Saturday, October 10, 2009

better late

This is actually something I wrote a while ago for Genderqueer Chicago. I wrote it, and I posted it there, and then I posted it here, and then I lay awake for two hours getting more and more anxious and then I deleted it from this site. And I felt like a chickenshit but not quite enough so to re-post it, so I've been debating ever since what that was about. I realized eventually that I was nervous to put something up that was so close to the bone; I write personal things here all the time, but this felt like it was just one inch over the boundary line I had been waiting to find all along. I felt uncomfortable.
But I decided today to post it anyway. I just got back from a radical queer conference where I was surrounded by happy, happy queer folk; I'm covered in sparkly makeup, and I talked all the way home on the bus about queering public policy in the Chicago public schools with a complete stranger that I met at the bus stop. Being queer has gone from being just an incidental fact about me to being something that is actively important to me. There are many reasons why I value this transition, not least of which is that by embracing more fully this aspect of my personality, I feel braver and surer and more confident every day. I'm surrounded by good role models, friends who live their lives with courage and outspokenness and strength, and it's inspiring me to try to be a little more like that myself. So, um... Here it is.

The Path of Least Resistance

“Oh, are you queer?”

It’s funny, kind of, because I feel like I’m finally owning my queerness in a way that I never have before, using my language and clarifying my own thoughts and wearing my heart on my sleeve as I revel in what is becoming an increasingly important aspect of my life. But even as I feel myself moving towards a more openly and adamantly queer identity than I’ve ever embraced before, I’ve been getting this question with increasing frequency. While I’ve been busy mentally and verbally busy expanding my queerness my physical appearance seems to be moving in the opposite direction, and the feeling that my interior and exterior are at odds has rarely felt so palpable.

Right now, I have shoulder-length hair and generally dress somewhere between somewhat girly and somewhat androgynous, and I’m usually pretty readily identified as a female-bodied person. I’m okay with that, more or less. I look kind of dorky with short hair, and I’m actually rather enamored of the sheer physicality of this new, longer style. (I wrote a while ago that I feel rather like Oscar Wilde, those magnificent pictures of him with that wavy luxurious hair and that air of decadence, cane between his knees as he stares as the camera. If that’s not queer, I don’t know what is.) And I’ve never been a physically expressive person; most of my wardrobe is more or less designed to let me pass under the radar, to allow me to avoid drawing attention to myself and instead stay in the background. In unfamiliar settings I’d rather listen than speak, to figure out things for myself before I begin talking, and it feels kind of hard to do that while wearing, say, neon tights or a really awesome fedora.

Maybe it’s partially the people I’m around lately. I spent most of the past few years in mostly straight company and I was rarely asked about my sexual preference and never about my gender identity, probably because I code as straight. I do my best to out myself as soon as possible (I’ve lectured my straight friends, usually drunkenly, about everything from queer porn to oral sex, with at least a few other topics in between), because I’m fully aware that I pass as a non-queer person unless I bring it up myself. It’s irritating and sometimes awkward to have to identify myself as the queer person in the room, but in some ways that’s almost easier than having to out myself as queer when I’m surrounded by other queers. I assume that straight people think I’m straight; I want to be able to assume that queer people think I’m queer, but most of the time I simply can’t. While I’m infinitely grateful to have finally found a queer community, it’s jarring to come up against my own conundrums again and again.

I’m aware of the fact that this is the opposite of what most genderqueer people experience, and it seems horribly selfish to complain about how much it bothers me to not appear queer when so many of my friends spend so much time and energy dealing with a physicality that is continually being questioned by most of the world. But it does bother me, and I don’t know what to do about it. Because I’m not a physically demonstrative person, I know that it’s not as simple as changing my style; changing the way I look would feel highly uncomfortable, and I’d rather spend my energy on something other than worrying about how awkward I feel about what I’m wearing. But because my genderqueerness isn’t confirmed by my physical appearance, I feel like it’s constantly being called into question, not only by others but also by myself. If I were really genderqueer, wouldn’t I feel comfortable with shorter hair or some tattoos or a tie or something? If I look like a girl, how can I claim that I reject the rigidity of that definition? There’s a kind of fucked-up power to passing, and even while I want none of it I also know I’m part of that every day, just because of the way that I feel physically comfortable.

I hate being defined by something as trivial as my haircut or whether I’m wearing a dress that day, but the friction between those external details and what I can’t seem to help feeling I should be presenting as is disarming. A queer should not defined by hir clothing, but all too often that’s what people, myself included, use to set up categories and definitions. I don’t know what to do about my personal discomfort, but I’m trying to use it to inform my own readings of others, to not put people into those oh-so-convenient boxes until I talk to them and have at least a cursory understanding of where they’re coming from. I can only hope that the people I meet will do the same for me.


Mug-z said...

Alright, first of all - you're brave and wonderful for posting this anyway.
Secondly - I'm speaking as someone who unwillingly passes a lot too, so those are where my biases lie.
Ok, so obviously not passing when you want/need to is a huge problem. But wasn't part of the point of "queer" to disable the assumptions along looks/identity lines like assuming a "straight-looking" person is?(among other things)
You shouldn't have to change your style to something that's not your style - a strictly delineated queer style is as oppressive as a strictly delineated straight one.

Oh, and Oscar Wilde is as dandy as they come! :D

ammie said...

I think you are totally totally correct! But it's still so fucking irritating to have to fight other people's assumptions every day. I mean, that's what we're all doing, all the time, right? We're fighting to not be defined by the way other people see us, but to be the way we actually are. I just get bound up in the fact that, theoretically, two of the major ways I get classified (against my will) are things that other people generally see as positive: straight-looking and uber-skinny. But those are two aspects of myself that I feel like I'm battling with all the time, and so it's frustrating to have them defined that way. Plus then there's the guilt I feel for fighting physical traits that make my life easier; how to deal with the problematics of looking "normal" when the struggles of people who are, say, queer-looking or fat or disabled, are ongoing? There's more than one struggle, always, but it's hard to speak up when your struggle is the opposite of the majority of your peers.
Whew, was that a rant? And I didn't even get into the historical fight for recognition on the part of femmes :P

Mug-z said...

Right! And to do so without seeming like you're trying to minimize or discredit that other struggle!

ammie said...

Exactly! Gah.

Sarah said...

Thank you for your post Ammie! I didn't really think about the fact that one of my biggest culture shock moments/homesick ruts would come from the lack of queerness here, and it's great to read your thoughts and bring my mind back to it all. I've actually been thinking A LOT about queerness these past couple weeks and your post was perfect timing!

ammie said...

Sarah, I'm so glad this was timely for you! It's good to finally post this after putting it off the last time, because I do think it's important and because it feels good (if scary) to write about stuff like this, and it's reassuring to hear back from people. I hope things are going well there!