The very first time I heard the term “tops and bottoms,” I was 14.
I had traveled to Boston with my best friend and an extremely shy goth boy I hardly knew to see the singer/songwriter Ani Difranco perform at the Orpheum Theatre. In hindsight, that was a very gay teen thing to do: travel all the way from Connecticut to Boston via train to see Ani Difranco. At the time, I didn’t realize how blatantly queer my natural desire to incessantly listen to female folksingers was — but damn.
Is there anything more lesbian teen than an Ani Difranco concert in Boston in 2001?
The concert took place on a Friday night, and it was my first concert without my parents — ever. I had no idea what to expect. I knew Ani had a big lesbian following, but I was nothing more than an oily-faced suburban freshman in a gaggy, preppy high school, so I didn’t grasp what that meant. I had been around gay men a ton thanks to having a model for a mother, but lesbians were unchartered territory. My only exposure to lesbians had been through watching the HBO biopic “Gia.” And as much as I loved that movie in a fierce and perverse way, I had a sneaking suspicion it didn’t exactly mirror the life and experience of the average American Dyke.
I might’ve gone a whopping 14 years without seeing a single out lesbian in the flesh, but I certainly made up for lost time at my first unsupervised concert. I would say at least 90 percent of the Ani audience were of the Sapphic elk. Shaved girl heads, muscle tanks, tattoos, and big black boots filled up the old vaudeville-style theatre. The grand vintage aesthetic of the venue and the modern grunge aesthetic of the concert-goers beautifully juxtaposed against one another. I was smitten, turned on, self-conscious in what I considered to be my coolest outfit: black rhinestone pants and a black sheer shirt that looked like I had just pulled two pairs of stockings over my chest. Nothing will make a closeted lesbian teen girl doubt her fashion choices like being thrown into a room full of badass, seasoned dykes draped in dog tags and flannel.
Even though I was wildly intimidated by the bevy of cool lesbians at the Ani concert, I was equally fascinated. I wanted to know everything about gay culture; it just seemed so much cooler than straight culture.
The following day, the shy goth kid (who I would go on to briefly date and then smash his adoloscent heart into a thousand shards of broken glass) and my best friend (who I sometimes made out with) went back to Connecticut while I stayed in Boston to hang out with my older sister who lived there. My sister, Audra, was iconic. Shiny black hair, dark Nars lipstick, eyeliner for days iconic. And like all glamour icons, she was forever surrounded by a well-coiffed group of gay men.
“Let’s go to a gay bar tonight!” Audra said as she dusted shimmery pink blush to the apples of her cheeks. “I can get you in.”
“Yes!” I said, feeling like the luckiest 14-year-old alive.
“Can I borrow your blush?” I asked, eyeing the luminous palette holding court in the palm of her hands.
“Let me do it,” Audra said.
“Please!” Nothing makes a little sister happier than a big sister giving her attention.
For my first gay bar night, I chose to wear my brand new black tank top I had purchased at the Ani concert. It bore two thick straps and had the words “righteous babe” scrawled across the center. I paired it with a floor-length black skirt that had a slit all the way up to the top of my right thigh. (Can we bring the long, slinky, black skirt with the inappropriately high slit back? That shit was hot.) I felt confident, which was definitely a new feeling. (Also, if you’re wondering how I got away with looking remotely of the bar-going age, please take a glance at the picture below. I was more buxom at 14 than I am now.)
My sister and I were ushered through the front doors of the gay bar by a red-wigged drag queen clutching a giant clipboard. Is this what it’s like to be famous like Angelina? I wondered. The fact that the first celebrity my brain circled to was the openly bisexual Angelina Jolie, is also, in hindsight, very “queer teen.”
The inside of the bar was full of both lesbians and gay boys. The lesbians were sitting at the bar, flirting with the hot femme bartender, and the gay boys were twirling around the dance floor. My sister ordered us Cosmopolitans and I broke out into chills. I felt like I was in a more fabulous version of “Sex and the City.”
I only had one Cosmo, and my sister hardly drinks, so neither of us was remotely drunk by the time we left around midnight. However. My sister’s friend, a petite gay man with a glamorous foreign accent I couldn’t quite place, was definitely as loose as a goose. I’d only met him in the daylight, and he’d come across as a perfectly pressed professional. In the twinkling strobe lights of the gay club, he was crass, witty, biting, and free-spirited. I liked the gay bar version of him far better and vowed to be a gay bar regular the second I could get my hands on a fake ID. Everyone was so sparkly, so full of sass, so much fun.
We all split a cab back home. That’s when the tea really began to spill.
“I couldn’t f*ck Anthony because he’s a bottom and I’m a bottom,” the petite gay man slurred. The guy he was referring to was my sister’s boyfriend. (Like I said, he was witty, biting, crass, and free-spirited now that he was gay-bar buzzed.) My sister laughed. I instinctively got he was joking, so I laughed too.
“I need a TOP!” he squealed, clearly enjoying pulling a giggle out of the Barrie girls. (We’re a notoriously rough crowd.)
That was the first time I’d ever heard the term TOP and BOTTOM. And you know what’s strange? I didn’t have a single question about what either term meant. He never explained it to me. It was never broken down for me later. I knew, intrinsically, what top and bottom meant. Something just clicked.
The top would be the one pitching; the bottom would be the one receiving. That was the first thought that flew through my young mind. I recalled seeing two very buff, very tanned men in the Hamptons wearing shirts that said “pitcher” and “receiver” the summer prior. While I assumed that their shirts hadn’t been a baseball reference, now I fully understood that not only were the shirts not about sports, they were about sex. Purr. Gay sex. MEOW!
My vision crystalized. Suddenly, I understood things I had never understood before. I had such a clear understanding of the world that I could’ve explained how exactly E = MC2. Light bulbs fluttered over my head like little butterflies.
I didn’t just know what top and bottom meant; I had a visceral understanding of it. It was the deep level of understanding that only a person who lives and breathes something can only comprehend — the kind of understanding that has more to do with identity than education.
Why? Because I’m that gay. I’m so gay that I came out of the womb with a tucked away knowledge of what a top and bottom is. It had been buried deep inside of me from the moment of conception, but it took a beautiful gay man to simply open up Pandora’s box and set it free.
The same thing happened to me later that year when I heard the Indigo Girls for the first time. I knew the lyrics to “Closer To Fine” before I even heard the song. So when they say “being gay is a choice,” I say: “I was born singing along to the Indigo Girls and understood what a top and bottom was with *zero* explanation. Bitch, I never had a choice. This life chose me.”
And thank f*cking god it did.