I was in the hands of a man recently.
It started out as my hand in his, a firm handshake as he thanked me for being the main speaker at an AA meeting while looking me in the eye with his kind and gentle gaze.
“We should be friends,” he boldly stated.
As our hands pumped up and down, the friendly ritual seemed to seal the deal.
A few months later, his hands were suddenly tangled in my hair and they were bringing my lips to his, and while we kissed his hands found the small inches of skin right above my ribcage and just below my breast; the portion of my skin typically reserved for body wash and bra under wires and for 10 years before that moment, reserved exclusively for the hands of women. And while his hands wandered all over the rest my body, my mind with a mind of its own wandered to a flash of memory of a different set of hands, hands that once covered my mouth in order to muffle the cries of pain I made while being ripped in two by the force of the man they belonged to.
I opened my eyes to come away from that memory and bring myself back to reality. I had to see what my friend’s hands were doing. And to my surprise, his hands were not hurting me, or about to take something from me that I could never get back, or forcing me to give up all I had left. They seemed to only be touching me in response to my own desire: respectfully, cautiously, and with just the right amount of abandon. And then his hand was in my hand, guiding him, pulling him, telling him to keep going. Pants were involved as well, but their only role was that they were being taken off by both of our hands and tossed on the floor.
And the details of what happened next don’t matter enough to explain because you already know where this is going, and yes, it went there.
What matters most in the retelling of this moment isn’t what came together for me when I was in the hands of a man again.
What matters is how the woman who I thought I was in the hands of a man came undone and was set free.
I remember one of the prettiest girls in my school cornering me on the playground when I was 7 years old.
“Why do you dress like a boy if you are a girl?” she sneered. “Are you a lesbian or something?”
Until then I thought I was just a little girl who couldn’t wear skirts anymore. How I dressed in the morning was my only line of defense against what I knew was waiting for me in the afternoon, the groping hands of an older boy who lived next door to my afterschool babysitter. He suggested I wear skirts more often so that it would be easier for him to access the parts of me he liked to touch in ways that always made me feel guilty and ashamed to be a girl. Wearing boy’s clothing for the next few years became my cloak of protection against anyone who wanted to do the same. Even though I had no idea what a lesbian was that day on the playground, I vowed that I would never be one.
Eventually I grew up and out of wearing baggy jeans and shirts, and instead became cloaked in safety of the invisibility of just being a typical young woman. I talked to boys, made myself pretty for their advances, and lied about all the things I would do to be with them. I kissed them under bleachers and in public. I watched them leave me for prettier girls and break my heart. I chased after them like I was supposed to. I lost my virginity and all my friends were excited for me and my mom took me to get birth control and my boyfriend told me that he loved me.
No one teased me, or challenged who I was when I was this young woman. Not one person asked if I was okay, or if I liked it when a guy would jam his tongue in my mouth and slobber all over my face when we kissed, or even if I wanted to be kissing boys in the first place.
No one felt the need to explain my straightness to me. I wish they had because I always felt that I was searching for the answer to it under each and every sexual experience. Mostly I wondered why I felt like an actor in a play about girls who like boys. I knew my lines and queues perfectly, but I never felt like I was portraying myself.
The second man I ever slept with raped me. I drew no lines in the sand against men then, as some have assumed. I began drinking alcoholically and giving my body to strangers at a rapid rate. At some point all my lines became blurred and I ended up kissing a woman one night because it felt good. And then I started sleeping with them all the time because that felt even better. There was no other reason for it that I could think of. I wasn’t thinking about it at all really, it just felt right. 5 years went by and turned into 10. I got sober and continued being with women, this time my identity depended on it. I have fallen in love with women, chased them, cried with them, kissed them in first-date movie theater darkness, been held all night by them, and planned futures with them that ended before they began.
Sometimes when people would start to pry, I felt my cloak slipping off my shoulders, threatening to expose me as the terrifying unknown I really was. I would shrug it back on by proclaiming my strict gayness with false bravado. I stayed away from men, making sure they knew I wasn’t interested because I was officially a lesbian. I started to believe the things people would say about women who love other women, that we must be damaged somehow. I felt damaged, anyway. Friends, family, and the world at large felt the need to explain my sexuality to me, as though I was a broken sexual humpty dumpty, and their providing me the real reasons behind why I sleep with women would put me back together again.
I have spent countless moments in my life arguing and debating and defending and explaining and withstanding my sexuality, as well as laughing at jokes that weren’t funny about it. I have judged myself for it and questioned everything. At times this has caused me to live in doubt and insecurity and fear, and during those times I have been floating in a state of disconnect from the knowing of who I really am so much that I have instinctively remedied that by fiercely grasping on to an idea of woman I really am not, and presenting her to the world as a matter of survival.
The hands of men have done awful things to me, and I have at times wished they never touched me at all.
But now I find myself grateful for every touch, and for every mysterious experience that brought me to the hands which allowed me to remove my cloak, and forced me into the wild of what is finally my own sexuality. And it is finally mine, and mine alone. People will ask me what I am now, like they always have. This time, instead of giving them an answer I feel will satisfy them and protect myself, I will ask them why they assume who I chose to be with makes me who I am, and what right they think they have to ask me in the first place.
I have been moving throughout the world on narrow and restricted roads, designed from carefully constructed labels that I have allowed to be put on me by anyone and myself. I know this experience is not the same for everyone, and I no longer judge those who cannot decide who they wish to be with, or even those who believe whole heartedly that the way they love is the only way to do it. I no longer judge myself either.
I only know that my road is a little wider, and the traveler is a little more me than I ever have been.