On Yearning or I Am at Home Eating Chocolate, Thinking About Holland Taylor and Sarah Paulson by Marne Litfin
Marne Litfin (they/them) is a writer, comic, and incoming MFA student in fiction at the University of Michigan. Their essays and short stories are published and forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Phoebe, The Billfold, and We’ll Have to Pass. Marne reads flash for Fractured Lit and tweets @JetpackMarne. Find out more at marnelitfin.com.
What else am I supposed to do? It’s too cold to walk. It’s too early to make dinner. I can’t feed the dog any more treats, as much as she would enjoy that. She had bloodwork taken at the vet this morning. I’d like her to forgive us and associate me with the joy she reserves for Cheerios and cubes of cheese, but I do not want her to throw up on the sofa.
I miss my life. I like dreaming that the pandemic is over, and my partners and I run into Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor on a subway platform in New York. We’re unmasked, on our way to a restaurant. Paulson and Taylor are headed elsewhere. We all half smile and nod in each other’s direction, the way lesbians do when spotting kin in the wild, and the moment ends. We get on our respective uptown and downtown trains, unafraid of contagion.
There’s a photo of Paulson and Taylor I am desperate to keep from disappearing into the maw of Google Images. I’ve saved it in three different places in the Contemporary American Lesbian Sociocultural Archive that is also my cell phone. Maybe you know it? It was taken by Mark Seliger in 2018 at the Oscars for Vanity Fair. I should note that I am not the first person to write about it. Molly Savard, in a contribution to Autostraddle titled “It’s Time to Recognize Holland Taylor’s Supreme Domme Energy,” waxed about it thusly: “I can barely appreciate its composition and elegant representation of queer, ageism-fucking love before my body convulses and my superego steps in to scream, ‘THIS IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK, PLEASE CLOSE YOUR BROWSER YOU ARE NOT IN PRIVATE MODE.”
Thanks to COVID I don’t have to worry anymore about browsing in private mode, but if you must, allow me: Holland Taylor stands, back arched, looking down at Sarah Paulson like a Cold War-era bomb, a torpedo in black silk. Something we’d send over to the Russians to ruin their weekend. Taylor has a sparkly ring on her pinky finger because of course she does. Holland Taylor probably invented the pinky ring. Paulson is done up like a walking ticker-tape parade. She wears a feathery, sequined, shiny yellow gown the color of Big Bird. The dress itself would be notable for the fact that it makes her look half like a peacock and half like a Chihuly chandelier but the real twist is in the oversized, black opera gloves on her fingers, which render the outfit (and the whole scene, and the concept of the Oscars, and all movie stars, and the entirety of the Hollywood industry) utterly ridiculous; a giant game of dress-up. She sits on an end table, gazing up into Taylor’s eyes like an imp who knows Mommy said no butts on tables. Both of them ignore the camera. They belong only to each other. The photo is kinky as boots. It is profoundly horny.
There is something centering—something exquisitely relatable—about the fact that Savard resorted to all caps when writing about this photo. I also appreciate that in her September 2020 Harper’s Bazaar profile of Paulson, Roxane Gay openly grappled with her affection for queer gossip (in the lede!!). “I love celebrity gossip,” Gay wrote. “I will happily read Bossip or Lainey Gossip or People and idly speculate about celebrities and their romantic entanglements, real estate transactions, mistakes, or triumphs.” Gay doesn’t want to get her hands dirty, but when preparing to interview Paulson, her wife (design polymath Debbie Millman) “gently insisted that I ask Paulson how she feels about being a celesbian.” Gay speculates that her affection for celesbians is about representation, and I agree that it feels good to see public figures whose relationships look like ours, especially because the world is full of monsters, many of them politicians, whose entire Thing is erasing queerness from the public record. Defying them feels nice. But I think there is more happening here, at least there is for me.
I recognize a bit of myself in Savard and Gay’s writing. I think “Ah, here is a legion of thirsty dykes I am proud to stand in line with.” I thought that was it—we’re just all lesbians—but I’m pretty sure that’s not how Savard or Gay or Paulson or Taylor define themselves, and, hi, whoops, I also do not call myself a lesbian anymore. I’m not sure if I ever was one. My gender identity is…cloudy. Like a cloud. Opaque. Amorphous. Far away. The first time I rode in an airplane, I was eight. I remember the disappointment of flying all the way up in the sky and realizing that clouds were made of nothing. Do you have to be a woman to be a lesbian?
I don’t think gender is innate; something biologically indelible that marks us, like our freckles. In college I learned to think of gender as a verb, a thing we are always doing and have to perpetually keep doing. But does that mean I have to “do” womanhood to “do” lesbianism? I hate this question. I don’t want to yoke my sexuality to my gender identity. I don’t like thinking about my gender as what I’m consciously or subconsciously doing or not doing, or doing wrong. It makes my gender feel like a never-ceasing failure. Gender as punishment for not going quietly into my assigned ladysuit.
I don’t feel like a woman. Or a man. I never have. I don’t know what it’s like to comfortably identify as either. I like using the neutral pronoun “they;” my partners refer to me as their little guy and rarely as their girlfriend (but occasionally as their boyfriend). I am all of those things! And I am queer. I like leaving it unmoored.
In this pandemic, I have spent the past year mostly at home, with my partners and our aging beagle. I do not feel like I am performing anything, for anyone, even myself. America’s response to the virus has pared back my life to its essentials. I’m terrified of getting sick. I work from home and rarely leave the house; I pace the rooms in a tiny circuit during the day, as if I live on a cruise ship. I stare out the windows. I can’t remember the last time I put on a collared shirt or a binder or dress shoes. Normally the sides of my hair are buzzed. Now, I make pigtails. I don’t recognize the wildebeest in soft pants who occupies this house’s mirrors. My gender feels like that viral video of the racoon washing cotton candy in a stream. Sometimes I’m the racoon, rubbing its hands together under the water, finding the floss has disappeared. Other times I’m the cotton candy, submerged and dissolving and floating away. Is this dysphoria? Can you be dysphoric if you’re not transitioning? Who am I without performing? Will this ever end?
I spend so much time thinking about what life will be like after the pandemic, if it ever ends, and all the things I want (a hug from my aunt, a vaccine appointment, run-ins with celesbians, a nine-piece box of lavender chocolate truffles from a shop I once wandered into when I was on vacation in Belgium). I think that’s the part of myself I recognize in Savard and Gay’s writing: desire. And a tiny kernel of that desire—the yearning—feels lesbian.
It turns out there is a yearning-themed lesbian zine choose-your-own-adventure game you can back on Kickstarter. There is a fake lesbian bar called Yearn, where no one is dancing or talking. Spotify has playlists for sapphic yearning, wlw yearning, and yearning in soft gay (they all agree on Mitski). Twitter yearners yearn for TikTok lesbians, for Kdramas to have more of “the lesbian yearning slow burn content we need,” and for Dana Scully to marry them. We locate ourselves in historical yearning. According to one internet stranger, yearning is the gayest emotion.
Scholars have been writing about yearning for decades, in ways that are and are not about lesbians. Yearning has been connected to struggles for a free Palestine and an end to white supremacy in the US. bell hooks’ first book-length collection, first published in 1990, was called Yearning, because she saw it as the potential uniting engine of a movement, a common passion “shared by folks across race, class, gender, and sexual practice.” hooks was “struck by the depths of longing in many of us.” She wrote: “I think of all the time black folks (especially the underclass) spend just fantasizing about what our lives would be like if there were no racism, no white supremacy. Surely our desire for radical social change is intimately linked with the desire to experience pleasure, erotic fulfillment, and a host of other passions.”
Yearning is longing for things that will never happen: lives we will never live, relationships we will never have, in places that will never exist. It’s different than wanting, because yearning is generative. It imagines. It creates. People who write slash (homoerotic fan fiction—Kirk on Spock, Dumbledore on Snape, etc) also know a lot about yearning: “Slash space is remarkable in its fecundity. It is space that is never filled, potential that never runs out. No matter how many stories, how many writers, there’s always more space.” They describe yearning as desire within a “void of infinite potential.” I have checked and it is true, there will never be enough reimaginings of Harry Potter-as-transmasc-demiboy flying off into the sunset with Weasley-as-transfem-bottom on the back of Buckbeak the Hippogriff. I hope it makes J.K. Rowling miserable to the end of her days.
The internet, for its part, seems invested in labeling yearning a lesbian thing (by which they often, though not always, mean a white thing). There has been extra urgency to this in the context of the pandemic and our country’s neoliberal response to it, as relatively privileged bodies—the cis, straight, white, thin well-enough-off, and non-disabled—find themselves yearning for alternative futures for the first time. Mary Retta, who writes about Black feminism, youth movements, and internet culture, noted back in July of 2020 that the pandemic has intensified the transition of yearning from a feeling into an ethos: “though yearning was once a sensation, it has today evolved into a framework: one that is pro-pleasure, anti-work, and striving towards envisioning a gentler and more fulfilling future.” We are finding more and more of ourselves in what we want and how we want it.
Bustle and VICE and Buzzfeed and this cute website about independent films have all run yearning content recently. Most of it gestures back to this idea of it functioning as a uniquely lesbian phenomenon. Folks are even trying to turn Hozier and Taylor Swift into lesbians, on account of their yearning. They’ve noticed that lesbians seem very good at longing looks and waiting; that there seems to be a historical basis buried somewhere, one that involves a lot of staring out from the tops of cliffs into the ocean.
They are missing the full picture, but they aren’t wrong: there is a documented history of heterosexual confusion over whether sex between women is even possible. Carmen Maria Machado researched this in her memoir of queer domestic abuse, In the Dream House: “In 1811, when faced with two Scottish schoolmistresses who were accused of being lovers, a judge named Lord Meadowbank insisted that their genitals ‘were not so formed as to penetrate each other, and without penetration the venereal orgasm could not possibly follow.’” At least legally speaking, in many contexts lesbianism was unimaginable.
This is, by the way, not historical ephemera. I have gently had to remind family members that my partners and I are not “like sisters.” My favorite joke from Cameron Esposito’s standup comedy album, Marriage Material, is about this exact inability to be seen: “If you are a gay boy,” Esposito says, “if you’re a little queer boy, people will come up to you. They will say” (and here she screams so hard into the microphone the feedback rings out) “YOU ARE A GAY BOY.” She pauses. “If you are a little gay girl—if you’re a queer girl—people will say ‘well… I guess she likes overalls!’”
I am not a lesbian now, but everything I learned about love, sex, and how to be an adult came from lesbians—they were who I found first. For a long time, they were the stars I navigated by. Among the first DVDs I bought with my own money were five seasons of the original Ellen sitcom. In 2007 I went on a road trip—nine hours—to Buffalo—to visit a church Ani DiFranco bought. A lesbian I made fun of for wearing a chartreuse suit at a buffet brunch in 2006 explained to my idiot face when I said I only wore black “because it’s slenderizing” was fatphobic and boring and dressing to please men. (I did not deserve her.) Once upon a time “lesbian” was the best language I had to describe myself, and I was grateful I found it at all.
I am lucky. I wake up in a bed the size of Noah’s ark, next to my people, who I love, who love me, whether I find the right words to describe myself or not. They are excited to play with new pronouns and nicknames and different names. When I moved in, they cleared out spaces in every room in the house, for me to unfold. All three of us have sometimes been lesbians and sometimes not. We have been bisexual and genderqueer, and sometimes we find ourselves frantically googling “new word for nonbinary lesbian” after hearing about it on a podcast, but not being able to remember the term (“It sounded like a breakfast cereal!” one of my partners says, typing and scrolling until we find it—”trixic”).
The pandemic notwithstanding, it feels good to be alive in this time when we’re allowing ourselves to interrogate the boundaries and histories of the words and lives we’ve chosen. Right now, I am on my sofa wearing a one-piece sweatsuit. The beagle is at doggy day care. My gender is a non-entity. Last weekend while vacuuming I put on pink hot shorts and listened to Carly Rae Jepsen while fantasizing about the pandemic being over and learning how to pole dance. Same body, different genders.
TERFs and bigots hate this. Marjorie Taylor-Greene hung a sign up outside her office that says, “There are TWO genders.” She does not believe that people like me exist. I think of another moment in Machado’s memoir when driving with her homophobic aunt and mother in a car after a funeral. Her aunt says, apropos of nothing, “’I don’t believe in gay people.” Machado’s mother does not respond. It’s Carmen herself who finally says “Well, we believe in you.”
All that’s left is desire. There’s just not a lot to hold onto right now. Sometimes I feel like I am surviving minute to minute. Andrea Long Chu has a theory I am finding useful in this moment. In her book, Females, she proposes that femaleness is a universal sex, something different from what we understand as sex or gender right now. Everyone is female, she argues. Femaleness is an ontological position, in which “the self is hollowed out, made into an incubator for an alien force. To be female is to let someone else do your desiring for you, at your own expense.”
To be “female” means having your desires proscribed for you, rather than be able to locate them within yourself. According to Chu’s theory, if this is what it means to be “female,” then to become a political person would mean to realize “that one’s desires are not one’s own, that one has become a vehicle for someone else’s ego.” It means believing that it is possible to separate your desire from the noise around you, telling you what you’re supposed to want. It means believing that one day you will be able to figure out what you actually yearn for.
I know what I want when I look at that photo of Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor. It’s like a mandala—layers upon layers upon layers of yearning. I want to wear silly dress-up clothes and go to parties and dance and I want to feel sexy and take pictures and watch my one girlfriend suck down shrimp cocktails while the other sings her karaoke version of Love Shack and I want to look at people. I want them to look at us and try to figure out which one is Mommy. I want to steal Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s toner cartridges. I want to live in the world again.
This year away from other people has in some ways been a relief, because I am often looked at by people who would prefer I do not exist. I can imagine that Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor experience this. Straight people online love to gawk at Paulson and Taylor’s 29-year age gap. Even more than that, I hate the phrase those sorts of people use: “Love is love.” Please. Look at the other photos in the Vanity Fair series from that night—wooden Liam Whatshisname and Miley Cyrus. Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello; they have the chemistry of a wax museum. Now, look at Paulson and Taylor again. The position of their bodies. Their eye contact. Their mouths. Love is not love, kids. The fact is, theirs—ours, mine—is much hotter.
I maintain an active dating profile on multiple apps. One of them had me fill out little questions, like what are you looking for? In the space provided underneath, I typed, without hesitating, I am looking for Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor. Do you know where I can find them?
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