At the Lesbian News anniversary party at West Hollywood’s trendy Eleven Nightclub last week a hunky, gay man I’d recently befriended looked at my girlfriend and I and paid us a wonderful compliment. “You two make a really good looking couple,” he said.

As he surveyed the roomful of glamorous Weho lesbians, he said – with the best intention -”Lesbians don’t look like they did in the old days,” which immediately sent me mentally time traveling to the not-so-distant past.

As a budding lesbian in the late 1980′s, it wasn’t enough for me to sleep with and love women and to merely assimilate.

With my two-toned, buzzed-on-the-sides haircut, giant black stomper shoes, rocker belts and Goddess-centric jewellery, I was carving out a compulsory lesbian identity.

On October 11th 2007, National Coming Out day turns 19, about the age I was when I began to realise that the love affair I’d had at 16 – with the cutie-pie senior girl I used to walk home after rehearsals for Godspell – was more than a one-offer.

In the post-Ellen era where Rosie O’Donnell’s sexual orientation isn’t nearly as hot-button an issue as her combative antics and conspiracy theory politics, and the success of LGBT-themed shows including Will and Grace, Queer as Folk and The L Word offer representation, however limiting a view of queer culture – it’s easy to forget that 20 years ago, it wasn’t merely a personal choice, but a political act to “come out.”

National Coming Out Day was born out of the one year commemoration of the 1987 March on Washington, which also coincided with the AIDS Quilt’s first visit to Washington D.C., then home to conservative President Ronald Reagan.

Gay invisibility meant certain death in the Reagan era and coming out was imperative to our collective survival.

More than 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with HIV and 20,000-plus had died from AIDS before Reagan even uttered the word in 1987, according to Randy Shilts, in his comprehensive and important opus, And the Band Played On.

As gay men fell away, and the LGBT community galvanised, lesbians were at the height of invisibility.

Lesbians were so removed from visibility and sexuality in the mainstream – save for hackneyed portrayals of long-nailed, fake-boob bimbos in straight porn – that there were no statistics on lesbians and AIDS.

We thought we were the chosen ones … play on girls.

That lack of lesbian images manifested in my trolling the video stores for any film, independent, foreign or otherwise, in which I might catch a knowing glance between women, a brush of their bare skin, or – gasp – a full-on girl on girl sex scene.

To illustrate the spare amount of images this tom-boy turned new-wave Annie Lennox-obsessed gay girl was exposed to, I remember my cheeks flushed and tingled during the scene in Tootsie when Jessica Lange’s character, not realising it was Dustin Hoffman in drag, thinks she’s falling in love with a woman.

My video rental history soon teemed with lesbian-centric titles like Lianna, Entre Nous, Desert Hearts, The Hunger, Mädchen in Uniform, The Children’s Hour and Pandora’s Box.

The summer I graduated from High School, I worked at Girl Scout camp-where I’d engaged in a few innocently long hugs with other girls in summers past. There was a wild, openly bi Goth girl who worked with me. We engaged in a month-long relationship that ended when I truly fell for the waterfront director, who was the quintessential Seven Sisters, preppy type.

While I was hell-bent on buzzing my hair, wearing Hall and Oates-like thin ties, suit jackets and combat boots-until I truly fell for the Seven Sisters girl-I was loathe to identify as gay. Goth girl lived in the “gay” section of Hartford, Conn., not far from my hometown. I bristled when she suggested we go for nachos at The Readers’ Feast Café, an LGBT-owned bookstore and café. Decked out in a pair of fingerless leather gloves, with my pristinely-spiked coiffure, I proclaimed, “I’m not going in there. I’m not like them. I’m not a queer.” Oh-how the mighty came to their senses. Just five years later, I waitressed at The Readers’ Feast.

A ten-month relationship with my Seven Sisters girl, spent stowing away in her single dorm room barely coming up for air but feigning friendship only to end with her Catholic guilt getting the better of her conscience, coupled with the growing realization that my gay male friends were in the thick of what felt like an infinitely losing battle, catapulted me into coming out. Pink triangle buttons, gay pride marches and rainbow flags soon followed. I blared the queer musical canon from my car stereo wherever I could. At any given stoplight one could hear Bronski Beat, The Communards and Erasure emanating from my burnt-orange manual Toyota. I dove into the compulsory coming out lesbian literature, including Sappho’s work, Rubyfruit Jungle, The Well of Loneliness and Patience and Sarah.

Pre and post coming out, I dressed the part, like a uniform, a need to be seen in an invisible time for lesbians.

Now, since queer activists and pioneering celebs like Melissa Etheridge, k.d. Lang, and Ellen Degeneres, who paved the way for the L Word set, I’ve relaxed into my lesbian identity, even embracing those parts of me that are innately feminine – where once I eschewed them.

While I’m a girl who loves an ego stroke and I’m delighted to hear that someone thinks my girl and I are a hot couple, I’m also unwilling to dismiss or forget those women in the trenches pre-lesbian chic.

I tip my hat to all who forged a visible lesbian identity through their politics and make-shift dyke uniforms – be it flannel shirts, combat boots, Birkenstocks, mullets and so forth.

I was one of them after all.

And one need not look any further into the recent past than the anti-gay marriage initiative ballots that helped re-elect George W. Bush to realise we aren’t in the clear yet.

Tracy E. Gilchrist © 2007 GayWired.com; All Rights Reserved.