I used to dance.
I was never very good. Not really. I mean, I can shake my hips and count to four, but dancing really wasn’t my strong suit. But I love it. I love falling into the music, moving this way and that, spinning and leaping, while being caught by invisible hands of rhythm and blues. I’d dance to everything, from Disney musical numbers to the hardest rocking metal songs. The world was my stage, my arena, my stripper pole. Despite my short legs and skill in tripping over the balls of my feet, I danced. I danced and danced and I didn’t care who saw or who laughed because I danced.
When I was five, I had a bunch of those skater skirts that twirled up around my waist when I spun around and my mother was always begging me to wear white underwear with my white tights because the world could see the cartoon drawings and polka dots when I started to spin. I didn’t care. In my scuffed Mary Janes and my second-hand dresses, I climbed trees and raced my bike and swirled in circles until I fell, dizzy, and the sky spun counterclockwise above me.
I was Jennifer Beals in Flashdance and Paula Abdul in Cold Hearted. I was Roxie Hart, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Debbie Gibson, Janet Jackson, and every girl in every Warrant and Motley Crue video. In my basement, I won Gold Medals in dancing and practiced my kicks and ballet positions. I made freshman dance team and pep club in the 10th grade and it was then I noticed just how different I was from all the other girls. With my thick thighs, rounder hips, hour-glass figure with the boobs to match. When I tried on my first D-cup bra, I wept in the dressing room. I already knew I was different in ways beyond the shape that promised, more than my lack of talent, that I’d never be a professional dancer. Already I was being defined not by who I was or my talents but the boobs I carried around.
Worse, I knew I was different and I didn’t know how to voice it, I didn’t know what to say and somehow that fucking bra set it all off.
See. I knew gay. Gay was okay. I knew because my best friend from childhood had come out to me and my parents had spent most of my childhood making sure I understood that it was okay to be who I was, no matter what. It was okay if two boys loved each other or two girls loved each other as long as no one was hurt in the process. I knew gay.
That was the problem.
Just like my big thighs didn’t fit the cheerleader look and my big boobs didn’t make for a dancing career, I didn’t fit into the gay thing either.
I remember sitting in history my junior year of high school, listening to the gay students stage their walk out as they protested the shutdown of even the idea of the Gay/Straight alliances. And I sat still, ashamed to join them. I, a daughter born into the activism of the Americans with Disabilities Act, was ashamed to join them. Because I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t like them so I didn’t have a right to join in their fight. Who I was, it wasn’t included in their dance.
So I sat and supported in silence.
Two years later, walking across the campus in Austin, days before my first class would start, my eyes landed on a bright pink flier and a two-letter word that saved my life.
Consciously, I know it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it but it was the first time I remember seeing it in a positive context. The first time it had ever settled in my mind as something real. Something … me.
My first support group meeting, I danced with the building, trying to find the open door. I found the bathroom, ducked inside, met the eyes of someone who looked as petrified as me. We didn’t speak. She was sitting at the table when I scurried inside. She smiled when I took a seat. These weren’t just college students. I was in a room with people my age and people older than me and people who became the ones I turned to as I came to realize that there wasn’t anything wrong with me.
There was the dance when I came out to my parents. When my mother – who thought I was lesbian – came out to me as bi and I remember wondering why she couldn’t have just said the word to me when I was growing up. Why she couldn’t have just said that whatever I was feeling, it was okay, and given me my word. There was my father dancing with traffic on I-15 on the way into town and how glad he was when I told him I was bi because he was so fucking worried I’d come home from college to ask for money.
In Austin, I found family. We went to coffee shops and listened to local bands and went to clubs and sat out in parked cars, talking until the sun came up again. Everyone was welcome. Swingers and doms and subs and transmen and transwomen and gender queer and cis and nonbinary and we held hands and fought against Governor Bush together and we held hands while waiting on results from Lawrence V Texas and no one was turned away.
All that mattered was that you didn’t have a problem with people who were bi. That you didn’t talk over us. That you let us have our safe space.
Arms open. Everyone danced together. And sometimes it was only the women and sometimes it was only the men but we were there. For each other. And I knew that outside of my circle, outside the world, there was judgment. I was warned by my elders to watch for catch phrases and words that would make me question myself.
Bi now! Gay later!
You don’t belong here.
Maybe we just shouldn’t be grouped together under this umbrella.
Is it nice to pass?
You’re a disgrace to us. Why can’t you just look normal?
I was taught to listen for what they would say. I was warned because it had happened over and over again. Our history had been erased, folded over into something else, forgotten. And those with more experience voiced their worries because they knew that I would be more likely to commit suicide or to be harmed by my partners and to be ignored by police and counseling agencies because even those devoted to the Gay cause would shut the door to me. Because outside of my world, there was one that didn’t invite girls like me to the dance.
I believed them. Right up until I met her. They just didn’t understand. Times had totally changed.
She was so funny. And we could talk about everything. Up all night talking about writing and Star Trek and annoying exes. We talked about the burgeoning marriage conversation. And even though she hated to dance, she thought it was cute that I did. She sent me roses. Despite my bi family in Austin, I was lonely and the first girl I’d fallen for hadn’t fallen for me and I needed to escape and despite everything in the world telling me not to leave, I got on a plane.
This time, when I started spinning, it was in reverse.
Because it started as slowly as it did quickly. I didn’t believe what they’d warned me about could come true. That it was there in front of me.
I don’t like that you’re bi, she said.
Are you sure you aren’t a lesbian? You’ve never been with a man, she said.
I can’t trust you, she said. Because the ones before, they all left me for men.
I can’t trust you, she said.
Faker, she said.
Why can’t you just be normal, she said.
While more and more I became isolated, solitary. More and more, I defended her.
And I don’t know why I didn’t leave except you see I did know because despite my bi family in Austin I’d been single and here was someone who loved me, right? So even though I didn’t fit into her boxes, I stooped and squirmed and folded and bent myself in her shapes and if she sat on the lid, we could tape it shut. I learned not to dance, because it attracted attention to the fact that I was different. I stopped correcting people who assumed I was like her. I retreated inside myself. The men I found handsome were my secrets alone. She could point out women but when I did, I was reminded that because of who I was, I’d leave her.
I told myself that as we settled into what had once been her grandmother’s house, that we shared her tiny room and bed because she wasn’t ready to expand the landscape of her world to include mine. I discovered every excuse imaginable as I kept my clothes in a different space, that as we never went to Austin to get my things, that it wasn’t that she didn’t trust me to be in her life, it was just who she was. We liked the same things, after all. Her world and mine could be shared without any part of me, right?
The day I quit acting was a dance audition.
The audition before, she’d sat in the hallway outside and told me she didn’t like that I was going for things because it made her feel like she couldn’t do things even though I could. She didn’t like the people I met. The men I met.
Then came the dance. And I walked out halfway through, in tears, and she hugged me and told me I’d made the right decision. It wasn’t like I’d been practicing anyway. I sat in the car and remembered the call from the casting director in Austin and wondered what would have happened if I’d gone to that movie callback in Houston. The one that came for me while I was packing my bedroom to move.
The day we cleaned out what had been her grandmother’s bedroom, I expected us to move our lives into the space. It was full of light and white walls. A new space. We boxed things for her family and closed the door but she allowed me skirts that had been her grandmother’s and I donned them, twirling like I had when I was five. The fabric didn’t fly up to my waist, and with each wearing, each spin, I found holes to mend and the need to patch unpatchable fabric. Small stiches of the finest thread still created runs. Seams weakened by dust and age split and split and split again.
Still. When I left, I packed them. After the fights, the bruises, the lock over my heart and the seventy pounds that stopped what little dancing skill I carried, I packed them, hauling them back across country, taking space away from the stuff I finally picked up in Austin.
They hung in my closet.
Weakening at the seams.
One by one, they were turned into rags and cat blankets. Some were given away.
To friends, to family who didn’t mind the rips or the runs.
I trust less. I listen more. I warn those coming after me that while times are changing, there are still words to look for and I talk to them about the history of our movement that has been erased. I warn them, but tell them to love. And I cry when over and over and over again they tell me that they were so sure something was wrong with them because no one believed them. No one. I tell them to be proud and never let anyone tell them differently.
Because, you know what, I still have my dancing shoes.