If Unwrapping Identity Is as Simple as Inventing a New Flavor of Ice Cream, Maybe Being Queer Is Just Being Human?
Every time I think I’ve stepped completely outside the box, I find there is another box. My life is like one of those Russian nesting dolls—open me up and there’s another one inside. But in my case, instead of getting smaller and smaller, I get queerer and queerer.
When it comes to sex and gender, our world is like an ice cream shop that only sells two flavors—with maybe a third special flavor available on certain days of the week. As a lover of frozen treats, I have to say, that’s pretty lame!
Imagine if ice cream only came in chocolate and vanilla. Strawberry would seem pretty damn novel—even radical! Strawberry might seem so radical, it could never occur to anyone to do something crazy like mix flavors together, add nuts, chocolate bits or (god help me) cookie dough! How empty our lives would be without cookie dough! And the saddest part—we would have no idea what we were missing!
I’ve always been outside the box. It’s not like I only knew about chocolate and vanilla. At 20-years-old, I was hanging out at something called a “Queer Kiss-In.” I just wasn’t kissing anyone. Why not? Because there were other boxes I was still inside.
Strawberry. I got it. I got the strawberry, but I didn’t get the cookie dough. I was outside the straight box, but I was still inside the monosexual box. I hadn’t reached pansexual yet, and wouldn’t for years. There was no way for me to imagine cookie dough back then.
Why do I meet so many other women who didn’t realize they liked women until later in life? You see, many of us were never offered that flavor. When we looked down into the display case of life we didn’t see queer as an option. Even me, who thought I was pretty damn radical, marrying a feminist man in a partnership ceremony, wearing a brown dress, keeping my name… I thought I was at the wheel, but I was still caught up in compulsory monogamy and heterosexuality. I questioned the gender expectations traditionally ascribed to “marriage,” but there were so many other things I didn’t question.
Strawberry was my big fat feminist, egalitarian wedding. Cookie Dough is separating marriage from monogamy. I know, I know, I need some dessert.
Seriously though, it’s really hard to see something in yourself that you’ve never seen anywhere else, and that no one recognizes in you. In the last couple of months, I’ve had several friends I perceived as straight or lesbian tell me they are much closer to bi, as well as friends I perceived as cis-gender tell me they aren’t. The more I talk to people about my identity, the more I’m able to truly see them, and perhaps, the more they are able to truly see themselves. I’m left wondering if the LGBTQIAPK, etc. folks that we see out there are only tip of the iceberg.
What’s different about queer people who somehow manage to recognize queer in themselves and live it? Are their skins thicker, are they smarter, luckier, were they simply in the right place at the right time, or are they gayer, kinkier, or more gender flexible than the rest of us? I can’t say.
All I know is how incredibly fine the line is between me and your garden variety heterosexual, vanilla, monogamous suburban mom. If so many of us ladies are, or were, just a couple neuron-firings away from recognizing our queer, than how many more are out there like us whose queer neurons just haven’t fired yet?
Why does one mom stay closeted her whole life, even to herself, while another is tormented by her same-sex desire which she never reveals to anyone? Why does one woman have a secret affair with a woman, ultimately coming to view herself as a lesbian, while another has a full-blown, long-term relationship with a female, but still identifies as straight? What separates the woman who comes out to her husband and friends and has discreet relationships with women, from the one who leaves her marriage and never looks at a man again?
In my humble opinion, very little.
I say that because I could be any of them. I could have landed anywhere on that spectrum. I still could. Had I never had pregnancy and birth hormones coursing through my veins and experienced the head-trash of becoming a mother in our society (see here for more on motherhood and coming out), would I have gotten so in touch with my queerness? Easily not.
I once heard a talk by a woman who is an expert in the field of transgender identity. She stated, with regret, “We’re losing a whole generation of butch lesbians.” Her implication was that many of the women who would have identified as butch lesbians in the past are now transitioning to male. Why would this be? Current technology and visibility of transpeople means—you guessed it—more flavors. It seems the butch lesbians of the past were all about strawberry, but they hadn’t yet sampled the cookie dough.
It all comes back to the ice cream. If we look down into that case and all we see is straight, all we see is monogamous, vanilla, traditionally gendered, and paired off in dyads, then there’s nothing else to sample. There are so many flavors we all have yet to discover! Everyone has another box to get out of. We all have unexplored aspects of our identity, and for most of us, more unexplored than explored.
I never saw a woman love a woman in a way that wasn’t platonic until I was 18. When I acted flagrantly queer in high school, nobody ever noticed. I’m not saying they ignored or rejected it—see that would be a form of recognition, albeit painful. I’m saying they simply didn’t see it—like a color-blind person looking at a pattern and only seeing certain parts—they were queer-blind. Their brains were not wired to see queerness. They had neurons firing to straight girls acting very, very friendly with their best friends. Groan.
When I was a senior in high school, I won an award for writing. It wasn’t a surprise. I’d been getting praised for my writing my whole life. But what if I hadn’t? What if no one ever noticed my writing? What if no one around me even knew what writing was? What if my teachers paid way more attention to other talents I had and ignored my writing skills? Would I be writing this right now?
Amazing how parts of us can get hidden so far inside us that we don’t even know they are there, while the things that get validated, groomed, praised, and noticed tend to be the ones we cultivate. That my friends, is why I have a husband and a blog where I write about being queer, but not a girlfriend. And that too is why I wasn’t kissing anyone at the “Queer Kiss-In.”
It wasn’t that I wanted to kiss someone but didn’t. I don’t think I even had access to those feelings. I don’t believe it’s because they weren’t there—I think I just didn’t know where to look for them. I didn’t even know to look for them. By then, I’d had my straight parts reinforced up the wazoo, and my gay parts not at all. Remember Eve, my “16-year-old lesbian alter ego?” She’d already been sent into hiding by that point.
This is what compulsory heterosexuality is. It’s not big brother knocking on our doors and telling us, “You are going to be straight, vanilla, marry, and be monogamous, and that’s just the way is it, young lady!”
It’s much more subtle, and much more pervasive than that. It’s everywhere. It’s in everything we see, but most of all, it’s in the many, many things we don’t see. It’s in everything we are told about ourselves, and it’s in the silence of the things that are clearly in us that not one ever sees.
So what is fluidity then?
I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not so much that queer feelings suddenly appear where there weren’t any. I wonder if it’s more like we are, for a variety of reasons, able to see more. It’s like we get treatment for our queer-blindness, and suddenly we can see twice as much. It’s like walking into an ice cream store, and instead of three flavors, there are six, and then sixteen, and then sixty. What if those ice cream shops were everywhere? What if we could all see all the possibilities?
I wonder, if we would conclude that fluidity is simply seeing more and more of what already is, and queer is just another word for human?
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Ed: Brianna Bemel