politicians who soon ringed our nation’s capital.
April/All I love
Is always being born
What I love is beginning
In the spring I had great hunger/I was Buddha, I was Christ.
—Loudon Wainwright III
At eighteen, newly enrolled at American University in northwest D.C., I began my higher education years in the climate of gay-hating bills like the Briggs Initiative, the Family Protection Act, the Human Life Amendment, government resolution after government resolution condemning homos, feminists, women like me. I could pick up The Washington Post and read daily legislative attacks on my rights as a citizen, and know that the gentlemen introducing these bills worked on Capitol Hill, a mere twenty-minute bus ride across town; Congressmen went home to the same Bethesda suburb where I now lived with my parents. Every week in Washington I walked past and, in all probability, went to the movies alongside homophobic Senators. We all shopped at Giant Food and at Peoples Drugstore, biked along the C&O canal, went to concerts at Wolf Trap Farm Park amphitheater, watched Fourth of July fireworks on the Mall—me, my friends, and the nice lawmakers naming us felons and sodomites. What psychologists call the “cognitive dissonance” of two conflicting messages surely defined my freshman year: I began college with plump files of my SAT and Achievement Test scores assuring me I was head and shoulders above my classmates, in the top 2% of the nation intellectually; many more colleges than American U. had begged me to apply, enroll, because of my Potential as a scholar. Yet here in D.C., the most powerful men in the land were busily at work to keep high-achiever homos just like me from ever becoming teachers, soldiers, parents. Coming out in D.C. meant understanding gay and lesbian identity as a public persona and stance, first of all; as a political commitment that challenged every institution. It meant agreeing, early in my sophomore year, to appear on the locally-taped Charlie Rose Show, where fundamentalists screamed abuse at our gay rights panel; the next day I was stopped in the halls of AU by a male rabbinical student I had thought a friend, who told me “I heard about your television appearance. I thought you had morals. You obviously need psychiatric help.”
Geographically, gay D.C. was divided by black and white, by Northwest and Southeast, by campus life and military life, with Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill each vying to become the yuppier gay male neighborhood [less affluent lesbians living in group houses in Mount Pleasant, or settling down in liberal Takoma Park after finding a life partner.] Private life happened regardless of Ronald Reagan or the public Pride events and large-scale marches in D.C. Against the politically significant backdrop all around us, we who were about to embrace queerdom did so from our very different curves of adolescence, falling in love right and left, as college students do.
I came out as a performing arts homo. Not a baby butch, not a tomboy athlete, surely not a brash young bar dyke with a pool cue and a fake I.D., nor a street-rad punk rocker with shaved blue hair and a garage band blasting gynocentric lyrics. I came out through the drama department and Broadway show tunes, like so very many gay boys do; except I was a girl.
From the time I was twelve years old until I graduated from college at twenty-two—ten full years—I worked steadily as a community actress, though I never hit the big time. I began appearing in community children’s theatre at the end of sixth grade, and at peak—say, the year I was fifteen and really, really wanted to act professionally when I grew up—I had roles in a total of seven community theatre musicals in one school year, while still maintaining a straight-A average. This was at Adventure Theatre at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, my home away from home during endless nights of rehearsal with glamorous adults I was crushed out on. I won lead roles and solos there, and in several college musicals, and actually took voice and dance lessons, even tap, for years, living in a sweaty leotard and tights throughout most of my adolescence. Of course, plenty of American kids moved in and out of this subculture of aspiring performers: the same era gave us Fame, The Turning Point, and other films with strong female leads who made it clear that making it as a strong female lead was a hellfire of risks, rejections, and exploitations. Point is, I mingled with talented gay men from age eleven on—directors, choreographers, pianists, dance teachers, actors, designers, dancers, oh, the drama queens I knew. And bitchy though some were, I always felt well-loved and well-protected; and I always had a gang.
But were there any lesbians in that scene? I only met one: Lee, a tough stage manager who had lost custody of her kids. She took me to dinner at Food For Thought on Connecticut Avenue when I was just fifteen, insisting that my mother come along too, so there would be no breach of propriety. I was flattered and nervous, and accidentally tripped our hippie waitress, who then spilled a full bowl of cottage cheese directly into Lee’s face. (This was certainly a harbinger of my way with women; I tripped and stumbled and spilled around attractive lesbians well into my thirties.)
The problem is that the performing arts are competitive in the nastiest way, and coming out during late 1970s lesbian-feminism, with its egalitarian sisterhood and unshaven-leg code of honor, I felt torn in two directions—didn’t want to diet, shave and smirk my way into a Broadway role, to live with every female friend as my competitor. Yet my various voice and drama coaches all but screamed, “BON, YOU ARE TOO DYKE FOR BROADWAY, DEARIE!” No alto in my time ever got to play a leading ingenue, and if I had a dollar for every “helpful” straight woman who told me I walked like a man, I’d be snorkeling off Poipu Beach or perhaps the Maldive Islands right now. No one at American University had the sense to spin me around and push me toward the pinata of underground feminist theatre and lesbian playwrights. Eventually, I’d find my own way to the women’s music festivals and their fabulous dyke stages; I’d write commentary on the work of playwright Carolyn Gage, meet Lily Tomlin, become an emcee, and do my own one-woman shows, but that came later. My years as a brainy, theatrical undergrad at American University in northwest D.C. were spent identifying with gay guys who knew nothing about lesbians and pining for straight girls who were great dancers and actresses but who snubbed me because I was a loud, unfeminine alto who dressed and moved like I was fresh off the Israeli kibbutz. Eventually, I changed my major from drama to Jewish history, but I never stopped trying out for campus plays. To this day, an audition notice gets me hot.
Coming out as a performing arts homo was a great move in early 1980s Washington because mine was a witty, literate crowd, and the city pulsed with dance companies, a very gay theatre [the Source] off-campus, reduced-rate Kennedy Center tickets, Deaf Theatre at Gallaudet University, Black theatre at Howard University, national touring companies in town or auditioning in town, Shakespeare at the Folger, Equity at Arena Stage, and sardonic The Washington Post critics who reviewed everything that came through town, good or bad. Though my performing-arts pals skipped classes, ignored papers, and otherwise bagged academic life while immersed in rehearsals and tryouts, all of them read voraciously—scripts, screenplays, reviews, criticism, monologues to prepare. The cultural literacy and insider knowledge of my new friends was formidable. Nor was it a particularly bar-hopping, drug-dropping crowd: we went to plays, had modest house parties, dressed up, and went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Key Theatre in Georgetown—and pretty much stayed sober.
I wasn’t quite out as a lesbian during my first show at A.U., a radical production of Peter Pan where I played a Lost Boy. During the last rehearsal before we opened, I stepped into a narrow space left uncovered on our multi-level stage set, where two platforms had been pushed together sloppily but not nailed. The older actors and actresses around me looked on in astonishment as I abruptly disappeared through the floor. Up in the balcony, the cute girl who ran the spotlight burst into nervous laughter; then everyone realized I’d injured my leg. I played my part for the run of the show while black, blue and green under a tightly bandaged knee; my cheery attitude won me quite a few more friends. By spring of that freshman year, I was sighingly in love with almost every straight actress and dancer on campus, and finally, during our year-end production of Cabaret, the girl who’d had the spotlight on me when I fell through the stage stopped giggling long enough to kiss me, long and well.
I had no car of my own and was living at home with my parents in Bethesda. They and my brother tiptoed around my college coming-out process as though I were badly canned tomato paste about to explode at any minute. As soon as I’d kissed a girl for the first time, my old friend Camille showed me the ropes: “These are the Holly Near albums you will require; these are the bars my lover and I will take you to,” she said, and off we went in her car to cruise the bars: The Other Side [mostly women] and The Pier [mostly men], down at the waterfront. “We’re not leaving until you dance with me,” Camille ordered, at The Pier, as fog machines blew faux smoke around us and tight-pec’d young men gazed hornily into each others’ eyes. At another women’s bar, Phase One, I looked on in awe as two middle-aged lesbians made out passionately at the next table. My thoughtful contemplation was interrupted when a very stoned bar patron reeled over to me and tried to shove poppers under my nose; I had no idea what they were, or exactly what she expected me to do with them or to her. “Sorry I didn’t get to know you better!” she leered at me as I fled out the door; “I’m not saying you HAVE to sleep with me, although I’d like that,” intoned a fox-faced young dyke at The Other Side the next week, while Camille and her friends signaled Go On! Go For It! I was young, with flowing blond hair and big eyes, and gradually I realized that women found me attractive. But I didn’t drink, I identified as neither butch nor femme, and I had absolutely no idea what to do or how to meet the cool girls. Falling down and blushing, I went through young adulthood with a perceptually stuck zipper. You like me? Really? Okay: cool. Um, now what?
My drama pals suspected I was starting to meet girls: and so they invited me to a truth or dare party at their group house in Virginia, near the CIA. It was somewhat of an orgy. The one lesbian couple present made out on the floor throughout the evening; the most powerfully talented [and straight] male actor in the gang cornered me in a broom closet and propositioned me; an ill-mannered gay boy we all found tiresome yelled at me in front of everyone that I wasn’t girly enough. Two guys were dared to eat mayonnaise off each other since they refused to answer truthfully about who they liked in the room. Then it was my turn. “When did you last get it on with a woman?” a popular straight actress demanded. “Three days ago,” I answered, casually. “When was the first time you ever slept with a woman?” she shot back at me. “Also three days ago,” I sighed.
Everyone smiled. That was how I came out to my gang.
And yet—loving, protective, witty though they were, the drama crowd was not a feminist frontline. I knew more gay boys than lesbians, and the actresses were so unlike my more politically vocal friend Jeanette, who, like me, minored in Women’s Studies and was the first person my age I ever heard say, “I love women.” I wanted a world of women—real, imagined, political, any combo at all. This meant reading every book in print on lesbian feminism and hanging out in the dance department watching beautiful girls.
At first, coming out in college, I was perpetually in love with dancers. Then I was in love with my dance teacher. There was that long siege when I was out as a lesbian but had no girlfriend, and so at nineteen I was taking two hours of dance a day from a teacher I loved, and it was very much like sex, rolling and writhing and groaning on the floor wearing very little while the woman I desired yelled “More!” or “Faster!” or “Imagine that your body is…” or “Beautiful.”
Dance. Dancers. The dance department. Clendenen Theatre at American University, the upstairs studio and its scuffed wooden floor, salted, sugared and shined by a thousand sliding bodies, the sexual scent of sweating girls in leotards, and (if you’re a baby dyke, as I was) the scent that says Dinner is ready, come and get it. Come. Get it. Come. Get it. Move across that floor in twos and threes. Partner, menage. Pas a deux. For months and years I slid across that floor, and I was always the worst dancer in the bunch; but I was in love, so who had the best time? Me, man. Leotard to leotard, I loved my dance instructor.
Bend. Roll. Tighten. Down. Gracefully! Do it gracefully, someone was always shouting. Graceful, I couldn’t do—passionate, no problem. When I pressed against her tight ballet-trained body with its lovely pelvic turnout, and she sighed, I graduated from the back barre to the stage. And it was a stage, meaning it didn’t last. It couldn’t last. No one was supposed to know, though my mother guessed; but that was, and is, my Washington: going with her to dance concerts, holding her hand, getting dressed after a dance class and having her come up behind me and whisper in my ear: “You look great,” and me leaving little poems under her door. This was the older woman who handed me lesbian culture on a tray, told me to read Adrienne Rich and May Sarton and Mary Daly and Jane Rule; she played Cris Williamson albums for me. Locating this specifically lesbian literature and music gave me a context for our love affair, a sense of romantic community shared by couples across the land who also appreciated these books and records. Out at Great Falls or down along the canal we had one sun-drenched picnic after another, sitting in trees or beside water, the picnic basket heaped with grapes and poetry. Sappho and her school for girls happened, then, for me, for us, recreated across millennia, forbidden but tender and mutual. “I have such strong feelings for you, and you’re so much younger than me,” she worried in that April; “No problem,” I reassured her as we toppled over into the warm ferns. I still have that lavender leotard, and I roll down and stretch my back and stand with unlocked knees the way she taught me. My heart races at the sight of any little car that looks like hers. I’m still in touch with her, and that’s the best.
The first girl I kissed, the one who ran the spotlight, went back to dating guys; the next two women I knew I liked listened lovingly to my propositions and turned me down; both were dating guys. I was surrounded by warm, funny, creative, talented women who valued female friendships, but most weren’t sure they wanted to have lesbian sex. This put me in the position of being the “real” lesbian, the young diplomat from Dyketopia, when, as I’ve indicated, I was in fact a stumbling, inexperienced, nondrinking bookworm, majoring in Judaica.
Now it was 1981, Valentine’s Day, with Reagan in the White House, and I had no date. An elusive dance major I’ll call Wendy, who had listened to my shy come-on and responded “But, Bonnie, I’m straight as an arrow” now took pity on me and agreed to go out dancing. She rolled up the sleeves of my feminist t-shirt with her languid, bony hands; took a hip and tranquil interest in everything. “I know where we can dance,” she said, and took me down to Rascals, right where Connecticut Avenue meets Dupont Circle. It’s a big bank now, but it was a four-story gay male disco then, and there were no other women inside but us.
At first they wouldn’t let us in. I was nineteen, underage, my hands stamped red to show I couldn’t buy alcohol. Wendy led me through the room after room and cake layer after disco cake layer of cruising men, until at last, we reached the top floor, a frantic loft with skylights cracked to let out heat and let in the moon, and bearded guys vibrating to the music. “Come on,” she said and looked at me appraisingly. All those years of dance class, and I stood there rooted as a radish.
Wendy reached out and slipped her hands into my hair, found the catch in my tortoiseshell hair clip, and in one gesture flipped it open and cast it over the bar. She brought down my braided hair and fluffed it out intently. Then she pulled me into the middle of the dancing men, who parted around us respectfully, the Red Sea divided by Miriam and her handmaiden; they formed a voyeuristic circle around us, watching, clapping, urging us on. Go, girls.
I danced with her, jumping. When we tired we moved together, closer, and I could look at her and smile. She reached out and turned me, and held me from behind, and rocked me in her arms while the men shouted and sighed; I heated like an iron, gasping as I felt her pressed behind me. Her pelvis cupped my ass and our mingled body heat flickered, flared in the erogenous forge; if we were paper dolls we would have burned up then, red ashes. Careful, now, the boys are watching. But I knew exactly what my face looked like: unexpected blessing. Here it was, the dance major cradling me into her red velour body shirt, holding my head, and I melted into the floor, the flesh swooning off my hopeful teenage bones. And all the gay guys, smiling.
When I told her how turned on I was, how much I wanted her, she told me “No, I love you madly as a friend.” but then she took the silver bracelet from her wrist and put it on mine, saying “This will keep you safe. I don’t want anything to happen to you.” She knew I was going to study abroad in the Middle East the next year, but more than that, she offered me a token from her body. I wore the bracelet to work, to class, to bed with other women; for twenty-one years I’ve worn it, never taking it off (except occasionally at a doctor’s office to give blood.) It’s still right here on my writing hand, this hand that types this line for you this very hour; the bracelet on my right wrist is a memory of that night, dancing at Rascals: love and desire don’t have to end in sex.
Coming out in college meant mustering the nerve to visit Lambda Rising bookstore on my lunch hour, Lammas Women’s Books at Eastern Market, feeling young and self-conscious and red in the face, never dreaming my own books would be in their front windows later on. I had a summer temp job as a secretary for the Airline Pilots Association, mailing out form letters to boys and young men who wrote to ask how they could become pilots themselves. At noon I carried my bag lunch and ate on the go as I walked over to S Street to look at Lambda Rising Bookstore. After just a few weeks of this, I mustered the courage to walk inside, though the sight of suited businessmen flipping through back-rack porn gave me pause.
I started reading The Blade, found out about the Lesbian Resource Counseling Center, and started going to the Thursday night women’s discussion group, still going strong all these years later, though now on Monday nights. I joined a young lesbian rap group, and we went to hear Holly Near at the Bayou, in Georgetown, and my dance teacher took me to hear Cris Williamson and June Millington, and by August 1981 I was on a seventeen-hour bus trip with sixty D.C. dykes and a punk band called Squeeze Louise, heading for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
That was the end of bar life for me, in D.C. The bars played pop music, often by misogynistic men. I wanted women’s music in women’s bars. I wanted woman-only space. The 1980s were the last long blast of organized lesbian separatism; I had found what I was looking for. I stopped going out with gay male pals to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, bought my books at Lammas instead of Lambda, stacked Cris Williamson on my turntable, opened a copy of Evelyn Torton Beck’s Nice Jewish Girls, declared my minor in women’s studies, began to plan my summers around every women’s music festival in the country, let the hair on my legs grow and grow and grow, and marched in the D.C. Pride Parade right behind the Dykes on bikes, my canvas backpack covered with pins announcing I LOVE WOMEN. I bought Birkenstocks and spent warm weather months with my brown feet white-striped in a Birkenstock tan. And around me, around me, around me, other women in this tribe, and poet June Jordan said it best: “We are the ones we have waited for.”
Total time between first purchase of a women’s music album and first journey to the Michigan festival: five months.
Total time between coming out to Mom and taking Mom with me to Michigan: about seven years.
Coolest thing about coming out in Washington: my first woman lover was a direct descendent of George Washington, and later I dated a direct descendent of Abe Lincoln; she and I went on the White House tour wearing gay rights t-shirts, and kissed in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Did the Founding Fathers know they were seeding Lesbian Nation?
Dr. Bonnie J. Morris
National Coming Out Day 2020