On the Queer Women Who Raised Me

Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home

Stepmother had become Mother's same-sex life partner, or "wusband," as she liked to call herself after they had their own private commitment ceremony in the woods. When Girl said "her parents," she meant this woman and her mother. She never considered her father one of her real parents. He was just Father, who lived far away and had a new family. Although she visited him, he was mostly important for his absence. Day-to-day life was Girl, Brother, Mother, and Stepmother. She didn't remember much of life before they became a family, just little snippets of things, but Girl did remember how happy she had been in the single-wide trailer before Stepmother came to live with them.

Girl remembered one nice woman Mother dated, who played the guitar and sang songs. She liked her a lot better than Stepmother, but that woman went into the hospital and died. It would be many years before Girl learned that this woman and Stepmother were the same person — the woman who went into the hospital to have a hysterectomy came out someone with a hormone imbalance that turned her into someone unrecognizable.

Girl didn't care that her mother was gay — it was the way her mother had been for as long as she could remember. But everyone else made it a big deal. Girl cared that Stepmother was always yelling, and that Mother loved Stepmother best — more than she loved Girl and Brother, it seemed. Girl cared that Stepmother appeared to hate Brother and hit him all the time. Stepmother told Girl over and over that she loved her, but her words felt like nothing.

Stepmother was what they called "Baby Butch" back in the 1970s. This was the best kind of butch to be; tough and strong but with a cute face. In the lesbian world, she was a catch. Throughout her life, a lot of men asked Girl why lesbians were so ugly, by which they meant masculine, and if ugly women became lesbians because they couldn't attract men. Men asked, "Have you ever noticed that most lesbians are women that men wouldn't want to fuck?" The truth was that while the lesbians Girl knew were a few decades behind in their fashion role models (think mullets, lots of mullets) they had a different scale of attractiveness. Many didn't want to look feminine, not because they were bad at it, but because they did not subscribe to the fashion industry's sexualization of women. The butch look was popular because women still wanted to feel like their partner could protect them and kick some ass if need be, but there was also an appreciation for the androgynous, the gender-bending.

Stepmother wanted to be a 1950s-style husband. She wore burgundy sweater-vests over pale yellow button-down oxfords, and jeans or polyester slacks that hugged her fat stomach. Her small feet were always in loafers or sneakers, never heels. When Stepmother went to work she wore skirted business suits under duress, and she always wore the same small, gold hoop earrings. Her hair was short and dark brown, parted on the side. Everyone in the family had the same haircut: Mother, Girl, Brother, Stepmother. Only Girl hated it. Girl wanted long hair and ponytails, but she wasn't allowed to grow it until the third grade, or until she stopped crying when Stepmother combed it, whichever came first.

Stepmother often went to the library to find home repair manuals. She liked to fix things. She got a book on how to patch concrete and repaired the basement wall, saving them five thousand dollars. But she must have missed something, because by the time Girl was twenty, the house had slowly collapsed inward, so that the light switch plate in Girl's old bedroom was half-buried behind the door frame. 

Once, Stepmother was repairing a rusted-out hole in her Datsun station wagon. Girl stood nearby, watching and chewing gum.

"Girl, give me your gum," Stepmother said. Girl pulled her gum out of her mouth with her thumb and forefinger and handed the wad to Stepmother. Stepmother balled it up and used it as a filler for the hole in the car, painting over it with touch-up paint.

"Hey! That's my gum!" Girl protested, poking the repair with her finger.

"Look what you did! You dented it! Now I have to do the whole thing over again. Do you have any more gum?" Stepmother asked.

Excerpted from Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing.

Tags: Books, Women, Lesbian

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