We were out in the world for the first time since being at school, where we spent the entire winter in lockdown with strict rules to not leave campus. But the spring had brought the vaccine, and the ability to sit outside and walk around more freely. There was hope, and with it, greater leniency. So we had finally set aside a day to go on a date somewhere other than the campus diner. We’d driven about 40 minutes away from Wesleyan, where my girlfriend and I go to school. There, right on the water was an outdoor bookstore, comprised of a series of small wooden sheds and huts that were filled with bookshelves. We walked around it slowly, browsing the books and walking through the maze of structures.
Once we’d finished all of the outdoor areas, we went into the main building, an enclosed wooden house. The bookstore hadn’t been very busy all day, but inside there were a few more people, all of us masked. Having gotten together just days before we went into complete lockdown, we had spent most of our relationship in private. Whenever we did go to a public place, I would find myself scoping it out, checking to see what the crowd is like before reaching for my girlfriend’s hand. We have received looks, people scanning from our clasped hands up sternly to our face, but luckily nothing more. The outside of the bookstore was populated mostly by older people, and since it was a somewhat unfamiliar place, we hadn’t been holding hands.
Inside there were a couple of groups of teenagers, all milling about. We made our way through the art section, then the religion section. I looked for the sexuality section and only found a few textbooks on gender studies. “Come here,” my girlfriend called from down the row, she had found the erotica section.
I followed her into the corner of the bookstore. We began browsing through terrifying animated covers of men with rippling abs and women with giant breasts. We picked up a few pictures of men on horses, or two people held in an embrace. Then we heard a voice, “You shouldn’t bother with those.”
We looked up to see a girl, younger than us, probably about 17. She was in a small white dress dotted with blue flowers and had long straight brown hair. “This stuff’s better,” she said, running her hand along a low shelf to my left. “There’s even a book of sapphic poetry down here,” she said, pulling out a blue cover from the very bottom shelf.
I laughed, shocked by her sudden friendliness. We knew what she was suggesting, and suggesting correctly. “Correctly profiled,” I said, bending to look at the book.
“You guys look pretty gay,” she said. We laughed again, and I looked down at myself. I was in cargo jean shorts and a wide strapped white and green striped tank top. My girlfriend was in long shorts, a tank top, and an open button-up t-shirt. Besides our clothing, we were fairly feminine-looking. We’re both short and have shoulder-length brown hair. And she’d somehow found us, tucked together into the corner of the bookstore, and now she’d joined us.
We knew we looked gay, because we always do, but only to the trained eye. Oftentimes when we’re out to lunch together, or walking down the street I’ll wonder what other people assume about us. I almost always settle on the same answer. Two girls hanging out is normal, it means they’re just friends. Most non-queer people don’t assume any girls are gay unless they have short hair or a butch presentation. But, many queer people, including myself, are almost constantly on the lookout for other queer people in public. This means to any queer person who was looking, we would likely stick out. Our intimacy would be noticed.
“I tried to dress cottage core,” the girl continued, grabbing the bottom of her dress between her fingers. This was code. “Cottage core” is a style of sapphic that has largely been circulated on Tiktok. It is a “type” of lesbian that typically wears dresses, skirts, and more old-timey feminine garb. Cottage core alludes to life on a cottage, which includes activities of the “simple life,” like making bread, reading on a porch, or tending to chickens. But more directly, she is trying to tell us she too, is gay.
She joked with us a little more, and my girlfriend offered to buy her erotic book for her because she told us she was under 18. Then she left.
We bought the book of sapphic poetry, and I walked out in awe. Through a series of signals, she had noticed us, identified us, and then made it clear to us who she was. The ability for us to communicate due to a universally spread culture felt incredibly exciting and new. Through different channels of the internet, queer culture has developed into recognizable trends, patterns, and pieces of language. It has expanded and with it, the ways for queerness to be expressed and identified has also expanded.
I have seen many videos circulating on the internet of gay people identifying each other in public. For example, in one video two sets of queer people in cars next to each other signal to one another by doing the signature “floppy wrist.” The floppy wrist is a gesture that is usually used as a derogatory symbol to identify gay men. It has since been reclaimed to be used to identify anyone (or anything) as queer.
I also wondered, could this have happened before covid? It felt somewhat like a product of the past year and a half, spent in isolation where many people had time to solidify their queerness, and explore their self-expression, while shielded from the public eye. And now, thrown back into public spaces, there is an excitement to seeing strangers. We want to connect to each other and find other people like us. Especially in a marginalized identity, being able to know they’re like me, can be enough to make one want to reach out.
Hidden in the back section of the bookstore we had made that connection. We were able to communicate in a way distinct to queer women, something largely made possible in the past few years through social media. I read the book, Songs of Bilitis, aloud to my girlfriend on the car ride home. It was written in 1894, and while I reading it, I could imagine it being the only resource for women in the 19th century to read about lesbian love and eroticism. I thought about how far the normalization of queerness has come, so much so, that three women can meet in the corner of a bookstore, for just a moment, and recognize each other.