DC Civic Pride

Satellite image of the DC area. From geology.com.

This piece opens the second installment of City by City, an online project. Readthe rest of the series so far.


I didn’t understand how vexed the question of my geographic origins was until I turned 18. This realization came with little warning: I wasn’t, after all, one of those kids whose hippie or military parents moved them around every eighteen months. I didn’t have a mom in one town and a dad in the next. The two houses I had lived in, one for seven years, one for the next eleven, were located thirty minutes from each other. I went off to college thinking I knew the answer to “Where’re you from?” I was from DC.

This was not technically true. I had grown up in the Maryland suburbs, and not some oaky bedroom community near the Beltway but what was, when my family moved there, the very edge of the suburbs, the high-tide line of eight-lane interstates where the polluted waves of suburbia lapped at the shores of rural Maryland. Rural Maryland is quite lovely, and driving down by the Potomac is one of the most worthwhile things to do within a short distance of the tan two-story house where I did most of my growing up. But I was not from rural Maryland; and suburban Maryland, like most suburbs, is a generic kind of non-place that could just as easily be New Jersey or Oregon or Arkansas. People from Baltimore, people from the Eastern Shore: these people are from Maryland. I was not.

DC, on the other hand, had a culture, a personality, and, most important, a punk scene. As a teenager, I identified strongly with DC punk. I was justifiably proud of this provenance: Fugazi were a big deal, Nation of Ulysses were a big deal to those in the know, the Teen Beat and Simple Machines record labels were a big deal to people in a slightly different know.

Then I got to college, and the trouble started. I was in the heart of an institution deeply invested in policing boundaries between center and periphery, and I was trying, like any good punk, to disregard and confound these boundaries, but I had underestimated the resistance I’d face. Also, like a good teenager, I had underestimated the slightness of my arsenal.

Kids would ask where I was from and I would say, “DC.” And invariably the response would come back, “Oh, you’re from DC? Where?”

I’d keep it vague. “Oh, just outside the city, in Maryland.”

“Bethesda?” my interrogators would press with a mix of curiosity and skepticism: They sensed a hole in my story. “Chevy Chase?”

Any of these close-in suburbs would have qualified as DC. It’s not like New York, where if you’re from any part of Queens without a subway station, people are dubious that you live in the city. In the DC area, the suburbs are considered part of DC, as long as the suburbs are close-in.

My suburb was not close-in, but I had an even bigger problem: the house where I had grown up wasn’t located in any municipality at all. All the markers of where one lives—high school, telephone exchange, public library, postmark, mailing address—these didn’t line up for me. My high school was in Rockville; my telephone exchange belonged to Darnestown; my post office was Diamond Farms; for libraries I switched between Rockville and Gaithersburg and, somewhat inexplicably, Wheaton. When I sent mail, the postmark read merely Suburban Maryland—all periphery, no center.

The question of my mailing address was the most problematic. When I was in second grade and my family moved to this no man’s land, our new mailing address was Gaithersburg. But this didn’t sit well with some of our neighbors. Gaithersburg as a whole, you see, was sort of rough. Gaithersburg High was known for drugs and fights and gangs. Plus, Gaithersburg’s town center was a fifteen-minute drive in the wrong direction, away from DC and away from civilization. Before I finished elementary school, a local woman launched a successful campaign to rename our whole area North Potomac. There was, of course, no city council to accept or reject the change, but the post office added North Potomac to the list of accepted city names for our zip code, and the area eventually became what the US Census refers to with telling banality as a place.

The name was picked to capitalize on the reputation of nearby Potomac, a polo and estate country of mile-long driveways and horse farms that in no way resembled the neighborhood where I lived. Our subdivision, Dufief Mill, had been a farm the year before my family moved into our new house, and for five years after that, as our subdivision’s associated siblings (Dufief Mill Estates, Dufief Mill Gardens, Dufief Mill Terrace, Dufief Millkeeper’s Daughter[1]) rolled themselves out like cul-de-sac’d sod, the earth-movers turned over the ground, digging foundations and making the air ceaselessly mossy with the exposed scent of cowshit. To call where I lived—with its dwarf trees tottering on braces and mulch, its shit-laced air, its identical aluminum-siding houses—North Potomac was not so different from pretending that Bushwick is really East Williamsburg.

My parents saw the new name as pretentious and strive-y; they didn’t make the change, and I didn’t either. But this meant that I now lived in a different town from everybody else in my neighborhood. Still, not being from a particular place didn’t bother me. It left me freer to self-affiliate based on affinity instead of geography. By tenth grade, I was realizing that my primary affinities had to do with an emerging feminist consciousness and, closely related, an inchoate sense of myself as queer, two allegiances that are often underappreciated in upper Montgomery County. Entwined, they forced me to branch out from my nebulous suburban margins earlier than I might have otherwise.

My parents had already repelled several ardent feints at teen rebellion. They were a somewhat traditional pair of authority figures, dead set on protecting me from any imaginable attack or discomfort. This was why we lived in the suburbs, why we rarely went downtown, and why we never strayed from tourist spaces when we did. My parents seemed to believe that if you didn’t go to the dangerous places, if you chose your route with care, nothing bad would happen to you. Of course this only increased my craving for disaster, but in a conflicted, ambivalent way.

The teen feminist underground turned out to be a bulletproof alibi, affording me an unprecedented freedom. In my parents’ eyes, founding a feminist club at my school had made feminism the x factor that would get me into a good college, which meant that when I told them I was going to sleep at P.’s house because it was the twentieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade and Operation Rescue was hitting DC’s abortion clinics at 6 in the morning and we had to be there first to keep the clinics open, they had to let me go, because feminism was my thing.

This wasn’t quite an alibi, strictly speaking, because my friends and I did plan to wake up at 5 in the morning to defend the clinics. But first we ordered pizza, and then we crammed ourselves into one small car and drove to the lesbian bar downtown.

This was my first time at a bar. Unlike Tracks, the three-story mixed-gender gay club in the scary neighborhood of Southeast where some of my suaver friends had gone before, the main lesbian bar in DC—an erstwhile punk club called the Hung Jury—was sandwiched in a well-lit downtown alley between fancy lobbying firms and the National Mall. As we walked from the car, I looked down the street behind us and saw the pale, floodlit White House. The whole city at 10 PM was brutally cold and quiet. It was January 1993: Colorado’s antigay Amendment 2 had just become law; Bill Clinton was about to fail to end the ban on gays in the military. By the end of the year, a circuit court judge in Virginia would take a lesbian’s child from her, citing the state’s sodomy laws. I felt or would feel all these facts keenly, like personal attacks. Among the other things I felt keenly: I was 16. There had been three boyfriends and one girlfriend, most of them at summer camp. And I was walking DC’s broad sidewalks toward my first lesbian bar, accompanied by a new group of friends held together entirely by the conditional icing of erotic tension.

I didn’t have a fake ID. The Hung Jury wasn’t stringent about carding, though. The affable bouncer called out, “Well, ladies, are we 18 or 21 tonight?” “Eighteen,” we chorused, trying to sound convincing and knowing it didn’t matter. Everybody there seemed to feel an ethical and political responsibility to make space for us. I have this memory of her saying “Just show me your library card,” but that may just be a story I heard once about another gay bar in another town. The bouncer drew big X’s on our hands to keep us from getting alcohol at the bar, so we drank Shirley Temples and ginger ales and ground up on each other to house music (I’m gonna get you yes I am)—not so different from what girls anywhere were doing, really, except that we were on a mission to invent ourselves as lesbians. The Hung Jury, with its stacks of Washington Blades heaped up in the entryway, its Banana Republic femmes and flat-top bruisers, was where we tried to weave our unruly patterns of private desires into something like a collective identity.

Was it ridiculous that I expected this route to be less perilous than being a straight teenager? Maybe it wasn’t wholly ridiculous: as long as I wasn’t having sex with boys, I couldn’t get pregnant and I probably wasn’t going to get HIV, and our desire to be in a public space with other queer women actually kept us from alcohol. It would have been much easier to stay home and let the one person with a fake ID buy twelve-packs of wine coolers for all of us. For all the political attacks and social rejection that queerness entailed, I nonetheless felt a sense of safety here, as if teen lesbianism were its own suburb, far away from the mean streets of downtown adolescent sexuality; as if by dissenting from the traditional templates of adolescence we could bypass certain aspects of being young.

But somewhere between midnight at the lesbian bar and 5:30 the next morning outside the abortion clinic—somewhere in the corners of P.’s mom’s attic—that sense of protection crumbled. We were, it turned out, selfish, confused, jockeying for status, wantonly clumsy about friendship and sex, about what we wanted from one another and who we wanted to be. Like my neighborhood, neither Gaithersburg nor Rockville, whose name refused to appear accurately on any map, our identities didn’t match up to anything preexisting, and in our desperate efforts to survey the borders of these unincorporated suburbs—landscapes that overlapped, messily, with the surfaces of our bodies—we only got more and more lost.

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