Let them see that we were not heroines or heroes at all.
But we believed passionately in our goals and we pursued them.
We were sometimes strong and sometimes we were very weak.
Alexandra Kollontai, in Bolshevik Feminist
A girl I knew vaguely, half a lifetime ago, recently wrote a staggering piece on abusive relationships; in a wrenching turn of language, of honesty, of recollection, she chronicled the untimely horrors of adolescence, the toxins of mistreatment, the devastating fate of far too many women at the hands of far too many men. By this single, blistering essay, I was left inspired and silenced; compelled to speak, yet unable to do so; burning to write, but lacking the language. The piece itself can be read here.
The aftermath of the article’s publication saw an outpouring of affected, astonished individuals, particularly girls and women, who expressed their gratitude, offered their shared strength, described their own experiences, and left lingering clauses of admiration and empathy. Watching from my position behind a computer screen, I was struck by these events–both the piece and its reception–in a strange and singular way. Even in the throngs of my own mind, with all of its involuntary cynicism, I saw beauty quite plainly in this.
From one woman’s act of tremendous courage, her full reckoning with and articulation of an agony-imbibed history, there had emerged an invaluable source of caution and solace for women anywhere and everywhere, which in turn engendered a responsive flood of acknowledgement, gratitude, and love. I realized then how lucky I am to be surrounded, directly and indirectly, implicitly and explicitly, in precise and arbitrary fashion alike, by women who write and think and feel in such extraordinary, authentic ways.
I am writing carefully now. To reorient the brilliance and raw potency of this piece around myself, to detract from its shattering impact in any way, would be despicable. I don’t want to do that, and in fact, I likely couldn’t; Alana’s text breathes diatribes of admission and power that I simply am not equipped to equal. As such, what I hope to communicate now is not self-serving recalibration, but deferential gratitude: I hope to contribute something modest of my own to the ethos of this wonderful piece by echoing, however inaptly, its model of honesty and strength. I am trying to extend the parameters of my own mind beyond my basic understandings of gender, sexuality and human love, in order to interrogate the individual and collective implications of an article such as this one.
I want to know the beauty and force inherent not only in this single excursion of language, this gorgeous scattering of text upon a page, but also in the response that it has elicited: the selflessness and courage that reverberates now across the threads of a webbed nexus, some online community that, before my very eyes, has exemplified the concept and the triumph of women loving, protecting, and uplifting other women in the modern world. I want to understand how it matters, what it means, for women to nurture and inspire and adore one another, openly and uninhibitedly, at this moment in time. And then I want to write about it.
I think that the deeply personal resonance of this event, and the manner by which I perceive it, is as physical as it is political. For me, the terms “woman” and “girl” are deeply conflicted: they are desirous, unfamiliar, constricting, sensual, and sacred all at once. I am a woman, of sorts. After all, I was called a girl when I was born, and named a woman when men assessed and affirmed my erotic value. And I have been loving women for all of my life.
It all started around the eighth grade, hastily and half in jest, with one shared kiss in the late summer; a stolen moment of sweetness that lingered like rosewater and raw honey upon my tongue, and altered eternally the cast of my desires. In the lifetime that followed, I learned a thousand forms of forbidden tenderness. A letter slipped between the panels of a locker. A hushed conversation in a bathroom stall. A smile or a glance in a middle school hallway. Shorn hair like cropped silk; diaphanous pastel brushstrokes; soft fingers that ran, searching, along the notches of my spine. A disheveled apartment in New York’s East Village. A ringing peal of laughter, like rain, in the Oxford streets. Amidst these scattered, near-infinite moments, there emerged the first person I ever thought to love sincerely: and in one intrepid summer of insolence and affection, she seared herself onto my heart. We met in motion beneath the waters, while the fractured moonlight cast off its pallor and crystallized her skin. I lost myself to the salient curves along her waist, the parting of her lips, the taste of salt as it broke like a wave-crest along my tongue. And there have been others, since then.
But back in the beginning, it was all very different. I was a girl from a small, normal town, who did not feel a small, normal love. There were a few like me, then, but we all sought to hide from one another, from ourselves, even as something wonderful was unfurling inside of us. In downcast eyes, glancing skin, and gently stretching limbs, we all were afraid. Sometimes, I still am.
Five years almost to the day of that first, clandestine kiss, forty-nine queer people, largely of color, were executed in a nightclub in Orlando. And although I certainly did not share every experience or identity of those targeted in the carnage, I felt this loss directly: I buckled beneath the gore-smeared violation of a place where people who felt different, in ways both like and unlike the ways that I felt different, could come together and live and love and not feel quite so different anymore. The notion alone of this reckless hate in such a space was enough to physically sicken me.
So I shared the blinding horror and uncertain misery of that afternoon with just one woman: a figure still sometimes shrouded in allegory, for reasons that even now, as they lay forgotten across the vast Atlantic, wrench the raw nerves and contours of my heart. We received the news in a blinking disarray of text alerts and slowly unfolding coverage. We waited in silence for the nationwide address. Alone, together, in the bitter confines of my room, we saw the president on our computer screen, confirming those forty-nine dead. We watched a national, cultural, and spiritual catastrophe unfold. We lit cigarettes. We held each other. We both cried.
Three months later, I lay back on an artist’s table as another woman, dark-eyed and steady-handed, preformed for me a burning art. In the searing rise and fall of a needle against my skin, imbued with the scorching, writhing intimacy of the carefully applied ink, she emblazoned upon my shoulder that old symbol of resistance: a small triangle in holocaust pink. Its impression still whispers with the potency and pain of those hours spent learning of the horror in Orlando: that wonderful girl and her gentle embrace, my tearstained countenance, our grief.
In this rough and uncertain reality, girls love girls because they can, because they must. Because this world can be beautiful; but too often, it is callous, unassuming, and cold. Of course, I have loved men too, in many different ways: I recall now with soft, confused tenderness the young man with the sad, shadowed eyes like pale winter morning, and the cruelty of his chrome-tongued successor. I think fondly of my friends and my brothers. I grieve for my father.
But to love another woman is a hallowed art: a practice sanctified by generations of camaraderie, self-preservation, and quiet, transgressive desire. And of course, it is not an exclusively romantic or physical act; nor it constrained to any single “female” identity. I know and cherish multitudes of women who are neither lovers nor figures of desire: we are merely joined, all of us, in the terrible beauty of our difference. Womanhood, as I conceive it, is not a question of physical terminology; thus, the word, “girl,” as I employ it here, is not meant to be exclusive or binding. I hope it can be read as just one of many terms used to signify and celebrate those who have practiced, for centuries, the art of affection, of tenderness, of solidarity; who have been those certain kinds of children, those bent and branded things called girls: raised to be girls, afraid to love girls, or living in bodies that made their parents and teachers call them the wrong names.
I still see them all now, down in the city streets, luckless or genderless, queer or unwell, ignored or abused, shattered or blank-faced, with hearts like gaping mouths, with memories that bite like pale tongues of fire, with entire universes of cautious hope contained in the depths of their eyes. I want to protect them. I want to be their mother, their sister, their brother, their lover, their friend. Not their father, of course, for I have had enough of fathers–but I long to show them some better, more blameless life. I want to love and live for them in all of the ways that so many women have loved and lived for me. This, alone, is my womanhood. It knows no definition by which it may be condemned or constrained.
Those who have known or cared for me, as a lover, or a pupil, or a classmate, or a patient, or a friend, or merely as a fellow woman, have made my mind something closer to whole. A thousand names flood my tongue. The pages I turned in a childhood closet as I came to know that I was neither alone nor forsaken: Barnes, Lorde, Woolf, Bechdel, Sappho, Rich. Every girl who has shared my bed, or calmed my soul, or read my writing, or cut my hair; who steadied my shaking hands or consoled me when men taught me all the worst parts of what I am, and what can be done to me. The ones who wrapped my arms with bandages, played my guitar, wrote soft-edged annotations in the margins of lent books, let me wear their borrowed clothes, made me laugh, made me feel, asked me questions, told me stories in the night. These women took the shattered parts of me, and soldered my skin together with their own hearts–they kept me alive when the surgical knife could not.
And so I have come to be, fully, that which I always was: a girl who loves girls in this strange new century. And we are not writing, or speaking, or loving, or fucking, or living, or dying, for you. We are for each other. We are for ourselves. In our shared and varied affections, we desire and astound. Our learned affections break the binds of known convention: we ring out through the silence with insurrectionary love. The blinding cast of our hearts subdues an expressionless stillness as, echoing, astonishing, aspiring, we express.