I got my first tattoo in September. After years of sketching the Golden Gate Bridge on every spare corner of notebook paper, I woke up one morning sure of the decision to commit to its lines for life. My TED coworkers—almost all of whom have tattoos as well—offered their advice, and our site comment moderator recommended an artist in the West Village not far from the office. That Friday I hesitated on the sidewalk out front, intimidated by the bright lights and tough, masculine staff, before stepping through the front door. I was terrified but I was sure. It marks the only moment I’ve been sure of anything this fall.
People assume I’m from San Francisco when they see my tattoo, which is prominent and large on the inside of my left forearm. I’m never sure how much of the story to go into, but here’s the full version for anyone too shy to ask: I fell in love with San Francisco during college when my dad let me tag along on a business trip. I loved its old, colorful architecture mixed in with hard concrete and glass skyscrapers, its achingly steep hills, its unapologetic sexuality and grime. The city’s reputation preceded it, a kaleidoscope of radical activism, LGBTQ politics, erotic art and leftist ideals. To a feminist raised behind enemy lines in red Connecticut, San Francisco sounded amazing. It sounded like home.
I already had a home, full of chosen family and its own liberal promise: Wesleyan. But at twenty-one, I saw my eviction notice quickly approaching, and so I planned to move to San Francisco after graduation.
This was by far the bravest and stupidest decision I’ve ever made. In June 2014, I moved across the country to a city where I didn’t know a soul with nothing but an unpaid internship lined up. To make matters worse, I was moving to Berkeley, which is a bit like moving to New Jersey when you want to live in Manhattan. All of that would have been enough to stoke my undiagnosed anxiety disorder, but there was also the Bay Area’s rampant catcalling problem and mentally ill homeless population. I had accidentally moved into one of the most dangerous cities for a young woman living on her own for the first time. The summer was one of the worst of my life, and it shattered any conception I had of who I was. In Berkeley, I wasn’t Wesleyan’s darling sex-positive feminist. I was just some girl with no friends, dressing as drably as possibly so as to not attract any unwanted attention. My memory of that summer is colorless.
There’s this story we tell about adversity and how it teaches you who you are. I suppose my short-lived residence in Berkeley did teach me some things: that I’m a New Yorker, for one. That trying to make a living in indie publishing is a doomed proposition, for another. When I look back on it now, what it taught me the most is that it’s arrogant to think I know exactly who I am. That girl in Berkeley was an unknown iteration of me, defeated and crumpled, whose best decision was to accept failure and return home.
It wasn’t all bad. I had nothing to do but write, and the isolation of that summer turned this blog into my lifeblood. There were long afternoons where I did nothing but experiment with post formats and watch my daily page stats rise: 15 views, and then 145 views a few weeks later, and then 554 by the end of July. During my internship with Cleis Press, I made inroads with a community of erotica authors and editors who would go on to champion my essays and publish my fiction. I learned the basics of running social media for a brand, and I accepted my internship with TED on the sidewalk outside of the publishing house, thrilled to have snagged such a coveted position and to finally, finally have an excuse to move home. I could tell people I wasn’t quitting on this disaster of an adventure—I was going to work for TED.
What happened after that is a story I’ve told before: I worked my ass off and saved up enough to move to Brooklyn, and then I wrote an essay that went viral, and then suddenly I was this public figure fielding interview requests and writing a TED Talk of my own. Everyone knew who Ella Dawson was, recognizing me on the L train, inviting me to speak on Wesleyan alumni panels, messaging me for advice and resources and help because I seemed to have my shit together so masterfully. It was all quite glamorous and horrible, each success plagued by a whole bunch of backlash and abuse and self-doubt. That cute little anxiety problem led to a panic attack on a West Village sidewalk. I was simultaneously arrogant and paralyzed by the fear that I was inauthentic. How could I stay who I was despite the attention? How could I stay “me” as “Ella Dawson” became a brand? And how could I answer that tacky fucking question without being the type of person who had to ask it in the first place?
My original plan was to wait to get the tattoo until I’d returned to San Francisco for the TEDWomen conference at the end of October. I had this idea in my head that I would look out at the Golden Gate and just know I was ready for it. What really happened was that I woke up one day and knew I wanted the tattoo, and so I got the tattoo a few days later. I didn’t tell my parents in advance or talk about it much online; it felt like something I had to decide on my own. My best friend drove in from Long Island to hold my hand. The pain was different than I’d expected, searing but exhilarating. I burnt off a layer of myself, the sugar casing of my brand aesthetic and my page views and my relationship drama and my fear. That night I looked at this new ink, protected by plastic wrap, and felt raw and new.
Here’s a list of all the things I’m not sure of this fall: How to be a good daughter to my parents during their divorce as it shatters the very foundation of my life. How to be a good friend to someone who I’m in love with but will never love me back the way I need him to. How to begin writing for myself again after getting hooked on page views and retweets and the validation of strangers. How to be an activist without subjecting myself to the abuse of strangers on a daily basis. How to prioritize my career at TED while I can feel my brain flirting with a nervous breakdown. And, oh god, how to be queer. I have no fucking idea how to be queer.
A few weeks ago, someone sent an email to an assortment of my coworkers. The subject line was “ELLA DAWSON IS BISEXUAL” and it included the sentence “ASK HER IF SHE’S EVER FUCKED A GIRL THOUGH LOL.” It went out during a meeting I was leading, and it didn’t even go to me. My manager and other directors opened the email as I walked them through our analytics report, and I didn’t find out until afterward when a coworker forwarded it to me with a note about how much they loved me. I was humiliated. I haven’t experienced humiliation like that in years.
I’ve identified as bisexual on Twitter and on this blog but it’s not something I’m confident in, nor is it something I talk about much. I have difficulty writing about it even now. Being bisexual is nothing to be ashamed of, but my own confusion and feelings of inadequacy make it a topic I shy away from. For years I’ve felt not queer enough to claim the label of “bi” because to do so felt like appropriating an identity I had no right to. I love men so much, I love fucking them, I love dating them, I love writing about them, I love tweeting about them. My attraction to men is so public, but beyond that, it’s so easy for me to understand. I was raised to see men as romantic partners, and every single day I’ve spent on this Earth has given me more language to process and communicate being heterosexual. Identifying as straight is easy, especially when older generations don’t even necessarily believe bisexuality is real. Being straight is the path of least resistance. I knew I liked women in high school, but after a deeply uncomfortable attempt to talk about it with loved ones, that bold little queer teen in me wilted and went quiet for a long time.
I’ve had crushes on women all my life but never have the confidence to do anything about it, or perhaps to even let myself see it, when I’m sober. Drunk Ella has all the confidence in the world to kiss whoever she wants, but there’s so much stigma and suspicion of straight women getting drunk and performing attraction to women for men that the next morning I always felt like a fraud. I doubted what I felt instead of exploring it, and come Monday morning I went back to tweeting about bros, because bros are so easy and safe, at least in this respect.
It’s only recently in the last year that I’ve begun to understand my feelings for women without liquid confidence. I’m one of what I’m sure are many thousands of young women who have discovered their queerness because of Gaby Dunn (hi Gaby!), and having lesbian, bisexual, pansexual and queer Internet and IRL friends through Femsplain gave me so many role models for how to live with the sexuality I’ve spent years neglecting. And so I woke up feeling bold one day and I tweeted about being bi, flirting with the idea of posting something similar on Facebook too but ultimately deciding I wasn’t ready to come out to family, coworkers and every random person I went to high school with. A few hours later, that anonymous stranger sent an email to my company and I didn’t have a choice anymore.
Being outed at work is not fun, even if you’re lucky enough to have the amazing, supportive coworkers that I do. I felt violated and unprepared. I wondered if everyone saw me differently, if they thought I was a fake bisexual, or if this assault on my privacy had undermined the respect I’d been fighting to collect as a young manager at the organization. It could have been much worse if I worked somewhere with less job security or with homophobic management—outing someone is an act of violence. For me, the real consequence of being outed was talking to my family again about my sexuality. They are varying levels of cool and not cool with it. My family didn’t need this right now. I didn’t need this right now.
I got really drunk that weekend. Really, insanely drunk. I didn’t mean to—I went to a book launch and had a lot of champagne, and then I went to a Tim Burton themed bar and ordered a cocktail with no idea how much alcohol was in it. I wasn’t drinking to forget anything, more to blow off steam and feel like myself—there’s that phrase again. That was the worst part of being outed amid all the other conflict in my life: I woke up and did not recognize myself, did not understand myself, did not know myself. Was I queer? Was I straight? Or maybe the right question to ask was: Was I brave? Was I brave enough for this? I felt like this door had swung open somewhere inside of my chest and I could walk through it if I wanted to. This was an unchosen but perhaps positive opportunity to explore my sexuality at long last. Maybe this stranger online had done me a favor? Maybe I should figure out who the fuck I am?
That summer in Berkeley was painful for all the obvious reasons: the isolation, the constant awareness that I wasn’t safe, the endless empty hours I spent trapped in my apartment with my psychotic, passive aggressive roommate because I was too afraid to go outside. But what made it really terrible was the transition it overlapped with: the sudden banishment from the only home I’d ever known, a university where I understood my goals and my friends and my life. Berkeley was the storybook setting for my post-grad depression and the realization that who I was went deeper than the identity markers I’d collected. After four years of scrambling to become me, I had to start over again and I really didn’t want to.
I’m writing this in my hotel room in San Francisco, a few blocks from the Bay. Yesterday I got In-N-Out and then took a long walk along the Embarcadero. I recognized the parking garage where my college boyfriend and I ate French fries in his car before driving across the Golden Gate for the first time. I stopped and watched the sea lions on Pier 39 that my dad and I are still obsessed with to this day. On my walk back to the hotel, I wandered through Musee Mecanique and visited the old photo booth I’d used before. I always look the same in those photos, a leather jacket and a baby face like I haven’t aged a day, like I haven’t changed an inch. My life is so different now and I have answers to some of the questions that battered me then: I love Brooklyn and I am making a future for myself at TED. I have a mentor who fights to protect me just enough to let me grow. I have new questions now about who I love and what I want to write, but I’m still Ella, sitting in a photo booth by herself, happy to be alone with such tumultuous thoughts.
If I’ve learned anything in the last year, in the last few months, in the last week, it’s that I need to stop worrying about how to remain the girl I was and more about the woman I want to become. It doesn’t matter who I was before I went viral or before I came out or before my parents separated—that girl isn’t going anywhere. Clinging to some earlier version of myself closes me off from life-changing, instructive experiences I come across all the time: the beautiful fine arts student I met at that Tim Burton-themed cocktail bar who smiled at me over her drink, the deeply rewarding and fun volunteer work I do for Hillary Clinton’s digital team, the staff retreats upstate with my coworkers who are becoming my new chosen home, my new chosen family. It’s time to look forward, not back. It’s time to aspire, not just survive.
I looked at the Golden Gate Bridge yesterday and felt nothing. It was foggy and the red was muted and I really needed to pee. I took a photo of my tattoo with the bridge in the background but it didn’t come out right. And then I turned west and saw the Bay Bridge properly for the first time since being back. I lost my breath. Don’t tell anyone this, but I’ve always loved the Bay Bridge more. It’s utilitarian and gray and busy, this main channel of transit and traffic and exhausted commuters, a bridge that takes you where you need to be instead of where you dream of going. I drove across it in a taxi when I moved back East and watched the city flicker. My tattoo is black ink, and I think it’s both bridges.
I think the idea of knowing who you are is a lie. No one knows who they are in their early twenties; maybe no one ever does. I don’t need to know every facet of myself, and I don’t think I want to either. It’s terrifying to discover these huge parts of my identity and my soul, to turn a corner and see that I’ve been off in my best theories, but it’s also humbling and exciting and moving. I don’t have to know who I am in order to be myself—my only responsibility is to be honest and open. And maybe I’ll fall in love with some gorgeous, wise-cracking woman some day, or maybe I’ll become the head of my department instead of seeing my name on the spine of a book. I don’t have to know. I just have to do my best.