I Lost It at the Movies by Jewelle Gomez. From Forty-Three Septembers. Published by Firebrand Books, Milford, CT, 1993.
My grandmother, Lydia, and my mother, Dolores, were both talking to me from their bathroom stalls in the Times Square movie theater. I was washing butter form my hands at the sink and didn’t think it at all odd. The people in my family are always talking; conversation is a life force in our existence. My great-grandmother, Grace, would narrate her life story from 7:00 A.M. until we went to bed at night. The only break was when we were reading of the reverential periods when we sat looking out of our tenement windows, observing the neighborhood, which we naturally talked about later.
So it was not odd that Lydia and Dolores talked non-stop from their stalls, oblivious to everyone except us. I hadn’t expected it to happen there, though. I hadn’t really expected and “it” to happen at all. To be a lesbian was part of who I was, like being left-handed – even when I’d slept with men. When my great-grandmother asked me in the last days of her life if I would be marrying my college boyfriend I said yes, knowing I would not, knowing I was a lesbian.
It seemed a fact that needed no expression. Even my first encounter with the word “bulldagger” was not charged with emotional conflict. As a teen in the 1960s my grandmother told a story about a particular building in our Boston neighborhood that had gone to seed. She described the building’s past through the experience of a party she’d attended there thirty years before. The best part of the evening had been a woman she’d met and danced with. Lydia had been a professional dancer and singer on the black theater circuit; to dance with women was who she was. They’d danced, then the woman walked her home and asked her out. I head the delicacy my grandmother searched for even in her retelling of how she’d explained to the “bulldagger,” as she called her, that she liked her fine but she was more interested in men. I was struck with how careful my grandmother had been to make it clear to that woman (and in effect to me) that there was no offense taken in her attentions, that she just didn’t “go that way,” as they used to say. I was so happy at thirteen to have a word for what I knew myself to be. The word was mysterious and curious, as if from a new language that used some other alphabet which left nothing to cling to when touching its curves and crevices. But still a word existed and my grandmother was not flinching in using it. In fact she’d smiled at the good heart and good looks of the bulldagger who’d asked her.
Once I had the knowledge of a word and a sense of its importance to me, I didn’t feel the need to explain, confess, or define my identity as a lesbian. The process of reclaiming my ethnic identity in this country was already all-consuming. Later, of course, in moments of glorious self-righteousness, I did make declarations. But they were not usually ones I had to make. Mostly they were a testing of the waters. A preparation for the rest of the world which, unlike my grandmother, might not have a grounding in what true love is about.
Still, none of my experiences demanded that I bare my soul. I remained honest but no explicit. Expediency, diplomacy, discretion, are all words that come to mind now. At that time I knew no political framework through which to filter my experience. I was more preoccupied with the Attica riots than with Stonewall. The media helped to focus our attentions within a proscribed spectrum and obscure the connections between the issues. I worried about who would shelter Angela Davis, but the concept of sexual politics was remote and theoretical.
I’m not certain when and where the theory and reality converged.
Being a black woman and a lesbian unexpectedly blended like that famous scene in Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona. The different faces came together as one, and my desire became part of my heritage, my skin, my perspective, my politics, and my future. And I felt sure that it had been my past that helped make the future possible. The women in my family had acted if their lives were meaningful. Their lives were art. To be a lesbian among them was to be an artist. Perhaps the convergence came when I saw the faces of my great-grandmother, grandmother and mother in those of the community of women I finally connected with. There was the same adventurous glint in their eyes; the same determined step; the penchant for breaking into song and for not waiting for anyone to take care of them.
I need not pretend to be other than who I was with any of these women. But did I need to declare it? During the holidays when I brought home best friends or lovers my family always welcomed us warmly, clasping us to their magnificent bosoms. Yet there was always an element of silence in our neighborhood, and surprisingly enough in our family, that was disturbing to me. Among the regulars in my father, Duke’s, bar, was Maurice. He was eccentric, flamboyant, and still ordinary. He was accorded the same respect by neighborhood children as every other adult. His indiscretions took their place comfortably among the cyclical, Saturday night, man/woman scandals of our neighborhood. I regret never having asked my father how Maurice and he had become friends.
Soon I felt the discomforting silence pressing against my life more persistently. During visits home to Boston it no longer sufficed that Lydia and Dolores were loving and kind to the “friend” I brought home. Maybe it was just my getting older. Living in New York City at the age of thirty in 1980, there was little I kept deliberately hidden from anyone. The genteel silence that hovered around me when I entered our home was palpable but I was unsure whether it was already there when I arrived or if I carried it home within myself. I cut me off from what I knew was a kind of fulfillment available only from my family. The lifeline from Grace, to Lydia, to Dolores, to Jewelle was a strong one. We were bound by so many things, not the least of which was looking so much alike. I was not willing to be orphaned by the silence.
If the idea of cathedral weddings and station wagons held no appeal for me, the concept of an extended family was certainly important. But my efforts were stunted by our inability to talk about the life I was creating for myself, for all of us. It felt all the more foolish because I thought I knew how my family would react. I was confident they would respond with their customary aplomb just as they had when I’d first had my hair cut as an Afro (which they hated) or when I brought home friends who were vegetarians (which they found curious). While we had disagreed over some issues, like the fight my mother and I had over Vietnam when I was nineteen, always when the deal went down we sided with each other. Somewhere deep inside I think I believed that neither my grandmother nor my mother would ever censure my choices. Neither had actually raised me; my great-grandmother had done that, and she had been a steely barricade against any encroachment on our personal freedoms, and she’d never disapproved out loud of anything I’d done.
But it was not enough to have an unabashed admiration for these women. It is one thing to have pride in how they’d so graciously survived in spite of the odds against them. It was something else to be standing in a Time Square movie theater faced with the chance to say “it” out loud and risk the loss of their brilliant and benevolent smiles.
My mother had started reading the graffiti written on the wall of the bathroom stall. We hooted at each of her dramatic renderings. The she said (not breaking her rhythm since we all know timing is everything), “Here’s one I haven’t seen before – ‘DYKES UNITE’.” There was that profound silence again, as if the frames of my life had ground to a halt. We were in a freeze-frame and options played themselves out in my head in rapid succession: Say nothing? Say something? Say what?
I laughed and said, “Yeah, but have you seen the rubber stamp on my desk at home?”
“No,” said my mother with a slight bit of puzzlement. “What does it say?”
“I saw it,” my grandmother called out from her stall. “It says: ‘Lesbian Money!’”
“Lesbian Money,” Lydia repeated.
“I just stamp it on my big bills,” I said tentatively, and we all screamed with laughter. The other woman at the sinks tried to pretend we didn’t exist.
Since then there had been little discussion. There have been some moments of awkwardness, usually in social situations where they feel uncertain. Although we have not explored the “it,” the shift in our relationship is clear. When I go home it is with my lover and she is received as such. I was lucky. My family was as relieved as I to finally know who I was.
Biography taken from www.jewellegomez.com
Jewelle Gomez is a writer and activist and the author of the double Lambda Award-winning novel, THE GILDA STORIES from Firebrand Books. Her adaptation of the book for the stage "Bones & Ash: a Gilda Story," was performed by the Urban Bush Women company in 13 U.S. cities. The script was published as a Triangle Classic by the Paperback Book Club.
She is the recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; two California Arts Council fellowships and an Individual Artist Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission.
Her fiction, essays, criticism and poetry have appeared in numerous periodicals. Among them: The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Village Voice; Ms Magazine, ESSENCE Magazine, The Advocate, Callaloo and Black Scholar. Her work has appeared in such anthologies as HOME GIRLS, READING BLACK READING FEMINIST, DARK MATTER and the OXFORD WORLD TREASURY OF LOVE STORIES.
She has served on literature panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council and the California Arts Council.
She was on the original staffs of "Say Brother," one of the first weekly, Black television shows in the U.S. (WGBH-TV, Boston) and "The Electric Company" (Children's Television Workshop, NYC) as well as and on the founding board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). She was an original member of the boards of the Astraea Foundation and the Open Meadows Foundation.
Her first novel, THE GILDA STORIES, celebrates its 20th year in print in 2011 with readings at the Museum of the African Diaspora and at the Queer Arts Festival. Her other publications include three collections of poetry: THE LIPSTICK PAPERS (1980) and FLAMINGOES AND BEARS (1986), both self published and ORAL TRADITION from Firebrand Books (1995). She edited (with Eric Garber) a fantasy fiction anthology entitled SWORDS OF THE RAINBOW (Alyson Publications (1996) and selected the fiction for THE BEST LESBIAN EROTICA OF 1997 (Cleis).
She is also the author a book of personal and political essays entitled FORTY-THREE SEPTEMBERS (Firebrand Books 1993) and a collection of short fiction, DON'T EXPLAIN (Firebrand Books 1997).
She has presented lectures and taught at numerous institutions of higher learning including San Francisco State University, Hunter College, Rutgers University, New College of California, Grinnell College, San Diego City College, The Ohio State University and the University of Washington (Seattle).
Formerly the executive director of the Poetry Center and the American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University she has also worked in philanthropy for many years. She is the former director of the Literature program at the New York State Council on the Arts and the director of Cultural Equity Grants for the San Francisco Arts Commission. She is currently the director of Grants and Community Initiatives for Horizon and the President of the San Francisco Library Commission.
Her new projects include a comic novel about black activists of the 1960s as they face middle age entitled Televised. Her new play, written in collaboration with Harry Waters Jr. is called Waiting for Giovanni. A dream play exploring the inner life of author James Baldwin, it has its world premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in the Fall of 2011.