Normally I’m the type of writer who would argue that free speech is one of those unquestionable human rights-the kind that actually merits chaining oneself to an inanimate object to protect . But like free parking on Sundays, or Spandex as an alternative to weight loss, there are exceptions to the rule. Certain phrases, when shouted in a public space, might find a more fitting home in, say, the home.
I am not the type of lesbian who tries to de-out herself, or deny the growing terminology used to describe me and my ilk. What disturbs me is when someone makes an audible assumption that I am, in fact, pleased by the use of a “re-claimed” word, as if to remove the barb by implying, “You know it was just something ignorant people said because they didn’t know any better.” So when I approached a group of teenagers on Church Street, and heard the scruffier of the two females yell, “Hey, Faggot!” to a male friend cruising by on a bike, I literally cringed. Then I passed the group, as quickly as my injured knee would allow.
If I had known that my baggy and hole-ridden Carhartts, drizzled with the evidence of innumerable painting projects, would draw more attention to my silent protest to their behavior, I would have worn my Dickies that day. At least my wardrobe would have a chance to say, “I’m somewhere in between a Lipstick Lesbian and a Dyke, thank you. ” It was too late. They not only noticed me, but one of them tried to assuage any hurt feelings I might have by loudly remarking, “Hey, you can’t say that.”
“Why not,” her friend replied, adding, “I’m a dyke, and so is she.” By “she,” I could only assume that the girl was referring to the limping lesbian who just passed them. I hoped that I was wrong. Maybe she was calling one of her other friends a dyke. No matter, it didn’t help her situation either, since if there’s one word in the English language-and I love language-that I can’t stand it’s “dyke.” When I hear it, the proverbial fingernails on the blackboard and smoke detectors begin their cacophony. Call me a word elitist, call me a traitor, just don’t ever call me a “dyke.”
If this had been a solitary incident, I wouldn’t put much energy into it, thinking, “Nah, it’s not worth writing about or even discussing over tea.” But because my injured knee wasn’t healing as quickly as my chiropractor would have liked, he sent me to the walk-in clinic for an X-ray the next day. Unlike a typical emergency room visit, the nice receptionist got me into the exam room as quickly as possible where a cheerful nurse gave a genuine look of anguish when I told her about my accident. In fact, she looked like she was in more pain than I was.
“Are you taking any medications or over-the-counter drugs, Ms. Watson?” Did I really have to list the fish oil, vitamin D and all the other supplements I was taking to avoid anti-depressants? Yes, I did. This was the longest part of the check-in, since I could support myself by writing testimonials for everything from a B complex to St. John’s Wort. After taking my excellent blood pressure and directing me to the one-size-fits-no-one gowns, she quickly left me to figure out how in the hell I was going to try hiding the fact that I haven’t worn underwear since I started dating women nine years ago.
Not that going commando has anything to do with my sexuality (I do it mostly to prevent yeast infections), but people, especially people in the medical profession, find it unsettling for some reason. I decided to wrap the extra sheet they gave me around my hips and upper thigh like an adult diaper. It looked stupid to say the least, but I was glad I had done it when the male doctor came in. Actually, he was a first-year medical student who was nervous at first but warmed up when he realized I wasn’t going to be difficult. Curly-haired and skinny, he constantly pushed up his glasses as-what I could only guess-a nervous habit.
After briefly examining my severely bruised right patella, he began his diagnosis by saying, “I don’t think we’ll need an X-ray,” while I was thinking, “What? I came all the way down here to get an X-ray. I’m not leaving without one.” Instead of arguing, I let him finish. “But I’m obviously not the doctor, so we’ll see what he has to say when he comes in.” Obviously.
I thanked him as he pushed aside the curtain, and I sat there reading my book trying not to eavesdrop on the couple behind curtain number two, the wife asking the nurse, “Look at his toe, do you think that’s gangrene?” Do people actually get gangrene anymore, I thought. According to the nurse, yes they do. “You’ve had surgery?” Yes, they replied in unison. “And your diabetic?” Yes again. “You need to tell your surgeon about this,” she almost shouted at them, continuing with, “because you’re going to lose that toe. You’ve just got to be persistent. I’m telling you that you need to tell your surgeon about this gangrene before you lose that toe!”
Despite the fact that these candid remarks made in front of the stranger behind curtain number one could be categorized as one of those “exceptions to the rule,” I admired her for encouraging them to take control and be assertive with health care providers. That’s just what I’m going to do, I thought. When that doctor comes back in, I’m going to say, you’d better take an X-ray of that knee before I lose the leg! Luckily, I didn’t have to, because as soon as he returned with our med student, he said, “Let’s go ahead and take an X-ray,” before he even reached the side of the bed to examine me.
A trip to radiology is a little more complicated for women than men, and a lot more complicated for gay women. Radiation is bad enough for an adult, but it can apparently do irreversible harm to a fetus. So there’s always the fun part of answering, “Is there any chance you might be pregnant?” I always give a smirk when I reply, “No,” sometimes adding, “not a chance,” or if I’m feeling cheeky, “none for me thank you.” Not that my looks particularly fit the lesbian prototype, especially when wearing a handmade Depends, but doctors and nurses usually don’t push the issue. Today, perhaps because the doc was teaching the kid “a lesson,” this was not the case.
“Are you sure?” the doctor asked. He and his protege stood on either side of the bed staring down at me with blank faces, as if they were mall security guards interrogating a kid suspected of swiping a video game. “Yes, I’m sure,” I said hoping this would be the end of it. “O.k.,” the doctor looked a little nervous for the first time. The kid pushed up his glasses. “How do you know?” he continued. I froze. I had no idea how to answer that question. Although the teenagers’ inadvertent verbal assault put this chain of events in motion, I had not settled on a proper term for who I am as a sexual being. I’ve always hated labels, and I wasn’t about to use one to convince Dr. Inquisitive that I was not gestating.
“Um, well,” I stammered, “I-uh, I have a,” I looked down at the bed, “A female partner,” I almost whispered that last part. What did I just say? I felt like Jennifer Gray’s character in Dirty Dancing, “I carried a watermelon?” Both the doctor and student looked as if they’d just been told that they were not going to lose their toes from gangrene. Wiping the sweat from his brow, the doctor said, “Sorry, it’s just that we have to ask every woman with a working uterus that question since it can harm the baby.” The kid nodded in agreement before pushing up his glasses. “It’s o.k.,” I reassured him, “I understand.”
I did understand. That didn’t stop me, however, from thinking of more suitable responses during the entire wheelchair ride to radiology. Why didn’t I say, “I like pussy,” or pointing to myself and exclaiming, “Carpet muncher!” Better still, “Oh, I prefer to fuck women, since men don’t satisfy my needs.” But the kid might have pushed his glasses into his sinuses. Plus, in true David Sedaris fashion, I prefer to use these antidotes as material for writing or conversation pieces.
Thinking the ordeal was over, I was shocked to hear the radiologist ask me, “Is there any chance you’re pregnant,” as she helped me out of the wheelchair and onto the X-ray table. Didn’t the doctor already inform her, “It’s o.k., that one’s a dyke.” This time, she accepted my simple, “No,” and didn’t push the issue by asking, “Well, are you sure?” Relieved, I accepted the alteration of my DNA in peace.
As I approached the check-out, where I was only asked to “please sign below,” I waved to the doctor and thanked him. It’s not his fault I find major drawbacks to the vocabulary, pejorative or not, used to describe one’s sexual preference. Neither was it the teenager’s fault that “dyke” is the one word I’d prefer to eliminate from our fluctuating language. Yet, here I am, writing about it, using it over and over, still arguing that free speech is the wall we build to prevent a flood of injustice, and harmful words.