Ode to the First Woman I ever Loved

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Credits: Leonie Barkakati. Swollen River, Montague, MA

I guess the ugly truth I know now is that nobody, not even women, cares about women who love other women. I don’t even have to look too hard to find the apathy. Literally everyone I have come out to so far has responded with “I don’t care”. It has not occurred to them to congratulate me on finding a good person, the best person I have had a relationship with so far. It has not occurred to them to tell me they are happy for me. It has not occurred to them that this is what I really want.

I guess I ought to have expected nothing more.

I guess, more for my own sake more than for anyone else’s, I have wanted to write about the first woman I ever fell in love with for quite a while. I can’t quite explain the reasoning. My brain has been rather foggy these days, either with seasonal depression or just with bad food. I think on one hand, it’s about proving something. I think people in my life suspect I am going through a “phase,” like all the other ones they have seen Leonie go through over the years. I guess they think I will soon see the error of my ways and yield to other people to make decisions for me, like I have so many times in the past.

On the other,…and that’s the thing, I don’t know. I waited ten years to come out properly, but I knew I was queer when I was 15 years old. And I guess I can start my story there.

For the sake of privacy, I have changed her name, but the first girl I ever loved was Wendy Chau, who I met when I was a freshman in high school. She was a year older than me. We knew each other from the Speech and Debate team and from the newspaper staff.

I knew I admired her, but it was a different admiration than the people I usually used the word “admire” for.

I think queerness was this question that I knew, but I refused to ask myself. I knew it was an inconvenient time for me to have these feelings, and although I had never seen anything overtly violent, I knew it was dangerous for me to be queer. No one ever suspected it about me, never brought it up or asked directly, so the only person who could ask me was myself.

I put it off for a long time, the asking of the question. But my fondness for Wendy grew every day. I liked her very much. She was wildly intelligent, but not arrogant, unlike many of our peers. She was a brilliant math student, debater, musician, and writer, and everyone had great confidence in her ability to teach. I think I liked how silly she could be. She would laugh at things I said and call me ridiculous in jest, but I took such pride in being able to make her laugh. I liked that I was close enough to her that she let herself be vulnerable sometimes. She once told me I ought to do things that make me happy, not things I felt needed to be done out of obligation. I have held on to that thought ever since.

It amuses me somewhat that nobody figured it out the entire time that I loved her. I talked about Wendy all the time, tried to make every conversation about her somehow, how much I admired her, how smart she was, how kind. I suspect most people just didn’t think I could be queer. They thought I was an innocent little Indian girl who does everything mommy tells her to do. I guess that’s not what queers look like.

One year, we went with the newspaper staff to a conference in St. Petersburg across the bay. On the first night, at dinner, she was wearing a shade of pink lipstick that I don’t think I have stopped thinking about since the day I saw her wear it. I wanted to kiss her, though I never acted on the impulse, and finally the question had to be asked. Was I in love with her, a girl? And the answer was yes, I most undoubtedly was.

I was surprised, shocked even, that that was the answer. I did not think I was capable of loving women, had never considered the possibility that queer was a word that could apply to me. There was no gay-straight alliance at our high school (I don’t think there is even now), and the only queer person I knew was a gay white guy who hung out with one of my friends.

I thought I should detach myself from her. Who knew how Wendy would feel about me if she ever found out? I didn’t want to know. I knew keeping my distance would keep my heart safe.

I never told her. I watched her give a truly magnificent speech as the valedictorian of her class. Her last interp performance at the Speech and Debate banquet my junior year was also excellent, and one I will always remember. She was a good friend and a kind person, and I have remembered her that way.

I thought perhaps that was some quirk of being in high school, some flaw in my system which went away after Wendy graduated. My hope was short-lived. Not even two years later, I fell in love with another woman, one who had a boyfriend so I wouldn’t act on the feelings with her either. I’d get to grad school in Massachusetts and fall in love again.

I am queer, whether or not I like that about myself, whether or not I think it is good. I remember telling this to a co-counselor of mine the other day, that it’s not something anyone would choose. Statistics for queer people of color are abysmal. (I can’t find any links at the moment, but honestly, read a book, they’re not hard to find.) They apparently can’t keep jobs, can’t get housing, can’t access healthcare or education, and are at high risk for mental health illnesses. I don’t think anyone looks at a life like that and says, yes! That sounds like a wonderful way to live!

And here I am, giving testimony that I have, in fact, been this way for a very long time. Life has not been peaceful since this process started, but the thought that pacifies me somewhat is that I have not done anything wrong. It is not wrong for me to love someone who was assigned female at birth. Our love story is as beautiful as any epic ever written, even if no one will celebrate it with us. We are not doing anything wrong.

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