When I came out at 33, I spent a very brief period of time thinking that I was the most clever lesbian on the planet. Coming out was electrifying, and in the aftermath I was arrogant enough to believe that I’d navigate the waters of lesbian relationships with ease. After all, I’d spent a lifetime riding the waves of heterosexual dating — how hard could it really be? When lesbian friends expressed concern about my romantic entanglements — was I sure I wanted to contemplate marriage to an emotionally unavailable photographer in Bushwick? Was I absolutely positive that I was in love with a girl I met on Tinder one week prior? Did I really want to send that fire nude to the woman who mostly sent me pictures of her dog? — I smiled beatifically, assuring them that I had everything under control.
And for that beautiful, blissful period of time, I really felt like I did. A month or so later, the pendulum swung in the other direction, and I realized I had been gravely mistaken. In a world full of sage homosexual herdsmen trying to shepherd me through the dating darkness, I was a wide-eyed and naive lesbian lamb headed for the slaughter.
My first mistake, I’ve realized, was assuming that my heterosexual relationships prepared me for life as an out lesbian. But in my hetero life, I had been going through the motions, performing love and pleasure for my partners and myself, like some kind of elaborate act even I wasn't aware of. It felt good sometimes, but never great. I spent years letting myself be carried by a powerful current of misery, a very specific kind of hell reserved for queer people in the closet.
I came out slowly, over the course of a couple of years, and during that time my queer friends were instrumental. Even when I wasn’t ready to use the word “lesbian,” they gave me the space and feeling of safety I needed to explore my identity. When I finally came out to the rest of the world, they were my biggest cheerleaders. I trust them implicitly, because I know that in some way or another, they’ve all been there.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that when I get advice from my gay and lesbian beacons of dating light — some of whom are much younger than I am with vastly more relationship experience — I feel like a dewy-eyed baby. In fact, I sometimes describe my dating decision-making processes as a being like a child standing in front of a stove. The red-hot glow of messy lesbian dating calls to me, and it feels impossible not to reach out and touch.
“Don’t do it,” my friends whisper in my ear. “We’ve done it, and it’s going to hurt.”
Of course, I do it anyway. Thankfully, queers are always standing by in the group chat, ready with the healing salve of understanding. Unfortunately, as soon as the pain subsides, I find myself drawn back to the hot glow, curious about the possibilities.
For actual babies (not the 33-year-old newly out kind) this is pretty normal. When infants see familiar people and objects around them behaving in a surprising or new way, they take a heightened level of interest, even if the stimulus isn’t necessarily safe or good. In the developmental psychology universe, it’s called preferential looking. For an adult woman over 30, experiencing the sensation of “I don’t really know what’s going on here but I’m just going to dive right in” is harder to accept. After all, once we hit our thirties, women are supposed to be fully formed, wise and secure, confident, and capable of handling everything life throws at us. In a lot of ways, that’s true for me. I’m established in my career and growing creatively. I pay my bills on time. I keep my dog alive. I eat at least one vegetable, almost every day.
When it comes to lesbian romance and relationships, though, I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.
Many queer people go through this, and it’s sometimes described as second adolescence. The idea is that we don’t get to live our actual teen years as our true selves, so when the time comes to be out and proud, we approach our relationships like teenagers. When I started dating women, I felt more in control than I ever had in my life — owning the fact that I’m a lesbian makes me feel powerful, confident, and commanding. I’m assertive, comfortable in my skin, and I feel fucking hot. My sex life is off the hook.
At the same time, every little romantic feeling I have feels huge — a lot like it did when I was crushing as a teenager. Despite my newfound confidence in my identity, I have no idea how to carry myself, how to act, how to express my thoughts or feelings to romantic partners, or how to set healthy boundaries. I pick the wrong people to set my sights on, and when I date women who may actually be good for me, I have no idea how to accept their affection.
“Thinking about the idea of second adolescence makes a lot of sense to me, especially when you think about our psychological understandings of what happens during adolescence, or the ‘work' of adolescence,” Jenna Karlsberg Bennett, a doctoral student of clinical psychology and fellow queer, tells me. “Erik Erikson [a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst] considered the stage of adolescence to be all about figuring out who you are and what you want to do in life. He saw adolescence as being all about exploration and identity formation. Sexuality is not something that everyone fully understands or grasps in adolescence, and it can take years and different circumstances for that aspect of identity development to fully come to be. So if at 25 or 30 you’re realizing that you’re queer, then that process of identity formation would unfold not in your teen years, but in adulthood.”
In my case, this period of second adolescence means that my comfort level with lesbian intimacy vacillates between “Buddy the Elf bursting into a room to tell everyone he’s in love,” and “Tony Soprano in Dr. Melfi’s office, scowling, breathing heavily and shifting uncomfortably in his chair.” I make playlists to listen to alone in my room and affirm my feelings, and then delete them ceremoniously when I’ve decided the songs make me feel too much. I creep my love interests’ exes on social media and try to pathologize our dynamic, but then act like I don’t care if they live or die. I daydream about my crushes, and throw myself onto the sofa and weep loudly when things don’t work out as planned. I carry on never-ending nebulous intimate relationships with people who are not my girlfriend, and run away from women who want to be. I come on too strong, then I ghost. I demand that someone give me all of their time and attention, and then I shutter myself away and convince myself I would gladly die alone.
And, in true adolescent fashion, I run everything by my friends, boring them to tears with the minutiae of my dyke drama. Seasoned as they are, they always respond with “Yep, this is all part of it,” a chorus of dead-eyed lesbians patting me lovingly on the head, reassuring me that what I’m experiencing is the most normal thing in the world. I ignore their loving indifference to my overblown gay pain and continue to tell them stories about my dating life as if I’m the first person who has ever been through it, because to me, it feels like I am. I keep touching the hot stove, hopeful for a different outcome. I’m insufferable and dramatic and more clueless than I’ve felt in years — and also, I’ve never been better. It’s the feeling of being brand new, of being happy, of having absolutely no idea what is going on: a big, dumb, gay baby who can’t believe she finally got to be be born.
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