Coming out as a lesbian in the freezing tundra of Upstate New York was a confusing but exciting time for me. Most days the weather was a blizzard of snowflakes and harsh, blinding wind, but it didn’t matter. My young blood was on fire, so I barely noticed such mundane realities. I was almost twenty-one. It was the early eighties, and I had taken a leave of absence from the university where I was enrolled to attend a yearlong program called The Women’s Writers’ Center. It was run by several feminist writers, all of whom were lesbians, although I didn’t know this at the time. The fact that the work of Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde were the main staples of our college level syllabus, should have tipped me off, but at the time I was too naïve to make the connection.
Once I arrived on campus, I began rooming with four other women in a big old house on Lincklaen Street which was only a few blocks away from where we had our classes. It was there that I first came out, although, everything in my life at the time was already pointing in that direction. That is, my feminist identity and my lesbian identity were rapidly converging. I could feel it in my bones. I was in the midst of a powerful life transformation, even though I was barely talking to anyone about it. Before I enrolled in that program, I had at least been acknowledging my lesbian identity to myself for a number of months. I knew it was only a matter of time and circumstances before it would become my daily reality and not just something I fantasized about in vague terms in the darkness of my college dorm room.
The fact that I now found myself tossed into a “den of lesbians” only made it much easier for me to finally self-actualize. Interestingly enough, the majority of women attending our program also ended up coming out that year. They were all dating other women, namely, the other female students they’d met in this feminist writers’ program, i.e, the “den of lesbians.”
As it turned out, I too met and started dating my first girlfriend, Mickey there. When I met her, this young woman seemed so different from me with her smooth Texas twang and all those funny sayings she used, local to her East Texas origins. Having been raised in New York, in an Italian American neighborhood, I’d never heard so many regional colloquialisms whose meanings usually escaped me. One of them I especially liked and understood perfectly was: “The things you see when you ain’t got a gun.” Loved it!
She spouted these sayings regularly, and they along with her southern accent and her beautiful green eyes utterly intrigued me. As luck would have it, Mickey also happened to be one of the women rooming in our household on Lincklaen Street. In fact, she had traveled all the way from Texas to Upstate New York, just to attend this program, which was one of the few or possibly the only feminist women’s writing center in existence.
We were lucky, because at the time, the feminist movement was still in its heydey. There were feminist books being published every day, women’s presses publishing them, and women’s bookstores were opening up in town after town to promote and sell these tomes of revolutionary fervor penned by the well-known sheroes or brand new women writers of our day. Bookstores such as A Woman’s Place, Bloodroot, Bluestockings, In Other Words, Old Wives’ Tales, A Room of One’s Own, and Book Woman, soon became community centers for strong-minded women in various cities throughout the country, spurring our feminist fervor and our activism all across America.
Even in our tiny town of Cazenovia, New York, there was a feminist bookstore, called Smedley’s Bookshop. One afternoon, I got really bold and decided to go on an exploratory mission to check this place out. As soon as I walked in the door, I locked my eyes onto an all-lesbian album, the first I’d ever seen in my life. It was a collection of folk songs by someone named Alix Dobkin. I stared at the red cover with a photo of this short haired, intense looking woman wearing Vans sneakers exactly like the ones I was wearing. The album was appropriately named: Living with Lesbians. As I glanced at the title, I remember thinking, how the hell does she know?
I remember standing there in Smedley’s Bookshop, being extremely curious, but just too terrified to pick up that album for closer inspection. What if the bookstore clerk made assumptions about me, assumptions which I myself was only barely ready to acknowledge?
Also on their shelf was a book called Women Who Kill. At the time, Bernadette Powell was a big subject of discussion in our classes. She was an African-American woman who had fairly recently been tried and convicted of killing her abusive husband. The case was a regular topic among my classmates, as was the general topic of battered women who fight back against their abusers. In my burgeoning feminist consciousness, I remember listening deeply when several of my classmates were discussing Bernadette’s case and the horrible miscarriage of justice that it was. The entire topic of women who fight back against their battering husbands and end up serving jail time was something my classmates talked about with righteous anger. As I was trying to fully understand this and many other issues from a female-centered point of view, I was also acutely aware of my newly awakening attraction toward women, my fascination with the world of feminist thought that I was immersed in, and my emerging feelings toward one woman in particular, that new roommate of mine, Mickey.
As it turned out, within the first month of being thrown into that communal house together, both Mickey and I were simultaneously trying to figure out our attraction to each other. It started percolating early, amidst the stacks of lesbian novels, essays on radical feminism, and the daily dose of women-centered literature that we’d been sifting through and studying together.
Mickey was already more experienced than I was regarding love between women. At the time she was calling herself “bisexual.” This came out in a late night conversation that she and I were having in the living room. It must have been on a night when Sherry, our other housemate, wasn’t home. Sherry routinely paced rapidly in a wide circle in the living room while chain smoking, sometimes for two hours in a row. She said it was her form of meditation. If Sherry was home “meditating,” it was virtually impossible for anyone else to have a normal conversation in the living room.
On that night, Mickey told me about an earlier relationship with a female friend of hers that had occurred a year ago while in school in Norfolk, Virginia. She had had relationships with women, and I hadn’t, so clearly, I was the newbie in this potential romance. On top of that, I was painfully shy and I had little idea how to proceed in such matters. To make things even more stress-ridden, we also had another roommate who was very homophobic, had come from a religious family, and would occasionally drop comments to this effect. Her name was Mary Ann, and for some reason she seemed extremely curious about developments between Mickey and I.
Little did we know, Mary Ann had started tracking our every move. As we grew closer and finally started actually acknowledging our attraction for each other in a physical way, Mary Ann was never too far off watching our blossoming relationship, from our first kiss in the living room, to the first time we spent the night together, in somebody’s room, I think it was mine, to our making breakfast for the first time together in the morning.
By the time our relationship had finally gotten off the ground, and we not only were acknowledging our mutual interest, but acting on it enthusiastically, Mary Ann was there, waiting for us to get home from class and being pretty damn nosy and obvious about it too. During several romantic moments we enjoyed, whether it was listening to music or dancing together in the living room, Mary Ann was in the vicinity, watching us with her eagle eye. Eventually, we figured out that it wasn’t just a coincidence. She was dogging us.
One day, after an evening of love making in Mickey’s room this time, Mary Ann got bolder than ever. In the hallway outside, she loudly dropped a stack of books near Mickey’s room. The door was closed, but we knew who it was. Who else could it be? The very next morning, as we were getting our coats and hats on, and grabbing our backpacks to venture into the snow for a 9am class, Mary Ann came up to us in the hallway of the house and blurted out, in her homophobic way, “Are you two….uh uh”
Well she couldn’t actually finish her sentence. It could have been: having sex, or getting involved, but she couldn’t actually say it out loud. All she could do was stutter a couple of times, “Are you two….uh uh,” Then she shook her outstretched hand back and forth lightly, a gesture that usually means so-so, or more or less, or maybe yes, maybe no. The French say: comme ci, comme ça . It’s all she could manage to utter, peering at us with intense eyes. We immediately understood what she was getting at. “Are you two…uh uh” —fucking, basically.
Mickey and I both looked at her and then we looked at each other, and then we burst out laughing. That was confirmation enough for Mary Ann. She scurried into another room and never referred to our relationship again.
Toward the end of the school year, as we were preparing for two weeks of paper writing and finals, Mickey and I were thinking about this amazing program we were about to finish, and everything we’d been learning in the past number of months. I knew my life was forever changed. My sense of self had gotten clearer and stronger, as did my writer’s voice. My life’s probable path was being revealed: dyke writer and activist. It was so exciting.
Right around this time, we heard a piece of gossip from another student in our class which was raising quite a few eyebrows, to say the least. We learned that Mary Ann had recently found herself a new beau. To our surprise, we discovered that it was Miranda, another woman in our program. Miranda was a longtime lesbian, a cultured woman with a theater background who had a flair for dramatic readings of Gertrude Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry.” We were treated to her talents one night at the program director’s home where we all gathered before the final semester ended. “Wow,” we thought. “Miranda? That’s cool.”
As unexpected as it was, we were really happy to hear this news, happy for Mary Ann, and for our classmate Miranda. Come to think of it, by the end of that school year, every woman in our class had found herself a girlfriend. By June, as we were wrapping up finals and saying good-bye, lesbian love was absolutely humming in the air.
When I got back to my home university that fall, my long hair had been lopped off to a short, sporty cut, which I really liked. I had a meeting with the head of the Cornell English department, who noticed my short hair and remarked about it immediately. I soon learned that he had decided he wasn’t going to give me full credit for my year of off-campus study. He referred to my instructors at The Women’s Writers’ Center as “lightweights,” and firmly explained that since my major was English Lit, and we had been studying women writers, he would only permit me half credit for my years’ worth of classes. This delayed my graduation from Cornell. It cost me extra money in tuition, since I had to take out more loans in order to finish my undergraduate degree. I was furious! I tried to get my advisor involved, but ultimately she gave me no support. So I graduated a half year later than I had planned. Soon afterward, I moved to Texas to live with Mickey.
In the long run, that final act of blatant sexism on the part of the English department didn’t matter. I had obtained my degree in English Lit with a minor in Women’s Studies. I had also grown enormously in those years. My life experiences had given me wisdom, grit, and stamina. It was well worth it. And the best part of all: another radical feminist dyke was issued into the world— and she came out kicking and screaming.
Giovanna Capone is a poet, fiction writer, and playwright. She was raised in an Italian American neighborhood in New York, whose strong immigrant influence still resonates in her life. She lives in California, but will always be a New York Italian. Giovanna’s first book, published by Bedazzled Ink, came out in 2015 to strong reviews. It’s entitled: IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD: POETRY & PROSE FROM AN ITALIAN-AMERICAN. Her work has also appeared in various publications, including Curaggia: Writing by Women of Italian Descent, Bless Me Father: Stories of Catholic Childhood, Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, Avanti Popolo: Italian-American Writers Sail Beyond Columbus, Queer View Mirror 2, Lesbian & Gay Short Short Fiction, and Fuori: Essays by Italian/American Lesbians and Gays. Her recent short fiction has appeared in The Paterson Literary Review.
Giovanna’s first play, Her Kiss, was produced and performed to sold-out audiences in San Francisco by Luna Sea Women’s Performance Project, in their first Dyke Drama Festival. She also co-edited Hey Paesan! Writing by Lesbians & Gay Men of Italian Descent with Tommi Avicolli Mecca and Denise Nico Leto.
Her current project is an anthology of short fiction and memoir by lesbian writers, which she’s co-editing, entitled: Dispatches from Lesbian America. Giovanna lives in Oakland, CA and works as a public librarian. You can reach her at www.giovannacapone.com