by Emily Duncan

Copyright © 2001-2002 All Rights Reserved

The August heat sticks my skirt to the back of my legs, making it catch between my knees and causing me to stumble as I enter the small bar. Dust and grime plaster the back streets of the city, and although it's evening, the buildings are still visible, blurred and enveloped by the warm, sultry half-light. The summer has been unusually hot - shocking since it followed on the heels of an unbearably cold winter.

I hated that cold.

Extremes of weather are supposed to be a result of global warming.

During the winter, it was so chilly that I contemplated spraying some aerosols to make the hole in the ozone layer a little bigger.

And now I'm complaining about the heat. Ironic, isn't it? But it's really muggy tonight.

Oppressive even.

I could almost use that as an excuse to turn around and go home. I'm forcing myself not to.

I have to be honest, though - I'm finding it hard to muster up any courage. This is definitely a first for me - something I thought I'd never have the gall to attempt.

I'm visiting the city's only lesbian bar tonight.

For the very first time.

And I'm going alone.

Don't get me wrong - I am most definitely gay. I'm inordinately proud of that fact. I parade my sexuality for all those who happen to be looking, daring their disapproval and standing firm against their distaste. This has long been a bone of contention between me and my mother. She just doesn't see why I have to talk about it all the time.

So I tell her.

It's because I look like a girl.

So nobody believes I'm a lesbian.

That answer never satisfies her. In her world, the fewer people who know about my sexual preferences, the better. She thinks I ought to count myself lucky that nobody believes me, because it'll make my life a damn sight easier in the long term.

I don't agree.

I hate it.

It makes me feel like a sham.

It's not that I want to pick up women. It's not even that I want to belong, particularly. It's a lot less superficial and a lot simpler than that.

To be blunt, I feel hurt.

Hurt that members of my own community, those with whom I ally myself against the worst of society's prejudices, don't even recognize me on the street. None of them deign to give me a second look. They walk past with eyes either glazed over or narrowed in hostility, leaving me feeling ignored, misconstrued and frustrated. In the eyes of those who are most like me, I am a total stranger. I resemble the "other" as far as they're concerned. I demarcate the boundary between them and the society against which they define themselves.

Frankly, that breaks my heart. I want them to know I'm on their side, and they don't even realize I exist.

I'm tired.

Tired of fighting for recognition, of putting myself on the line with a smile or a friendly "hello" which is always rebuffed, of sacrificing my own dignity in order to ingratiate myself with people who ought to recognize me as their kin but don't. I actually find myself doing the stupidest things. Like confessing myself to be a lesbian to the dyke behind me in the checkout line, because I know she can't tell and that just drives me crazy. And after I've done it and received nothing but a blank stare, I feel as though I really must be crazy. I know she thinks I am.

Eventually, somebody will have me committed.

I'm sure of it.

A couple of days ago, after a particularly embarrassing encounter with a diesel dyke in a coffee bar, I decided that I was going to do something I'd never done before - take the community on, on their own territory. I was going to brave it and damn the consequences.

God knows what the consequences will be.

But I want to see what happens when they have no choice but to look. When my very existence in the space ought to tell them I belong there.

My reasoning might sound a little skewed, but for once, there's method in my madness. It goes like this.

In a lesbian bar, there's an assumption that the clientele really ought to be queer. The way I see it, this could work in my favor. Like marking myself out as a member of the community without having to wear the uniform. And boy, I hate wearing the uniform. I do not look good in baggy combats and oversized T-shirts. Some women do. Not me. I worked that out a while ago.

I'm taking a huge risk, because this could get really nasty. But I need to know whether they'll accept me or turn me away. Perhaps I should give up and just stop trying. I admit it: I'm a pessimist at heart. I have a sinking feeling that what should be my safe haven will turn out to be my battleground.

And I hate doing things I've never done before.

It makes me nervous.

Actually, I got as far as the door of a gay bar last year, but was turned away after one cursory glance, before I even had the opportunity to set a foot inside. The doorman asked me to prove that I was a lesbian.

I didn't really understand how I was supposed to do that. I mean, it's not as though there's some distinguishing mark or deformity that we all share. Contrary to popular belief, we're normal human beings just like everyone else, and we're as similar and as different from each other as a room full of straight people are. So I asked him who got to hold the yardstick, and when he didn't answer, I told him he ought to stick aforesaid yardstick up his ass, because that's the only place it would be of any use, and besides, it might put him in a better mood. I don't think he was too impressed by that. He certainly didn't look it when he told me to get lost and not come back.

I realized later that if I'd been more co-operative and recited a list of well-known lesbian magazines or venues, he might have let me in. But to be perfectly honest, that would have been an empty victory. Call me arrogant, but I object to having to beg and plead in order to be let into my own space. And as soon as I got through the door, I would have had to prove myself all over again.

I always do.

So that was my last gay bar experience, which wasn't really an experience at all. More like a giant and spectacular failure. Hopefully, this attempt will go better. At least this time I'm going to get past the door, if only because there's nobody manning it.

That'll be a first.

I speak reassuringly to myself as I push the door open with tremulous fingers and step slowly inside. And, as usual, when I most want to look confident and self-assured, I trip - snagging my heels under the doorstep and falling forward into the room.

The room turns to look, and the glances are unmistakably hostile.

I know why.

They look at me and see the shadow of a boyfriend or a husband by my side - ghosted next to me by my dress, my hair and my heels - femininity that ought to be some man's property.

Their conviction is so strong that I can almost see him myself, and I wonder, for a second, why I am there - why I'm not at home, waiting on a man who sees me as his chattel. Just like the lads on the street who make comments about my clothing and the female parts of my anatomy, while I walk by trying to ignore their sickening assumption that I am constructed for their benefit.

Another irony. Seems as though I'm coming across a lot of those today. I'm a lesbian through and through, but men think they own me and dykes don't want to know. I'm trapped by the fact that femininity implies heterosexuality. The two are so inextricably linked that they describe me before I can even utter a word.

It's funny.

Ever since I started having sex, I've been aware of the fact that heterosexuality would dilute my feminine qualities. There's no question about that. That's why I've never slept with a man. I know I would be unable to give him that power. I would refuse to let him think that my femininity was his gift - to reassure him that his birthright was being fulfilled. The promises would stick in my throat, the accoutrements would tarnish, the softness would become pliable and the power would turn to passivity. Because men don't realize that my girlish sweetness embraces a core of steel. The few who manage to find out generally run a mile.

I could tell you a few stories that would make you howl with laughter.

Like the one about the workmen who diligently yelled innuendo at me every single morning as I passed them on my way to work, until the day I challenged them to do what they boasted.

They didn't say another word.

Now they fall silent when I walk past.

You see, they didn't expect me to answer back. Everyone has an idea of what a feminine woman ought to be. "Seen and not heard" was their definition.

I certainly didn't fit that.

I take a few steps further inside the door and close it behind me.

It's dark and smoky, but I can still make out the sneers.

"Not a real lesbian ... "

Even the walls are whispering it. It feels as though I'm standing in front of an impassive jury, which takes in the soft pink of my dress, the make and motion of my hands, the length and curl of my hair, my carefully painted face and the way I walk, and pronounces me an aberration that threatens its carefully rebellious image. I feel as though I'm being put on trial - under oath and telling lies I can't control. Everything about me screams that the verdict is right.

The diesel dykes almost look insulted by my presence, their leather-clad shoulders stiffening in reaction to something that feels so foreign to them, yet that haunts their dreams at night. And then there are the androgynes, convinced of their own superiority, congratulating themselves on their presentational freedom and refusal to submit to a role, and not realizing that the negation of a role is actually a role in itself. The rest are shallow jocks, not interested in anything but the pool table and the football score. I heave a sigh of relief. That, I can handle, even if it makes me want to scream and bang their heads together.

"It's a girl ..." they say.

"She's a girl," is their verdict.

"Girl ..."

And coming from their mouths, the word is an insult, spat at me like the unpalatable notion of gender that I represent. Their gaze can make me a lesbian or reduce me to the word "phase," and they despise me, because they think I buy into a culture that views them with disapproval. They project the reprimand on me, splatter me with its bile, because my femininity symbolizes to them the cruelty of the world.

They certainly don't stop to consider that I might be a girl with desires just like their own. It doesn't cross their minds that by appearing in this space, I am giving a voice to a perversion that does not show on the outside, queering my gender and making more of a statement than they could ever hope to.

Discouraged, I turn to leave.

I feel as though the dinner I barely managed to force down earlier will make a spontaneous reappearance. Despite my presence here, I'm invisible to the very people whose validation I crave. After the first glance, their minds are already made up, and they cast me as the enemy. Their allegations ought to cement my sense of self, but I feel weak, and I believe what they say.

I don't belong here. I need to leave.

I stumble slightly as I make my way to the door.

And then I hear it - a stifled, malicious laugh. My shoulders stiffen in response, and my retreat is halted. I was almost vanquished. But true to form, my defiance begins to rise in response to this last act of cruelty.

I know that if I run away their suspicions will be confirmed, and I'll be suffocated in the process, because then, there will be no further doubt. I'll be labelled a tourist, an ing├łnue, an unsuspecting straight who stumbled into the haven of the marginalized and the disowned and who left in horror when she realized where she was.

I can't bring myself to prove them right.

So I turn back and approach the bar, trying to appear oblivious to the stares and whispers around me. I almost fall over the leg of a chair and put my hand out to steady myself. It meets with the hand of one of the androgynes sitting nearby. Tutting her annoyance, she snatches it back as though she's been burned. As though my femininity might be catching - or perhaps as though she might herself be caught. Sometimes I can't tell if it's loathing or fear I can see in their eyes.

And sometimes I think the two might be one and the same.

When I reach the bar, I pull up a stool and gingerly perch on the edge of it. At least if my back is to the room, I can flinch under the aggressive glare unnoticed.

"Vodka and tonic, please."

My voice sounds odd, as though it isn't really me saying the words. I feel separate from them, as though I'm watching a scene in a play from a dusty corner in the wings. Rejection makes me divorced from myself; the little girl runs away to hide and the adult is left, an empty shell, to deal with the pain.

The drink is wonderfully cool against my hot fingers, and I hold the glass to my face, watching as drops ooze down it like beads of sweat. I take a long, lingering sip and lick the lemon from my lips as the alcohol hits my throat.

It feels very welcome.

And the slight burning sensation bolsters my courage.

I even pluck up the guts to smile at the bartender. Caught off guard, she smiles in reply. But too soon she realizes what she's doing, and she knows she's fraternizing with the enemy. Hanging her head, she begins to avoid my gaze. I look away from her eventually, bored with the effort of winning an intellectual victory, and stare into my drink.

I stay motionless for a long time, paralysed with nerves and unable to look up. The bubbles on the side of the glass become inordinately interesting as I battle my desire to bolt for the door.

I feel as though I don't belong, because I'm aware that's what everyone else is thinking.

I know that membership in any group can be little more than a perception based on conjured similarities rather than actual ones - interpreted using signs and symbols - clothing, speech and body language. We imagine whole communities this way. I also know that the diesel dyke sitting opposite might find, if she looked inside my heart, that we're not really that different after all.

But she can't see inside my heart, because she can't get past my dress.

I know someone is going to approach me soon and ask me to leave. I've been warned about this. I've been told what will happen. I'll be sent away with my tail between my legs, ridiculed and rebuffed.

But I had to see for myself the way the ties that bind might cut my throat.

"You do realize this is a lesbian bar, don't you?"

The words come sooner than I expected.

And they throw me.

Despite my careful rehearsal of witty retorts and scathing one-liners, the reality of the rejection is something for which I could never have adequately prepared. I have been openly dismissed by the community that ought to offer me my only support.

I can't speak for a good few moments. My mouth is dry, and my hands begin to shake. I set my drink down with an audible crash and feel ready to burst into tears with mortification.

I panic, sliding off the stool in my haste to get away from the attack. The gaze has now turned from loathing to contempt as my skirt gets caught on the edge of the seat, and I stop to disengage it with clumsy hands. The manager starts laughing.

"I suggest you find somewhere else to go, little girl."

"She's with me."

Your voice comes from behind me, and I turn around to greet it.

You are wearing a suit and tie, and my breath catches at the sight.

A crisp white shirt hugs your full breasts, and your lapels stretch over the top. I enjoy the thought of your masculine clothing straining against your womanly figure. You take my hand and move me slightly behind you, and as you do so, I can see the strength in your wrists, the firmness of sinews and the thickness of bone.

"She's with me," you repeat, staring him down like a guard dog.

The corner of your mouth curls slightly, and I know you want to growl. I know that if this man is stupid enough to lay one finger on me, you will rip out his throat. Not because I can't look after myself, but because nobody hurts what is yours.

And I am yours.

He knows it. He reacts to you with surprise, shock and genuine fear and takes a few steps backwards. Then he gives you a brief, curt nod and disappears.

And as he retreats, the climate in the bar undergoes a shift. Your appearance has changed my story. In combination with you, I tell a tale everyone can understand. By your side, I fit in.

I make sense.

We make sense.

I see the glances soften - see the judgmental dykes turn back to their drinks. The interest has not lessened, but they are now afraid to make it overt, for fear of your recrimination. They are right to be anxious. I know that if anyone hurts me, you will make sure her life is not worth living.

I look up at you shyly.

"Thanks," I say.

The compulsion to validate myself is still strong, and it makes me hesitate for a moment.

"I am a real lesbian, you know," I whisper.

You chuckle - a deep, gravelly sound that comes from the pit of your stomach - and look me up and down.

"Darlin', I know," you reply, winking at me.

Suddenly, you become coy. Your eyes go to your feet, and you flush as you take in my body while I display it like a gift under your intent stare. Now you are the pursued, and I am the aggressor. You are the boy and I am the girl, and I know you want me to take you.

"Let's dance," I say.

I take your hand and lead you to the dance floor. You follow a couple of steps behind me, admiring the way my hips sway when I walk. I smile - I know you are licking your lips - and my hips undulate more blatantly in response.

The room fades as you take me in your arms, holding me the old-fashioned way, one arm around my waist and the other holding my hand to your heart. I forget about the suspicious whispers as I sigh and lay my head on your shoulder.

It seems like ages that we move there.

Your hands refuse to wander at first, but I know you are delighting in the feel of a woman in your arms. And I am rejoicing in the sensation of my bare skin against the starched cotton of your shirt, my hand tangling in your dark ponytail and pulling your cheek close to my own.

Your hair falls into your eyes as you look at me, and I reach out and brush it away with a tender hand, enjoying the way your eyes close when I do. In the night, my touch will arouse you or put you to sleep, depending on how I choose to use it, and I will marvel at how easily you respond to me.

Your hand travels up my leg and parts the split in my skirt to rest on my thigh. Later on, your fingers will take me, will caress me in those places that move for you and you alone, so deep inside my body you could reach out and grab my soul if you chose. I will be completely open to you, and I will crave your touch. I can feel your large butch breasts pressing just above my own and your womanly thighs resting against my slender hips.

I know that you are packing. I can feel the hardness, and I lean against it, making you groan soft and deep. I know that later on you will let me take the harness off you and wear it, and I will push you onto your back and take you until you beg me to stop. Then you'll go down on your knees and suck yourself off my cock, fucking me with your fingers and tongue until I come for you.

The scent of arousal rises between us, and I know you can't wait much longer.

I take your hand, and we move to leave.

As we walk through the door, all glances are upon us, but instead of malevolent curiosity and condemnation, I sense a new respect.

I smile at it.

I feel strengthened rather than diminished by the fact that this is all because of you.

In here, you will protect me. Out there, I will protect you. I will place my small body in front of your large one and face off against the people who want to hurt you. I will defend you with my last breath, and as ferocious as you can be in my defense is as ferocious as I can be in yours.

You hold the door open, and I walk through it. And as we step out onto the dirty streets, you tuck my hand into the crook of your elbow.

"Thanks for coming," I whisper.

"No problem," you murmur in reply, pulling me closer to you. "I couldn't miss your first time."

We smile at each other.

"I couldn't bear to see the way they treated you," you say, and I can see the hurt and anger fill your eyes on my behalf. "But you had to do this on your own."

I nod slowly, and we begin to walk away.

"The first time is always the worst, darlin'."

I kiss your cheek. How is it that you always know exactly what I need?

"Come on," I say, "let's go home."

I'm your girl.