Every spring I clean out my closet. I open the windows and enjoy a whiff of lilac, pack up suits I no longer wear, and pile up winter sweaters to take to the cleaners. Each year, I come upon the same blue taffeta dress. Holding it in the light, I check out the faded sash, determine if the washed out tones have gained on the original teal, and carefully return it to the section I term ‘evening wear’. With its cinched waist and plunging neckline, the dress no longer fits, and I doubt I will ever wear it again. Nonetheless, it stays.
In 1991, I was living in Washington, DC, and about to attend my first dance. Sort of. I had been to dances before, but they had been years earlier, high school ‘mixers’ with the boys’ school nearby. The pretty, popular girls coupled with their beaus, while the rest of us held up the walls, whispering with our girlfriends and trying not to look jealous.
I didn’t attend any dances after that. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to dance. But at 18, I decided I wanted to be a nun, and renouncing my dance shoes was something of a prerequisite. After twenty years as a Sister, however, I was facing down my fortieth birthday and feeling terribly unsettled. My entire adult life had been shaped by my Irish-Scot family and Catholicism. I was desperate to figure out who I was without the guard rails. I took a leave of absence and found a place to house-sit. Shortly after, I picked up a copy of The Washington Blade, D.C.’s gay newspaper, and saw a monthly lesbian dance advertised. I was all in.
For some reason, this dance became a marker, my debut into a world that was completely foreign to me. As the importance of the event escalated in my mind, I became obsessed about what to wear. As a Sister, I had worn a habit for much of the time. Black or cream depending on the season, skirt hitting mid-calf, with an abbreviated veil that showed just a few tufts of hair. In the 80’s, my order’s rules changed, and we were permitted to wear ‘secular’ clothes. My closet’s palette expanded to include a range of beige, gray, white, and the occasional navy blue. We weren’t required to limit our options, but I was pragmatic. At $50 a month for clothes, toiletries, and other odds and ends, matching colours was a must.
But now that I was out of the convent, I wanted to be ‘in’ in the worst way. To make an impression. A statement: Look! I have arrived! I decided to confer with my gay friends Brad and Tim. They would know exactly what to wear.
On a visit to their Vermont home, I filled them in on the details. The dance was to be held at the Post Office Pavilion, an elegant eighteenth-century architectural wonder on Pennsylvania Avenue. Very classy, I told them. Brad and Tim sprang into action. Go vintage. Wear something provocative and daring. A forties-style dress would be perfect. Perhaps a hat and gloves to complete the look. I was hesitant at first. I wanted to make my mark, but wasn’t this a bit over the top? Not at all, they assured me. In big cities like New York, and surely, Washington, D.C., this kind of splash was the norm. So off we went to a vintage clothing store in Burlington.
Brad selected the first option: a bright red chiffon frock, full length, fitted, with a frilly neckline.
‘Sexy,’ he suggested, giving me a knowing look. I ignored him and kept digging.
After rooting through the assortment, offering pros and cons for each outfit, we discovered the perfect dress: a lovely mid-calf blue taffeta gown. Simple. Elegant. Understated, I thought to myself. It fit perfectly, and as luck would have it, we found a small hat, same blue tones, complete with a forehead net. All I needed were long gloves, and I was ready to meet my new sisters.
The big evening arrived, and I launched into the finishing touches. Makeup first. I had experienced a few makeup disasters since I had left the convent, so I decided to keep this simple. Ruby Red lipstick and a touch of blush. The taffeta dress slipped on easily, and as I looked at myself in the full length mirror, I was elated, even a bit astonished, at the image I beheld. What a transformation! Six months earlier, still a Sister, I could never have imagined myself here, at the cusp of a whole new life. My debut. Finally! Everything pointed to a highly successful inaugural lesbian outing.
I parked the car and headed toward the Post Office Pavilion. Pulling open the tall heavy doors, I stood at the top of the steps and looked down into splendid hall, teeming with women. At first what struck me were the sounds — chatter and laughter, the occasional squeal of recognition. But as my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, a knot hit me hard in the pit of my stomach. There I stood, in my blue taffeta dress, perky hat, and long white gloves, peering out at three hundred women in tees and Oxford shirts, Bermuda shorts and jeans.
My face felt hot. The red crept all the way up to the little blue cap.
I backed slowly out of the door, trying not to draw attention to myself, and paced back and forth on Pennsylvania Avenue as I weighed my options.
How could I have gotten this so wrong? I never should have listened to Brad and Tim, I chided myself. They were from Vermont, for God’s sake. They knew nothing of the urban lesbian scene. I had blown it: my big moment, my chance to cross that threshold, the one I both dreaded and craved. The D.C. lesbian scene wasn’t all that big. People know people and they talk. I would forever be tagged as the crazy girl who wore blue taffeta to a First Friday lesbian dance. I would be a laughing stock. Or even worse, completely sidelined.
But it was too late to change course. I couldn’t bear the thought of calling it a night or switching clothes and coming back in my own version of the lesbian dance uniform. Life experiences had taught me to put on a happy face and muddle through uncomfortable situations, so I reentered the building with all the feigned confidence I could muster. I saw a few stares and some whispering women at the bar, but I walked straight ahead, acting like my outfit was perfectly normal for the occasion.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a short, lively looking blonde woman who appeared to be in her early thirties, walking toward me with a bright smile. I moved out of her way to open a path, assuming she was headed toward one of the women in khakis behind me. To my utter amazement, she stopped in front of me.
‘Quite an outfit,’ she said with a wink.
I decided to skip the long-winded story about my ill-fated fashion choice. ‘Thanks,’ I answered sheepishly. From there, I discovered that her name was Michelle and she was one of the founding members of the social group that planned the event.
‘We all love our dive bars with pool tables,’ Michelle explained, ‘but this occasion was meant to offer an alternative. Something that would attract a broader audience….’ She trailed off and smiled a little. Was she implying what I thought she was? ‘People like you,’ she concluded.
The rest of the night was something of a fabulous blur. No side glances or eye rolls, at least none that I could see. I remember at one point taking off my Queen Anne pumps so I could twist and twirl with abandon. No longer the high school wallflower lurking at the edges of the action. No longer the Sister covered up in a habit or nondescript skirt and blouse wondering what life outside would be like.
In that moment, I knew I could fit here, even in my zany blue taffeta. Not in spite of it. Because of it. This was ‘life outside’. This array of women in plaids and paisleys, denim and khakis, this collection of lesbians of all sizes and shapes, ages and colors, butches and femmes — they were all familiar with living on the margins. And tonight, they generously welcomed a newcomer, no matter what her ‘margin’ looked like. Even if it included a blue taffeta dress.
Their message to me that night: Coming out? Come in. You have a place here.
Patricia Dwyer is a writer and university professor living in Baltimore, Maryland, with her spouse, Connie, and their two dogs. She relies on her Irish Catholic upbringing, her 20 years as a Catholic nun, and her decision to leave the convent and come out as a lesbian, to chronicle some of her most poignant, humorous, and revealing memories and insights. Her reflections explore family relationships and secrets, self-knowledge and regret, the spiritual and the earthbound. She has published in Narratively, LitHub, The Baltimore Sun, and Next Avenue. You can find out more about Patricia on her website, Facebook and Instagram.