Photo of Sydni Chiles, the author of "Undocumented Lesbian"

In this work of creative nonfiction, South side native Sydni Chiles writes about the difficulties of having her identity pigeonholed by societal definitions, and the beauty of finally breaking away from those definitions.

I remember resolving to call myself a lesbian. There had been those girl-on-girl encounters in high school but I doubted if the term applied to me tonguing and titillating my best friend; yet, it had only been our attraction to one another that necessitated the friendship. We snuck around kissing in abandoned places, and we touched obscurely when in the company of our friends. We talked all day and all night so our friends and family understood we were close companions. No one knew that I called her my girlfriend because, when we were flirting over the phone, I would call her by another name: Joey. My cousin or my grandma would ask me who I was talking to and I’d tell them it was my boyfriend; neither of them would show any interest after that. I worried about them knowing about my secret girlfriend; also, I wished they would inquire more curiously so I could tell them.

My aunt was the first lesbian I loved. She had come out to our family when she was fifteen years old by introducing her Joey as her girlfriend. The year was 1975: her secret was out, and no one cared. For the chastisement and abuse she did not get from the family, she received twice over in her encounters with the outside world: the baton beatings and disparaging remarks from police; the assaults from emboldened men who were determined to force her into submission, and the underground house parties broken up with bright lights and blaring sirens. When I began to question my own sexuality, around 2005, those stories seemed like tales as far off as the land of Oz. Still, I heard them like warnings and I was afraid. My aunt had always dated gorgeous women–the one exception being a woman who wore oversized church hats and sweated profusely from her chin. My aunt held a high paying job that afforded her a home that felt to me like certain luxury in East Rogers Park. She was an upstanding citizen and my role model. She never gave me any reason to feel insecure or unsafe in her vicinity. Still, I was afraid. I was afraid because, coupled with her stories, there was my mom expressing deep concern and worry for her children, long before I had even popped my first pubescent pimple, that we would face greater strife and discord in our lives if we were homosexual. She too, a cisgendered heterosexual woman only three years my aunt’s younger, knew that the world was not fantastically accepting of homosexuals (as she always called it). I was afraid because I had never felt for a boy in my school the way I felt for my Joey, and if I could not fall in love with a man then I could not marry one, and there went a dream I’d curated for myself since I was seven years old. I was afraid because, though I did not grow up practicing religion, I knew Jesus Christ and I kneeled nightly at the edge of my bed giving my prayers to God so that I could get into Heaven. I was afraid of God and I was afraid of being condemned to Hell. I was afraid of being a disappointment and I was afraid of missing out on my blessings. Most of all, I was afraid that if I said from my mouth that I was a lesbian, then I could never take it back if I learned later that it was not true. There was, after all, that potential for Mr. Right to meet me around the mountain of mess that my hormones could not seem to sort out straight.

By God’s will, the relationship with my Joey came to an end when I accidentally chatted about sex to her mom on the instant messenger. Saddened and weary, I joined a church where I had to feign speaking in tongues and all but swear to God that I would no longer engage in homosexual community in order to pass the church’s lessons, and to be accepted into the family fold. Every Sunday, no matter the topic, I had the sense that the pastor was speaking as if it were only him and I in the room. So every Sunday at his call, I went to the altar bench. There I asked for hands to be placed on my forehead; for prayer; and for forgiveness, to cleanse my soul and cleanse my unholy temptations. I remember once truly fainting and falling out alongside the pews where one elder woman looked down upon my face and proclaimed as I came to, “The presence of the Lord is here.” I left church thinking of the morning’s sermon that was meant to teach me the difference between doors I opened myself and doors that were opened by Jesus. I broke up with my new girlfriend whom I’d only been dating for three days. I sat in my prayer closet chanting nonsense and feeling sincerely that I was freed from the lesbian demon within me. Later that night, I called on a friend from church who confided in me her concern for being a lesbian, and we talked long into the night until I fell asleep dreaming of her naked body in a bubble bath.

Before long, I was teaching Vacation Bible School, bumping my hair with a curling iron, and wearing pink in the name of Jesus every day while also cutting the sleeves off my tees, hunching my shoulders, and giving kisses to girls and older women in parking lots at night. The last summer before college, I got a fade and lining from my cousin’s friend, Nick, who was all too happy to get a young stud right for the Pride Parade. As she cut, she reminisced on all her first times being a lesbian in public, and there were many good ones—some bad. On the day of the parade, I wore a white v-neck with the outline of two women kissing drawn on the front of it, cargo shorts with a rainbow belt, a rainbow beaded bracelet that I bought from someone on the redline toward Belmont, and all-white Converse Allstars. I ran alongside the floats getting sprayed with bubbles and graced with beads. I was seventeen years old. I had a pocket full of phone numbers that I never called and an ego blown to capacity by the days end.

It was six months later when I stumbled into my dorm room, drunk and smeared with tempera paints, with the music from the queer party I’d just left still ringing in my ears and the taste of another student in my mouth. I stood in the mirror and said to my reflection: “You are a lesbian.” The day after that, I called my mom and she agreed. After I told my mom, I told everyone, and everything remained the same. I openly dated women and there was one woman I might have married if we lasted longer. I introduced myself at parties as a lesbian and when I didn’t, my appearance made the statement for me. I wore my clothing like armor: taped or bandaged breasts and sports bras, boxers and tube socks. It was my declaration and my advertisement to the lesbians–my peacock feathers–and I felt safe, shielded from the gaze of men whom, among them, were those unapologetically insensitive ones who would otherwise feel free to assault me.

Recently, while in another state browsing through bins of clearance items with my best friend who, for once, is not my love interest, I was approached by one braggadocious man claiming his ability to turn me right-side out into “the woman god intended.” I searched his body for any language to be afraid of but there was only mild annoyance so I continued my perusal. He walked away with the words “fuck you” and “dyke” having escaped his mouth. On our way from the store without a purchase, a different man approached and walked alongside us. He made me laugh and I noticed the dimple in his one cheek when he introduced his name. The next evening on a date with him, we held hands and he told me things I’d said to several girls before him. I had not changed my clothes or declared to be any kind of person; yet, without questions, he found me to be beautiful, just as I came. I felt the same way about him. We haven’t talked since because he wasn’t “Mr. Right” but it was more than a fling. It was a tutorial.

It’s been ten years since I first called myself lesbian and now my friends want to call me bisexual since my encounters with men have been increasing; however, my queerness has quieted and I do not care for any more names to describe the person I have always been. I am the same person who was afraid of the stigmas associated with identifying as lesbian, who heard warnings from my aunt of how hard it was in the sixties, seventies, and eighties to be a “butch” or “dyke”, and who had all at once ordered an entirely different wardrobe from a men’s catalogue online— down to the underwear. I used to wear my clothes like costume. I’ve long since my first parade done away with the rainbow paraphernalia. I shop for my jeans in the women’s section and occasionally wear long slung v-neck shirts to show my cleavage where I used to pretend there was none. I am not first in line at the lesbian events, drinking to a numbing satisfaction and pounding my booted feet to EDM on sweaty dance floors. I am sitting at coffee shops where I write and drink oat milk lattes with extra foam. I am leaning into the bar from a bar stool at the dive bar, dressed in whatever made me feel most beautiful, and checking my fitness watch from time to time. I am biking in the gym watching the men curl weights into their biceps and the women brave the stair machine. I am in bookstores listening to writers tell stories and sharing their words to inspire new acquaintances. I am resolutely undefined, and this stripping away of names has nurtured my growth more in the past year than any static identity has done in any other time in my life. I only wish I had known sooner that there was no need to determine the rest of my life as a teenager because, in all ways of planning, I have wavered. Every sun has been warm; every rain hydrating; every snow a chance to rest; and every cloud a basket of rainbows. I am not afraid to give in to uncertainty because it has proven to be the best kept comfort through everything and my favorite storyteller. As I no longer know myself as lesbian, as terrifying as it was to give in to it once before, it has been twice as liberating to let go, and I am not afraid.

Sydni Chiles is a person, black and queer, existing on the Southside of Chicago with an MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University. She’s also the great great niece of Lorraine Hansberry who, like her, is a writer from the South Side, an activist and quite literallly an “undocumented lesbian.”