I’ve always been a tomboy, but I wasn’t a totally butch little girl. I happily played with dolls, and rainy childhood afternoons found Ken and Barbie on a romantic island beach that doubled as the base of a hanging birdcage, arising from a sea of blue carpet.
When my sister and I played with the bendy plastic duo, she would “be” Ken and I would “be” Barbie. Ken’s mission was to get Barbie to swim out to join him on Birdcage Beach for a little smoochie-smoochie action, using moves worthy of an Elvis film – my sister’s favourite male film star, next to John Wayne. Although I was happy to briefly express my inner girly while dressing Barbie up, I didn’t really care about clothes and fashion all that much. I was more interested in getting Barbie into an adventure – but not necessarily romantic interludes on Birdcage Beach, as I was a little too young to appreciate sister’s “Elvis Imitation with Ken Doll” performance. Barbie would come over all stroppy and head butt Ken, which would cause the birdcage occupant to screech and flap frantically from perch to perch, showering feathers and seeds on our heads. This would be Barbie’s cue to start an investigation, ala Scooby-doo and the gang, to find out where the ghostly feathers were coming from. At this point sis would stomp off, taking Ken with her. “I’m not playing with you anymore!”
Three and a half years between sisters looms large when you’re little. My dear big sister was misty-eyed over Barbie (and Barbara Streisand, Catwoman and Emma Peel) but I wanted to climb trees and chase ghosts. We played and fought and played together some more, at least until I followed on to school where I promptly became the annoying little sister who was to be avoided at all costs. As we headed into our teenage years and Ken and Barbie sat retired on a shelf, we rarely saw eye to eye. Our mother had ways of encouraging a rift between us and we weren’t close at all.
One rainy afternoon in my late teens I found myself waiting for my sister outside a shop, rifling through her glove compartment as any self-respecting, stroppy younger sister would do. Buried under some papers I found a book, “Loving Someone Gay” and was reading it when she came back to the car. She slammed the car door and freaked out – in hindsight she was obviously terrified I would understand the book’s implications.
After reaming me out for being nosy brat and demanding an apology, she gripped the steering wheel tightly and said, “And?”
“And what?” I snapped, thinking she wanted a more elaborate apology.
She hesitated, white-knuckled on the wheel, eyes glued to the parking lot. “What do you think?”
“What do I… oh, the book… ah, right, what do I think about you being gay?” ~shrug~ “If you’re happy, I’m happy. I always knew anyway.”
Silence. Eventually, she turned and stared. “What? You knew??? But you never said!” More silence. In a hoarse voice, she whispered, “You never told mom!” I politely reminded her to close her mouth and hadn’t we better get on our way?
We both knew I was the family scapegoat and she couldn’t believe I never used what I knew against her; the subject of her sexuality would have been perfect to take the heat off me. Our mother was racist, homophobic, hated men, and thought most women were gold-digging whores - she didn’t like people in general. My sister was her one and only Bright Hope for The Future. I was constantly admonished to “be more like my sister” and branded ‘boy-crazy’ for my healthy interest in boys while for all appearances, my sister was Little Miss Virtue in her exclusive friendships with other young women. Hell, if mom only knew! But I never said a word and it never occurred to me to use it against her. It would have been like using the colour of her hair against her. In one instant in a rainy parking lot, my sister saw me through new eyes. As I explained how I “knew” since the days of Birdcage Island, she started to understand I wasn’t the horror my mother made me out to be. We became friends on that rainy day so reminiscent of days spend playing with dolls.
I look back on those childhood days and I marvel at the innocent wisdom of children. I knew, without knowing I knew, that my sister felt about women and girls the way I tended to feel about men and boys. It was the most natural thing in the world to me, an integral part of her life and character that I never thought to question. As kids, we conformed to society to the extent that our dolls were male and female, but that was mere convenience, social shorthand perhaps. Ken represented a person who wanted to date Barbie, and that person happened to be my sister. My sister didn’t take on the male role so much as she poured her femininity into Ken… and meanwhile, I made one butch Barbie. We didn’t question it; we were just following our hearts. It was not gay or straight or in-between, it was simply different perspectives, different tastes and preferences. We weren’t consciously aware of this; we were kids living in the moment and being ourselves.
I remember being shocked when I discovered that according to many, there was something wrong with my sister because of who she was born to love. It amazed me that anyone could believe there was one set way to form a loving relationship. It totally freaked me out that anyone would insist another person be denied a fundamental part of who they are. The forcing of this social construct breaks spirits and ruins lives, everyday, all around the world. I never have figured it out to this day. It seems to me to be as natural as breathing that some women love women, some men love men and some people love both. Why not?
It was horrific when mom finally did find out that my sister loves women. “You little queer” she’d snarl. “Your sister’s a pervert and you’re a boy-crazy little hussy” she’d say, as though she were imparting motherly wisdom. I can’t quite remember how it all came out or even when, exactly, as I was having my own teen troubles in those days, but I do remember the knock-down, drag-out fights and the terrible things mom said to her. Mom eventually came round to an extent; although it was clear to me it was only because she clung to the hope that it was a passing phase.
At least once a week she’d ask, “Do you think your sister might meet a rich man one day and settle down?”
“Mom, only if that man is a woman” I’d reply. That would be her cue to launch into a tirade about whatever was bugging her about me that particular day. ~sigh~
I eventually followed my sister on to Kent State University, where I opted to share an apartment with her and her lover. They were having problems so I only stayed there until I’d made some friends of my own and moved into another off-campus house. We stayed close though; I joined Kent Gay/Lesbian Foundation with her, and she took me out drinking to her favourite gay bars. After a few years, our lives began to drift apart; she moved away from Kent and I eventually moved to New York City. The last time I saw her was when she drove from Ohio to Upstate New York to visit with me, my husband and daughter one last time before we moved to the UK.
We stayed in sporadic contact across the ocean. As our mother aged, she grew more and more bitter and the buried homophobia began to raise its ugly head again. She began using on my sister the emotional blackmail techniques she’d honed on me. My sister grew increasingly resentful that I’d left the country, leaving her with sole responsibility of our mom, as she saw it. Suddenly I was the Golden Child as distance enabled my mother to see me through rose-tinted glasses and my sister was left behind to take all the bile mother had to dish out.
It’s been over ten years now since I talked to my sister. Thankfully, our last telephone conversation was a friendly one, but she’d been recently disowned by our mother and she soon thereafter disappeared. Our mother doesn’t know and doesn’t care where she is and our (much older and also disowned) brother can’t be bothered to look. I’ve tried to find her again and again on the internet, but with a last name like Smith, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. I’ve had a bit of help from a friend, but all leads have been dead-ends. She taught me a lot about life and love and I'd like to thank her – in person - some day. Her niece and I miss her.