Every New Yorker knows what an inconveniently small town the city can be: Exes resurface at the most inopportune times, usually in the middle of a first date with someone new. But the lesbian scene can feel crushingly claustrophobic, with people knowing the intimate details of your life before they’ve even met you. “I’ve been at a party talking to someone I don’t know at all,” says Suzanne, a 27-year-old Brooklyn lawyer. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re Suzanne,’ and give me my ex’s version of events over macaroni and cheese.”
The widespread information-sharing is part and parcel of an insular scene. “On a given night, you will be at one of ten places,” says Suzanne, who, like most other women I spoke with, declined to use her real name. Suzanne moved to New York from Seattle two years ago, and last year, her ex—who now goes by “he”—moved, too. They ran into each other so often that Suzanne was forced to take extreme measures. “We tried to be okay seeing each other, but sometimes it just broke my heart if I saw him unexpectedly. So finally we agreed to carve up the city.” She got Monday night at the Cock and Wednesday at the Boiler Room; he got bingo at Global 33 and Mary Lou Lord concerts.
Breakup politics are a constant complaint among twentysomething queer women, who can have blurry boundaries between past and present, friend and girlfriend. When a man tells a woman, “I want to stay friends,” he’s probably lying, but when a woman says it to a woman, there’s a good chance she means it. Even if a woman and her ex have a healthy friendship, she may not have an easy time when she learns that one ex is now dating another, a problem straight people never have to worry about.
Edie, 36, an ad exec, was furious when she learned that her ex-girlfriend (and current best friend) Gina had slept with Felicity, another, more recent ex. “I was less mad at Gina than at Felicity,” she says. “I considered it an act of violence.”
Diana, a 31-year-old schoolteacher, was on the other side of a similar scenario. She hooked up with her girlfriend Beth’s ex, and Beth found out. “We kind of got past it,” Diana recalls, “but then I learned that they had discussed the details of what we had done. Beth said to a friend, ‘It’s good that they didn’t have oral sex,’ and it got back to me. I thought, Does everyone need to know what’s happening at all times?”
Because of all the recycling, cross-pollination, and unwanted run-ins, New York lesbians tend to have a love-hate relationship with what they call “the scene,” which consists of only several dozen lesbian bars and weekly parties. They don’t always like seeing the same faces, but they have to be in the scene if they want to hook up. “It’s the chicken or the egg,” says Alex, 39, a filmmaker. “Is it because gay women don’t go out that there’s no place to go or because there are no good places to go that gay women don’t go out?”
The insularity is more pronounced within lesbian micro-scenes like Williamsburg electroclash, West Village bridge and tunnel, or, one of the newest, the East Village transgender scene. FTMs, or females-to-males, are lesbians who are “transitioning” into men by taking testosterone or exaggerating their masculine dress and changing their names. (Few actually undergo genital reconstruction.) Meow Mix now hosts a monthly party called “Trans*Am,” billed as “where the bois are,” and there are lesbians who call themselves transchasers.
Even the seemingly infinite world of online dating can feel like a block party to a New York lesbian. Femmes seeking butches on online personals sites like Bust or PlanetOut will find that they already know many members of their prospective dating pool. “Practically every cute butch online has dated one of my friends,” says Suzanne, “if not me. These microcosms get created through sexual self-selection. My friends are largely femmes who date only butches—so many of us have dated or at least slept with the same ones.”
But the girl swapping does have its upside. “There’s the strange camaraderie of everyone who’s slept with the same person,” says Suzanne. “I was at brunch on Sunday, and we were all sitting around complaining about this cute little boy we’d all fallen for.”
“I dated a woman who was a dead fish in bed,” says Edie, the ad exec. “But then I told my friend, who’s friends with the woman’s ex, and I found out that she was the same in bed with her as she was with me. It really helped my self-esteem.”
In a small, same-gender world where an ex’s ex can be your new girlfriend, there are six-degrees possibilities that even Kevin Bacon would find staggering. “These two girlfriends, Elizabeth and Renée, picked me up at Leather Pride Night one year,” Suzanne recalls. “They later moved in together and promptly broke up. I dated and then broke up with Renée, and later started dating a girl named Lisa. I broke up with Lisa, and she went out with Elizabeth for a while. It was a whole web of exes. It’s like that eighties T-shirt: AN ARMY OF EX-LOVERS CANNOT FAIL.”