Why Lesbians Are So Nostalgic

It was a shock to me to find out that the ’90s are “coming back” and that I’m of an age when fashion cycles have hit their 30-year loop and are bouncing back into my face. Jelly sandals notwithstanding, there is something about a return to the familiar that most people welcome. Lesbians, in particular, have a very deep relationship to nostalgia. Let’s discuss why.

Gay Pride ParadePhoto by Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Scarcity

The L Word happened over 10 years ago, but it remains shorthand to many, many lesbians and queer people. To those of us who were of an age to watch it the first time it came around, it evokes an earlier time—an earnestness and enthusiasm for a show entirely about lesbians, and a remembrance of days gone by. Oh, the haircuts, the exes, the seasonsthey go round and round. To folks newer to The L Word game, it may be about the newness of an identity, and a heady descent into what will consume several weeks of your life.

Last year I rewatched all six seasons over the course of a few months while doing the dishes and brushing my teeth and working out. Entire conversations were lost. I seemed to wander in and out of room and somebody was always crying or fucking (fighting, drinking?) and it seems like there for the entirety of Shane’s relationship to that woman Paige (the lady who was a single mom!) she was always, always midway through brushing her teeth, or wandering around the apartment with it hanging out of her mouth. This is the way that we live.

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It is definitively not the same as my weekly dates with friend Cory who had cable, who would often make nachos, and had a special dance for the opening credits. I never did the dance with Cory because I am a killjoy, but I would mumble the words while Cory was chanting and bouncing around on the couch. These days, I am 10 years older, wandering around my house during crucial conversations on-screen, wondering where my girlfriend put my slippers. Times are not the same.

But nostalgia remains, and I revisit these old artifacts as part of my personal history and the retroactive documentation of the friends and dates that passed through that time. I remember a crabby ex who was ashamed of liking The L Word downloading episodes to my computer when she was sick. I remember wandering between bars the first night I met an ex of mine, and happening upon the lesbian bar, with The L Word projected onto the wall, fragments of our intense conversation broken up by squeals and moans coming from the projector amplifiers.

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It means something different to each of us, and we all take what we need from it. In this way, we have all embedded our stories into The L Word, into Dykes to Watch Out For, into Ariel Schrag‘s comics or Jeanette Winterson novels. I still miss the characters of Alison Bechdel‘s DTWOF, which ran from 1983-2008. When I first bought the books in college, I hadn’t been part of a queer community for very long, and the interconnection and trajectory of the characters didn’t mean much to me. The longer I had queer friends, and the more people I knew that these comics meant something to, and the greater context I had for the time they were created (five to 10 years before I came on the scene), the greater resonance they had for me.

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But lesbians have a depth of nostalgia because there has been so little for us, that we imprint upon what is offered to us and make it our own.

Lack of role models

Most queer folks I know wish they knew more lesbian/gay/queer people just in general, but wish they knew more queer people of their particular intersections of identity and lifestyle and want to see their own future reflected back to them, ideally in an emotionally satisfied, financially stable context. For many of us, we have a lack of access to intergenerational relationships, or of ones that feel like a good fit, and we have few people to model ourselves after. Historical media becomes the way we map out our history and sense of ourselves. I have no other reason to read The Well of Loneliness except to locate myself in a history of lesbians/gender fabulosity.

We remember time differently as we get older

The further we get away from our 20s, the more that time becomes set in amber. Time slows down for us neurologically in our 20s, and it seems to move along at a faster clip the older we get. For most folks that come out in their teens/early 20s, this era can be rich with dating, experimentation, and self-exploration. We embed this era into our narrative about ourselves, and all this while we are getting deeper into life trajectory processes in one’s 30s, we have already laid the framework for our sense of ourselves. The things that we loved when we were younger become a little bit more precious, though we can continue to develop and change.

It can be tough to love what you love, but also allow space for growth and change in our preferences. But that’s how we grow as people, and cultivate creativity in our communities, and have vivid relationships—change and innovation. Part of our fear of aging is a fear of growing static, but the truth is that people remain relevant across time and age, and you do, too.

First published on AE in March, 2016.

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