Hugo Schwyzer tries to discern why even after several failed relationships with lesbians or lesbian types, his heart still flutters around short hair and strong jaws.
I enjoyed reading last week’s A Girl Who Likes Boys Who Like Boys: The Joy of Dating Gay Men. I know from my colleagues, students, and friends that “Feminist Dating Blogger” is hardly the only heterosexual woman with a penchant for pursuing gay men. But there’s a male equivalent to this, and it’s one I know all too well. I’ve fallen for more than my share of lesbians, including my second wife.
Lots of people have “types” to which they are consistently attracted. From the time pubescent hormones started surging through my body, I found that I was particularly drawn to female jocks. It’s not as if my attraction was limited to athletes alone; I was a horny teen boy who could be turned on by almost anything that moved. But I tended to get crushes on the same type of girl: the star basketball player, the soccer forward, the swimmer. Some were lesbians. Some weren’t.
In several classes during my junior year of high school, I sat next to “Kendall,” the statuesque multi-sport star. A year ahead of me, Kendall was nearly six feet tall, broad-shouldered, with a jawline that could cut glass. All-League in three sports, she wore her letterman’s jacket almost every day, and would often come to class with her short dark hair still wet from the post-workout shower. Her signature scent was chlorine with a hint of sweat.
I was a nerd; she was a jock. We both liked history. We became fast friends.
It was rumored that Kendall was a lesbian. (This was a homophobic small town high school in the early ‘80s. No one was “out.”) She certainly didn’t seem to date anyone. When I worked up the courage to ask her to the Homecoming dance, she gave me her dazzling smile and said, “Aww, Hugo, let’s not spoil our friendship, okay?” She told me later she didn’t like school dances. “A waste of money, and the music sucks.” Kendall headed off to college on a swimming scholarship, and in that pre-social media era, we quickly lost touch. Years later, thanks to Facebook, we reconnected. And I learned that Kendall was happily married to a woman.
My attraction to androgynous jocks continued in college. I dated a couple of athletes at Cal (a friend labeled me, rather unkindly, a “sports bra sniffer”). At one point I developed a huge crush on Meg, a club soccer player and a freshman year housemate. Meg soon set me straight, as it were, by introducing me to her girlfriend. I knew perfectly well that not every female athlete was a lesbian. But I was developing a pattern of falling hardest for girls who liked other girls—or who, at the least, were far from boy crazy.
What is it that drew me so often to women who were same-sex attracted? It certainly wasn’t the stereotypical male fantasy about what they were doing in bed, and it certainly had nothing to do with a macho belief that I could turn a gay woman straight. And though I dated and slept with women who were straight as arrows and whose interest in competitive sports was nonexistent, I kept getting little crushes (and sometimes much more) on lesbians.
A college roommate of mine (a psych major headed for a career as a Freudian analyst) offered a theory: perhaps I was scared of being with a woman who would really be in love with me because of the harm I might do to them. As Terry put it: “If you’re with a woman who is primarily attracted to other women, then even if she does sleep with you, you can’t really break her heart. That makes you feel safe, like you’ll never be the truly bad guy in her life.” There was a grain of truth in that, I felt. It was certainly better than Terry’s other theory, which was that my mother was a closeted lesbian and that chasing Queer women was my way of drawing close to her.
Another friend, Sheila, was more inclined to scientific explanations. She wondered if I might be chemically drawn to women with high testosterone levels. Sheila, who was not gay, was convinced that there was a specific “lesbian biochemistry” and that many lesbians had discernible facial features (especially around the jaw) that marked them out from other women. I wasn’t so sure about the specific physiognomy of gay women, and knew damn well that lesbians didn’t all have higher testosterone levels than straight women. But maybe Sheila was right, and this attraction was more chemical than anything else.
But theories only carry us so far. Even if we choose to believe that one of them is true, mere awareness of why we do something is rarely enough to stop doing it. And after college, my pattern kept re-emerging.
After a disastrous and brief first marriage, I met “Courtney,” the woman who would be my second wife. We met at a Twelve Step meeting, and became fast friends. I fell hard. My first wife had been a petite, feminine young woman who hated to sweat; Courtney represented the epitome of “my type.” I figured I needed to revert to form, and Court—a short-haired athlete, hiker, and yoga enthusiast who lived in the flannel that was de rigueur in the early ‘90s—embodied the kind of woman to whom I’d long been drawn. And I was sure she wasn’t lesbian; when I first met her, Courtney was dating a man.
At first, my crush didn’t seem reciprocated. But after months of spending platonic time together (and after my first divorce was at last final), Courtney told me shyly one day that she thought she might be falling in love with me. As far as I was concerned, it was a dream come true; I was ecstatic. Our mutual friends assured us we were perfect together. One, Jenny, remarked, “You guys make so much sense. Court’s just a little bit masculine, and Hugo, you’re just a little bit femmy in some ways. You two are meant to be!”
The sex was, from the start, awkward. Courtney seemed to love foreplay, and she definitely loved receiving oral sex. But she never offered to reciprocate, and when I shyly asked her why, she shuddered. “I just have a weird hang-up about it,” she said. “Can we do other things?” Other things included intercourse, though she always begged me to come quickly once I was inside of her. She assured me it was because she got sore easily, and not because she didn’t like what we were doing. I wasn’t so sure. Eventually, we developed a reliable routine: I would go down on her and masturbate myself while I did so. It was the one kind of sex for which Courtney seemed eager, and I got pretty good at timing my orgasm to hers.
Sexual awkwardness and incompatibility can mean so many different things. I knew that it couldn’t mean Court was lesbian; after all, she reminded me constantly how in love with me she was. (She was very good at verbal reassurance.) And I was so in love with her that the thought didn’t cross my mind. It crossed the mind of others, however.
After a family dinner to celebrate our engagement, a lesbian cousin of mine called me up and asked if I was “sure” about Courtney. When I inquired why she was asking, my cousin noted that my fiancée seemed to “light up around certain women” but never “lit up” the same way around me. “I just have a feeling, Hugo,” my cousin said. “Has Courtney ever dated a woman?”
I was stunned. I shouldn’t have been. I was already teaching women’s studies; I worked with gay and lesbian students and activists on an almost daily basis; I volunteered with AIDS Project Los Angeles. I was open about my past of sexual experimentation with men. If anyone had exquisite gaydar, it was me! But even as I awkwardly reassured my cousin of the intensity of Courtney’s attraction to me, something about the idea made sense. But it couldn’t be. I told my cousin she was confusing Courtney’s outer androgyny with her inner sexuality. There was no such confusion in the bedroom, I insisted.
But there was.
For our honeymoon, Court and I went fly-fishing on the McKenzie River. She didn’t want a beach in Hawaii; she wanted a rod and reel and a driftboat in the Northwest. I was so in love I’d have worked on a Ford assembly line if that was how she wanted to spend our first week as husband and wife. The sex was the same as always, but Court seemed giddily happy to be married at last.
Two weeks after we got home from the honeymoon, Courtney and I had sex for the last time. I was cut off cold. Bewildered that her admittedly lukewarm libido had turned off so completely, I complained and sulked. I masturbated disconsolately in the shower a few mornings a week.
Outwardly, all was well for a while. Court and I hiked together, rescued dogs together, volunteered together. We held hands and hugged still, but it was clear that everything else was off limits. My wife offered a series of explanations and excuses; sometimes it was that she was too tired or stressed, other times it was that I had been “mean” or inattentive in some way. As in love with her as I still was, I assumed she was telling the truth. Eventually, it just became easier not to try. We joined the ranks of the sexless and married.
Twenty months after Courtney and I had married, I relapsed on drugs after several years of sobriety. I “used at her,” getting loaded out of hostility and frustration that I couldn’t fully articulate. I went back to drugs in the hope that that might show her how much pain I was in, particularly over the sexless state of our marriage. Court insisted I move out. I rented a room in a sober living boarding house, and soon began an affair with a housemate. After more than a year and a half of fidelity, I cheated with a woman who made it clear she wanted me. It was a cowardly, but understandable, way to get back at Courtney. I told my wife what I’d done, and she instantly demanded a divorce.
The legal proceedings were swift and easy. So too was my quick descent back into heavy drug and alcohol use. My now second ex-wife made clear she wanted me out of her life completely; she couldn’t even be friends with a former husband who was using. We lost touch.
It was only after I got clean again two years later that I learned, from a mutual friend, that Court had moved in with a woman just weeks after our divorce. Her “coming out” had been greeted with a complete lack of surprise by virtually everyone who’d known her. I was overwhelmed with a mix of shock and relief. Shock that I’d missed so many obvious signs, relief that despite my myriad failings as a husband, our complete lack of sexual connection had not all been my fault.
I knew better than to believe that I had turned Courtney into a lesbian through my own sexual incompetence, though it didn’t stop a few people from teasing me about just that. She had come from a conservative family who would have been deeply embarrassed to have a gay child. She may always have known, but did her best to hide it, perhaps hoping that her feelings might change. Or she might have been like more than a few women I’ve known, and only discovered her true sexual identity after already being married to a man.
Of all my exes, Courtney is the only one with whom I’ve had no contact since the divorce more than fifteen years ago. She rebuffed the one attempt at an amends I made, more than a decade ago, and I see no reason to try again. In the Facebook era, I’m easy enough to find should she want to reach out. I’ve heard a few small tidbits from mutual acquaintances over the years, and know enough to know she’s still a short-haired jock who rescues dogs … and lives with a woman.
Nine years ago, when I started dating Eira, the woman who is now my spouse and the mother of my daughter, I had a moment of trepidation. She was a former college soccer star turned triathlete and kick-boxer. She had short dark hair. Physically at least, she was very much my “type.” And as we laughingly established early on in our dating, when I shared the story of my marriage to Courtney, Eira was straight.
I confess that after a dinner where I introduced Eira to my lesbian cousin, I raised a querying eyebrow at the latter. My cousin laughed. “You’re safe this time,” she promised. Nearly a decade later, I’m pretty sure I’m safe for good.
But every once in a while, I’ll be walking down the street and pass a tall woman with short hair, a lantern jaw, and a loud, confident laugh. And for a few seconds, my heart will beat just a bit faster.