My Bad Gaydar

Even though I came out more than 20 years ago, I still read people the wrong way

I was watching him out of my bedroom window. Yesterday, he was picking frost-bitten kale from his front garden. Today, he was hunched over the snow blower, painstakingly moving back and forth across the short sidewalk and up the front walk of his house — plaid shirt flapping, one leg of his baggy jeans out of his boot, baseball cap under the hood of his coat.

His henpecking wife appeared in the driveway. Even though she was drowned out by the noise of the snow blower, you could see her stern mouth moving like a finger wagging.

I got a good look at her this time. Since moving into my new apartment the month before, I'd only seen her through the window across from mine as she sat with her husband in front of the television. "L.L. Bean farm wife," I thought. She wore shapeless jeans, a women's version of a flannel plaid shirt neatly tucked in with a belt and rugged boots, but styled hair.

"See that guy over there," I said to my daughter, Rae. We were supposed to be painting a room together, but she was much better at it than I and I kept wandering off to do other things.

"What guy?" Rae asked.

"Right there," I replied. "The hunchback snow blower."

My daughter started laughing.

"What?" I asked.

"Mommy, that's a LESBIAN!" she said. "They're a lesbian separatist couple who've been around forever!"

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I should have had a clue from the "Eat More Kale" and "Respect Union Nurses" lawn signs — and this is Northampton, Mass., where a placard at the entrance to the parking garage reads, "Welcome to Northampton: Where the coffee is strong, and so are the women." Even more ironic is that I have always been the one with the female partner who people misread as a man.

My gaydar has never been great, but even after I came out almost 20 years ago, I could often be clueless. On Long Island, where I once had a little beach house in a little town off the beaten path, every other woman in the supermarket parking lot had a buzz cut, khaki pants and an SUV. When I first moved there I said to a friend, "What are all these lesbians doing at the market?" She replied, "They're Republican soccer moms!"

At farm stands, I'd smile and make small talk with the hard-working, no-nonsense woman-of-the-land, and then her husband would hand me my change. She's straight?

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For a whole school year, I flirted relentlessly with a crossing guard at my son's elementary school. She was a tough cookie. With thumbs hitched in her pockets, she'd rock back on her heels, and jut out her chin as a greeting. I caught sight of her at a small Memorial Day parade and when I walked up she said excitedly, "There's my husband leading the marching band!" I dropped my ice cream.

Before I came out, I thought lesbians were special people who were brave and political and good friends to other lesbians; a little romanticized to say the least. I believed they were a group that would never include me because I liked dresses and lipstick and perfume and being a mother.

Meanwhile, my husband and my male friends were decent egalitarian men. They weren't all about machismo, but about equality. I appreciated that in a man but secretly I yearned for a Marlboro woman; a tough-looking butch who paid the check, opened the door for me, held the bags, led in dancing … and in sex. Someone who made me feel like what I thought it felt like to be a "woman."

For a long time, I've read people the wrong way. My fatal flaw was thinking that chivalry and virility in a male, or in a female, meant a person who takes care of a woman. I learned that from my mother, a Charles Bronson fan who glorified the Stanley Kowalski look. That kind of masculinity in a male scared me — too dangerous — but in a female, it was what I wanted.

It took me many years and many lessons to understand that taking care of one another in a relationship is about mutual love and trust, patience and kindness, and has nothing to do with gender or appearance — that is the realm of desire, what you find attractive, and desire is pretty hard to change.

Meanwhile, the people across the street? In the spring, I'll go over and introduce myself and see if I can help them plant their garden. I have a weak spot for curmudgeonly, salt-of-the-earth, feminist lesbians.