San Francisco turned me straight

I was a hardcore lesbian when I came to the famously freaky city. So how did I start sleeping with men?

Topics: Salon -- After Dark, Sex, Coupling, Life stories, San Francisco,

San Francisco turned me straight (Credit: Shutterstock/Salon)
This essay is the first in a new series on Salon about bisexual experiences.

I proposed to my last girlfriend in Lesvos, Greece, at sunset, overlooking the craggy shores of Skala Eresou. I carried the ring 8,000 miles. I wasn’t eloquent, but she cried and I cried and as we walked back to our rented house, we played a game where we guessed the number of stray cats we’d see along the way. We said the loser had to kiss the winner a million times.

Shortly after that, we moved to San Francisco. Shortly after that, I was on a different shore and she was on a boat drifting farther away from me each day. Shortly after that, we stopped having sex. Words were somewhere in the absence growing between us but I couldn’t find them. My only weapon was repetition. I made us dinner. We watched “Glee.” We went to yoga. Shortly after that, she told me she wanted to date men, that our relationship was over.

My ex-girlfriend now has a boyfriend and lives in Minnesota. My yoga teacher, who announced to her mom at age 8 that she was a lesbian, now exclusively dates men, and has been in a committed relationship with a man for more than a year. My straightest guy friends have all at least made out with other men, while others are now dabbling in full-on dude sex. Whatever norm you came in with, San Francisco eventually takes it and turns it right on its (uncircumcised, pierced) head. It shouldn’t have surprised me that the City wanted to have its way with me too.  Still, I was the last person who thought I’d be a lesbian who spent the next year and a half of her life sleeping with men.

San Francisco is no stranger to the provocative, I know. Nary a rally or Sunday stroll exists without the backdrop of a few naked men in cock rings and pink faux-hawks. Here the rainbow flag is larger than the American one, parents push strollers around the Folsom Street Fair, and spectators can always drop in to the monthly porn wrestling matches at the Armory if dinner and a movie is too passé.

Sometimes I think S.F. is one of those Emerald City-type places where, free of many of the cultural or religious constraints that plague other cities, you can be the truest version of yourself, or at least have a really good time exploring untrue versions of yourself along the way. It’s a city that embraces the idea of potential, not limitations. I realize, of course, that sexuality can’t really be articulated or altered by a ZIP code, but all this flip-flopping seemed pervasive to me, and I figured the City itself, its brazenness, its tendency toward experimentation and spectacle, had to at least play a role in this shifting sexual mind-set.

I didn’t realize I liked girls until I was 20, so I was never a gold-star lesbian (someone who never slept with boys), but I am pretty stereotypically gay. I was a high school gym teacher. I drive a pickup truck. I minored in women’s studies. I know the difference between tempeh and seitan. It’s all womyn and grrls up in this hizzy, in other words. Yet I found myself a few months after my breakup mired in men, and behaving a lot straighter than I had at any other time in my life, which includes the brief affair I tried to have with eyelash crimpers in high school.

The first guy in S.F. I slept with was a friend I’d known for years. He offered to be my wingman at a tranny dance party during Pride weekend, but at the end of the night, we were the lone “straight” couple making out on the dance floor. It was somewhat embarrassing, actually. I felt like I was betraying myself, and “my people,” which was silly because no one knew who I was or cared about whom I made out with. As if the hot boi in the bow tie and suspenders would suddenly leap up and pronounce me a fraud between Le Tigre mashups. I went home with my friend and we had sex for hours. We didn’t discuss anything or stop to wonder if this was a good idea. We just kept moving to the rhythm of each other’s particular hungers. Afterward I felt so relieved. The months of frustration and rejection that led to my breakup were all released during this one marathon night of hetero sex. “I’m OK,” I thought. “I’m going to be OK.” While waiting for the bus outside his house, I burst into tears.

Then there was another friend, a new one. We went to a bar and he told me to tell him my life story, starting from birth. It took 12 hours, and he didn’t once let me ask him any questions in return. We held hands on the way back to his apartment and I remember thinking, “This is so wrong. Our hands don’t fit together. Our hands are just grasping at anything.”

San Francisco’s not an easy city to live in. Everyone is struggling a little, to pay the exorbitant rents, to stand out in a lasting way, to grow up as slowly as possible. I was unemployed the first five months I lived here, then took an internship that paid $6.25 an hour. Without the relationship luxury of shared expenses, I was barely surviving. But I was writing and I was having sex, which somehow made my financial and emotional woes more bearable. After a while, being straight felt more subversive to me than being queer, even more so when I was having queer sex with straight men. I would strap on a dildo and screw men face down on the mattress. I would grip their hips in my hands and feel alive, powerful. “I am moving on,” I thought. “I am free and empowered. This city won’t break me.”

I had a moment of panic shortly after that, where I blamed all of this on my ex-girlfriend. If she can be straight, then so can I, I told myself, as if that would prove anything. As if it would take away the anguish and loneliness of a life that would never again be ours.

Since many of us in San Francisco are struggling, it makes our connections to other people all the more urgent. We may be dropping a grand each month to live in a closet, but at least we have friends, lovers and many of those murky, in-between relationships that resist definition and ease.

I had quite a few of these relationships. There was the writer, the filmmaker, the lawyer. None of them had names really. They were known to me by their professions, or in some cases, their kinks. It was freeing, in a way. In S.F., I wasn’t defined or confined by my identity as a lesbian. Nor did I have to make excuses as to why I didn’t want to be in a relationship with any of these men. It felt radical, for a time. I would tell them I liked girls, always expecting it to be a deterrent, slightly disappointed that it never was. Or maybe they just didn’t believe me. To these new people, my track record as a queer lady existed only in words, in stories that seemed to take place in some bygone era, when in fact it had less than a year.

In my darker moments, I saw my newfound straightness for what it was: a crutch to avoid the pain of being hurt again. If I in no way imitated that girl who got her heart broken, then I was safe. And since I wasn’t getting any attention from queer women anyway, did it even matter?

The longer I went without emotionally or physically connecting with women, the more confused I became. It was like I was watching a foreign film of my life without subtitles.

Being with men started becoming my norm. And it freaked me out. Because even though it wasn’t familiar, it was easy. There’s very little guesswork involved with picking up men. There was no need to scrutinize fingernail length or namedrop “The L Word” in order to determine if someone was amenable to sleeping with me. In fact, it was pretty much assumed that 15 minutes of uninterrupted talk with a dude meant the possibility of sex was on the table.

We like to name things because it gives us a sense of order and comfort. So we can feel connected to one another. If I say I’m a daughter we all know what that means. Or a liberal, or a feminist, or a molecular biologist. But sexuality often doesn’t work that way. If you don’t look the part of a queer, then you don’t exist. I encountered this problem in other areas of my life as well. I’m half Native American, but you’d never know it unless I was standing next to my raven-haired mother. In this way, my queerness didn’t make sense unless it was in relation to who I was fucking at the time, which further alienated me from my former sexual identity. When all you have is your word, you’re always dependent on other people’s beliefs.

On the rare occasion that a woman did express interest in me, she was usually straight, another byproduct of San Francisco’s peculiar lure. Everyone was getting their rocks off, but no one was happy. This became even more evident when my dude sex started to sour. One guy I met online thought he could make me orgasm by simply commanding me to do so. Another guy reached over and took a hit from a pipe while inside me. Then two of my sex partners started having sex with each other and stopped having sex with me. It was all such a big, sticky mess that I am still trying to untangle.

S.F. author Stephen Elliott wrote recently that “San Francisco is this great drug and you sit on top of Bernal Heights and watch boats named ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Raw Ambition’ and ‘Your Worst Self’ sail by so far off you can’t read the red paint on their hulls, and throw your head back and open your mouth in the shape of a cloud.”

San Francisco taught me that a lot of things in my life had to end before I could begin again. It also taught me that there are no right or wrong ways to conduct your life, only honest ones.

Anna Pulley (@annapulley) writes about sex and social media for SF Weekly, AlterNet, After Ellen and the Chicago Tribune. She's also attempting to lead a haiku revival on her blog,

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>