It surprised me to learn lesbians can actually contract sexually transmitted infections. Our population is notoriously low-risk. I have one friend whose doctor refused to give her a full STI screening because he deemed it medically unnecessary.
Statistics notwithstanding, six months after I had sex with another woman for the first time, I noticed a bump on the right side of my groin. It looked innocuous, like a pale mole. Soon, the bump proliferated into further bumps, all equally innocent looking, with pigmentation and topography so slight I could barely see them after the overhead light in my bathroom burned out. At the time, I had neither a ladder, nor a fresh bulb, nor the inclination to fix insignificant-seeming problems. I had a lot going on—beginning a new relationship, ending it, fixing up my ex with a close friend, descending into an immediate hell-pit of jealousy after they fell in love, beginning another new relationship—so I eschewed home repair, showered in the dark, and put off making a doctor’s appointment for another three months.
Though I’m always nervous in any waiting room, I expected the dermatologist to laugh at my hypochondria and send me on my way with a few moisturizer samples. But she did not, because I had HPV, the kind that causes embarrassment rather than cancer. The diagnosis took about about 20 seconds. “Oh, yep, we’ve got a wart there. And there. And there.”
“Really? There, too?”
“Yep. There.” With Annie Oakley speed, she unholstered her nitrous oxide and administered my first round of cryotherapy, sharp bursts of liquid nitrogen meant to kill the infected tissue by freezing it. She warned me: “You’ll have to come back; this doesn’t usually work on the first try.”
That was a year and a half ago. It hasn’t worked yet.
At least the sex was worth it—and not even primarily because it was good, though, to be fair, it was also that. The first woman I slept with was a fellow barista. We were co-workers at a dank, grave-like coffee shop located underneath an El stop, notable for its rattling ceilings and the sheer volume of bodily fluids circulating amongst the staff. During my first few months, as the only queer-identified woman, I was ineligible to participate in caffeine-fueled erotic exploits, but then, there was a new girl. A month later, I was in her bed.
That first time, a combination of fear and desire gave me preternatural focus. I’d never performed oral sex before, but I was careful to do it just right: adjusting the angle of my neck as her back arched, keeping a consistent rhythm as she tightened around my fingers, staying steady though the sounds she made were wholly unfamiliar to me. It’s not mature to approach sex as a mission one might succeed or fail at, but I was not mature yet. I was a baby in gay-years, and I wanted to win this. She came hard against my mouth. Catching her breath, she sat up and demanded: “How many times have you done this?”
“Never. I swear.” She was almost mad. It was her first time with a woman, too, and I’d set an unfair precedent with my Olympic technique, which I let her believe was wholly based on instinct, although the real truth was I’d Googled it. I’d been Googling it for years.
I had known I was a lesbian before this encounter, but I wanted proof, and I wanted to prove myself, and I achieved both objectives. Whatever I wanted to happen next—finding queer community, falling in love, having even better sex—felt possible because of this moment. That night, as I lay down beside her and attempted sleep, I felt satisfied, bona fide, and delivered.
But when I slept, I slept badly, waking over and over from a series of nightmares. I saw tsunamis, homes swept off their foundations, a wayward woman who lost her children on the beach. I told my therapist about it and he repeated back to me: “You dreamed of floods, misfortune, divine punishment…” The cliché was almost embarrassing, the meaning of the dream so obvious—on some unreachable plane of my unconscious, the American Puritan, the Southern American Evangelical, and the meanest girl in my middle school class all survived inside me; they witnessed my actions, held court, and ruled outside my favor.
In the dermatologist’s office, with my bikini line still stinging from the nitrous, I asked what I should do to keep my current partner safe. She told me to use condoms. I clarified, she apologized, and then we stared at each other. I watched her brows move closer together, the skin between them folding into a single deep furrow on her otherwise unlined face. Her bottom lip curled in; she chewed it. I realized her quandary: my doctor had no idea what someone like me might be doing in bed. I was shocked, and a little offended, this wasn’t at least a popular elective class in medical school, but I wanted information, so, beginning slowly, I walked her through the ins and outs of three different sex acts, using clunky jargon like manual penetration and cunnilingus because we were inside a doctor’s office. I couldn’t remember the technical word for tribadism just then because I’d never, ever actually referred to scissoring that way, so instead I made up a term like “frictive stimulation.” At the conclusion of this seminar, my doctor suggested gloves as a preventive measure.
When I mentioned notifying past partners, she told me not to worry about it. “Everyone already has this. Maybe they got it from you, maybe they got it from somebody else, maybe they don’t have it yet but they’ll get it tomorrow. Really, sweetie, it’s not a big deal.”
I left and immediately called my most recent ex, sobbing convulsively into the phone. She took it well, said she had a gynecologist appointment coming up anyway, and inquired, chipper, “How are you otherwise?” I didn’t have an answer because, for a period of time afterwards, there was no otherwise. This eclipsed everything.
The depression, though momentarily absolute after my initial diagnosis, lifted. Still, every time I return to the dermatologist, I cry. Sometimes, she cries, too. This is a startling thing to witness, but also comforting. It makes me feel like she’s really in the room. The treatment for genital warts is physically uncomfortable, but I think, for both of us, it was clear from the beginning there was something else going on.
For the first few visits, the dermatologist tried to assure me that my case of HPV, though apparently stubborn, was in no way dangerous. “It’s just cosmetic,” she pleaded, as I stared into the framed Matisse print beside the examination table, a thin river of tears undoing my performance of calm. I couldn’t articulate why “it’s just cosmetic” wasn’t comforting to me, maybe because I didn’t know the scientific or medical term for I’ve become terrifyingly vain as a defense mechanism against the lifelong suspicion that I am, in fact, hideously freakish and it’s only a matter of time before everyone finds out, so no doctor, nothing is just cosmetic to me.
Four months in, when I was still crying, she adjusted her strategy, emphasizing my innocence: I might have gotten HPV from someone who didn’t have symptoms. This is in fact what I suspect. I believe the barista gave me the strand of HPV that caused my genital warts, but if so she was asymptomatic or so mildly symptomatic I didn’t notice. When I got diagnosed, I drafted an email to send to her. We no longer worked together and I’d heard she’d moved to the West Coast or something. We were not on good terms. The draft remained unsent. I justified my decision by reminding myself she saw a gynecologist at least quarterly. If she developed symptoms, I hoped her doctors would notice.
“Most people’s bodies can keep the warts at bay,” my dermatologist intoned. “Yours just can’t. You’re sensitive to the virus. You’re unlucky.” That day I wept so much on the train ride home, I got dehydrated.
There’s an insidious way random misfortune fits into and reinforces an existing narrative of doom and causality. In a column in Slate titled, “How Giving Up a Pet Raised Particular Concerns for One Queer Family,” John Culhane writes about how the prospect of putting the family dog to sleep triggered deep anxiety in him. His daughters have two fathers and this incident made Culhane realize he was holding on to a semi-conscious belief that his family, due to its non-normative make-up, was particularly fragile. As he contemplated the “we have to kill our dog” talk with his ten-year-old twins, he found himself worrying the kids would never forgive him, that they would never recover as a family, that the death of this dog might send them all spiraling.
It’s not a large leap to reinterpret these concerns as the ones Culhane, in his darkest, most secret heart, harbors about being a queer parent or, more broadly, about being a queer person. When I found out about my STI, I felt wretched, unlovable, and beyond redemption. It’s not a large leap to see this as a hyperbolization of my darkest and most secret fears about being a lesbian—a word that, no matter how long I’ve used it to positively identify, still sounds like a description of ugliness to me.
Every time I return to the dermatologist for cryotherapy, I react, not as though this is an annoying but routine treatment for the innocuous symptoms of an innocuous virus, but as though it is the fulfillment of a prophecy: floods, misfortune, divine punishment. I’ve tried to figure out the ultimate source of the narrative I’m using to interpret this experience, but it’s difficult, because, an idea, like a virus, attaches to its host, penetrates, and becomes enmeshed; by the time you know it’s there, it’s already part of you.
It could have been the media. I’ve been watching YouTube clips of my closeted teen favorites and there’s a definite association between queerness and doom—see Rent, Angels in America, the lifetime movie Prayers for Bobby, every gay storyline on Law & Order from the early and mid-2000s. In these representations, gay characters find love and then die twenty minutes later, in gay-bashings, from AIDS, by suicide. These stories reflect some truths about the queer experience, but because they were the only kinds of stories I consumed, they also circumscribed my vision of a possible future.
But television and movies are easy scapegoats; they leave a trail of themselves behind, infinitely rewindable. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been as susceptible to these depictions of apocalyptic queerness if my own gay uncle hadn’t died of AIDS. Or if my mom’s lesbian friend hadn’t died young of lung cancer. Lots of people die of lung cancer, but I only knew one person who did and that one person reflected the part of myself I was most afraid of. These things didn’t happen to me, but they happened to people like me, and there were no positive counter-examples: no gay uncle who lived, no other lesbian friend. I’m taking HPV so hard because I expected worse.
I’ve sought out books and movies and television shows about happy queers in an effort to recondition myself, but honestly, I don’t really identify with those characters. I saw Love, Simon—it confused me. I had to keep reminding myself it was about gay people, or I guess I had to keep reminding myself it was supposed to be about people who were supposed to be like me. The male protagonist wasn’t the problem; most queer media depicted gay guys when I was growing up, so I’m used to projecting myself onto men. I think my issue was that Simon always seemed safe, even when he was struggling, and I haven’t learned to imagine that yet.
I fantasize about finding older queer mentors who could show me by example how to expect a happy, unburdened life. I should be braver about seeking out such people, but I’m afraid I’ll confuse them, my hand-wringing over subconscious fear standing in stark contrast to the actual violence they remember.
The symptoms of HPV are treatable, but not the virus itself. If you treat the symptoms and they don’t return, your body may have cleared the virus. Or not. So far, my warts have left me no room to wonder.
It would be disingenuous to express gratitude for this experience as a whole; it’s frustrating and expensive and it makes me sad. But I am grateful, in a narrow way, that my STI made my fatalism so plain. And while I can’t exorcise this complex directly, I can notice and name its symptoms. Now, when I report to the dermatologist, I try to see the whole thing as a metaphor. I think about deep psychic healing while she calibrates her nitrous oxide canister. I think about hope when she points and aims and shoots. And in the days that follow, as my skin blisters and clear fluid billows underneath, I invite my sadness to surface, so that it might find release.
ANNABEL LANG is a writer living in Chicago by way of the Carolinas. She is the co-founder and co-curator of Junior Varsity, a public workshop and variety show. She also has also participates and leads writing workshops through Wasted Pages, the workshop series formerly housed at CHI-PRC. As a performer, she has been featured around Chicago, most notably at the Neo-Futurist Theater. She has essays featured or forthcoming in Jet Fuel Review, American Chordata, and Cosmonauts Avenue. In all likelihood, if you are from Chicago, she has either served your coffee or sold you a book sometime in the last four years.