In March 2020, the New York Times reported that several San Francisco police officers had targeted dozens of people for racist and homophobic hate mail. When I read that, I thought: it never ends. It’s no wonder I too at times have attracted the radar of a cop’s wrath.
A memory returns. Back to being eight-years-old again, calling the cops on my naked father as he ran around the house with a machete, threatening to kill me and my mother. It took the authorities 45 minutes to arrive after I called 911.
When a surly dude approached the house, I ran up to him and demanded, “What the hell took you so long?”
“Don’t use profanity with me, young lady.” I looked up at a man in uniform, taller and wider than my father. His face was a ruby grapefruit with jowls.
“My father threatened to kill us and now he’s gone,” I wailed.
“Who called 911?”
“I did,” I said proudly.
The big man shook his great head, looking down at me with disgust. “What kind of a little girl calls the cops on her own father?”
I felt like the worst kid in the world. I ran back to my room, buried my face in my pillow and cried until my face was as red as the giant cop’s.
My family lived in a tough neighborhood and my mother frequently pointed at women on the streets and called them ‘prostitutes’. I didn’t know what she meant by that but even as a girl I wanted what the laughing, provocatively dressed women on the corner seemed to have: freedom.
I would eventually sate my curiosity but I had to get out of the South first.
My sexuality has been all over the map but now I’m celibate and I read for companionship. Looking back, it still seems strange to me that I got more societal and familial approval doing sex work than when I started my journey as a lesbian. I never experienced more disapproval and censure as the kind I endured loving another woman.
I met Lisa (not her real name) in the early 90s at an Atlanta café where I worked while attending college. She immediately reminded me of the actress Jodie Foster, not so much in looks but in bearing. We started talking and I thought she was brilliant; I couldn’t believe she was talking to me! She asked me out and there began our great romance.
We were sitting on the couch in her apartment when she turned and said, “I feel like a great big lump compared to you.”
Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling so shy anymore.
I sidled up next to her and said, “You’re a very attractive lump.”
And then she kissed me. It was the kind of kiss that can change a person’s life.
She convinced me that San Francisco was the only city in America where we belonged, so we packed up her station wagon and drove across the country to start our life together. We couldn’t imagine telling any of our friends or neighbors in Atlanta that we were out.
The first six months were great. We lived in a dump with a Murphy bed and wallpaper that drooped like a banana peel. Our neighbors were constantly calling the cops on each other.. But we spent most of our time in the Castro filling our bellies with Hot ‘n’ Hunky hamburgers and letting gay men buy us drinks.
After those first six months though, we started to feel less like visitors from another planet and realized if we wanted to stay together, there would be sacrifices to make.
We were walking hand in hand down Castro Street when a sunburned middle-aged man leaned out of his pickup truck and hurled eggs at us. They cracked on the sidewalk, just missing our feet. He got his jollies yelling “dykes!” with a smug look on his face before speeding off to harass someone else.
Then there were our families to consider.
Lisa’s dad left when she was just a kid and her mother didn’t give a damn about anything. At least her sister was supportive.
My family pleaded with me to come home before finally cutting me off. They were absolutely mortified by what they referred to as my dissolute lifestyle.
When I tried to talk to my father, he told me to go to hell and hung up on me. My mother would alternately weep into the phone and curse me. Finally, in a feeble attempt to accept my situation, she said to me, “Well, honey. I’d rather you be with another woman than with a man who beats you.”
And I’d rather be with another woman than with the richest, most handsome man on earth.
The biggest soul dump came from my grandmother. After telling me not to expect any more birthday cards with checks, she sent me a home video special delivery of all the things I would never inherit.
I’m not overly materialistic, but it hurt knowing I would never receive the documentation of an ancestor who fought for the North in the Civil War. No one else in my family cared about that kind of history; why couldn’t I have it?
Gone too was the family china.
“Why don’t I get that heirloom?” I asked my mother on one of the rare occasions we were speaking. “I’m her only granddaughter!”
“Well, honey,” she replied. “You’re not with a man, are you? What in the world would you do with heirloom china?”
Jobs were lost. My first job was at a travel agency where I was paid well and had affable co-workers. One day, Lisa picked me up from work at quitting time and my boss saw me hop on the back of a Route 66 Yamaha 250 and leave with her.
The next morning, he called me into his office.
“I saw you on that motorcycle yesterday. Aren’t you afraid to ride that thing, little girl like you?”
Naively, I was flattered that he had taken pains to watch me leave. “Oh, my partner is a great driver! I’m never worried.”
My boss then leaned back in his leather chair, his glossy locks shiny under the fluorescent light.
“So, you two are partners, is that it?”
I felt trouble squirming round my stomach. This would not be good.
“Well, Sandra. I’m sorry to say business has tapered off lately and I’m going to have to let you go.”
“What do you mean? Last week you said business was great and we can all expect to receive bonuses with our next paycheck!”
“You’ll get your bonus soon when I mail your last check. Now I need for you to clear out your desk and go.”
“But – ”
“Please. Just go.”
I was too young and confused to argue or look into my rights as an employee. My own family treated me like a lost cause. Why should I expect grace from an employer?
This happened again at my next job and the job after that, until finally, after greatly lowering my expectations, I took a waitressing gig at a dive bar on Clement Street. To them, my personal life was my business.
Lisa and I remained a couple for the next few years but my partner developed a serious drinking problem and there was the constant strain to keep a roof over our heads.
“This city is for rich people,” Lisa said to me over our last dinner together. “It’s not for poor girls like us.”
She kissed me goodbye, the lightest of brush strokes to touch a canvas. It was the kind of kiss that could break your heart forever.
So many years have passed. No one has ever filled my heart like Lisa.
Today, sitting alone in my Portland apartment, I was feeling nostalgic so I played my favorite love song: “For My Lover” by Tracy Chapman. A ripple pulsed in my throat when Chapman sang: ‘I follow my heart / leave my mind to wonder… is this love worth… the sacrifices I’ve made?’
If I had to start my life over, I would have still hurled myself on the back of Lisa’s Yamaha and reveled at the warm feel of her back as I embraced her leather jacket and wound my arms round her waist. I prefer to focus on the joys of lesbian love rather than the sacrifices.
After all, real love is worth all you have to give.