By Lise Weil
The year is 1976, and everywhere you look, women are assembling in places where only women assemble. In this chapter, a Holly Near concert in New York prompts our narrator to move out of her boyfriend’s apartment and not long after, she comes out (to herself) on the Staten Island Ferry. But clearly much internalized homophobia still needs to be undone…
Our longing turned into desire. We were alive with desire.
And we knew we could never go back.
Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature
The truth is, lesbians embarrassed me. Like a baboon’s behind, they exposed what should stay hidden. And what they did together with their lovers had absolutely nothing to do with what I had felt since the age of five, this enormous welling of the heart for women—not lesbians with butch cuts and husky voices but beautiful women with jewelry and stockings and skirts and round breasts and wavy hair parted just so. It was women I loved, not lesbians, and what I felt for them was a pure thing, a grand thing, there was nothing perverted or queer about it.
And then. I was twenty-five, and I was on the Staten Island Ferry, returning to the city from a conference on women’s spirituality. Goddesses were not really my thing but I’d liked the idea of voyaging to an island for a “women’s” event. The year was 1976; my own personal bid for freedom was backlit by the anniversary of our nation’s independence.
In the summer I had moved out of Mitch’s apartment on West 87th Street and into my own tiny place on West 78th. I’d grown increasingly withdrawn and ill-tempered in our New York love nest; the feelings I’d gotten in touch with since moving to the city were not the ones he’d had in mind when he suggested a shrink.
It was a Holly Near concert—advertised on a WBAI program called “The Lesbian Spectacular”—that had pushed me over the edge.
When I entered the hall I saw women spilled out into the aisles and the landings, in couples and in groups, the air between them dense and electric. Near, a California hippie with long golden tresses (she’d made her musical debut in Hair) took the stage, radiating peace and love. I sensed instantly that the luminous glow belonged to something bigger than her, bigger even than all the women assembled there, that there was some great light we were all part of. And I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that I belonged here, in this hall, with these women. When Near belted out a song about factory girls organizing to demand fair wages, I sang along with the chorus with a fervor that surprised me, considering how little thought I’d ever given to factory workers or fair wages. When I came home from the concert I announced to Mitch I’d be moving out as soon as I found myself a place.
The Staten Island conference had seemed so promising when I boarded the ferry that morning along with dozens of other women of all ages and fashion persuasions. There were gowns and turbans, jeans and buzz cuts, I even spotted a sari or two. I felt just right in my khakis and new corduroy jacket. A woman on board was handing out leaflets for a Halloween moonlight cruise “for women and their friends—around Womanhattan.” It felt like a pilgrimage.
Once at the conference, though, my hopes ran aground. A group of butch lesbians engaged in hearty backslapping beside the registration table as I studied the program. Workshops on iris diagnosis, on coming out as a witch, on reflexology and womyn’s massage . . . once you ruled out the how-to sessions and the titles that creatively misspelled “woman,” there wasn’t much left. The one workshop I decided to attend, “The Politics of Spirituality,” came apart over the issue of male children and I walked out before it was over. Afterwards I hung out for a while at the lesbian craft fair in the gym, staring at badges and greeting cards and jewelry, wondering why lesbians in the U.S. had no taste. I finally gave up on the conference and walked back to the ferry.
I was seated on a bench on the rear deck writing out my disappointment when a woman appeared. She had a willowy body and wore a camel-colored fall coat tailored to her slim figure. A well-heeled Manhattan professional was my first thought. Not the kind of woman who attends women’s things. She was looking right at me. And she was smoking a cigarette. Just above her hung a large NO SMOKING sign. Suddenly I was craving a cigarette myself. It was uncanny: my Doris Day dream coming to life.
“Were you at the conference too?” she asked when my eyes met hers.
“Yes, how did you guess?”
“The yellow legal pad, the furious scribbling . . . is that what you’re writing about?”
“Did you think it was as weird as I did?”
“You know, you’re not allowed to smoke here.” I indicated the sign over her head.
She waved dismissively, then smiled when she saw me reaching for my pack. Unlike in my dream, there were cigarettes in it. I pulled one out and brought it to my lips. She sat down beside me on the bench, offered her lighter. I inhaled, deeply. The ferry had pushed off, there was water streaming by on either side of us. I was happy again about my new outfit and my freshly washed hair, both of which had felt kind of wasted on the conference.
“I never knew ‘woman’ could be spelled so many different ways,” I said, picking up the thread.
She laughed. A willowy laugh. An inviting laugh. I had an urge to read my notes out loud to her, all of them.
“You know, I’ve never been to a gathering like this where I didn’t make any friends.”
Who admits they go to these things to make friends? Already I was willing the boat to slow down. “Tell me about it. I went to ‘The Politics of Spirituality.’ Someone complained because she wasn’t allowed to bring her son to the conference and all hell broke loose.”
“Clear the room if you don’t agree that all men are blood-sucking vampires.” She laughed again, exposing a row of beautiful, straight white teeth. Her sunglasses could have come right out of Vogue. What the hell was she doing at a women’s conference? “You should have seen the lesbian sexuality workshop,” she said….
Lise Weil is an award-winning editor and translator. Her essays and literary nonfiction have been published widely in Canada and the U.S. She was founding editor of Trivia: A Journal of Ideas (1982) as well as its online offspring Trivia: Voices of Feminism www.triviavoices.com(2004). In 2014, she founded Dark Matter: Women Witnessing www.darkmatterwomenwitnessing.com. She teaches in the Goddard Graduate Institute. Born in Chicago, she moved to Montreal in 1990.