You have been socialized all your life to want to constantly affirm that you are heterosexual to the denigration of queerness. To take whatever opportunity you can to affirm it. So have I. I want to say ew at the thought of two men kissing, or perform, at the thought of two women, an uneasy masculinized turned-on. I want to say, hey, some of my best friends are queer.
The day I came out to my father was the same day Obama went public with his support of marriage equality, and my dad and I were sitting watching the endless loop of analysis on TV. It was mid-May and the azaleas were blooming, which meant thick sweet air billowing in the open windows, and it meant the sun didn’t disappear until late. My dad said, I think it’s nice that those people can marry, and I said, those people, yes.
I can’t say ew, but neither can I say the word bisexual. The prefix with its splitting-in-half, its fractions and percentages, the suffix with its evocation of promiscuity, its corporeal weight. Queer is a sucker-punch to the face of heterosexism; there is a joie de vivre in gay. And lesbian is all the summer afternoons I spent on couches, sandy-toed, reading Sappho, in love with best friends: come to me now and loosen me from blunt agony, lesbian says. But we often prefer any word to the one we feel is most accurate, and it is a reflection of my privilege that the most uncomfortable response I get to coming out is well, I always knew you had trouble making decisions.
When you say ew, I am reminded of my own, inevitable obscenity. It’s like when you tell me not to wear a short skirt. I feel shame telling you that I have been in danger both wearing and not wearing one. If I were t-boned by a car in an intersection I would tell you. I wouldn’t feel any shame. If I were inclined toward violin and piano I would tell you. I wouldn’t feel any shame. But I feel shame telling you that I have been touched when I haven’t wanted to be touched, and I feel shame telling you that I am inclined toward loving people of more than one gender, and that shame is and isn’t the fault of us both.
We were watching the news about Obama and those people and I knew I couldn’t come out. I knew that I had such privilege: that I wasn’t afraid of losing my home, my father’s affection, emotional or material support. That he was explicit in his political okayness with people who aren’t straight. But even without those barriers, crossing the line from us to other is dangerous, is a leap from cliff to cliff over a strait. I called my boyfriend panicking about it, saying, ohmygodwhatdoido, and sat pressing the phone to my face on the grass and he sat and talked me through it, and while that might make my privileges and problems different from others’, that doesn’t make me any less queer.
The grass was still bright and sticky in mid-September but the sky was quicker at getting dark. A friend and I sat at a picnic table. I told her, I feel bad for having a choice about it, for having a privilege that you don’t. She said, you’re trying to fool yourself into thinking you can choose to be something other. But you have as little choice as me. Maybe superficially it seems like you have “more options,” whatever that means, and yeah there is, there is a real and unmistakable and unstable privilege you can access, and that access is significant, but either way all it gives you is more ways to pretend. You’re just as fucked and have just as little say in the matter as anyone else does, and you don’t need to feel like you haven’t earned the validity of that pain.
I want to think about the thousands of ways I have been taught to say ew. In which I hurt others in defense of my places of privilege, in which I am the benefactor of harm and discomfort, from which I emerge unscathed.
When we were eight my best friend and I saw two sets of legs in one stall in the girls’ bathroom of St. Edward’s Catholic Church. We concluded gleefully that the owners of those legs must be gay. When I reported the fact to my parents—a man and a woman married to each other—that night at dinner, I remember the look they exchanged. It said, uh-oh. It said, we’re going to have to explain. They explained: gay people are two men or two women who love each other. It’s okay for them to do this. We need all the love we can get. But none of us, however loving, can escape discomfort, and I remember their words almost as much as I remember their hesitation, and my own. The way we searched for phrasing. The way we shifted in our chairs.
We are trying to socialize ourselves out of the air we have breathed for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.
Lilac air through the open windows, dew in the early summer grass. Even in acceptance, in best-case-scenario, in privilege, there is shame. We have been given no halfway between our people and those people. It is not your fault or my fault, and it is.
One time I met a man by an ocean and we went to get something to eat. We were talking about someone and he scrunched up his nose and told me the person was gay. I must have looked uncomfortable because he said please don’t tell me you’re gay and I said I’m bisexual and he said Does that even exist? We were sitting on a high place and I had a fleeting worry that he might push me off. Instead we talked about it for a long time, hours maybe, and he asked me every question he could think of, and I told him every answer that I had. Afterwards we swam in the sea. I think he was touched by what I told him, because later when we got out of the water shivering he offered me a towel, and we laughed as we ran to the train.