La Shaguita Comes Out
It was springtime in San Francisco, and I was finally finished with men. I was nearly 27, young compared to many others, yet I had still missed those formative, post-pubescent years of love-making and courtship that everyone around me seemed to have had. At times I had convinced myself that I was asexual, and for years I wondered if romantic love was just a mental illness or a figment of everyone else's imagination. But suddenly something woke up inside of me, and my turbulent attempt at straightness came to an end.
I remember going out for drinks with the last man I ever dated. It was a crisp San Francisco evening and we started by walking up Kite Hill, which ironically is located in the very gay Castro District. A queer feeling came over me that evening as we overlooked the lights from the hill and then proceeded to have wine on Castro Street itself. I don't know why I felt it so strongly that particular night. I just know that this time, I actually listened.
"I feel like a lesbian," I thought to myself.
That was when I decided to finally go for the ladies.
It's amazing how quickly change can happen once you decide you want it. After years of never meeting a woman I'd have a chance with, I suddenly met a fellow lady lover who stole my heart in a second. It was karaoke night at a queer-friendly bar called El Río. She was a friend of a friend, and somebody happened to tell me she was a lesbian. We made eye contact as I sang "Unbreak my Heart" by Toni Braxton without realizing how soon those words would reflect the state of my soul.
I was too enamored to heed to my friends' warnings that we had nothing in common, that she needed more time to get over her past relationship, that what was happening between us had red flags all over it. None of that mattered.
My life was now poetry, and that made the torture worth it.
I was so excited to be a liberated lesbian that I may as well have purchased a megaphone to shout it to the world. I came out to everyone I knew within about a week of realizing I had fallen in love. I suddenly understood why people decide to get married, write love poetry and sing songs about love. A whole other level of the human experience made sense to me in a way it never had before. And the most beautiful part was that the love was so all-consuming that I felt like I shared a bit of it, in a platonic way, with everyone I came across.
In a matter of months, she was ready to move on. I didn't want to accept it. We had seen the love of the entire universe in each other's eyes, or so my hormones made me think, and I didn’t understand how she could walk away from it all so coldly. It didn't occur to me that the love could have only been one-sided, or that our absolute lack of common interests and values were not the basis for a solid relationship.
When it was over I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Her apartment, once a source of my most intimate joy and turmoil, was in between the metro station and my apartment. There was no way to avoid the area on my way home from work. This meant that every day I walked past the bar where I had my first lesbian kiss, the restaurant where she showed me that there’s no reason to eat macaroni and cow cheese when you can eat macaroni with goat cheese (I’ve since become a vegan except when I’m in Switzerland), the karaoke spot where I had sung “Unbreak My Heart” that fateful night of spring.
I was taking flamenco classes at the time, and it occurred to me that maybe I should move to Spain, study flamenco, and become a lesbian podcast superstar from abroad. I had already recorded the first episode of my brand new podcast. It was called “How to Survive a Lesbian Breakup,” something I still wasn’t sure I would be able to do. Ironically, most of the episode was recorded in my closet, the quietest and most solitary part of my apartment.
Nobody believed me when I started announcing I was leaving, and I scarcely believed it myself. Yet months later, I was all by myself in the southern Spanish city of Seville. When I left I had no idea if I’d have enough work to sustain me, but luckily I’ve been able to support myself through freelance translations and voiceover jobs.
I know it sounds like a dream, but the transition was rough. I went from having a solid friend base to zero friends in a place I couldn't quite bring myself to love, despite the incredible privilege I had to live on my own in such a beautiful city. Panic attacks and a general sense of doom became a part of my daily routine. I wasn't sure if I had made the right decision, but I was determined to create a new life for myself. I was also really excited to meet some new babes.
Navigating the girl scene in Seville isn’t hard to do because there almost isn’t one, at least on the surface. I feel like this is the case in most medium-sized or even larger cities in the places I've traveled - the lesbian scene is nearly invisible until you find your way into it. There’s an LGBTQ-friendly part of town called the Alameda, which has a few male-heavy gay bars in it. There’s tinder, and a few lesbian dating apps. The lesbian bar I went to when I first got there closed down a few months later. I had a couple flings with girls I would never want to be in a relationship with. Both of them involved me doing awkward things like crying in the bedroom, convinced I would never again make true love.
With Seville as my base I decided to take my podcast to the road. I wanted to document what lesbian living and loving is like in different countries around Europe. A whole new world was soon to emerge for me. I realized that when I travel as a lesbian, I can make acquaintances and friends fairly easily by going to the local lesbian bar(s) or parties. This requires a certain level of coordination considering that there is not always a bar, and parties tend to happen only at certain times of the month. Despite the complications, I’ve ended up meeting loads of lady-loving-ladies while traveling, many of whom have become impromptu travel guides who tell me about their lives and show me their favorite parts of town. It’s a pretty sweet deal, and I hope to return them the favor someday.
I should note that I’m generally femme-presenting although at times I can go a bit andro. I’m rarely seen as a lesbian to the unknowing eye. This reality, along with the whiteness of my skin, has affected my travel experience in multiple blatant and less-blatant ways, including that I may be safer than others when exploring areas with questionable records of homophobia, xenophobia and racism.
I’ve noticed certain similarities for lesbians in the different countries I’ve visited. For example, everywhere I’ve gone, lesbian women or bisexual women with female partners have told me that they only feel comfortable showing physical affection to their loves in certain parts of town. Lyon, once voted the “gayest city in France,” is no exception to this phenomenon. There are lots of LGBTQI-friendly events and bars, including the only remaining lesbian dance club in the country. But even in the city center I witnessed first-hand when a new acquaintance was called “the devil” by a passerby, who told her that if she wasn’t with her friends he would have beaten her up. She was the only butch girl in a group of femmes who, unknown to the stranger in the street, were also lesbians.
Warsaw, Poland was a far more accepting city than I had imagined, although influence from the Catholic Church and right-wing groups is still extremely strong. I arrived right on time for the yearly LGBT Film Festival and was able to make acquaintances my first day in town. Several ladies told me to avoid showing affection to my (non-existent) lover in a certain part of town called Praga, which has historically been rife with crime and alcoholism, but is slowly gentrifying like cities across the globe.
I was told the city center of Warsaw is generally accepting for women, although it is very rare to see gay men showing affection. Nonetheless, someone mentioned that a man unleashed his dogs when she was holding her girlfriend’s hand in public in an area she thought was relatively safe. Fortunately the dog was nicer than its owner and didn’t go through with the attack. The offices of two of Warsaw’s LGBTQ organizations, Lambda Warszawa and Campaign Against Homophobia, have been vandalized multiple times this year alone. But there is also a powerful counter-current to this injustice, as well as a thriving lesbian and gay scene.
No city is immune to situations similar to the ones I’ve noted above, not even cities famed for their openness like San Francisco, London or New York. Once in a restaurant in London, for example, a man started shamelessly taking pictures of me and the girl I was dating. We were close enough for it to be clear that we were a couple, but we weren’t showing extreme amounts of affection. That being said, London has one of the best lesbian party scenes I’ve ever experienced.
When I first fled from the closet, I only had vague suspicions that my newfound lesbianism would bring me around the world as the host of a lesbian podcast. I’ve always been a traveler at heart, and being single can help with this. Living on the road has become my norm. I’ve spent my summer in Switzerland, I’m heading back to Spain soon, and I plan to cover lesbian rights and visibility in more Eastern European countries during the spring.
Coming out in my late 20s was like living a second adolescence, with all its glorious ups and melodramatic lows. For the most part I’ve been single since then, but my time on the road has certainly helped me put things into perspective. If I do fall in love again, I’d like to think it would take more than two weeks to happen. I’ve learned to be more selective about the behaviors and personalities I’m willing to accept in a relationship. I’ve learned to respect myself as an independent, traveling woman who so far has had the privilege of creating the life I want. And I’ve had the honor of meeting many women around Europe and the Bay Area who share their time, concerns and realities with me and my listeners.