Sophie and Anna were aware of one another-they were both sophomores at the same private school in Brooklyn-but had never actually met until a mutual friend invited them both to go snowboarding upstate at her country house last winter. They stayed up talking after everyone else went to sleep.
“We spent the whole entire night finding out how we were in love with the same books and music,” said Sophie, who has long, dirty-blond hair and heavy-lidded eyes that are never completely open. “She was new and she was pretty and mysterious, with her dark hair-all the guys flocked to her.”
The following Friday night, they went to Anna’s house, raided her parents’ liquor cabinet, and ended up walking up and down lower Broadway, talking to strangers and giggling. They were holding hands and hugging, and at one point, Anna was leaning up against a store window when Sophie put her arms around her neck and kissed her.
“She put her hands around my neck and kissed me back, and that was it,” said Sophie.
They hailed a cab to take them to a friend’s party in Brooklyn and made out the whole ride there.
“A lot of kisses are meaningless,” said Anna, who looks like a less sweet version of Katie Holmes. “But there are those few that really just fill you up and make you feel warm and happy.”
Sophie and Anna (their names have been changed) arrived at their friend’s brownstone and joined everyone in the den, sitting down on either side of a guy Anna had a crush on.
“We were kissing each other across him, and then we both started kissing him,” said Sophie.
“We were being quite outward about it,” said Anna. “It was kind of obnoxious. But there’s this thing about enjoying it-and doing it for attention. And it was both.”
After that, Anna and Sophie continued to spend all their time together-but even now that they were physically involved, they never thought of themselves as lesbians. They both knew that their romance would probably come to an end if either one of them met a guy she wanted to date.
While many New York girls may act like lesbians to both mock and attract young men, there is a definite group of young women who are finding something in a sexualized female bond that they don’t get from the attentions of the average high-school boy. While “L.U.G.’s” (lesbians until graduation) became a term of derision in the 1990’s-applied to college women who slept with women on campus but would immediately link up with socially appropriate males once they left college-the trend seems to have worked its way into a younger crowd. (At least among girls. Boys interested in publicly experimenting with other boys would find themselves in a far less “glamorous” subgroup.)
“Day-long, week-long, month-long: There are many types of lesbians at my school,” said “Tina,” a junior at a private school on the Upper East Side. Tina first experienced kissing her girlfriends in seventh grade, at sleepover parties.
“The girls in junior high are more experimenting with a partner that they think is safe,” she said. “It’s like practicing for guys. But girls who are in high school do it more for novelty purposes. A lot of popular girls do it. They just figure out that it’s something guys think is hot, and they use that to their advantage. It’s totally O.K. to be a real lesbian, but poser lesbians are usually a kind of insecure girl who feels like she’s not really special for any reason-and I know I kind of sound like Dr. Phil.”
“It’s not really that big a deal,” said Tanya Lewaller, the president of Perspective, a club that deals with gender and sexuality issues, at Hunter College High School on the Upper East Side. “I know girls who are really lesbian-that’s their sexual preference-and I’ve met girls who do both. It’s cool that people can experiment with it, and in high school they can try to find out what they feel about it and what’s their orientation. And it’s good that this is a society that’s open about it. It feels normal at Hunter, but once you go outside of New York City, it’s not normal.”
“I think it’s more accepted in the city than the country, because there are more alternative types around,” said Tina. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Last summer at camp, all the little suburban girls would call me a lesbian if I undressed in front of them in our bunk.”
Anna and Sophie admit they’d enjoyed the attention that came with being a girl-girl couple in high school.
“At school, they said I was this wannabe-lesbian straight girl trying to be really cool,” said Anna. “And maybe, you know, I was. People put on the front so much at our age that it’s fantastic to be fluid-but then everybody still has the same reservations we’ve always had.”
“There’s still a big thrill that you get from being that girl, the girl that does that, ” said Sophie. “Even when everyone around you is trashing you.”
“The pop-culture terrain about sexuality has changed, and I think it’s a lot more permissible to be gay-ish than it used to be,” said Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. “Not permanently gay, but gay-ish. So I think young people are trying these things on. If you ever go to Ani DiFranco concerts, they’re filled with girl-girl couples between the ages of 12 and 20, and I’m sure a lot of them are not going to end up gay.”
Girl-girl love scenes are increasingly unremarkable in movies like 1999’s Cruel Intentions (in which Selma Blair and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s characters share a slow and deliberate French kiss) and the current Femme Fatale , in which Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ character seduces Rie Rasmussen.
“I think teenagers always want to go to the edge,” said Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D. “When I was a teenager, the place to go to was Europe. Now that’s old hat, and they want to go to Katmandu. We’re living in a sexually permissive time, and girls feel empowered enough and want to experiment. And a lot of girls are wary of commitments to guys. Girls often give up their power when they start dating. I think girls are so much more relational, and when a girl gets involved with a girl, the girl isn’t just a big ‘Duh.’ The girl talks and cares and listens. It’s not about rebellion-it’s about exploration, and it’s natural.”
Ms. Baumgardner said she believes the more freedom there is to figure out sexuality, the better.
“There has been progress if they feel that they have more options and choices. Maybe there’s a dynamic of sexual inequality at their school-where girls feel like they never have the upper hand, or that they’re going to be a slut if they have sex. Or they don’t know that having a sexual and romantic relationship with their sexual equals is healthy and liberating. In some ways you can even imagine, when you’re making out with a girlfriend, what these things that are so amped up in the culture-like breasts and soft skin-are like. You get to objectify someone the same way you’re objectified by men.”
On a recent Saturday night, about a year after Sophie and Anna met at the ski house, Sophie, Anna, Anna’s boyfriend Thomas and a girl named Eliza-now all juniors at the same private high school-were clustered on the floor of Sophie’s bedroom in her parents’ Gramercy Park apartment. Sophie was straddling Eliza, one of her best friends, giving her a back rub and fiddling with her straight blond hair. Anna was lying with her head on Thomas’ legs.
“I’m not about straight and gay,” said Anna, “I think that if you see something special in a person, that’s all that matters. I’ve generally found those special things in guys, but Sophie and I were utterly and completely dependent on each other, and I really loved her.”
“I spent every single day of my life with Anna,” said Sophie. “And I treated her like I treated a guy. When she wouldn’t call me, I’d be like, ‘Why isn’t she calling?’ I was pretty much obsessed.”
“I think where sexuality becomes malleable is where people are happier,” said Sophie. “People realize that if this huge thing isn’t so serious, and if we can go from being with a girl to being with a guy to back to a girl with fluidity, then everything becomes more fluid. Whenever I hook up with girls, I feel very empowered. And when I hook up with guys, I feel they have more power than me.
“You can just feel it,” she continued. “Ten years ago, girls our age would be embarrassed if they ever got caught, but now many girls take advantage of it, as a situation to be seen as a total sex bomb. There are girls who are gay, there are girls who want attention, and there are girls like me, who just find people I’ve been attracted to and hook up with them. I mean, look at my friends-they’re so pretty. Obviously you’re attracted to them, because you spend so much time with them.”
Sophie slipped into her closet to change her outfit for the fourth time. She emerged wearing a pair of skin-tight jeans and flopped down on her bed.
“I think girls who kiss each other to turn on the guys generally aren’t attracted to each other,” she said. “I see how they react to each other-they spend a lot of their time putting on lip gloss and push-up bras and all that jazz. The girls that go to my high school want to be the picture-perfect image of a girly-girl, because that’s what guys are most attracted to-girls who are virginal and overflowing with femininity. They don’t really like girls who speak their mind.”
Sophie said she’s sure she’ll always fool around with girls, even when she’s an adult, but that she has no interest in identifying herself as lesbian.
“I can pretty much assume that the girls who are gay in our school are very secretive about it,” she said. “I know a girl in 10th grade who would never mention it to anyone-because they would believe her. I think for us, people just suspend their disbelief.”
Anna and Sophie’s physical relationship ended last spring, around the time Sophie met a guy she wanted to be her boyfriend. Anna started dating a guy in her grade a few months later. But the two remain best friends.