This week, I was super lucky and was asked to step in at the last minute to talk to a local writing group about queerness, as a replacement. Now, before anything else, I want to say it was a really good overall experience, it went about as well as I ever expect it to, and no one was hateful.
But I did hit a particular moment at one point during the talk, and it’s not unusual to have this moment when talking about marginalization of any kind.
The moment when I realized someone—in fact, a lot of someones—weren’t getting it.
I was speaking about a particular facet of existing-while-marginalized (in my case, queer): Code-switching, presentation, shifting appearances, just… y’know, being and acting true to yourself and how that changes in different crowds.
Quite a few people in the audience (and one or two in particular) didn’t get it right away, and that’s on me. I think they understood what I was talking about only so far as “how people act differently depending on who they’re with.” And that wasn’t enough, of course, because everyone does that to some degree all the time, right? They were getting “politeness” or “socially acceptable” but not making the leap—not their fault, it’s my job to offer that leap—to what that means while being queer.
Instead, it became a sticking point, and it derailed things a bit with audience protest. One person in particular was visibly frustrated and annoyed by what I was saying—”We all do that!” or “If I’m angry, I don’t always show my anger,” and other things that were completely true but not at all what I was talking about.
I usually try examples when this happens, and I did this time, too, but in this case, I flamed out again. Huge. I don’t know why the first thing to occur to me was “I can’t kiss my husband on the bus,” but that’s what I said. Which, of course, led to “I don’t kiss my wife on the bus. Who kisses on the bus?”
I am not proud of my reaction to this, which was probably visible, and was an internal (and hopefully not too obviously external) “Oh, for fuck’s sake…” followed by a verbal “Okay, well, teenagers do. Or kissing my husband goodbye at an airport. Or having dinner out together on our anniversary and kissing over desert, or…” I tried to list off as many examples as my off-kilter brain would give me, and none of them were from my usual list of “oh, oh wow!” examples that I usually use. It was like that file in my brain of “things I’ve used to explain this that has made the lightbulb go on over the head of the audience” was locked and unavailable.
Instead, what ended up happening was another member of the audience speaking out about her experiences as someone from another culture, which was totally the right idea about what I was talking about. She explained via wearing a sari, when she does, when she doesn’t, as well as what kind of food people bring to work—how people from other cultures will avoid their own cultural foods because of scent, for example—and how they basically downplay being anything other than the “norm.”
At that point, I saw a few lightbulbs. And I brought it back to writing (since that was the point) and the room seemed to understand the context of writing a queer character and how their internal and external presentation on the page would shift and change depending on their environment, if you didn’t want to knock a reader (especially a queer reader) out of the narrative.
So, it got the point across.
And it also didn’t.
I’m still thinking about it days later, which means I definitely feel like I failed to do my job of explaining it well enough from the queer point of view. I never quite got the room to get how exhausting and pervasive it is.
I did, however, manage to explain how I was doing it right there and then in the room, with them. Where I’d been asked to come and be specifically a queer guy and talk about queerness.
I explained how I altered my stance. Was hyper-aware of my voice. Kept my hand in my pocket so I didn’t gesticulate too broadly. That I was on-edge most especially at the beginning, and specifically didn’t feel safe at the start of the discussion because who knew if someone was going to spit out a “yer hell-bound, sonny!” my way, because I didn’t know these writers at all.
(When I mentioned that, there was broad skepticism, until I said, ‘Evangelicals write books too, you know.’ Again, lightbulb moment, I think, as a few people clicked that this was a safe space for them as writers, which could be assumed, but not necessarily a safe space for queer writers, which I would never assume.)
But where I failed, I think, was that I don’t believe I ever translated the point of how isolating it is in specific as a queer person to only have explicitly queer-friendly spaces in which to be completely yourself.
By which I mean places where you don’t have to shoulder-check before a casual gesture of affection (be that a peck on the cheek, a kiss, or even just referring to a partner by a cute pet-name like “honey” or “babe” or whatever). Or where you can wear the clothes and present yourself as you are or speak with your own voice without worrying someone is going to say something or do something—including something violent. How that can include your very name, your pronouns, your partner(s)… So much of who you are, all of it turns into being a risk, depending on where you are and who is around you.
But most importantly, I don’t think I explained how, often, those places or groups of people where you have to code-switch and not be yourself include “home” and “family.” Especially for younger queer people.
So. Yeah. The talk went really, really well. And I know better now I need to rework a slide or two so the same moment doesn’t get tangled and stuck in my brain in the future.
Many people from audience came up and thanked me. A few have emailed me.
It really was good.
But man, I wish I could do that part over.