One goal of mine this summer is to explore Maine more. I really don’t know the state very well, rarely venturing more than an hour north of Portland. I just came back from working up in Hartford last month, and though that Oxford County town is only a little more than an hour’s drive from my house, it felt much farther away. Some say being a Portlander means you’re not a Mainer. I can’t agree with that, but I can say the cultural divide is very real.
I’ve been out for five years this July — which seems pretty crazy, considering that’s a little more than a quarter of my life. It’s been a little bumpy at times, but growing up in Portland, going to a high school nicknamed “Casco Gay,” and then attending college in the lesbian capital of the world, I really haven’t had to deal with shit.
But I am a fairly masculine-presenting woman. I just cut my hair short, which, combined with a face that’s gay — if you’re gay you’ll know what I mean; I think it’s partly my ever-present smirk — makes me pretty much a 100-footer. I inherited my great-grandmother’s “linebacker shoulders” (my father’s term), and I dress the part, as well. I’m perfectly comfortable with my gender presentation. Other people, however, are not so much. I’ll get the odd comment from a family member that rubs me the wrong way, or the occasional look in a store (especially at the mall), but usually it’s hunky dory.
So being in Hartford was a bit of a culture shock. I went to the public beach at the lake with a girl who also happens to be queer, but who presents much more feminine than I do. She was in a bikini and I wore swim trunks and a sports bra. We had markedly different takes on the day. My default in these situations is to self-consciously feel like people are looking at me. Hers is not. So even if people weren’t paying us much attention — and they probably were not — it was still very uncomfortable to feel like the odd man out.
I called my mother the next day to talk to her about my discomfort. I told her it made me really sad. It makes me sad most days. Even though I’ve led an incredibly privileged life, which I am so thankful for, there are some experiences I’ll never have. Like being young and in love, publicly and uncomplicatedly.
In high school I’d ride the bus home past Deering High, and every day I’d see a young straight couple walking down the street, holding hands or kissing. And that would hurt, every time. Because though I believe I’ll overcome my internalized homophobia enough to someday be public with a partner unselfconsciously, I’ll never get back those years when I couldn’t. And isn’t puppy love the best kind ever?
I called another friend that day too. I was headed into Jay, to the Dollar Tree, to buy some embroidery thread to make friendships bracelets, because what’s summer without those? This friend is also a young, masculine-presenting queer person. We’ve led very similar lives and look pretty much the same. I told them I was going to this Dollar Tree, and I told them about the beach the day before, and I told them how the closer I got to the store, the more Trump signs and shirtless men on ATVs I saw.
“Turn around, Phoebe,” they told me. There’s not much that’s scarier to a young lesbian than aggressive displays of masculinity or, in the case of the signs, proud displays of ignorant bigotry. To me and my queer friends, this has less to do with our sexual identity than with our gender presentation.
Now I can understand our state’s backwards political tendencies, its xenophobia, racism, misogyny and homophobia. We’re indoctrinated with those hatreds and fears from the moment we take our first breath, and it’s everywhere. I had a gay professor my first semester who lived in Northampton, one of the most liberal communities on Earth, and she told the class about a trend she’d noticed among young, queer parents: they strongly encouraged their girls to dress masculinely. They wanted them to know they could do anything boys could do. But they didn’t encourage their boys to dress femininely. Even in the queer utopia of Northampton, young children get the message that femininity is inherently lesser than masculinity.
So was I surprised to find Trump 2020 signs, zero masks, Confederate flags, and gender roles better suited to the 1950s in my state? Not at all. It’s in the air we breathe and the water we drink. I too am racist. And misogynist. And homophobic. And I will be working to undo my prejudices until the day I die.