Thoughts after reading Strong by Natalie Debrabandere

I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of lesbian fiction, which is wonderful and new for me. It started with a post on twitter about the top 100 lesbian books to read, or something like that. That brought me to Bridge Essex and fun romance novels. That also brought me to this idea of lesbian book bingo – https://jae-fiction.com/lesbian-book-bingo/ It’s a way to explore genres I wouldn’t otherwise explore and keep reading.

Jae posted a list for Women in Uniform, the first square. I chose a book called Strong. It seemed like one that would be interesting and not annoy me with inauthentic military references and I was right. What I didn’t anticipate was all the old memories and emotions it stirred up. I spent so much time lost in thought last night, apparently I need to just let it out. Feel free to ignore this, as it may not make all that much sense.

It’s been almost 20 years since I went off to boot camp. And almost 18 years since I was discharged. During those years, Don’t ask Don’t Tell was in full force, tainting an experience that would have been very different in today’s military. The daily fear of being found out. Of being constantly guarded. It all came back reading this story of two women in Afghanistan. But it wasn’t all the bad either. The massage, which was one of the ‘safe’ ways to have physical contact without getting busted for anything. Granted, the day my short term roommate walked in on Holloway and I giving massages still raised red flags for her, but it wasn’t enough to worry about. Besides, we really needed them. But, it was also part of the feeling out phase, since people couldn’t be all that out. I’m still not sure how that all happened. I just can’t remember. I think it was all a careful dance of feeling things out and then, once we were totally alone, just going for it. It’s odd what I don’t remember…well, normal for me, but I suspect other people remember a lot more of these details. So even once we were together, there wasn’t enough communication about it. It wasn’t dating. More, friends with benefits. The benefits of comfort, not sleeping alone. And that’s another thing I really related to. As the characters just shared a bed, without sex, that’s an experience that I think others will miss the depth behind. When you are constantly on guard, having that private space to just be touching and comforted means the world. Though I still don’t know how we got away with that. Perhaps the Marines on guard duty at the end of the female wing didn’t put it together, or didn’t care. Either way, I’m grateful. It made things more bearable through that time.

Another thing that stood out was including the guitar. There’s usually someone with a guitar at some point. I spent a lot of time in Pensacola learning to play the easier Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge songs. It helped me cope with all the challenges of being hidden. And it turns out, it’s what brought me and Sara, now the godmother to our daughter, together. I never knew at the time, but she would sit outside my door, studying and listening to my awful playing. lol But it made her feel better too. It’s so odd what comforts us. But while she is bi, she was dealing with so many demons of her own, including, I’m sure, flying under the radar. So for both of us, music was that rebellion. My favorite memories of her are hanging out in her room listening to Ani DiFranco, which felt so brazen to me.

It was such a complicated time. It was worse in the fleet, losing my friends, losing a fairly liberal command who didn’t really care what we were doing. Having to be even more closeted and not even knowing if anyone had my back. Then, that one respite, the month of CAX training where I was away from my unit on mess duty. Where again, people didn’t seem to care all that much. They were just cool. Getting to know Susan for far too short a time. Once again, not knowing how that happened. I’m just so oblivious to girls and flirting. So it’s mostly brief moments, always coupled with fear of getting caught, especially as a butch in the Marine Corps. I mean, everyone had to assume, so I was always careful. Unless drinking. And then it was only after I drank a lot. I’m grateful to everyone who didn’t rat me out. I have to remember that. But what was interesting is how less careful the more femme girls were. Susan asking me to walk to the bathroom with her, and taking my arm as we walked. It didn’t seem to occur to her at all, but I could only think how ballsy it was. At the time I thought, only straight girls thinking nothing of this. But a week or so later I realized she wasn’t actually that straight. And god, how different would it all have been if all of us could just be out, without fear of reprisal? To have all the fear and stress be about whether someone liked me, and not whether I would be busted, charged, and discharged. To not fear physical assault. I know it doesn’t matter, because what happened is what happened. But so much of that stress is still in me.

I’ve always been more repressed, more closed down. This didn’t help. I still don’t trust people easily, especially if they served. I don’t know if they’ll totally reject me. It’s stupid, I’m a grown adult with an awesome family. But the fear, it’s there. The fear of the judgment. All of it just pushed away, partially dealt with but never fully. Still shying away from even holding hands with my wife in public. Damn sure never kissing in public. It makes me a worse wife for it.

In my ritual I asked to release judgment. I had no idea it would show up like this. That’s how it works though, doesn’t it? Never how you expect it. Not always very fun. But maybe, just maybe I can open up more now. Can be a more present wife. Can live with less fear.

I know there are younger folks who still face this, growing up in really homophobic families and areas. It seems like far less of a problem though. I hope it is. I hope they can just live and love freely. But maybe they will also, someday, start to understand why the older generations can be so guarded. Can be more cautious. Because having all of your dating life occur under intense scrutiny is challenging. It wears on you. And to a person already so guarded from the world, it’s so much harder to release.

I had no idea until I read this book. And now, maybe all these tears shed and thoughts written out will allow for a new start. I wish Sara was out here to talk about this with. It will require beer. Perhaps a lot of it. I’m not sure I could actually open up still. But I think she could fill in some memory gaps. Maybe she can fly out before my parents arrive for Melody’s birthday. Or I won’t have the need by then. Emotions are complicated. And now, as I listen to my almost 3 year old rage downstairs over who knows what, it’s time to get it back together and take care of her.

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