"If You’re Gay, What am I?" by Elizabeth Collins, audio transcript:
In first grade, I remember confiding in my two best friends, Cassie and Heather. We were sitting under a desk in the back of our classroom, a place where we told each other our deepest secrets. I took a deep breath and shared “ My dad is more like the mom and my mom is more like the dad.” Their faces went blank, uncertain of what this information could even mean. It was 1985, and my family lived in a small town in West Virginia. A place where mommies were supposed to be “mommies”: cooking, cleaning, looking pretty and kissing daddies. “Daddies” worked to support the family, fixed things around the house, and never, ever cried.
I explained further, “My dad is the one who cooks, and he's always watching Young and the Restless.” I put it out there to see if maybe it wasn't so weird and their daddies did this too. Nope. Heather's daddy chewed tobacco and loved to shoot deer. Cassie’s daddy was some sort of travelling business man. Neither of their daddies even knew what Young and the Restless was.
Their dads sounded more like my mom. Although she didn't chew tobacco or hunt, she was tough and emotionally distant. I told them, “When my mom comes home her uniform is always dirty. I think she is a mechanic or something.” Heather's mom didn't work, but she knew how to fix up some deer. Cassie’s mom was a secretary. Both their moms looked like moms. They had long hair they attempted to style and wore makeup to the best of their ability. When their husbands came home, they squeezed and kissed them. My mom had short hair, hated makeup and reluctantly kissed my father.
The messages I received about gender from my parents were in conflict with society and with each other. My dad put me in beauty pageants and coerced me into ballet classes. He loved fixing my hair and doing my makeup. My mom stood by watching and rolling her eyes when my dad painted my tiny lids blue and puffy cheeks pink.
My mom once asked, “Why do you talk like that?” She was referring to my “baby” voice. I was still only six, so I wasn't conscious of it or capable of answering such a deep question. When I did my chores, she said, “Elizabeth, you need to use some elbow grease.” Basically saying I did everything like a girl. I got the sense she didn't like anything that fell under the category “Girl”. My mom was trying to toughen me up, and my dad was trying to turn me into a floating flower. Neither felt natural.
When my parents divorced, it was not a surprise. To me, they didn't belong together. My dad moved in with his friend Dale, and he never seemed happier. It was 1990. I was 11 years old, and although no one explained it to me then, I now know my dad was happier because he was gay and finally able to live the life he always wanted.
Although I immediately accepted my dad's sexuality and was relieved to see him living as his true self, I did have questions. What did it mean for me? Did it make me gay? Was I only going to be attracted to gay men? Or would I even know how to be a woman because my dad was gay and my mom behaved in a way society defined as manly?
In high school, I dated an effeminate guy named Chris. He wrote me poems and painted paintings and bought me bouquets of flowers he put together himself. I hated him. I ripped up his poems and threw away his flowers. I enjoyed the attention he gave me. He made me feel beautiful and like a woman, but I couldn't love him back. Even though I didn't understand it then (although it is obvious to me now), I was afraid he could be gay.
After Chris, I dated a more masculine guy named Loc, pronounced, “lock”. He was tall and played college football. He was too old for me. But he certainly wasn't gay. In fact, he cheated on me with some girl his age, just as Chris had cheated on me (if surprisingly) with a woman. In my teenage mind, most men were gay or cheated.
After graduating high school, I went to an acting school. Being away from home, I finally felt I was able to define myself. I didn't want to identify as gay or straight because I thought “How does anyone really know what they are?” I thought because my dad came out later that somehow sexuality was a bomb that could drop on you at any time, maybe some quiet morning while you were simply brushing your teeth.
Around this time, people often asked me, “If your dad is gay, what does that make you?” I was open to the idea I could be gay or bisexual because I found women beautiful, and most of my meaningful relationships were with women and gay men. At times, I even thought “maybe I'll just marry a gay man on purpose!”
One drunken night after a party, I did what supposedly all women do in college, and I kissed a fellow classmate, a girl. Unlike the song that made Katy Perry famous, I did not like it. It felt completely wrong. I felt ashamed. Not because I did something I secretly wanted to do but because I did something I never wanted to do in the first place. I finally understood that although I loved and admired women, I did not want to kiss them. I wanted to be them.
To me, other women had it so easy. They just were. I wanted to just be, but I was too neurotic about my femininity. Even in acting school, I was encouraged to drop my baby voice. After thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of doing vocal exercises, the voice remained.
After acting school, I went to a university to study filmmaking. The school offered a few free therapy sessions. I was so broke, I latched on to anything free. During my first session, I didn't know what to say. I felt like a phony, as I had my whole life when it came to the expression of gender and myself. Technically, life was okay, and I had nothing to complain about. But then I heard these words coming out of my mouth, “Do I seem androgynous to you?” The nice psychologist-in-training laughed, “No, you totally look like a girl.”
I wasn't convinced. I always felt as if something was fundamentally wrong with me, that because of my family, I was broken. So I decided to join a strict Christian church. I wasn't raised religious, but I did live in Texas. Living there most of my life, I got the sense there was a right life, and I was not living it.
I told myself I wanted to join the church because I loved Jesus and the message of living in a world where everyone loved each other. But there was another part of me that couldn't wait to be corrected and fixed by the experience, and turned into a proper heterosexual woman. And the church obliged. I was assigned to a person who was supposed to be a mentor. She told me, “If you want to be a leader, you should imitate the leaders, look at how they cut their hair.” I wore my hair long, and a little makeup. But they wanted me to take it up a notch and have an actual hairstyle -- something that required maintenance.
I thought our purpose as Christians was to band together to save the world, but all anyone ever talked about was getting married. Again, I felt like something was wrong with me. I wasn't obsessed with guys and the notion of getting married, like all the other girls. I wanted to fall in love and marry someday, but I thought it would happen on its own. I was even admonished over my failure to fixate on men—“Elizabeth, you should at least try to have an interest.” I guess I didn't want to obsess over things I couldn't have. Our church did not believe in sex before marriage.
Our church didn't hate gay people per se; they just weren't allowed to join the church. Or if they did, they had to stop being gay. Although I didn't want to believe there was anything wrong with being gay, I looked at all the pain my family went through growing up, and it made me wonder. What if there is something wrong with it? What if there is something wrong with me?
This doubt created a wedge between my father and me. Even though we never discussed it openly, I could tell he was apprehensive around me. He felt judged no matter what I did because I went to the church. And I always wondered in his heart of hearts if he could have chosen a different path and kept our family from so much hurt.
My church believed we could only date and marry people from our church. We thought we were the only ones going to heaven. So it didn't make sense to date from the outside, someone you couldn't spend eternity with. But in the five years I attended this church, I never had genuine feelings for anyone. There were a few guys who were okay, but not anyone I wanted to marry. From ages 21 to 26, I didn't date anyone.
Throughout acting school and film school, my dream was to become a screenwriter, but there weren't a lot of colleges where you could study that. So after graduating, I took a screenwriting workshop. The teacher (we’ll call him Hank) was a professional writer who had some commercial success. He had large bags, and dark circles under his eyes, from allergies and writing long hours into the night. He was balding and never had anything good to say about himself—I fell in love with him immediately.
I confided in my sisters at the church about my feelings for Hank, and they said, “That is Satan. Satan is trying to pull you away from God.” I didn't take this too seriously, because I doubted Hank would ever go on a date with me.
After the classes were over, Hank and I went on a date.
Going on a date with someone who didn't go to my church was a sin, but I told myself, “He’s just mentoring me.” On our second mentoring session, I went to his house, and we watched a movie while sitting fairly close together. I had strong feelings for this person and didn't know why. He wasn't a Christian, he wasn't even good boyfriend material, and he didn't seem to like me that much. But I couldn't stop thinking about him. I never turned down a chance to talk with him, whether it was in person, or on the phone, or over email.
I knew if I decided to pursue a romantic relationship with him, I would be kicked out of the church forever. Everything I built my life around those five years—my salvation, my faith, and all my friends—would be over. I realized, in some way, my experience of falling in love with Hank was similar to when my father fell in love with Dale. He probably didn't want to love him; he probably felt he shouldn't love him, but he couldn't help but love him. I no longer just accepted my dad. I understood him. We love whom we love, and it is not a choice.
One Sunday morning, before church, I took a long walk. I walked so far I missed the morning service. I decided to never go back. I no longer needed to figure out my sexuality or gender. And I no longer had to get my hair cut like Jennifer Aniston to prove it.
Essay published in Spawning Generations: Rants and Reflections on Growing Up With LGBTQ+ Parents, edited by Sadie Epstein-Fine and Makeda Zook (Bradford: Demeter Press, 2018), p. 165-169.