(Names have been changed throughout)
Lesbians had only recently been invented when I met my first pair back in the 1970s.
At least that’s how it seemed to me at the time. I was living in a teacherage with my family on the grounds of a small country school.
There was nothing to stop the wind on such a table flat landscape. Wind turned soil into dust, then that dust into pockmarking projectiles, wind did whatever it damn well wanted to do, because we mere humans couldn’t stop it.
My father was the school superintendent. It was his first posting. The pay, while miserable, was a little better than what he’d managed before, but the school was poor and running out of students, who were mostly farm kids along with seasonal migrants.
Across from us stood a one-bedroom teacherage shared by Gloria and Brenda, a pair of single young women Dad had recruited the previous year as part of his youth drive. They both taught down in the younger grades. Rock music and laughter welcomed teen visitors to their home. I was one of those who came over.
The following summer, Gloria and Brenda weren’t living together anymore. Dad had talked the school board into installing a trailer so that he had more dwellings to offer.
Layne, who taught several junior and senior high classes, moved into the new trailer.
Later, I’d hear students gossip about how Layne wore men’s pants, but in retrospect, surely Dad had a clue as to her orientation. It wasn’t so much the short hair or the men’s pants. Layne just looked like a classic butch lesbian of that era. She didn’t slick her hair back into a ducktail but there might have been some Brylcream usage in her past.
Maybe Dad thought Layne was the best candidate for the job, maybe he thought she could slide under the radar in such an isolated area. Before school started, Brenda moved from the little house she had shared with Gloria into the trailer with Layne.
I was to eventually hear that Brenda had known Layne previously, and that was the reason Layne had interviewed for the teaching job.
Layne and Brenda were my first adult lesbians, and through no fault of their own, failed to inspire. It was a tough year for them both. Brenda had been so bubbly, so lively. Not anymore. She crept through the halls with her head down, her face in flames. For you see, this was an entire school, pre-school to twelfth grade, under one roof.
There was no place to hide for anyone, let alone Layne and Brenda. I didn’t witness any acts of abuse or humiliation, although there might well have been incidents of which I wasn’t aware. Something made them shrink from our gazes. Made them act like victims rather than stride boldly through whatever slings and arrows came their way.
Because we had multi-grade classes so often in high school, especially in P.E., I heard some other girls talk about how masculine Layne dressed, and someone in the senior class must have thought her attire, her very being, hilarious because that year’s yearbook included a picture of her with a ridiculing caption.
I didn’t know what to make of it because for one thing I could barely make sense of my own burgeoning sexuality, much less the shaming of a pair of adult lesbians, but the other reason had to do with the fact that homosexuality was not a subject for polite conversation. There weren’t any on television except as pathetic victims or villains, so who would I have asked about being gay?
I walked over to their trailer a couple of times that year, with that question in my head, but a question barely even thought of, much less spoken. Layne and Brenda let me in the door, nervous as kittens and yet they did let me in the door. They let me in the door and probably breathed a sigh of relief when I left.
We never had that conversation: are you gay, am I gay, what does it really mean, and does being gay mean that Layne acts like the man and Brenda like the wife?
Not one life-affirming moment happened for them or me, yet in the midst of that soul-churning school year, one of the older girls made a point of being friendly to them. She was then and now a confident straight, you might say, unfazed by gossip.
I don’t know what happened to my first lesbians. I’d like to think that they stayed together but who knows.
I didn’t receive an LGBT course in self-affirmation. I learned the negative lesson that being a lesbian was damned hard and since I didn’t look like Layne and didn’t want to be scared like Brenda, I wasn’t about to accept such a difficult path. My coming out happened years later.
Sometimes the greatest blessing you can give a young person-or any person, really-is simply to exist. So that they know there’s someone in this world who’s like them. They need that shock of recognition, a jolt of lightning delivered as if by Gene Wilder’s frizzy-haired Victor Frankenstein.
I’m not the only one, comes the thought. There’s someone else like me. My god, they’re alive, too.
You don’t always recognize heroes by how many bows they take or by the awards bestowed upon them by a grateful nation. There won’t be a monument for the unknown lesbians-and gay, bisexual and trans pioneers-who may never have walked in parades amongst our peers and straight allies.
Yet, in difficult times, they chose to become visible, and in so doing inspired support from some courageous straights-and made it a little easier for LGBTs like me who came along later.
Consider these words my way of laying a wreath and recognizing these unsung pioneers of women’s history.
Photo: In this reincarnation of the classic Navy image from Times Square (depicting a soldier kissing a nurse), Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta (left) kisses girlfriend Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell. | Brian J. Clark/AP