Because my childhood ambition was to play in the NFL, the furthest thing from my mind when I was young was what kind of wedding dress I might like to wear someday. While other girls were keeping up with fashion trends like over-sized pocket combs, velour shirts, and culottes, I was sure that my most stylish outfit was Toughskins jeans, a ratty T-shirt from a garage sale, and my New York Yankees wristbands. While they were passively playing with Barbies, I was playing Kill the Carrier with a pack of boys and slinging playmates to the ground by their necks. While they were squealing over David Cassidy and Leif Garrett, I was lighting up every time the impossibly cool Kristy McNichol appeared on the television screen.
So the day I found myself standing on a pedestal in the middle of a brightly-lit dressing room at the Kleinfeld bridal salon in Brooklyn, I felt like Scout Finch in a pair of overalls.
I was 26 and getting ready to marry my boyfriend, and I didn’t know a cap sleeve from a spaghetti strap or an empire waist from a chapel veil. What I did know was that I was now a lamb being brought to slaughter.
It would be 10 years before I would find my voice and realize that I had ignored dozens of obvious clues that I was gay. But for now, in the spring of 1995, I was relieved to finally get in step with my female peers. Though I always had friends and was never quite an outsider, I had always been keenly aware and mildly ashamed of the fact that I was not like other girls.
Somehow, when I was in my 20s, I had lucked out and found a great guy who enjoyed watching sports and drinking beer with me, and now I was going to have a full-blown wedding like all of my friends.
“You should go to Kleinfeld!” people had told me.
“What’s Kleinfeld?” I asked.
“It’s where everybody goes. It’s the best place to get a wedding dress!”
Actually, it’s not just where “everybody goes” – it is such a quintessential model of high-end bridal fashion that the cable channel TLC later decided to film a show there called Say Yes to the Dress. When you are a member of the Future Lesbians Club, it’s the best place to go if you are looking to feel as out of place as possible.
This over-the-top establishment, with its high ceilings, ornate chandeliers, and white carpets, is full of pushy, intense New York women with really long nails who can’t wait to tell you what you should be wearing. Many of the brides-to-be at Kleinfeld have been dreaming of coming to this salon for years; the only issue that has been holding them up was having to find a mate first.
“What are you lookin’ for, doll?” Regina, our bridal consultant, asked me.
“Well, I … I don’t like anything up around my neck, so I guess just nothing that’s like a turtleneck?”
Regina looked at my entourage, my mom, my sister, and our neighbor, and said, “Is she kidding?” Apparently, she hadn’t worked with too many brides nicknamed Sporty Spice. She seemed genuinely surprised that I did not already have an air-tight vision of what kind of dress I wanted.
Then she started to consult with my people to figure out what I might like.
A few minutes later, as I was led through a room lined with dozens of bejeweled gowns, it brought back memories of how I used to have heated debates with my mother every time I had to wear a (stupid) dress, and how I acted like a prisoner trudging along on a chain gang when I inevitably lost the argument and had to wear that dress to Sunday mass or a family holiday gathering. Now I was voluntarily walking through the vaults of a place that was the height of femininity.
After feeling mortified for an hour as I was helped in and out of each dress I tried on (I never grew accustomed to Regina rearranging any body part she thought was out of place), I selected a silk shantung gown that had a long train and weighed approximately 700 pounds. Scarlett O’Hara would have been proud.
When I went back for the final fitting several weeks later, the seamstress cinched up the corset they had made for me. It was modeled after an instrument of torture from the 1800s, with lots of rods and clasps. I could barely breathe.
I was 125 pounds and didn’t need a garment that restricted my organs. What I should have said was, “Absolutely not. Sew a couple of tube socks in the chest and we’re done!”
But I didn’t say anything, and consequently, I spent my entire wedding day feeling as if I were in an iron lung. Bonus: it was over 100 degrees out.
I did manage to march down the aisle in a rather masculine fashion, keeping my steps wide in an effort to handle my high heels, pointing my flowers at friends and saying things like, “What’s up?” and “Hey!”
Turns out that what Betty White said in the Gingey sketch on Saturday Night Live was accurate: “You can put that lesbian in any kind of dress you want, and you know what you’re going to end up with? A lesbian!”
So although the marriage got off to a good start, everything changed five years later when I fell head over heels in love with a woman. The interest was not mutual and nothing came of it beyond a few Ani DiFranco concerts and long dinners. But it started me down the path of examining my choices, and eventually I came to the conclusion that wanting to fit in was not going to keep me going for the next 40 years.
I realized that I would need to risk losing the approval of my parents and my friends and leave the safety of a loving relationship with a very good man to forge my own path and become fully myself.