Passing Fancy

“Excuse me,” I say, pointing past the man in seat 14B. “I need to get in there.”

“No problem.” The man rises eagerly, a big smile plastered across his face, for he is the envy of all the other businessmen on this early morning flight. He’s the one who gets to sit with the pretty lady who, even at this ungodly hour has taken the time to blow dry her hair, put on makeup, and dress in an attractive suit.

Soon we take off and breakfast arrives. There’s something about eating dry corn muffins and drinking lousy coffee at 30,000 feet that breeds a false sense of intimacy.

“Are you married?” my fellow traveler asks.

“Yes,” I answer, glancing at my gold band.

“What does your husband do?”

I let out a deep sigh. Do I really need this at seven a.m.? I decide I do and bravely take the plunge. “I don’t have a husband.”

“You don’t?” The man raises his eyebrows with his coffee cup. “I thought you said you were married.”

“I did,” I pause. “But I never said I had a husband.”

He puts his coffee and eyebrows down and stares at me. “I don’t know what you mean,” he says.

I spill the beans. “I am married,” I repeat, “to a woman.”

Why do I do this to myself? Unlike my spouse, Mary, who with her short hair and androgynous clothing might as well have a lavender “L” tattooed on her forehead, I easily (though unintentionally) “pass.” Yet by participating in my own invisibility, I support the notion that there is something wrong with me. I don’t look like what most people think of when they hear the word lesbian. Unless I inform them otherwise, ten out of ten people (gay and straight) assume that I, with my long hair, manicured nails and back seam hose, must be heterosexual. I look like the girl next door, not someone who could be married to the girl next door.

My seat mate picks up his newspaper and turns from me with-out a word. I’ve had worse reactions. “But you’re too pretty to be a lesbian,” a man once protested. (I’ve also been told I’m “too pretty” to be a Jew.) Once a woman asked me if I’d been molested as a child. “I hear that’s what causes it,” she said. Another woman asked me if the sex was better, as if I would tell her.

Despite all this, I open my mouth time and time again. It’s not only a personal matter; I feel obliged to practice what I preach. I make my living as a political activist, traveling to colleges to speak about lesbian and gay rights. When I walk on stage in my three-inch heels, I can practically hear a collective gasp from my audience: She wrote Heather Has Two Mommies? I don’t know who these college students are expecting, but clearly it is not (dare I say it?) someone who looks like one of their mothers.

Sometimes, I admit, educating the masses does get a bit wearisome. For example, one Sunday afternoon when Mary and I are window-shopping, we step into a novelty store where Mary eyes a tiny Ouija board key chain.

“Wait outside for me,” I tell her, and when she leaves, I bring the trinket up to the counter.

A woman in front of me is buying a green sweater. “Do you think this is too young for my husband?” she asks the cashier.

The cashier pushes a lock of magenta hair out of her eyes. “No,” she answers, “unless your husband is, like, seventy-five.”

The woman hesitates, until I, the native New Yorker, feel compelled to jump in. “He’ll love it,” I tell her. “My husband’s in his fifties. Do you think this is too young for my husband?” I hold up the toy.

Everyone laughs, oblivious to my feelings of guilt. I know that I am being campy, referring to Mary as my “husband” in the same way gay men refer to each other as “Missy” or “girl” but since no one else is in on the joke, I have committed the ultimate crime: I have deliberately “passed.” I’d like to say the word, “husband” flew out of my mouth of its own accord. But it didn’t. I said it. Deliberately. So that for once in my life I could just be one of the crowd. Is that so terrible? Immediately I imagine my ancestors who risked their lives to light Sabbath candles during the Holocaust pairing up with the drag queens and lesbians who fought back at Stonewall, to point their fingers at me and chant: “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

“That’s nine-ninety-five.” The cashier rings up my order. I open my wallet, and the top part which has a picture of Mary in it flips back. Good, I think. Now they’ll know.

But the cashier looks right at the photo of my smiling Mary tipping her Fedora and asks, “Is that your husband?”

“Uh…I guess so,” I stammer.

“Oh, he’ll really enjoy this,” she says. “He looks like a lot of fun.”

I take my purchase outside to Mary and tell her the whole story.

“Let me see that picture,” she says. I open up my wallet and she looks at the photo. “Am I a handsome cuss or what?” She puts her arm around me and, laughing like the joke’s on the rest of the world instead of on us, we walk the long way home.

© 1999 Lesléa Newman