How Kate Clinton Made Me Gay

(Originally published on my LiveJournal on February 12, 2007.)

Long ago, before the wheel was invented (or, well, possibly somewhat after; I was a life sciences major! what did I know?), I was in college. I picked the wrong college to try first, and wandered around it like a lost soul, and stood outside the college GALA meeting (this was also before bisexuals and transfolk were invented, apparently) in a long black cloak at night under a tree, trying to make my hide in shadows roll and failing repeatedly, for half an hour. I watched the meeting of perfectly normal gay people through the walls of the large glass meeting room in which the introductory meeting was being held — whose bright idea was that? — and felt that piquant terror that many geeks feel at the idea of mingling with normal people.

Fortunately, I failed my hide in shadows roll at just the right moment and was found by a wandering pack of science fiction geeks who dragged me off to join THEIR club. None of them, alas, were willing to be gay at me, but I happily shoved the idea of gayness to the back of my head.

Then I went to a different college. I was too busy to try their GLSU meetings, but I eventually found a slightly geeky gay man who worked with me to come out to. I came out to him on one of our long, boring summer afternoons of watching over our brooding ranks of Apple II+ computers (before the invention of the hard drive). He told me the GLSU was a seething mass of politics, so maybe I didn’t want to try them. Besides, I told myself, I was bisexual (this was after I invented bisexuality), not a lesbian. Perhaps there was still hope I could be ‘normal’.

The next school year, I lived in a dorm that was next to a set of train tracks. After getting used to the sound of the train running by my back door every hour and therefore becoming less sleep-depped, I started wandering the town. One store I walked past on an almost daily basis was Wonderland Records.

I was certain it was a Head Shop.

I wasn’t really sure what, precisely, a Head Shop was, but I was certain that it wasn’t the sort of place a Nice Catholic Girl like myself should be. (This was before I invented paganism.)

It took me something like six months before I dared cross that Heady threshold.

It was, actually, a record store.* It sold records. You know, those vinyl disc things that play on phonographs. It also sold cassette tapes, but I didn’t have a cassette player, so I didn’t even bother looking at those. There was a bargain bin of 8-tracks in the corner.

I looked around the store very carefully. I found a tiny section in the racks near the windows marked “Women’s.” I thought, “Women’s music?” and flipped through it.

I don’t remember seeing anything in there except two records by Kate Clinton. One was called Thanks for the Mammaries and the other, Making Light. (This led to later confusion and disappointment when I discovered the blog of the same name.)

There was something deeply subversive and intensely scary about women’s comedy, so I fled.

It took me something like six months before I chose Making Light because it had a less intimidating (and revealing) title. I carried it to the cash register with an exaggeratedly casual air, paid the uncaring clerk for it with cash, and ran for the hills. When I got to my closet-like dorm room, I played it.

I laughed and howled and played it again.

The line that stays in my head from that album: when she’s talking about removing stuck tampons, she notes, “Fortunately, we have friends to help us.”

Over the subsequent years of waffling and confusion, that album was one of those things I returned to like an orbiting comet. It made me wonder what I could be sometime, maybe, possibly. And every return felt a little more like home. I mean dykes! Making jokes about being dykes! How cool was that? And she wasn’t mean. Well, not to anyone who didn’t deserve it. So much humor about women is based on meanness.

I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to be a woman and funny and not mean about other women? It sounds like dykes have so much fun!

(Clearly, Dykes To Watch Out For had not yet been invented. Or, well, it had. I remember seeing the title on the table of the women’s book co-op I went to twice in grad school, and wanting to flip through it, but I ran away.  Then came back later and read bits of it.)

Meanwhile, I kept getting closer and closer to realizing that being a dyke, being part of dykedom, was what I wanted.

It took me a long time to come around to coming out.

Fortunately, I had friends to help me.

Several years ago, while in Provincetown, I bought another Kate Clinton album, this time on CD, in Womencrafts (10% Dyke Discount!). I took it home and forgot it. A month or so ago, I found it again, unwrapped it, and listened to it on the way to work. I laughed and howled and played it again, this time for my wife.

When I think about lesbians, the first thing I think of is Kate Clinton’s voice. I didn’t realize this until I listened to this album.

Someday, I’d like to see her perform live. And maybe if I’m brave, I can shake her hand and thank her for helping to make me gay.


*Which does not mean it wasn’t a Head Shop.

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