recently released an article titled "28 Mind-Blowing Lesbian Sex Positions." Where was this vital information when I was a teenager? How much more fulfilling would my young life have been if I had known about "The Rocket," "The Kinky Jockey," or "Defying Gravity," a position in which one receives oral sex while performing a handstand?
The answer is easy. I turned 17 in 1992, the year 638,527 Oregonians voted for Ballot Measure 9, a ballot measure that classed homosexuality with pedophilia, necrophilia, and bestiality. If passed, it would have banned gays from state employment and work with children. Almost 44 percent of the state voted yes.
In the months leading up to the vote, gays and lesbians were shot, beaten, stalked, and harassed. Offices for the No on 9 campaign were ransacked. In the capitol, 20 minutes from my home, a black lesbian and her gay roommate were firebombed.
I was 17, out, and lonely in a way that changed the very composition of my blood. I also had some peculiar ideas about lesbians because I didn't actually know any. For one thing, I had a special lesbian outfit. It was a gauzy black jumper which I wore over a crocheted sweater. On the back, I slapped neon Queer Nation stickers, which prompted well-meaning classmates to ask if I knew that someone had stuck something on me.
"Yeah," I replied with scorn, as though they had questioned my integrity as an activist. "I stuck something on me."
I was also convinced that all lesbians went braless, shaved their heads, drank Earl Grey tea, and drove stick shift. I mastered the first three, but the last remained tragically out of reach since both my parents had automatics.
Karelia, Age 17
In some ways, my third novel, Forgive Me If I've Told You This Before, is my childhood had I been cool. Put the Instagram "1992 Hip Lesbian" filter over my life, and there is the protagonist, Triinu Hoffman, not wearing a jumper. In another way, Forgive Me If I've Told You This Before is far truer than a memoir I wrote (and never published) many years earlier.
Every summer, I take an art class, and every summer our teacher says, "Draw what you see, not what you think you see."
In writing Forgive Me If I've Told You This Before, I had to turn away from my own awkward self-recollection and see the truth: the breathtaking strength of queer kids, their isolation, and their integrity. As Triinu says of her straight classmates, "I knew what I had always known: I would not trade my loneliness for the halogen glow of their certainty..."
And yes, there is sex in the novel — not the "Sexy Spider," and much less sex than in my thrillers, The Admirer and The Purveyor — but it's there even though Forgive Me If I've Told You This Before is ostensibly a young adult novel.
I know some readers prefer sex scenes that fade to gray. Others say there is no place for sex in YA. I've read enough romance novels to know that the bedroom elicits some truly bad writing. And the rigid sword of his manhood plunged into the core of her womanly heat. Etc. Etc.
Sex-scene opponents argue that subtlety is always best. If we're talking mighty swords and womanly heat, I agree. I don't care for detailed anatomical descriptions either. If you need a pamphlet on finding the clitoris, I could write it, but that's not a work of fiction. However, there is a kind of sex scene that is essential to great fiction.
"Draw what this flower looks like," our teacher tells us as we settle into our plein air sketching, "not what you think flowers should be."
When it comes to sex in American culture, we do not draw what we see. Sure, Redtube shares a thousand poorly lit videos of "real" sex, and a billboard on my way to work flashes breasts the size of Mini Coopers, but there is no soul there.
In sex, our souls surface in our seething bodies, for better or for worse. In compassion, pity, lust, and rage, in love, in joy, in humble adoration, in Aristophanes' grief at our separateness, we play our part in the eternal spring. We fuck. We make love. A few of us have, perhaps, even mastered the "Tawdry Tire Swing."
And plot happens there — especially for teenagers. That kiss, that salt-taste, that strange unveiling, that night beneath the stars: those breathless firsts make us who we are.
In Forgive Me If I've Told You This Before, young Triinu Hoffman loses her virginity with a beautiful British exchange student she meets at the iconic City Nightclub in Portland. First, Triinu tells the girl a dreamlike story about an encounter with a mountain lion. Triinu thinks, "This is the one thing you should remember about America." Then she touches the girl through her rayon pants.
I contend, you're not a child of the '90s if you haven't made a girl come through jewel-tone rayon.
Moreover, I refuse to draw the curtain, like a redaction bar, across the bedroom and say, "Look away. We all know what happens down there." I, like Triinu, can find the labia minor on a Xeroxed worksheet, but there is so much more to sex.
I hope the young queers who read Forgive Me If I've Told You This Before do not know what it means to have sex in the context of political oppression. Every gay boy I knew in high school was beaten, and I want nothing more than to be the last living person who can say that. I don't want anyone — in America or Russia or Iran — to have the experience of being despised for their love. But I want all my readers to know what it felt like to be young and gay and to make love in a climate of homophobic hate because that sex was so... wonderful.
I was as clumsy as any teen, and my lovers were no better. Our pleasure wasn't about orgasm. It was about the fight. That was a thrill like no other. Like the fighter plane lifting off the runway at dawn, that was a high so fierce it made even happiness irrelevant. Lying in bed with her lover, Triinu muses, "I thought our beauty was a war we were winning….Fie on my detractors. What argument could they mount against our gorgeous, naked youth?"
Photo of Karelia Stetz-Waters by Paul Hawkwood