Welcome back to the second installment of Baby Gay, the Matthew’s Place series in which you, I, Google Docs, and my ABBA playlist work together to unpack some super cute stories of my childhood and divulge some truth about what it’s like to grow up gay. And if a “welcome” instead of a “welcome back” is due to you, dear and maybe queer reader, then please do yourself a favor and check out my first Baby Gay. I sort of start out really funny about a moment where preschool Alyssa showed her unrequited love for Disney women and then I Nanette-style rage on heteronormativity. It’s a great time. But this time we have memes.
Baby Gay Part 2 has to do with the time in first grade that I probably became the culprit for creating the gal pals trope that riddles any and all media including sapphic folx. For real, two girls can be in love in a TV show, they can live together, they can read their love letters to each other out loud and straight viewers will post the characters’ wedding photos with “They’re such great friends!!!”. And when I performed this lesbi-antic I’m about to share, I left myself a sign that every future incarngaytion of myself could summon to understand a thing or two about feelings. And how they’re shared. And how they’re not shared at all.
Picture first grade Alyssa, lover of Power Rangers, Pizza Fridays, and A-graded spelling tests. I was spending my last year with my bangs and my first year in acting classes. And in my school, there was this blonde second grade student, and I’m pretty sure her first name started with a J. I would see her at lunch across the room. And I was in love with her. But I didn’t know that. I just knew that I wanted to talk with her.
I would come home and eat five snacks in a row after eating lunch not only two hours before and tell my mom how much I really wanted to be friends with this second grader. Like, really really really wanted to be friends with her. And mom would encourage me to talk with this second grader, and I would be like, as I wave my pretzel stick in her face with annoyance, “Mommmm, I cannot, it’s not like I can just talk to her.” And my mom would ask me why I couldn’t. And then I’m pretty sure I would just be silent. Probably got another snack.
But as much as I was afraid to talk with this girl, I knew if I didn’t say or do anything, I would probably combust. How would I make it through lunch without bursting into emotions? Or even worse, when would I see her once she was in third grade and had to be in the later lunch period? What could I possibly do to express my feelings for her?
And then, all at once, I understood what I had to do. I would draw a picture for her that said it all, and give it to her at lunch. I was, after all, an artiste. I had a special style of coloring the sky only in the top third of the photo, and leaving the middle of the page blank, and making the bottom third green for the grass. And I would always put the sun in the top left corner. Because that’s how it looks in real life. And I could give my figures straight or curly hair. I had range. I could take to the page and she would just understand all at once how much I wanted to be friends with her without us even saying a word.
So I did it. I got a piece of computer paper and drew two stick figures with triangles as dresses because apparently triangles communicate womanhood in art, and I made myself brunette and drew her blond hair, and I gave us big smiles, I probably drew hearts around us, and then, I added my signature Alyssa decoration over our heads, spanning the whole horizontal of the page. It was what I put on get well-cards they would make us create in religion class, it was what I drew in corners of grammar workbooks.
I drew a huge f*%$ing rainbow above me and this J chick.
I’m just gonna blame and thank the spirit of Sappho for this one, she probably possessed me so I could be a bit more specific in my artwork, including a symbol that neither of us elementary schoolers were going to understand but rather, I would realize all over again a couple years after coming out and just shake her head. Not in disappointment, not in surprise. Just. In amazement. That I really did that.
And I’m not sure what the timeline was between me drawing this picture and me giving it to this girl, and I’m pretty sure I waited a bit. But I do remember the day when I gave it to her — I was at lunch, and I probably kept the picture in my lunchbox and was the host of several million butterflies in my entire body, when she went to go throw out her trash, I jumped out of my seat, and I ran to her with the picture in my hand.
I don’t think I said anything. If I did, it would be something like, “this is for you.” I gave her the picture. I don’t remember J’s reaction, I’m actually not even sure I would have looked for a reaction. I mean we were literally in the middle of throwing out our trays and I wanted this to be as over as soon as possible. She might have laughed, she might have just confusingly stared. I think as soon as it was in her hand, I ran away.
Aaaaaand I’m pretty sure my memory serves me well enough to remember that she put the picture in the trash.
And I wasn’t exactly crushed about it? As soon as the picture was out of my hand, I was sort of unfeeling about the whole situation. And, like, I really cannot blame her for throwing out the photo. She literally didn’t know me. I also don’t exactly know if I unfolded the picture. It could have looked like a blank piece of paper.
Either way, at the end of this story I always give myself a pat on the back, because, y’all, seven-year-old me…she had a lot more game than I do now. She had a lot more guts. Because here’s the segway into the moral of the gay story/education for all of y’all outside of my experience — my inability to properly express my feelings for this girl had a lot do with being seven-years-old and shy, but also a lot to do with not even knowing where to start. And this is not a problem that automatically fades with outness or with age. It could actually not fade at all. It could actually worsen even as a person better understands their gay identity.
It’s not just me — the huge difficulty to ask womxn out, express one’s feelings, or even flirt with someone is a reality for a lot of sapphics.
Scroll any online advice board for the community. Any series of asks from anons on Tumblr to WLW (women loving women) blogs. You will see scores of submissions from both nervous baby gays and the folks for whom it hasn’t been their first pride parade. To ask “how do I tell this person that I like them” is a normal question for any person on this confounding world of emotions, but to see a plethora of posts going in a vicious circle like this is all-too-common:
Q: How do I ask this girl out? I really like her and she’s really pretty and she makes me laugh and I am too gay to function, please help.
A: Ask her out! Here’s a list of great ways to pop that question: *list.*
Q: But like…how do I tell her that I like her…
A: You can tell her.
Q: But like…how.
A: By telling her. “I like you.”
Q: But how would I say that…
And then by the grace of Brie Larson above, this anon actually does go out with that pretty girl, and then another message comes in: “On our date she laughed at all my jokes and kissed me on the cheek and said she wants to see me again, I don’t know, do you think she like-likes me?” And then the answerer will express their exasperation, and then will log onto another message board because there’s this chick that they’re really into and doesn’t know how to ask out.
This simultaneous intense desire and unbearable fear to not only speak with, be near to, but to even see a girl, that has sort of started to define modern lesbian identity, has sort of turned into a meme:
Here’s the thing. These tumblr users are joking. And they’re also not joking at all.
This phenomena has actually taken up a name and a tag that I found all of these posts under on Tumblr, and that is the phrase used in the sixth tumblr post: #UseslessLesbian. Which is something I’ve called myself a number of times in many different instances, some of these not even concerning romance. I’ve had someone call out my mismatching shorts and shirt, and I’ll respond, “what do you expect from me, as a useless lesbian?” I’ve forgotten to turn on the laundry machine and close the soap bottle that’s fallen over in my shower caddy. Just the work of a useless lesbian — move along. Nothing to see her, other than gay disaster.
And I can’t lie: I have asked out two individuals before, but one instance was over text using a Night Vale joke, sent only four months after they first expressed interest in me and I shot it down because isn’t that what you do? (And then we called each other girlfriends but didn’t text for a month and then they finally broke up with me over phone and I still cried.) And then the other instance was over FaceTime at 2am in the middle of a six hour call, and there was an enthusiastic yes from the other person but then I was ghosted by them two weeks after, which made things pretty awkward at the Thespian festival. (Damn those first grade acting classes to leading me to this Thesbian life.)
But both of these times I made a move (in ways that I don’t even think should be allowed to be called moves because the ensuing relationships played out so miserably) I had been entirely ensured that these folx were queer, single, looking, and interested. There was very little room for failure. It was just easy at that point, and I still had to sit down after asking, and I was already sitting down both of those times times. Since then, I’ve sort of taken to scrolling the #UselessLesbian tag, listening to Ingrid Michaelson, rereading WLW fanfiction from January 2014 that lives on a direct-messaging-thread, and every now and then having a good cry when I’ve got a big crush. Because I have cried at least once each semester over a girl. Oh, and I also tell literally all of my friends about my crush. But I don’t tell my crush. Why the hell would I tell her?
Because trust me, it is so many sapphics’ dreams to be approached at the vegan smoothie shop by another sapphic, canvas bag in one hand, two tickets to a King Princess concert in another…and to be swept off their feet by this thrift-store-couture-sporting, pierced-eared beauty’s cultural knowledge and opinions of Killing Eve fan theories…and I’m still a college student, and my lesbian community is pretty digital, but I feel it is sadly safe to say that it is not often enough that the dreamer or the dream girl will find themselves in this situation or ones like these. Those two might find themselves staring at each other from across the smoothie shop. They might be staring so hard that they miss their names being called by the barista. They’re still dreamers and dream girls, because nothing can take that away themselves. But what they wish for is missing as it sits right in front of each other.
And I’m not going to pin this behavior on us. I’m not going to call it one of our communal short-comings, either. Because it’s not that we are seriously lacking skills in romance, because us sapphics know how to treat a girl better than, like, anyone else. It’s because we were never shown how to match our interactions to our feelings.
WLW love is rarely modeled in the media. And when it is there, it is not validated in social circles. We’ve seen plenty of dudes ask out girls both on screen and in real life, and to be real to you dudes, you don’t always do it too respectfully.
Forget the fear that a sapphic may have of asking out a straight girl and getting rejected. Forget the fear of rejection in general. This avoidance to making a move that I am talking about has something much deeper to it. Take a baby gay, who has grown up watching this man-makes-crude-joke-to-win-over-girl scene happen over and over again, showing girls that are rightfully dissatisfied with these cheap pick-up lines, but who are just the same made to feel as though they have to go along with it. Because as a girl, you are taught to be pursued and not the pursuer. A baby gay is going to understand very quickly that as a girl who likes girl, there isn’t place for her in this equation.
So what does she do? What does she say?
How could she — she never learned how.
How can one expect a person who never studied a language to immediately speak it. How can one expect a person who never visited a town to know how those roads are. There’s no media in that language, no maps for that region. It’s not just like a girl asking a guy out, because how can one expect a person whose whole identity is likely wrapped up with images of how men have pursued women too many times in unfair ways to just be okay with pursuing a girl herself.
Trust me, when it comes to asking out girls, it is never just a thing. It is rarely harmless. It is too often filled with baggage. It is never as simple as flirting with a girl. And it won’t be as simple as flirting with a girl until it is depicted on our screens and displayed in our own lives as a commonplace moment that does not have to involve divulging huge personal truths or interacting with identity traumas. When it is not seen as an adventure because it is queer but because it is asking someone out. Which is daring enough at the baseline and in the cases that we have called “the default” over and over and over again.
I 100% believe that I’m going to get to a place in my life where there will be more sapphics among me and I will find it easier to express any sort of affection to someone I am into. I believe that unpacking the reasons why this is so hard for me and my community is making me stronger. And I’m going to continue to identify as a useless lesbian once in a while, because it’s such a good punchline, but I’m not going to confuse this adjective with my community. As fruitless as our pursuits may be, rest assured, we are not useless, because we are trying. We are even creating a culture and a code in the process. We are so close to creating avoidance of asking someone out into the obvious exhibition of interest in someone. Next time a girl responds to my “how are you?” with a nervously spat-out, volume-tumbling “yOU ToO!”, I’ll just know that she’s into me.
And besides, it’s not like we’re keeping it all in. We usually use some form of media to express our feelings — think my super gay drawing, or alternatively, Tumblr posts — and then when there’s a real life girl in front of us, we forget if the alphabet is for numbers or zodiac signs, but at the very least we make some sort of manifestation of what’s going on inside. And really, to be shouting these lesbian moods amongst real or digital sapphics is the safest place to be shouting. All of the time online does us some tangible good. We hone our pun skills. Because puns are the only part of a pick-up line that makes it worthy of being delivered. My third paragraph wayyyy up there at the top was just fire, right? It’s all practice for my soccer girlfriend. Because she will arrive. I’ve made too many deals with the universe for her to not arrive. And it may take me several times. And it might make her giggle, and I will be happy to hear that. Because I know nothing about soccer. But I know a jersey has a name and number. And I will somehow use that to ask her out. Maybe I’ll have to draw a picture of it. Only time will tell.
So you see, once again, my seven-year-old self really is doing my current self a solid. She knew what to do before she knew what she was doing. She knew what to do when she wanted to know a pretty girl better, even though she assumed her intention was best friendship. It just another example how all of us queer and gender non-conforming (GNC) kids were doing just fine with our queer and GNC kid selves until the cishets opened their mouths. The truth is that we sapphics are not useless. I’m convinced our love makes the world go around, both when the world is drawn with a separation between the sky and the grass like a four-year-old and whatever it looks like to a half-disillusioned, half-hopeful, half-abysmal-at-math young adult. I just want to stay impressed by whatever I do with what I feel, whether it doesn’t go farther than my heart, because I am so lucky and glad that I am feeling it.
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the canon.