Ottawa
3 min

Reading lesbianism

How seeing depictions of ourselves helps our youth

Picture this: I’m a gawky 18, snuggled downstairs beneath an assortment of fuzzy blankets, mindlessly flicking through the wasteland that is daytime television. I’m home sick from school with a righteous head cold, sniffling and grouchy, drinking hot chocolate from a huge blue mug. In the dimness of the basement, the black eye of the TV screen reflects my own image back at me — dishevelled, unshowered, hair all askew and a rapidly growing mountain of tissues piling up on the coffee table.

Flick. Dr Phil. Sniffle. Flick. Re-run of an ’80s sitcom. Sniffle. Flick. Days of Our Lives. Sniffle. Flick. Two girls kissing….

Holy shit.

Two girls kissing?

I freeze with my fingers half way over the buttons of the flicker, jaw agape, in awe. There are girls. On my TV. Kissing.

They can show that?

At 17, having recently acquired the knowledge that the reason I wasn’t digging any boys was because I was really digging girls, living in a small, blue-collar town, I was at sort of, well, at a sexual impasse. I was rather depressed about it, really, because as far as I knew, lesbians only occurred in two places — Toronto and porno.

There weren’t any real lesbians — just me, in my basement, and those strange others I’d occasionally heard talked about, up there in the big city. It was a fairly logical assumption. After all, I’d never seen a lesbian, or any actual proof of lesbianism. There weren’t any lesbian super heroes on my Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, or Sapphic princesses in Disney movies, or gay teen-angst-love-romantic-comedies playing at the Cineplex.

I’d never read a book where the heroine loved the other heroine, or with a lesbian — or any gay character, for that matter — in it. Every TV show I watched, every cartoon I’d seen as a kid, all those Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, all those Lion Kings and Little Mermaids were all as heavily heterosexual and romantically formulaic — boy meets girl, girl gets in trouble, boy rescues girl, boy and girl fall in love and have the standard two-point-five children and a bungalow on the East Side — that it seemed totally unfathomable to imagine what I was seeing. With the exception of my own orientation, lesbians seemed as real as unicorns, Charlie Brown’s The Great Pumpkin, and Santa Claus.

But there they were. On the screen. Someone had sat down and taken the time to write a movie with lesbians in it. And then someone had made the movie. And then someone else had aired it. And there were other people — maybe even other lesbians — watching this movie, right now, in their own homes.

Wow.

On the screen, the girls were going at it like Sapphic bunnies.

It turned out the movie I was watching, that day, cuddled up on the overstuffed couch with watery February light coming in through the basement windows was that cult classic, But I’m A Cheerleader. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the main plot runs that a young woman of 17 is accused of being a homosexual by her friends and family (who take her vegetarianism as undeniable proof of her lesbianism) and is sent to “Camp True Directions” to be “cured of her homosexuality.” While not the most high budget of films, it’s truly hilarious in its depiction of the rightwing view of homosexuality and gender roles, and reaffirms the belief the homosexuality is a natural and normal phenomenon.

I was thrilled, vindicated, relieved even, to see confirmation that I wasn’t, in actual fact, a total freak (although I understand every 18-year-old is inclined to feel that way, regardless of sexual orientation) — but I didn’t think much more of it. It was an isolated incident, a pleasant but rare sighting of homosexualism in a straight, monogamous, his-and-hers minivan world.

Then, a year later, I discovered lesbian literature. I was shocked to find that there was an entire literary genre, a small army of writers, male and female, who included, in great depth and detail, lesbian characters in their works. Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet was the first such book I read — a heart stopping, angsty romantic-tragedy full gloriously complex characters, a robust plot and populated by gay, lesbian and gender-bending characters of all descriptions. People were not only writing about the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans community, they’re writers from the queer community, which, to my young mind, meant that not only were there other women like me, but that there were also other women like me who managed to live normal lives and to be successful.

Fri, Oct 19, Ottawa is hosting the second Transgress Festival, a literary event featuring gay and lesbian writers and their works. The event features Ivan E Coyote, Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco and other writers and artists from the east coast to the west coast. If you ever wondered what a room full of gay genius looks like, this is it.

Whether you’re a word-loving bookworm, a pop-culture fanatic or just like a good read, here’s a small list of mainly lesbian works to get you started:

  • Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
  • Bottle Rocket Hearts, Zoe Whittall (Canadian)
  • The Passionate Mistakes And Intricate Corruption Of One Girl in America, Michelle Tea
  • The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
  • The Well Of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall
  • Lesbian Pulp Fiction, Katherine V Forrest (Anthology)