Nobody Said the Word

Nov 1, 2018 | 2018 Fall - Pop Culture, Articles

By Anna Schmidt

I was in my late 20s when the film Henry and June came out. I watched it for the first time on New Year’s Eve—part of an evening of pre-Netflix-era rented videos served up with drinks and appetizers—just me and my husband and two single friends. It was still the happily-married phase of our marriage. We were into renting edgy movies then—and I think my husband prided himself on having chosen the evening’s selections for their shock value. Henry and June was not the edgiest film we watched that night, or the most shocking. (It had stiff competition in Peter Greenaway’s romp into erotic cannibalism in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. All puns intended.)

But it was Henry and June that had the biggest impact on me. I watched it for a second time the next day before returning the rental. And thus began a long obsession with Anais Nin. I hunted up her diaries and read them voraciously. I found in her words expressions of things in myself I found inexpressible. I discovered her erotica, and it became possible to imagine sexuality in much more complex ways than anything I had grown up understanding. For a brief period, I even affected a “look” that was reminiscent of photos of Nin as a young woman.

But, as fascinated as I was by Nin’s fluidity of affections, I was still a long way from understanding the root of this fascination. Nonetheless, I found myself seeking out and resonating with other portrayals of women loving women—not so much in popular culture (because they still weren’t really there to be found), but rather subtly tucked away in the literary writing of the likes of Virginia Wolf, Jane Rule, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich and Jeanette Winterson. I also found them in the not-so-mainstream music of the Indigo Girls and Australian folk singer Judy Small.

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (1)

At the same time, I didn’t really “get” what any of it had to do with me beyond a vague curiosity. Time went by, and I was still married—still, for the most part, happily. We had kids and cats and goldfish. We had a mortgage. We would have had a white picket fence, but the previous owners had already installed chain link. And so, on I went, more or less happily chained inside my predictably heteronormative life, while reading myself to sleep at night with lesbian love stories and no clear understanding of what about them interested me so much. Even when I felt an occasional twinge of attraction to an actual woman in my life, I approached it with the same detached curiosity with which I approached my cultural interests. Because, I reasoned, I was still attracted to men, so must therefore be straight.

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

When my daughter came out at 14, I was ready to be the cool mom. The mom who understands. The mom who volunteers to take her kid to her first pride march and walks along with her. I saw myself as a great ally. Meanwhile, at my workplace, the opportunity arose to take LGBTQ awareness training. I jumped at it. At the first session I introduced myself as an ally and said I was there because I wanted to make our workplace safe and welcoming for people like my daughter (translation: for people other than me).

I didn’t say that I had recently found myself deeply attracted to a woman I had known for many years. I didn’t say that after decades of denial I was beginning to question a lot of the assumptions I had always made about my sexuality. I didn’t say I was beginning to wonder if I might be bisexual. Because I had never learned how to say those things. But then the instructor started talking. He went through the alphabet soup of LGBTQ vocabulary term by term, and when he came to the “B” he flashed Kinsey’s scale up on the screen. He talked about sexual orientation as a continuum. He talked about fluidity, about how we might find ourselves at different places on a spectrum at different points in our lives. He explained what bisexuality was, and what it wasn’t, and he gave words to the wordless thoughts and feelings that had swirled in my head and heart for so long.

It took a few more months for me to be able to say the word myself, about myself, out loud to other people. But now every time I say the word out loud it feels a tiny bit less like stepping off a cliff.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

I wonder how different my life would be today if the writers of the stories I read and the movies I watched and the songs I listened to as a young woman had actually said the word. If representations of my sexuality had not been relegated to the shadows and the margins, even within the growing mainstream representations of gay and lesbian sexualities. I grew up in an era when, although it became increasingly easy to see diversity of sexual orientation reflected in popular culture, it was still predominantly an either-or representation. You were gay or you were straight; everything else was deemed confusion. For the record, I’m a whole lot less confused now than I was all those years I believed I was straight.

“My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to find peace with exactly who and what I am. To take pride in my thoughts, my appearance, my talents, my flaws and to stop this incessant worrying that I can’t be loved as I am.”

Popular culture has only just recently started to say the word “bisexual.” Recently enough, that it is still an event whenever it happens. My dream is that we say the word often enough, and make it ordinary enough that future generations will not have to wait until their hair is grey to see themselves reflected in the stories that surround them.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

(1) All quotes in italics are from the works of Anais Nin. Source:

Anna is a Canadian adult educator in Winnipeg, Manitoba—a friendly, vibrant city that is the object of a lot of mean jokes, most of which are terribly unfair. Except the ones about how cold it gets in winter. Those are all based in truth, but she loves her city just the same.

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