I'm not much of a partyer these days. On most nights, I listen to public radio and yell at my upstairs neighbor to turn down her goddamn music and stop talking to her goddamn friends so loud. (As you can imagine, I'm very popular.) I occasionally eat meals outside of my house and go to book readings and talks where I'm the youngest person in the audience by about 70 years, but I rarely go out anymore. It's just not my thing; my thing is staying home with my girlfriend and my soft pants. But one night last winter, an old friend was in town, and so I decided to leave my girlfriend and my soft pants and meet my old pal at Pony, a gay bar on Capitol Hill. Maybe I would even get a drink. Wild.
Now, my old friend—let's call her "Rya"—actually is wild. And when we met, I was wild, too: I drank, I smoked, I broke local, state, and federal laws on a regular basis, and I got in so many boozy accidents that I have two fake teeth and a scar that looks like Adolf Hitler on my shoulder. I also burned down a porch. That's just how life was in my 20s: unpredictable, well-lubricated, and, from the glimpses of memory I still possess, pretty fucking fun. A special highlight of this time was when I was a go-go dancer in a rock 'n' roll band. I have about as much natural rhythm as Ted Cruz, but at the time I was in possession of the one quality required to go-go dance in a band called Shit Horse: no shame. For three—or was it four?—years, I jumped around on many a stage wearing tighty-whities, a horse-head mask, and flesh-toned pasties so it looked like I'd had my nipples surgically removed. These days, the only shows I go to are seated.
Rya still had one foot in that life, and if I was honest, I was a little jealous. I missed drinking and smoking and peeing in alleyways. It was a great way to make friends. But at this point in my life, the only thing I overdo is Sleepytime tea and Law & Order: SVU. I couldn't remember the last time shit got weird. I wanted to revisit my old life for just a night, and Pony, with dicks plastered on the walls and hanging from the ceiling, was the perfect place to pretend that I was still fun.
Over drinks, my friend filled me in. She and her wife had opened up their relationship the year before and—surprise, surprise—they were now divorced. After the breakup, Rya started seeing someone genderqueer who lived in a big house with their lovers and their lover's lovers. She showed me pictures from a recent sex party, where they pierced each other with long needles and drank each other's blood. She assured me that everyone got tested first and it was perfectly safe, but still, the look on my face must have said, ew, sick, gross.
Rya laughed and called me a prude.
"Well, I don't want to drink blood," I said. "So I guess you're right."
When I filled her in on my life, the stories were just as exciting. "We took the ferry up to Whidbey Island and got a new rug last week," I said. "It's from Iran. Plus we're thinking about moving up north and starting a hobby farm. We might get a mini cow! Have you seen them? So cute."
"Wow," Rya said. "You really are a lesbian."
At that point, I'd dated women for nearly half my life. I was about as likely to fall in love with a man as I was a cat. Less, really, because a cat would never press its boner into my back while I was trying to sleep. Still, I hadn't thought of myself as a lesbian since sophomore year in college, when coworkers at the lesbian-owned cafe where I worked introduced me to the term "queer." Initially, I was shocked to hear these shaved-head baristas casually throwing around a slur. "Queer" had been hurtled at me in high school, usually by rednecks in Big Johnson T-shirts. "Hey," they'd yell at me and the other short-hairs. "You queer?"
I didn't know it in high school, but my Mountain Dew–drinking classmates were right: Within a year of leaving home, I would have my first girlfriend. Soon after, I'd start working at the cafe, where my new coworkers patiently explained that "queer" was okay now. We were reclaiming it.
Immediately I was all about this new word. "Paper or plastic?" the cashier would ask me at the grocery store. "Queer," I'd say, "I'm queer." The term "lesbian" quickly came to seem old-school and antiquated, something that signified you just didn't get it. Lesbians drove Subarus and wore cargo shorts; queers rode fixies and didn't need 16 pockets in their khakis. The distinction was political, as well. Lesbians were normies; queers were anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-marriage, anti-monogamy, anti-gender, and—for me at least—anti having a full-time job. Instead, I worked 20 hours a week at wherever would have me and spent the rest of my time getting in trouble and hanging out with my friends—all of whom, of course, were queer too.
But, gradually, things began to change. LGBTQ grew so many letters, it started to look Gaelic. Miley Cyrus got an undercut and came out as pansexual. Same-sex marriage, once as binding as two 5-year-olds exchanging ring pops, became the law of the land. Naturally, corporations jumped on the bandwagon. American Airlines, Jell-O, AT&T, Dove, Uggs, Miller, Maytag, IHOP, and Smirnoff all launched ad campaigns celebrating queerness, showing us how willing they were to take queer dollars, too. Chipotle starting selling T-shirts that read "¿Homo estas?" with a burrito wrapped in rainbow tinfoil on the front. Queer became normal, widespread, mainstream. And one day, I saw the very same rednecks in Big Johnson T-shirts—or at least their high-school girlfriends—casually referring to themselves as queer on Facebook. It didn't matter if you were a married mother of two whose closest same-sex experience was watching Ellen; you, too, could be queer.
Cognitively, objectively, I knew this was a good thing. There is power in numbers, and anything that makes life easier for baby gays in Alabama and Alaska is good, right? But it felt like queer had become a sort of accessory. And while everyone's teen cousin was coming out and Gatorade was tweeting pictures of rainbow-colored sports drinks, actual queer people were still suffering. LGBTQ teens were still four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. Trans folks were still being murdered. My friends were still estranged from their families because of who they loved. What kind of victory was this?
At the same time, almost so slowly that I didn't even notice it, I began to change as well. My politics remained the same, but I started to think that maybe having a career would be a nice change of pace. Since that was hard to do from a barstool, I closed my tab and got a full-time job. Then I began to think that owning a home someday wouldn't really make me a sellout after all. I started paying taxes and saving for retirement. I was still mostly friends with queer people, but I met a few straight folks and was surprised to find out they were just as good as my queer friends. Sometimes they were better—even ones with kids! Who knew breeders could be cool? Clearly, I was getting old.
What I looked for in a partner changed as well: A 401(k) became a much bigger turn-on than a large Instagram following, and the idea of a single partner—of not constantly processing my feelings and checking in with dates—started to sound kind of nice, too. Soon, I met a woman who owned her car outright and whose internet wasn't stolen from the day care across the street. On our first date, I asked if she called herself queer. "If I'm being completely honest," she said, "that word kind of annoys me." We moved in together within the year.
"Yup," Rya said at Pony, "total lez."
Right then, I saw it for the first time: My old friend was right, I had grown up to be a lez. I wanted 16 pockets in my cargo shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt that said "Life Is Good" on the front. I wanted a dog and a Subaru and a girlfriend who slept with me and no one else. I wanted low-key, no-drama, middle-aged, normie romance. And I had that—she was back at home, watching SVU on our couch.
I finished my drink and hugged Rya good-bye. There was a DJ setting up, and I wanted to get out before the crowd arrived. I wasn't queer; I was a boring old lesbian. And for the first time in years, that felt perfectly, wonderfully right.