Checking Out Of The Boxes

{Amy} “What’s it like being Black and Gay, with a giant mohawk?” This was my opening question, and even though I meant it to be tongue-in-cheek, I immediately face-palmed. Would I even think to ask a straight white guy with a Bieber cut what it was like? After all, it’s not like there’s a single answer to either question, but here I am talking to this guy like he’s an exotic specimen. Ultimately everyone has an individual experience, regardless of the category people put them into based on this or that characteristic. Did I want to write an article about a stereotype and then pick a person to put in the box? Did I really want to know what it was like to be “a Gay,” or “a Black,” or did I want to know about Marke?

There are common experiences that many people share, based in no small part on the way the world treats them. These environmentally-imposed limits form the boundaries and the definitions, and reinforce what people expect from each other (and sometimes themselves). But what are these groupings based on?

Sure, there are some observable traits that come from the gene pool: the shade of a person’s skin, for example. But at what point is it decided that a person with one percentage or another of African DNA is Black or White, and why does it matter more than whether a person is tall or short, kind or rude? At what point does a person’s sexual orientation (or gender identity, for that matter) define their personality or their perspective? All these so-called categories are a sliding scale that only seem definitive from afar. Where do the edges of these boxes turn into mist, and how can we escape the vicious cycle of labels and stereotypes? 

The answer to that is looking closer, at each person individually.

MARKE:

markie

I was raised in Nord, 10 miles north of Chico. I, along with a couple neighbors (who were siblings), were the only black people out of 300 residents. So, we were basically the coolest kids in town. Some people hated on us, but they were on meth, so they were already collecting their karma. My adoptive mother died this year, a month after her birthday. My mom became very distant, starting a few years before she passed. She made replicas of our family on the Sims and stopped expressing any meaningful emotion. My dad still lives here. My dad and I love each other dearly. He was always my favorite, growing up. We even had matching cowboy boots and bolo ties at one point. Don’t ask.

“I came out over the phone to my mother, actually. Funny story: my straight friends were tired of me avoiding it, so one of them dialed my mother’s number and made me say it. She replied that she’s kind of always known, but that I shouldn’t tell my dad because it would hurt him. She ended the call stating that she was busy (playing Second FUCKING Life. Second Life is like The Sims/World of Warcraft’s baby) and that she needed to go.

“I came out to my eldest sister—their biological daughter—years before. She was always my rock. She lurked my MySpace and saw the specification under ‘sexual orientation.’ And saw my profile headline stating that ‘I’m tired of not being me, and if you have a problem with it, I’m probably tired of you, too.’ She made me dinner. Lemon Pepper Prawns! She knew they were my favorite. She told me that she was proud of me for being so strong. She only regretted that I didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell her sooner.

“After my adopted mother died, I felt kind of lost and since I never was good at communicating with my dad… I decided to contact my biological father, who I hadn’t talked to since I graduated from high school. He hardly ever tried to visit me or call…And now this many years later, he starts talking about having time to spend with me and ‘catch up,’ as he’s about to retire from his state job soon. I got excited. I shouldn’t have, because the grown-up side of me wanted to not waste anymore of my/his time, even though all the years I waited for him to love me were wasted. So, I came out to him. After that, he never responded to my messages. Never called. I would have even taken a quick, ‘You’re going to HELL!,’ but nothing.

“I had been in a couple failed relationships, and [Mike and I] met the summer we were both at rock bottom. Both with no jobs or any place to go. Alone, until we found one another. It’s funny, because the person I was staying with at the time introduced us. After meeting and talking for a while, sharing stories about our lives and about how we knew our mutual ‘friend,’ we both soon realized how toxic this person had been on our impressions of each other and our peers.

“Suddenly we were one another’s best friend. Leaving this person behind. Helping one another find work and a place to call home. Just us. We’ve been together 3 years, as of the end of last month. We’ve lived together since the day we met. I know/knew, before it was ‘legal,’ that he’s the one I want to marry/be with for the rest of my life.

“I deejay the LGBTQ Everybody dance night every Friday at the Maltese… [while it’s billed as such] I don’t think we should specify what kind of party we’re having, [to] help enforce unconditional equality. After all, if you’re at a bar, you’re paying to be there. The majority of the people I crowd with are straight-identifying and more open-minded than most of the gay people I know. Everyone seems to get stuck trying to categorize.

“In our community, though it’s a small one, everyone tries so hard to be different that they lose sight of what’s important to us—and before they know it, instead of being different, they’ve made themselves separate. This happens both singly and in groups. Sometimes the groups have nothing to do with sex/sexual orientation. Sometimes it’s just ‘get in, fit in, or get out.’ And as a person who makes a strong effort—at least as much as I can on my own—to get along with everyone, this is maddening. It makes me feel disheartened.

“I’ve watched PRIDE and COMMUNITY, in my short years, go from ‘all inclusive’ to ‘it’s exclusive.’ PRIDE is a bad word for me. PRIDE makes me feel separate. PRIDE puts up walls, and on the other side of the coin—over the years observing what’s happened to our community, our family—who could truthfully say they are proud?”

{Amy} I had to stop for a while to ponder this take on Pride. On the one hand I had always thought of pride—the basic emotion—as a good thing. Especially for a community that has historically been treated as shameful. The idea seemed inherently uplifting that they could stand together and celebrate, be proud of their strength, and transform their marginalized status from a negative to a positive. 

But then that’s the rub, isn’t it? Negative or positive, it’s still accepting the idea of separation, based on things as trivial as sexual attraction or gender identity. It’s still grouping people together and thinking of that set as “they” rather than “us.” And to think that within this sub-community there are even smaller sub-communities, creating ever narrower definitions of people that set them more and more apart—it is disheartening.

But there’s another side to that separation, the side where people who feel alone can connect with others and help each other understand themselves, lend support, and create new families where people may have had none.

DANNY:

Danny

It’s been the past 6 or 7 years of really understanding gender, really understanding sexuality, and really understanding what those two things mean for me as an individual. It’s been a really fluid process of understanding and kind of fluctuating the ways that I identify. I came out as a lesbian when I was 16, I came out as a Trans male when I was 18; I’ve identified as bisexual, I’ve identified as straight, I’ve identified in a lot of different areas.

“What I’ve come to settle on is that I identify not as a Trans person—I identify as a Gender Variant person. I strongly do not believe in the gender binary: that there is only male or female. I believe that there is a large spectrum of gender identities. That grey in-between area is where I like to live. My sexuality is as fluid as my gender identity. I identify as Queer, which means that I date human beings, whatever they identify themselves as.

“The way that people relate to me—not just in interpersonal relationships, but out in society at large—is fascinating. I have this really amazing thing called ‘male privilege’ now. It’s insane, it’s totally strange. I have to really actively remind myself not to take advantage of it. A lot of men don’t think about it. My voice is definitely heard more, my opinions are heard more. It is easier and more acceptable for me to dominate physical space in social situations. So I have to really be conscious of not speaking over my female friends.

“I’ve been on hormones for 15 months, going through that transition. At the beginning, when you’re first starting hormones, you’re going through male puberty, but you’re also going through female menopause at the same time. So you’re not only going through this physical hormonal balance and imbalance and change and shift, you’re also dealing with the physical response to that, and you’re dealing with an emotional and mental response to that. It’s kind of all-consuming if you’re really aware.

“It took many months for me to be able to actively step back and look at it, and be like, ‘I’m behaving like this because [of hormones].’ Which is not to make an excuse for those behaviors, at all! It’s really similar to what it’s like being on birth control. It totally amplifies and brings up that emotional base, like really really quickly! And you feel kind of out of control of your emotions and all over the place. It took a good 8-9 months before I could see a balance, where I could actually manage those things.

“The hardest part of being on hormones was that as a woman it was really easy to get across my emotional state, because there’s oftentimes a more physical, reactive response. Like ok, I’m upset, I am crying. You can see, you can tell. Now—and this was the hardest part for me—I’m upset, and I feel all of those choked up crying feelings, but I’m not crying.

“I don’t think that the emotional and mental changes are talked about as much. I think that was the part that kind of took me back, kind of made me reassess everything and be like ‘whoa.’ This is way more intense than I thought it was going to be.”

What do you think about Pride and inclusiveness—does it help or hurt the cause of integration and equality? How do you think that that can be improved? How can we go from “let’s keep adding acronyms” to “let’s just stop having definitions at all, just start being people?” Is there a way?

“That’s something that I think about a lot, because I have a really hard time myself. Just the idea that we separate ourselves in that way can sometimes be annoying. But it’s also sometimes really empowering for people to have a community, to have a family—people who relate to their experiences. And I think that can be really beneficial for some people, but like you said, adding all the acronyms and chopping it into more little boxes, it’s… I don’t know how we’re going to do it.”

{Amy} Thinking of gender on a sliding scale wasn’t the easiest thing to wrap my head around at first. There are the basic pronouns of “he” and “she” that build the structure of our thoughts on the subject, and then there’s the matter of what our parts look like. It’s undeniable, however, that some people are more “masculine” or “feminine”; and while some people do cling to the edges of those concepts, most of us maintain a harmonious medley of both traits. 

Few of us really think about ourselves in those terms. It occurs to me that while I love petticoats and flowers and babies, I also feel right at home telling dirty jokes and using power tools. Whether or not I feel a need to express the way that balance tips—by defining my gender perception for others, or pursuing a physical change that reflects the way I feel—I have to recognize that it’s a legitimate concept. We can see ourselves as male, or female, or both, or neither.

NAOMI:

Naomi

I first realized that I was (at the time) bi-sexual when I was in junior high. And actually it was my step-dad who helped clue me in. I was talking to him about my best friend (female) and all the wonderful things about her and how great she was, yadadada. And he just turned to me and said ‘You like her don’t you?’ Junior-high me is like, ‘Huh, well yeah, she is my best friend, durdadur.’ He goes, ‘No, you LIKE her, don’t you.’ Ding ding ding ding ding! Oh yeah, that explains a lot. She was my first girlfriend.

“I never thought I was a lesbian. I knew I was attracted to guys, and through high school I dated both [males and females]. And I became pretty vocal about my position through my slam performances and school activities. Though, I was still on the DL with the other side of my family and most people.

“I think around my senior year/first year of college was when I realized that it didn’t just stop with cis women and cis men (people whose gender identity aligns with their assigned physical gender). Well, during that time, my boyfriend and I were really… ahhh… exploring our sex lives. Sharing turn-ons, attractions, pornography, etc. And many many many conversations about sexual identity and attraction.

“I discovered the term ‘pansexual,’ and I had another one of those ‘oh yeah, okay’ moments. Like, do you ever find something out that just MAKES sense? Where you just know that it is right? Well, it’s like that. Everything just worked.

“I wasn’t raised with any negative feelings towards sexual identity. So I’ve been pretty free to explore it. Though I do keep it to myself around my dad. He is very accepting, but I and others believe it might be a little different with ‘his daughter.’

“I was very public with one of my girlfriends in high school. Hell, I am pretty sure most of his friends know, but the ‘I’m coming out now’ slam I performed for him and his friends… pretty sure that went right over his head. He knows I go to Pride. But he doesn’t ask questions. I don’t think he wants to.

“For me, being pan just means that I don’t have to consider a person’s gender identity at all when I am attracted to them. It means that I can see a pretty girl, or guy, or someone who is pre-op Trans, post-op Trans, a cross dresser, etc., and just take them for who they are and what their personality is.

“I think that people feel a deep need to be able to identify with a certain group, or just as something. Especially people who don’t fall into the ‘normal’ cis roles. It’s a way of self discovery, and the happiness of knowing that you are not alone in the world and aren’t some weirdo. There is a sense of belonging and safety in being part of a group. That’s pretty much a natural human instinct. We search for acceptance, and with this we find our sexual identity.

“And this CAN be a good thing. It can mean a better life. I know that I am happiest around the people who know the most about me and accept that. That being said, there is actually a lot of discrimination in the Queer community between the different identities—which is really very unfortunate. But at the same time, I understand where some of it comes from.

“For some, it is a matter of recognition, especially where legal rights are concerned. Kind of a ‘we have to have a unified front that won’t scare off all these closed-minded people, and you folks are messing that up.’ But there are also people who just don’t think that some of these things exist. There are gay men and lesbian women who don’t believe it is possible to be bi- or pan- or asexual or any of the other things. Just because the queer community fights for equality, doesn’t mean everything is equal. It’s kinda stupid, but we’re human.”

{Amy} During the recent Supreme Court brouhaha that resulted in the landmark rulings regarding Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, I had heard rumblings of discontent along those lines. It was a shadow cast by the joyful glow of all those happy couples; the feeling among some people in the “BTQ” that the “Ls” and “Gs” were pushing their needs aside right when the spotlight was on their cause.

It’s a sticky wicket, and is typical of the infighting that happens in many movements. The ideal of ruling by committee can turn out to be a frustrating mire of crossed purposes. What matters in the end is that everyone is trying in their own ways to achieve something positive—and while there are often disappointments and hurt feelings during the process, sometimes there are also huge steps forward.

MEGAN & YOLANDA:

megan & Yolanda

Yolanda and I met back in 1999 when I came over here [from South Africa] as an au pair, and she was still a student at Sac State. We didn’t really want to meet initially, because my stay in this country was limited due to visa restrictions—but we just felt such a connection, and of course it led us to finally meeting each other after 3-4 months of chatting online and phone conversations.

“We actually met the day after Thanksgiving, so we now use that day as our anniversary. We’ve met LOTS of obstacles along the way due to us being a same-sex couple and of course being a bi-national couple). DOMA restricted Yolanda from being able to sponsor me for permanent residency, so we had to fly under the radar for almost a decade just to remain together.

“We managed to get a Domestic Partnership back in ’05, which made us a feel a little better about our relationship, but still not good enough and certainly not equal by any means. No matter what hardships were thrown our way, our bond and love for each just got stronger and kept us together, but we also pretty much had given up hope of ever getting equal rights—until this year, 2013, when all the magic happened overnight for us… it was all rather surreal and we’re still absorbing it.

“Within 2 weeks of DOMA’s defeat and gay marriage passing in CA, we went straight to the recorder’s office and got married right there on the 8th of July, and I can honestly say that that little piece of paper really does make a huge difference—it not only makes us feel fully equal and legit, but now my partner of almost 14 years can actually finally sponsor me (her wife) for permanent residency here in the US… a federal right that so many people have taken for granted, and a federal right that so many people also never realized was denied to same-sex couples.

“Not being fully recognized as a legit couple has put many hardships on our relationship over the years, whether emotional or financial, but they are hardships that have only made our love stronger. So in a strange way, it’s sort of been a good thing. Now being a married couple and on the way to receiving our federal rights, we are very excited to embark on the next leg of our journey, and there’s no need for me to fly under the radar anymore. We can be honest and out about our relationship and it feels wonderful to finally have the US government acknowledging us.

“We’ve had the US government treat us differently and demonize us for years, to where it truly makes one feel unworthy. It really can mess with your head when your own government treats you this way, let alone your peers or the Average Joe out there. Now that the laws have changed, I think that people’s attitudes and views will change too, and have been over the past few years. People in power tend to have an effect on the uneducated, so now that the powers have spoken, I reckon it will calm a lot of people down with regards to sexual orientation.

“The younger generation don’t even see a difference, which tells me the future is very bright for the LGBTQ community.   People tend to fear what they don’t understand, and this fear can incite hate—which of course our community has been subjected to, especially under the Bush Administration. But if you don’t make a big deal over it, then it slowly becomes rather mundane in the big scheme of things, and folks are getting to that point. People don’t even bat an eyelid anymore when Yolanda and I say we’re a same-sex couple.”

 

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Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.

Comments

  1. Tecmag Diams says:

    Wow, that article was pretty dang amazing. I loved seeing a local article about Queer issues that was so open minded and attempted a very vast undertaking of topics and ideas from viewpoints so spread but at the same time so related.

    As an Asexual even just seeing that one of the people mentioned Asexuality was a huge boost in my happiness. I mean, the only think better than a direct mention is Asexual participation! ^.^

    I find it interesting how you chose to approach each topic. I’ll have to check in again soon, I really enjoyed reading this!

    1. Amy Olson says:

      I would really enjoy hearing more about your perspective. Please feel welcome to share your insights and experiences here, If I had had more column space I would’ve loved to talk to more people!