Submitted by FREESIA MCKEE, Age 21, Swannanoa, North Carolina
“To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.” –June Jordan
My sophomore year, someone scratched out my face on a photograph of my friends and I, taped to the outside of my locker. Frightened, I pulled off the picture and threw it in the trash. I had suspicions about what had invited the incident. I learned in high school that it was not safe to be out. I knew it was not—my mother was a lesbian. I had been part of the community since I was a child. Being real about my family, especially at school, was a hard road in itself. And then, the burden throughout my teenage years of trying to hold two secrets—my family situation and my own questioning—at once.
For all of us, I think, living in the LGBTQ community creates a mixture of excitement and fear. At that time of the locker incident, everyone I knew who had dropped out of school was queer. In 6th grade, boys had broken a classmate’s arm for acting effeminate. In high school, one gay friend was having sex with an older man for a place to sleep. In another friend’s home, their mother had framed and displayed photos of all the siblings—except the one who was a lesbian. I remember watching “Boys Don’t Cry” on serial YouTube videos in my kitchen late one night and deciding that the suburban pretty girls at school would never find out about me and my other friends, the ones who didn’t go to our single-gender Catholic school—the out high school queers, my weekend friends.
Since those times of hiding myself, I have spent so much time trying to relocate the stories that map all of who I am, sewing them together in a way that identifies my certain kind of queerness, determined degrees of dykery, a present brand of broader-than-bisexuality from an early age. I stitch in the year at 13 or 14 I went over and over my issue of Velvet Park: Dyke Culture in Bloom taken from the giveaway bin of the LGBT Center lending library. The details felt excruciating, magnetic, trendy butch women and genderqueer folk, hips lined in the corners of a suitvest, a forehead and a flatbrim hat, a cheekbone, a sideburn. I tried to decipher what that feeling was; it was different. I didn’t understand how to navigate.
I still don’t have a succinct way to describe how I identify. I don’t think I have ever been straight, but I am also not a lesbian, a word that leaves out big parts of my experience. I am not bisexual because I have always been attracted to the places (people) of bridging—I am not attracted to two strict categories, men and women. But queer is another exclusive word, one that doesn’t fully describe my lesbian mother, one that doesn’t describe the elders I learned my feminism from, one that doesn’t describe many of my friends, one that doesn’t describe my life either. Queer is not a word I can use all of the time. The word search has revealed fatigue. While I am tired of compromising the gayness that exists in me, I cannot always say that I am gay—it doesn’t tell the whole story. None of these words tell the stories we are trying to validate for ourselves.
When I moved away to college, I still never named my orientation, but continued dating men as I had done my last year of high school. I welcomed the shield that straight relationships seemed to provide. I compartmentalized the LBGTQ identity with life in my hometown. It was easier, that way, to avoid the confusion.
Dating straight boys enabled me to avoid the work of figuring out my sexuality. “I don’t have to think about what I am because I know I like him, and that’s enough,” I would tell myself. When a woman from Appalachian Studies class caught me in the hall to ask if “maybe we could go out to eat sometime after break,” I didn’t think that it was to “go out” on a date. And I should have taken her up on it, but I couldn’t conceive that she would even be attracted to me, or that she knew or believed that I would even go out with her.
I tripped, in college, running toward what was easier, and, then, I stood back up. I realized that in fear of my own sexuality, afraid that I wasn’t legitimate one way or the other, I ended up sacrificing parts of myself in relationships with straight men in the way that I had seen other women do. Perhaps this realization and others, such a complete distress, a shaking, helped me to recall and reconstruct a new-old paradigm for myself. In a new, gay relationship that didn’t compromise any parts of me, I remembered about myself what I used to know, even in high school when I kept that door shut. I kept remembering in millimeters, and the subtleties of difference derailed me. I had no conception of how much more comfortable this course would be. In those first effortless interactions, my whole self dropped into place, like my arms were oaring an ocean I already knew how to navigate. I knew that it was right, that I had arrived, and that some part of me had, patiently, been waiting there a long time.
These passages are excerpted from a longer essay I wrote last year for an undergraduate creative writing class, “Gay and Lesbian Literature,” taught by Catherine Reid at Warren Wilson College.