"She's a mess," my friend said, referring to his boyfriend. We were at a holiday party in 1993. My friend's boyfriend had taken a few too many trips to the punch bowl and was now camping out under the mistletoe.
I laughed, but only as a courtesy. Inside I cringed -- but not at the behavior of his boyfriend. After all, I was only one spiked eggnog away from shoving him out of the way and singing a few verses of "Santa Baby." I was reacting to the pronoun my friend had used.
I was 19 and freshly out. It was the early '90s in Sacramento, Calif., so being out was kind of a big deal. I was proud of myself for being honest with everyone at such an early age. I was the youngest out gay person I knew, and I didn't know that many. I felt like I was helping break new ground.
But I couldn't get into this "she" thing. The few other gay guys I knew referred to each other in the same way: "Oh, she's a mess," or, "Oh, no she didn't!" Everything was "hers" and "that girl better get with it." I hated it.
I suppose that, in a way, my attitude was mildly misogynistic. Feeling like my masculinity was challenged beyond what nature had intended was somehow a fate worse than gay. I never thought I'd be that kind of homosexual.
I went on like this for several years, throughout my 20s, silently judging many of my friends and always making sure to keep my pronouns straight (so to speak).
And then I moved to New York City. And it was no longer the '90s. And practically everyone I knew was gay.
I don't know exactly what changed in me. Maybe it was the feeling that I wasn't so special, so groundbreaking, anymore. Or maybe it was when I learned about that old cult film Paris Is Burning. I mean, I learned about it from watching RuPaul's Drag Race, but still. Or maybe it was when I visited the Stonewall Inn for the first time. Sure, I was drinking a Cosmo (OK, several Cosmos) at a filthy dive bar, but I began to realize that "gay" wasn't just something I was. Gay was a subculture all its own. Gay had its own language, its own vocabulary, its own grammatical rules. Who was I to go against this?
I began to try to embrace this pronoun-swapping practice. I let go of my pride and went with it. I was out with friends one night, in the depths of the East Village, at the birthday party of a good friend who had invited too many people, all of whom wanted to buy him a shot. I turned to his boyfriend, took a breath, and said it: "Wow. That girl is a mess."
It was a rush, just like the one I experienced when I cussed for the first time during my freshman year of high school. I had called my friend a "bitch" because she had eaten my last Everlasting Gobstopper. It had barely come out as a whisper, but it brought a thrilling flutter to my chest -- the same flutter that my first "girl" utterance brought about. And he just laughed and nodded in agreement. I was suddenly, finally, speaking Gay.
Don't get me wrong. Doing so has taken practice, and I continue to move toward fluency. It reminds me of being in high-school Spanish class all over again, trying to figure out whether the word is masculine or feminine. But this time it's all feminine.
The Queens' English has become such a part of my vernacular that I even have straight male friends trying to jump on the bandwagon.
"Hey, girl!" I call to my friend Justin when I see him. His uniform is denim shorts, some sort of sports jersey, and a Yankees baseball cap.
"Hey, girl!" he replies with a quick flip of his head.
Justin is not even remotely gay, so this exchange may seem hard to believe. And no, he's not one of those "gay bros" that are so common these days. He's just comfortable with his heterosexuality. And so are the several girls he's been with since I've known him. (Actual girls. Not "girls." This is where it gets confusing.)
At this point I will admit that my eagerness to embrace this practice has gotten way out of hand. Everyone is "she" or "her." The word "girl" has come to permeate my vocabulary. It can mean anything from, "Hello, I haven't seen you in a while," to, "I cannot believe he did that," "Are you sure about that?" to, "I'm so intoxicated that I can't even hail a cab. Can you please assist me?"
However, I have to remember not to indulge this linguistic habit when I'm talking to certain people on the phone. Like my father. But honestly, at some point, she's gonna have to get over it.