The first lesbian I ever met was my sister’s friend, Gwen. Gwen was an older black woman, I think older than my sister. I came to know of her whenever I was around 10 or 11 If I remember correctly. The term “lesbian” loomed above her like a neon sign. My memories of her are like this, her towering and me looking up at her, though I don’t think Gwen was an exceptionally tall woman. She was, however, different from the other adults I knew because all of the adults around me were straight. Lesbianism gave Gwen a sort of supernatural power in my young mind: she was able to transcend the wants and desires of men. By that age, I was already experiencing men making comments about my budding body. If they weren’t openly commenting, they were leering. I once went to a doctor’s office to get a CAT scan at 10 years old; when I took off my bra, a male doctor that was passing by did a double-take at my exposed chest.
These experiences made me feel more adult than I truly was. I didn’t feel too young to know about Gwen’s lesbianism, because I was already grappling with my own. Back in those days, there was MTV and music video channels on loop in my house. These channels often featured videos with video vixens in them: Black and Brown women in next to nothing dancing around rappers and R&B stars. I was conscious of how I looked at those women, how their bodies made my own react. My heart raised, my eyes lingered on their curves, I licked my lips and turned away to make sure no one noticed me as I did so. By 10, I knew I liked girls. I had already admitted it to myself, but hadn’t made the step to announce it to the world. Gwen stood out in my life in those early years. I wondered if she could tell I was like her. When I hung out with my sister and her boyfriends, I often hoped Gwen would suddenly appear. She didn’t have the burgeoning swagger of other Black lesbians I have come to know; she was calm and unassuming, wore glasses and her hair in a clean bob.
As I got older I lost my connection to my sister and subsequently to Gwen. I thought about her often as the first lesbian I ever knew, especially when I finally came out myself. I remember wishing I had the guidance of someone like her during those years. It wasn’t uncommon for me, a child, to spend a lot of time with adults. I spent time being a substitute therapist for my mother, I babysat for parents that were often a little too comfortable with sharing things about their lives with me; I was told I was very mature for my age from the time I was in my single digits. Hanging out with older people came naturally to me; I was on their level emotionally and socially, or so I thought.
I kind of wish I still had a relationship with Gwen. I tried looking her up on Facebook and Instagram to no avail; I only know her first name and that she is my sister’s friend. At 28, I do have relationships with older lesbians that I credit for being part of the source of my pride for being a lesbian. I’ve been told by some of them, women in their 40s and 50s, that they didn’t have the option to be out and proud when they were my age. Or, if they were out, it was not as safe as it is for me. These relationships are wildly important to me, and I cherish them greatly.
When I was around 21, I met Kim. Kim was 43 at the time. We met in a dimly lit bar in my city that was primarily populated by gay men. She was alone, I was with friends, and I was immediately drawn to her. In those days, I was very interested in getting different women in my bed, especially ones that seemed unattainable for a variety of reasons. When I did eventually approach Kim, I learned that she was recently divorced from her ex-wife and that the split had deeply hurt her. I asked for her phone number and we began an emotional relationship for a number of weeks.
I wanted more than anything for the relationship to be physical, but more often than not, Kim and I would spend our nights talking about how much her divorce hurt her. I learned of the ex-wife’s sudden distance and aloofness in the marriage, followed by the reveal of her infidelity. Kim was heartbroken, and a voice in my head told me she was too heartbroken to give me what I wanted — a passionate love affair with an older woman — but I continued my relationship with her until Pride that year.
The night I met Kim, the friends I was with were very adamant that I leave her alone. Not because they had better judgment than me, but because they were grossed out by my interest in a woman over the age of 25. In the car ride back to our home base, they laughed and asked me what the fuck I was thinking. I couldn’t explain it to them. Looking back, I think part of my fascination and desire for connection with older lesbians was that I wanted to be seen as a real adult, on par with their level of maturity. I wanted to allure and excite them as much as they did me. I wanted their trust in the ways I had earned the trust of older women as a child. As Kim began to trust me more, I betrayed it. That afternoon as I walked around Pride, she told me she was at a booth with her job and to come meet her. I didn’t; I was with another group of friends that had convinced me my relationship with her was “weird.” I didn’t respond to her text and never spoke to her again.
In the years since meeting her, I’ve thought of Kim often, especially since I have fallen out of touch with the friends that thought my relationship with her was so creepy. I used to wonder — if the relationship had ever turned sexual — if I could have learned from her and she from me. I wonder if we could have loved each other, or if we both were selfishly seeking something from the other. Me, a fling I could write poetry about; her, a fling with a younger black woman. Since those years of my life, I’ve settled down quite considerably, and my relationship to older women has changed. My good friend recently called me “the most public and avowed lover of middle-aged gals” she knows, and I carry that title proudly. I love older women; I find them very sexy. Many lesbians in my age range are currently dating or trying to date women with 20 years on us. Why? There’s something about the confidence and self-assuredness of older women that appeals to me in particular. With an older woman, I know I’m getting more direct communication. I’m not sweating over who’s gonna send the first text or who texted last. I’ve found women in their 40s and 50s are less likely to ghost as well. They may forget to text you back, but they’re not cowering over elementary communication like a 24-year-old would. I’m aware these might sound like generalizations about people of a certain age — I’m thinking in particular of one dyke I knew in her 50s that tried to have sex with me right after my break up and generally exhibited some “fuckboi” behaviors. I know that not every older lesbian is a beacon of wisdom and sexual prowess. Maturity is a range, but in my experience, it definitely comes with age.
I don’t just engage in relationships with older women because I’m interested in dating them. I actually have quite a few friends that are in their late 30’s to early 50s. A part of the change came for me when I got sober, but also, I started to recognize that friendships with people my age were not the only ways I could be in community with lesbians as I craved to be.
About every three months, there’s an online discourse about age gap relationships, with one side defending them with valor while the other side says all of them are inherently predatory. Of course age gap relationships can be and sometimes are predatory; that doesn’t mean they all are by definition. While I understand the impulse behind the narrative that all age gap relationships are predatory, I think it lacks nuance and is pretty deeply embedded in cis and heteronormative culture. Yes, we have seen many older men become obsessed with younger women with nefarious intent. To believe the same is true across all sexualities reeks to me of the myth of the “predatory lesbian,” a woman dangerously obsessed with a usually heterosexual woman. On a basic level, this idea also robs lesbians of community. If you believe that reaching out to anyone that’s a different age than you is gross or creepy, you are grossly limiting your potential to form friendships or sexual relationships. Let’s even take the potential for sexual relationships out of this. Knowing and befriending older women is a part of knowing and understanding lesbian history. They have stories and experiences to share, mistakes they’ve made that you can learn from; they’re also funny and lively human beings that it feels good to be around. To position that kind of relationship as inherently predatory is doing a disservice to all parties involved and ignoring lesbian history.
When we talk about how age-gap relationships are predatory, we are having a conversation about power. With an older man, younger woman relationship, the power imbalance is clear. With two women of different ages, that power imbalance is less clearly defined. Does age automatically give someone power over another person, especially when we are talking about adults who are 25+ years old? Women start to be treated as though they are disposable once they hit 35 or so, they are no longer seen as young and valuable even though being in your 30s is still… young. Add to that fact that this woman is gay, and she becomes even less powerful in a heteronormative society, less visible. I came out at 12, so I have 16 years of being gay under my belt. A woman who is 50 but only came out at 49 has less experience being openly gay than me; I have a lot of knowledge and resources she may not. Is our relationship still predatory just because she’s older th an me? Doesn’t this woman have a right to the resources and community that I’ve been building for over a decade? If access to those resources is concentrated in communities populated by younger people, should she exile herself from them and the social connections in them? This woman is essentially what we’d call a “baby gay” in our community, so don’t I have a kind of power and social currency she doesn’t even though she has 20 years on me? Painting all age gap relationships as predatory posits that all we have to our connections with one another is power or the potential to harm, and I find that discourse to be negligent of the ways we can positively impact each other’s lives, through friendships, chosen family or romantic relationships.
A few of my older lesbian friends are women that came out later in life. Women that were married to men for some years, realized they were gay (sometimes through having affairs with women) and left their husbands for the lavender fields. These friends often express to me that they had suspicions that they were gay during their younger years, but the culture of the time, fear, strict parents, kept them from exploring their desires. Now that they are out, in long-term relationships, or married to other women, community with women that love other women is extremely important to them. It’s essential for me too, because I know that the sacrifices made by older generations made it easier for me to say “I like girls” at the age of 12. I did come out at a risk to myself, but I was already an outlier. I already didn’t have a lot of friends or people in my corner. The friendships that I have now make up for what I lacked in childhood. I have real friends that I can come to when I have a problem, real friends that can share with me how they have dealt and would have dealt in similar situations to my own. We celebrate each other’s successes and provide a shoulder when there are failures in love and life. To think that I wouldn’t be in community with these women just because of an age difference feels mind blowing to me. My love for being a lesbian does not exist without these women. It doesn’t exist without women like Gwen.
Gwen was a giant in my life. I didn’t realize how much so until much later after I had had my first romantic and sexual liaisons with women. I saw lesbians as superwomen, women that had defied the rules set out for their gender. That made them, us, so powerful. I revel in that power now and admire it when I see it, especially how older women hone and harness it.
Though our interactions were superficial and brief, Gwen meant more to me than many of the adults I had grown up with. I want to find her and ask her if she saw me, if she knew me before I knew myself. If I’m doing my math right, she would be in her 50s by now. What I’ve found from my relationships with women who are in their 50s is that they’re always willing to share a story about dating, about love, about how they got where they are. I would hope Gwen would be as open with me. I would ask her about her first time falling in love with a woman, her first big heartbreak, and what she learned from it. I would open up to her about my own coming out process, how my family reacted and how that changed me. I imagine a sense of family and tenderness between us when I envision these talks. I’ve offhandedly joked about tracking her down and trying to sleep with her, but I know that wouldn’t happen because of our relationship to each other. What she represented for me is too cherished. I am grateful to her and every older lesbian in my life for seeing me and holding me the way that only they can.