Friday, March 27, 2009

Discovering the "L Word" in 1963

It was September 1963, and I was a freshman in college. One afternoon there was a tapping on my dorm room door. I opened it and was surprised to see one of the little blonde cheerleader sorority pledges who ordinarily did not give me a second glance, standing there with a look of grim determination on her face. I invited her in. She refused my offer to sit down and launched into what was obviously a prepared proclamation.

"There is a lesbian living on this hall, and we feel that everyone has a right to know. We are going to the bathroom in pairs and carrying sharpened pencils."

"What's a lesbian?" I asked.

She haltingly explained. My inner reaction was a great big "WOH!" I thought I had read everything there was to know about sex, and now this! She left and I sat there thinking about it.
Finally I walked down the hall (no sharpened pencil), and knocked on her door. There was a whole group in there discussing the dire peril we were now facing.

"If a guy were living on the hall we wouldn't automatically assume he was going to attack us, would we?" I asked.

Everyone agreed. He would be another student - someone's brother, someone's boyfriend - and probably harmless.

"I don't know anything about lesbians. I didn't know there was any such thing until just now. Is attacking people part of being a lesbian?" I asked.

There was a silence. Finally, someone said, "I don't know."

Another silence. Then a brave piping voice said, "Well, let's find out."

We walked down the hall together - courage in numbers - and knocked on Marilyn's door.

"It's not locked, come on in." Marilyn was a big farm girl from the Oklahoma panhandle. Her bed was piled high with pink and purple pillows and she was reclining amongst them looking like
a butch version of Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra." We formed a line at the far end of the room.

After an awkward silence Marilyn seemed to be enjoying, one of us quavered, "Is it true you are a l...l...l..."

Finally tired of the preliminaries, Marilyn said, "Yes, I'm a lesbian."

Long silence. Broken by another tiny quavering voice, "Does this are us....?"

Marilyn laughed, and she laughed, and she laughed - big rolling Ha HA HAs that must have vibrated through the entire building. When she could catch her breath she said, "I have a girlfriend who's a total knockout. None of you little chicken legs would stand a chance."

Although this was not exactly a compliment, it somehow just didn't sound mean, the way she said it. Within moments we were all perched around her bed asking a zillion questions about what it meant to be a lesbian and about sex in general, a topic that Marilyn seemed to know much more about than any of us.

We talked for hours. Marilyn's room became a gathering place on our floor. She taught us how to read Tarot cards and took us on a field trip to a gay bar. She showed us how to deliver a solid left hook to drunken, groping frat boys. The sex education she disseminated was accurate and highly practical.

I lost track of Marilyn after college, and I'm sorry for that. At points in your life you're fortunate enough to meet someone who opens vast new horizons. At the time I didn't realize how much courage she had, as a gay teenager in 1963. Thank you, Marilyn, wherever you are.


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