The Authenticity Experiment, the tie edition. The Lyft driver picked us up at the Tampa Marriott Waterside hotel, two of the 15,000 writers who were heading out for something different on the last night of the national writers conference known as AWP. Our driver, Daniel, seemed quintessentially Floridian: shorts, a Tommy Bahama-type shirt, flip flops, and a bro-pattern to his diction. We were headed to Ybor City, a formerly independent town founded in 1885 and now absorbed into North Tampa. Ybor, as it is simply called now, was built by a group of cigar manufacturers and populated initially by Cuban and Spanish immigrants. But it soon became a melting pot with an Italian and Eastern European Jewish diaspora moving in to open farms and grocery stores, as well as businesses like box factories and print shops that catered to the cigar industry.
Today, the neighborhood feels like you are walking into a different time, maybe even a different country: brick buildings with arches, cobblestones repaired to their original glory on 7th street—the main drag that runs west to east, and ends at the river that is not a river. And on each block, delicate looking wire curled and turned over the narrow street and anchored to the lampposts on either side. Clear glass light bulbs—we’d call them patio lights now, but I assume they were chosen as replica pieces—light up the streets and stores below.
Old and new businesses line the street. The Colombian, a restaurant serving Cuban, Italian, and Argentinian food since 1905 (no idea on that name); the Cuban Cigar Store, literally called just that; Gaspar’s Grotto; Carmine’s, an Italian/Cuban fusion open since the 40s; Prana, a 5-story dance club with one story devoted just to Latin music; and the Honeypot, a lesbian bar. This last one we learned about from our Lyft driver Daniel.
Tampa’s no hotbed of LGBTQ culture or community—although, according to locals and the Internet, Ybor’s diversity extends to my people, so had we been looking for a lesbian bar, we were heading the right direction. Maybe my cream-colored bow tie, silk screened to look like binder paper, gave me away. Or perhaps the tell was the partner-like ease between the Alaskan Poet and me. At any rate, Daniel mentioned the Honeypot, saying, “In the gay district I sometimes like to go to this lesbian bar and look at the ladies.”
The Poet raised one eyebrow and left me to field the comment—or not—because we are best friends and not partners, because she is straight and aware enough to know sometimes a situation requires an instinctual queer assessment that she cannot always understand. Of course, at 5’11” without her boots on, and half her life spent in New York City and the other half in Alaska, the Poet also refuses to tolerate fools and can quell an idiot in about two seconds flat should a situation arise. She likes to routinely say about the women I am dating, “If she makes you cry, I am coming down there and hurting her.” I, for one, always believe this and sometimes take comfort in it, because I know it means she sees my tender heart and she feels protective of me. It’s like getting a big sister at midlife, something I always wanted.
Maybe because the conference finally ended; maybe because earlier I’d spent the afternoon picking the brain of one of my smartest friends about the changing nature of the queer community; maybe because I feel a growing intolerance toward unaware, cis, white, male privilege every time I read another #TimesUp or #MeToo narrative; maybe because exhaustion crept over me as the conference wore on—maybe because all of this, when Daniel said, “I like to go to this lesbian bar and look at the ladies,” I smacked the side of the driver’s seat in that jovial way other men often tease each other, smiling all the while, and immediately retorted, Really, how’s that working for you, buddy?
And, I swear to you, he hunched up the shoulders of his Tommy Bahama shirt, instinctively drawing down the vulnerable back of his neck and said, “Yeah, well.”
Uh-huh, I replied. I never stopped smiling, just like a joking good old boy. Two blocks later I saw our restaurant and we opted to get out while Daniel waited on a red light. I think this surprised him because he said, “Right here? Right now? Uh, okay?”
The Poet slid across the back seat of his white Hyundai Sonata and jumped onto the sidewalk with me and we walked away without looking back or saying anything to each other. Later, sitting at a bistro table in front of Ybor’s Cigars Plus, we drank mojitos—the “plus” part of the store—and person after person—okay, man after man—walked by and seemed to sneer at me and my tie, and at the Alaskan Poet who was considered my girlfriend simply by association. The Poet—exquisitely observant like all good poets—noticed each time this occurred, too. I guess what I’m telling you is that it wasn’t just my tired self, or my gaydar, or hypervigilance working overtime.
After the last look—from a tall, lanky man of about 60—similar to the bartenders at the conference hotel who flat out refused to serve me—I looked at the Poet and she cringed a little for me. That’s it, I said, and tugged on the left side of my bow tie and the knot opened. I pulled the cream silk around my neck and out from under the right side of my collar. I matched the two bow ends, then folded the narrow neck over them and stuck the tie in the pocket of my black wool hoodie.
“How does that make you feel?” The Poet leaned forward in her black wrought iron chair, its springs pushing her towards me more than was maybe safe given the neighborhood vibe. “How did it feel to have to do that?”
In that moment, I felt nothing. Neither anger nor fear, nor sadness that I couldn’t be my dapper queer self. I didn’t feel the shame at being masculine of center that had haunted me for years early. The only feeling I could identify—and I’m still not sure this is correct—was resignation as I rocked back in my chair, my collar open, my cufflinks hidden inside the sleeves of my jacket.
A rain fell light but steady. But for an Alaskan and an Oregonian, the night felt warm enough as the tricked out cars with shiny chrome wheels and wide, slick tires hissed over the wet cobblestone, and the stream of locals and tourists—some with umbrellas, most without, this being Florida after all—never slowed. We sucked the dregs of our mojitos through black plastic straws, mostly melted ice now mixed with the muddled mint, and then stood simultaneously.
Shall we go see if our table is ready, I said, and we stepped off the curb and crossed over to Carmine’s, my open collar signifying nothing to the host who led us to a booth and bade us goodnight.
Last summer, I visited the Poet and her turtle-loving husband for a few days before both she and I taught at a writer’s conference. She walked me around her small, Alaskan town full of as many artists as bear and moose and mountains and glaciers. We wandered in and out of galleries, the Three Sisters Bakery and Café and into all the good stores on the Spit. I met the woman who runs the ceramic shop—she’s one of a handful of LGBTQ people in a town of 5,600 hardy souls. Later that fall, the ceramicist saw the Poet at Three Sisters and slipped into the booth with her and said, “Tell me about your friend. How was that, walking around with her?” The Poet knew exactly what the woman meant and told her that we didn’t experience any overt homophobia in Homer, but that we’d been on a road trip the summer before, in the lower 48, and the Poet was shocked at the way people looked at us.
Later, after dinner at Carmine’s the Poet told me this story. People looked at us? I furrowed my brow trying to recall the trip. “Oh yeah,” she said. “At that convenience store on the coast and at the restaurant in the hotel.”
I suddenly remembered the hotel restaurant, a seemingly hip place with craft cocktails made with mezcal and damiana and appetizers with funky, organic ingredients like pine needles and sesame-chile powder. In my memory, I recalled the turning heads in a place only 2.5 hours from Portland. But whatever, right? I mean, I think I wore shorts, a t-shirt, and the same black wool hoodie I donned in Tampa (a wardrobe staple). I wasn’t exactly wearing a navy velvet hanky in my back right pocket.
But the convenience store, I couldn’t quite see, except for the hot asphalt parking lot, nary a tree in sight. The store felt more like a visceral body memory— a sort of run, Kate, run sense in my gut. Pay for the gas and get in the god-damned car right now and go. The Poet confirmed this, “That’s about right,” she said.
Now, it’s two months later, and I’m at Hedgebrook. This writers colony is one of two in the United States dedicated only to women writers. I didn’t attend camp as a kid, so I don’t know if this truly correlates, but artists’ residencies always feel like being at the best camp imaginable. The residencies I’ve attended have always been located on large acreages away from big cities, and I’ve always found fast, deep friendships with the other “campers.” Hedgebrook is no different—there are cabins in the woods with a sleeping loft above, and a work space, half bath, and a kitchenette below. Dinner at night is seven women, plus the chef (also a woman) all gathered around a table in the farmhouse on the property. I’m with six of the smartest, most accomplished writers I’ve ever met—and we bonded immediately and oh so deeply. In the absence of men, Internet, news, and social media, none of us has to shout because space exists for all of our voices—without posturing. I am able to be who I am here—a genderqueer butch writer. No one bats an eye.
You’re wondering how Hedgebrook relates to ties and homophobia, I know. For the first three days here, we taught classes to about 44 other women attending a Hedgebrook-sponsored conference at the Whidbey Institute, about 15 minutes from the farm. Naturally, for this I dressed like my dapper queer self. The first night, when we returned to Hedgebrook we were all in the farmhouse, hanging around and trying to keep out of the way of the chef as she put the final touches on our meal.
I pulled off my tie. My Tiny Camp Buddy—you know, the person you first meet and then follow everywhere until you understand the lay of the land—an ostensibly straight woman, said, “Oh my god, Kate, that was so hot.” And all the other writers said, What, what, what? And my Tiny Camp Buddy said, “The way Kate just took off her tie.”
They all wanted to see it, so I retied the bow and, while they sang, “Big Spender,” replacing the word “man” with “butch,” I slowly pulled the left end of the bow, slipped loose the knot and pulled the tie around my neck and out from under the starched white collar of my shirt, all the while feeling loved, held, and celebrated—which is how you should feel when you take off a tie.