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Set loose on summer vacation and still jubilant over the Supreme Court ruling on gay sex, my girlfriend and I headed to Santa Cruz, California, the lost-in-time hippie and surfer town where my parents live. Santa Cruz is a peace-and-love community highly tolerant of gay folks, activists, street performers and pierced youth. Go shopping barefoot with beach sand encrusting your tanned legs all the way up to the knees, and you’ll never, ever see a bureaucrat in a suit or anyone bearing a briefcase. Washington feels blessedly far away.
My parents, gay-positive since I came out to them in 1980, and my circle of lesbian and bisexual relatives make this vacation spot a haven of recreation and acceptance. There’s a strand of machismo in the surprisingly aggressive surfer code — get out of my wave, man! — but very few hate crimes. Down on the beach boardwalk the old 1960s counterculture lives on in the form of free summer concerts every Friday night, featuring the remnants of beloved bands: Jefferson Starship, Rare Earth, Iron Butterfly.
Dancing at the foot of the stage, with original Starship artists Paul Kantner and Marty Balin belting out “Miracles,” the song my best friend and I scrawled on our journals in ninth grade, I never felt better in my life as my 1960s youth and my adult lesbian identity are welcomed and affirmed in a California sunset. I even took my visiting girlfriend aside to point out the decrepit “Haunted House” ride where, at 16, I saw my first lesbian couple.
I stood silently recalling what it was like on that day in summer 1978 to see two women holding hands in public: No images of gay women existed on TV, aside from the heartwrenching movie-of-the-week A Question of Love, about two lesbian moms who lose custody of their children. In movie theatres, the regrettable film A Different Story cast otherwise dreamy Perry King and Meg Foster as a gay man and a lesbian who abandoned their lovers and married each other. I’d read about lesbians in every book I could find and every magazine I could order, all of which arrived in a plain brown wrapper sent to my home. As a schoolgirl with no car I’d never mingled with grown-up dykes and only knew what they looked like from black and white photos in MS. magazine.
But on that beach day in 1978 I saw two women in jean jackets who clearly were a couple. And — most terrifying — they saw me. The open stare of curious wonder I directed towards them was received, and returned, with friendly acknowledgement. I recognized them, and they in turn recognized me as a budding young homo. That confirmation in a very public place gave me plenty to think about as I prepared to enter my senior year of high school.
Now here I was in 2003, soaking up the ambiance of belonging and joy, a hot girlfriend on my arm and all well in the world, even the Supreme Court to boot. How dismaying, then, to drive back to my parents’ house from this beach date and encounter at a stoplight a deranged young bicyclist who screamed at my lover, “Go fuck yourself, you ugly fucking dyke!”
Whoa! Hate speech in Santa Cruz? Mean-spirited catcalls directed at my most beautiful and loving partner? Weren’t we on vacation from homophobia? Apparently not. It didn’t matter that he was clearly unwell and that in a large Subaru station wagon we could have cleaned him right off that Schwinn, had we been vindictive types. No, a lifetime of conditioning tightened my hands on the wheel and I raced away in fear –the old reminder to run from threatening straight guys guiding my reflexes.
On other occasions, in other places, I’ve been bolder: Exiting a dyke bar in Cincinnati once, I found sullen punk teens seated on my car hood, challenging me “Are you a lez?” In a burst of risk-taking, I answered cheerfully “Why, sure! What do you want to know?” and they fled in all directions. Perhaps one is always more savvy in urban environments, which demand caution and preparedness. I didn’t expect catcalls in Santa Cruz, and thus lost my customary cool.
There’s no moral to this postcard from the edge, except that even the burgeoning Bay Area isn’t immune from hurtful ambiance, the gay-baiting treading just below the surface. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a vacation from homophobia altogether? Oh, we find that time in our bars and fests and parties, and in our own homes. But a town without name-calling: Now, there’s the dream vacation. Which town will it be?
Bonnie Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.