A recent Tweet by BasicButch asking people to name their favorite queer character from a book, tv show or film has taken me on a bit of a journey into the past today.
In my mind, I began to scroll through the cast of characters from every lesbian movie I’d ever seen. I love so many of them! Who was my favorite? It could have been either Rachel or Luce from Imagine Me and You. They’re just so adorable! Then there’s Peyton and Elena from Elena Undone. That kiss, though … amirite??? Of course, Maggie and Kim are better than chocolate in Better Than Chocolate. I couldn’t take my eyes of Cory and Violet in Bound and who didn’t love Annabelle and Simone in Loving Annabelle? Don’t even get me started on Lucy Diamond in D.E.B.S., that woman was mad hot and badass!
And what about Jo Polniaczek and Blair Warner on Facts of Life? Or Olivia Benson and Alex Cabot on Law & Order: SVU? I know they’re not “officially” lesbians, but no one’s gonna tell me there wasn’t some high-level sexual tension in those relationships!
But the further back I went and the more I thought about it, I came to realize there was one film that truly influenced me and marked a time in my life that I remember as a turning point: Desert Hearts.
Now, imagine yourself a twenty-year-old, recently out lesbian, living in a world where there is no LGBTQ representation in films or on TV. Well, except for the aforementioned Jo Polniaczek, and she was only queer in my hopeful little heart.
It’s 1985. There’s no social media, no Google to search for “how to be a lesbian,” and you can’t look up the best lesbian kissing scenes on YouTube. All you’ve got is Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, which you’ve read to death. Even Judy Blume, who wrote about everything from periods to masturbation to losing one’s virginity, abandoned you when it came to being a lesbian.
You’re adrift in a sea of heteronormativity, trying to figure out how this whole lesbianing thing works, when you hear about a movie. A movie about people like you. Being the stone age, you can’t hide away and watch it in the privacy of your own home on a streaming channel. You have to go to an actual theater and walk up to a booth and buy a ticket, feeling the whole time like there’s a huge neon light flashing LESBIAN over your head.
During the hour and a half I spent in that darkened theater, so much that felt tangled and askew in my life finally clicked together. Here was a movie that was just like a “regular” movie, only it was about two women. There were emotions and love and turmoil and tension … it was all the stuff “normal” people experienced, only they were lesbians. Maybe being gay wasn’t so scary after all!
My life until then was so devoid of anything LGBTQ, I honestly had no idea how anything worked. I didn’t know if I was expected to assume a masculine or feminine role. I didn’t know how to meet other women. I didn’t know if lesbians fell in love like straight people did or if it was only about sex. I didn’t know how to act or how to dress or how to be gay.
True story: Before I saw Desert Hearts I tagged along to a women’s bar with some people from work (because no one checked IDs back then, so my underage ass just floated right on in). Apparently, the bar attracted a bit of a butchier clientele, but to my unknowing eyes, I was getting my first lesson in “how lesbians look.” You can imagine my mother’s surprise when the next time she saw me, rather than the semi-femme daughter she’d raised, she was greeted by a girl in levis and a flannel shirt, complete with a pack of Marlboros in the breast pocket and a men’s wallet in the back pocket of her jeans.
Desert Heart’s cool, confidant Cay Rivver’s taught me that you didn’t have to dress up or wear a costume to be a lesbian. She knew who she was and she was comfortable with herself. She didn’t have to pretend or act a certain way. Of course, how she was and who she was wasn’t always accepted by those who were supposed to love her, but that part I already knew to expect.
I wish I could say from that point forward I was a slick, self-assured lesbian with a little swagger and a devil-may-care attitude like Cay. The movie changed me and my outlook, it answered a lot of questions and it made certain aspects of being queer not so intimidating. But it was still 1985 and being out and proud wasn’t exactly a thing yet … in fact, four years later at a local Gay Pride event they had to lock us in the event grounds to protect us from the protesters outside. So, there were still obstacles to overcome, both internal and external.
BasicButch mentioned that Desert Hearts is available on YouTube, so I’m going to watch it tonight. I’ve seen it since 1985, but it’s been years since my last viewing. I’m looking forward to seeing if I can recapture some of the magic I felt when I was twenty by watching it now. If not, at least it will be a nice trip to the past. Thanks for the memories, BB!
“I don’t act this way to change the world. I act this way so that the world won’t goddamn change me!” — Cay Rivvers, Desert Hearts