The price of being out: emotional authenticity and storytelling

This is a story, I think, that every queer person will know.

I’m telling it because I met a man who bought my book, started reading it and told me at the following day’s Rotunda that I’d used a lot of words he hadn’t seen before, but I’d given him a lot of new things to think about.

That comment has made me think about how I do what I do in a new light (which will become a post to follow).

But first I want to tell a story, just in case there’s someone in the world who hasn’t heard it.

It goes like this. You meet someone new. Because I’m doing more and more things with Rotunda and Vic Uni, this is happening to me more and more often: I’m having to develop actual social skills (ye gods). I’m having to talk to strangers. I’m having to put myself out there and be vulnerable as a person, as a part of a group, as a creative, as a writer. I’m starting to be connected in small ways to a larger community of people, and as a person who survived the monster dimensions through regarding any social connection as a potential threat and consequently best avoided, this is both amazing, challenging and a credit to two psychologists and the new-found amazing people in my life who are so encouraging, supportive, kind and engaged.

(It helps that several of these people are very good at those sorts of interpersonal skills: I get to learn from a pair of masters in the art. I’m grateful for their willingness to teach me. I’m humbled by their kindness and encouragement.)

As every queer knows, this venture into a general community comes with a pitfall. That moment when you find yourself having to admit that you’re … not straight.

(Worse, and something on which I regularly fail at correcting people, you’re not even actually a girl.)

For me, it happens when people ask me what I write, or  when I give out the URL of this blog, or (less rarely) when people ask me if I have a boyfriend or make a comment that assumes I’m attracted to men (because they assume I’m female).

These days, I don’t receive a lot of overt homophobia (in contrast to my old job, where I got the usual bevy of misunderstandings, the repeated insistence that I need to fuck a man to ‘know’ I’m queer, and uncomfortable, invasive questions). I’m part of a community of writers: they’re intelligent, literate people. They often don’t ask questions, ones I’d be more than happy to answer, out of an unwillingness to cause me discomfort. That doesn’t mean there’s not homophobes amongst them. It’s just that it’s not the kind of homophobia that will draw me the support and protection of the people around me, which is a challenge I don’t see discussed in queer writings all that often. Nobody will stand there in the classroom and let someone call me a dyke. But nobody will see my discomfort and distress if someone wants to discuss (or ‘debate’) marriage equality. If I need to tell someone I don’t wish to debate a topic that is very personal and painful – it’s a reminder of the fact that in this country I am not fully human – I do it alone. If I need to tell someone that no, there is no moral reason for not implementing marriage equality until the conservatives get ‘used’ to the idea, I do it alone. Nobody will stand up and say that it’s actually pretty fucking shitty to want to debate marriage equality or gender recognition with a non-binary queer person: why should I have to debate my own fucking existence?

I say this so that people understand that coming out is still not without risk. It isn’t. Heterocentrism hurts. Homophobia that isn’t bashing or slurs hurts. (Let’s not get started on transphobia or binary-centrism, shall we?) Thoughtless words hurt. The fear that my gender identity isn’t going to be understood or accepted is strong enough to keep me silent in the face of misgendering. The act of coming out, something we do almost every time we talk to a person for long enough that our sexuality and/or gender identity must be acknowledged, holds immense potential for pain.

Coming out is an act of intense vulnerability. It opens us up to potential emotional violence. When we live in a world where it is still reasonable to wreck that emotional violence on people who have done nothing but exist, where it is still reasonable to deny them the basic rights of being human, how can it not be frightening?

I can’t do what I do without being out of the closet.

Well, I can, actually. I can do what I did for eight years: write for myself.

I wrote stories about queer folk who were out, accepted, had friends. I wrote and I showed nobody because I couldn’t trust anyone in my life to read it and be comfortable with the identities and concepts I was exploring. I survived a time when I couldn’t be myself by living in a fantasy world, and while that sounds like a criticism people make of romance novels and video games, it’s a valid and even vital survival mechanism because I lived in the world of fucking monsters. I wrote about two million words of people who weren’t me, but were me in a better life, and who wouldn’t want that if they believed – subconsciously, but that’s the tragedy because it’s so hard to face and confront subconscious beliefs and motivations – that was the only way they could be their authentic self?

I look back at that old K. A., and my heart breaks for them.

The thing that is horrific in hindsight, though? A few months back leafed through some old stories written in the world in which my new novel is set, stories written when I wasn’t yet out. They involve queer characters who are out, who have friends, who are part of the community, who are the person I yearned to be in real life … and their friends and community treat them like fucking shit. They’re full of all the things I decry as the homophobia I fight now – queer characters forced to justify their existence, queer characters forced to debate and engage with people who are uncomfortable with their identities, queer characters made to be the butt of jokes about the strangeness of queer sex, sexuality and intimacy. They’re full of the things I hate enduring from my own family: awkward silences, hesitations about word-use, strange pronunciations and euphemisms. It’s all written, however, as a kind of expected status normal, and the speakers of those horrific words are considered supportive and are never called out.

As a baby queer, I was taught to expect this kind of ‘acceptance’ from my family, friends and community. In my fantasy, in a world where I got to be more accepted and connected than the real one, this was the best I believed I could hope for.

As a writer, I have the real, hard evidence of the things I felt and believed two, five, ten years ago. I can’t look back and tell myself soft lies about my failings. I’ve got to look my words in the eye and admit I was a fucking racist monster. I’ve also got to look my words in the eye and grieve for all the hateful things I internalised about my assigned sex, my sexuality, my gender identity, my mental illnesses. What I have, though, is evidence of the damage: I have the world as viewed through the lens of someone who believed that they were only deserving of being treated as less than equal, less than human. I’ve got an archeological record of my position in the world. That’s quite a powerful, profound, uncomfortable thing.

Anything that is powerful and profound should not be comfortable. My best writing happens when I’m not comfortable. My best writing happens when I’ve got half a box of tissues surrounding the keyboard, when my stomach is tied in knots when I hit ‘send’ or ‘post’, when I feel like I’m falling over the edge of a cliff with every word I write, and when I realise I’m still unable to show my work on Platform to my parents. The divine and vulnerable Hannie Rayson, speaking at the Highlands Rotunda, described writing as ‘finding a moment of truthfulness about life’. I don’t know if this is true for everybody. I’m quite sure that for those of us for whom this is truth will approach this truth, and live it, in different ways. I find that writing is more about exploring and validating a moment of truthfulness, but that quote nevertheless encapsulates what it is that draws me to words.

I can be out.

Or I can be dead.

I mean that without hyperbole. I mean that the pain of being something I am not, of hiding myself, of living without authenticity, will render me into a shell of a human being, which will in turn drive me to suicide. Some people can live as shadows of themselves, at least for a time, but I’m no longer one of them. I learned that when my depression and my pain and the dismissive, discriminatory situation at my old job saw me not living much of a life at all; I learned that when I was suicidal.

Freedom comes at a price, my psychologist says. Being out is a hell of one.

This is a surprisingly long road to the point of my story. Remember when I was talking about that point when one must inevitably come out?

Most of us queers are familiar with that silence, that beat in the conversation, followed by something like ‘oh’ or ‘I didn’t realise’ or ‘wow’ in that flat tone of voice said by someone searching desperately for something to say. Surprise. Momentary awkwardness. I guess they’re worried that they’ve said something wrong? Maybe they’re reassessing just who it is they think I am? I don’t understand why they need to make me aware of this, but I guess it’s not entirely voluntary. It’s not homophobia, exactly, and I don’t mean to portray it as much. People who do this can be nice and supportive people. Some of them might even be queer themselves, in fact. Who am I to know? But it’s hellish awkward to be on the receiving end.

It’s a reminder that I’m still not quite normal. It’s a reminder, at the very least, that queerness is not expected.

(The best reaction is no reaction. A nod. The conversation carrying on as if this is no big deal. The people who engage with me as if we do live in a world where saying that I’m queer has the same weight of saying that my eyes are this funky shade of grey-green-hazel people struggle to name. It’s hard to convey this, at times. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told by allies that they don’t care or it’s okay to be gay – an expression of overt support. That’s another brand of awkwardness. That’s another response to fear. When I sit there and listen to my aunt tell me that of course she accepts gays, I don’t feel accepted or supported. I feel different, othered, abnormal. When I sit there and listen to my fellow students say nothing at all but to nod and keep on with the conversation, I feel welcome.)

People I know and have met in real life, who have played out this story in real life conversations, have the URL of this blog. If you’re one of them, that awkward feeling you’re suffering right now might be akin to how I’ve felt at various points in time. I’m cool if we pretend that you’ve never read this piece, by the way. I’m pretty sure that’s how most people survive engagements with a writer whose muses come from real life experience. Powerful and profound is never comfortable, remember? And that applies as much for the author as it does for those who inspire the words.

Story is how I explore and validate the truths I know.

I’ve started doing a funny thing in some of these real life interactions with people (with whom I must out myself) when it comes to mentioning this blog, largely as a result of receiving that awkwardness. It involves some sort of explanation or justification: yeah, the blog is called queer without gender, but I write about other shit too – writing, chronic pain, mental illness, story and narrative.

Translated: it’s queer but it’s not actually that fucking queer, so please don’t run away from my queer-arse-sounding blog.

Now, this is true, in a way. This blog is about writing. It’s about psychology and soul development. It’s about my particular view on the world around me. It is, like every other piece of writing ever, about the human condition. If I were to choose one word that describes the purpose of this little piece of the internet, I’d say story. Narrative is my passion, and it influences just about everything I do. I’ve an undying fascination with the kinds of stories that are told and not told. I am driven to tell the kinds of stories that aren’t told or are hard to find. I’ve got the egotistical, very human need to both tell my story and explore what it is to be me – to tell the story about the story.

(Artistic egotism is okay, wonderful, appropriate, vital. I’m not going to sit around and wait for somebody to tell my story. I’m going to tell it myself. That’s a powerful, subversive act, regardless of the politics an author might face and challenge in the act of telling their story, and while I don’t see the need to pretend my writing isn’t versed in egotism, I also don’t see the need to dismiss egotism in art as a negative thing. My writing is all about me: that’s why you’re here. I’ve got something interesting to say about what it is to be human through the lens of my worldview and experience. Egotism in its extreme is damaging and limiting, but without it, how can we ever tell stories in the first place?)

The URL doesn’t encapsulate that.

Except it does.

To be queer without gender is to be about psychology and soul development, story and narrative, the human condition. Those three words tell a story. It encapsulates so many things that almost everyone has felt at some point – difference, isolation, uniqueness, commonality, struggle, accomplishment, fear. It doesn’t make me special: it makes me human. It makes me a person with limited rights, a person who struggles with connection, a person who has suffered such grave emotional damage about my identity and my place in the world that I feel the need to tell people that my blog really isn’t that queer out of the fear that they won’t otherwise read my words.

I write about what it is to be my kind of human. That’s all. As anyone who has read more than two posts will know, I’m interested in expanding the definition of what constitutes the kind of humans normally expected in narrative. I’m interested in challenging the idea that my kind of human can’t be front and centre in story.

If nobody will validate me, I will validate myself.

It says something profound and terrible that anyone in the world can look at my URL and decide that the content of my blog, my stories, my books is not something with which they can connect. It says something profound and terrible that I interact with others as though this is a valid, reasonable fear. It says something profound and terrible about the damage that I have sustained through not being considered human.

(I use that phrase often, because that’s what equality is about: the long-deserved right for minority groups to be treated, acknowledged, respected and nurtured as though we too are also human.)

I’m wrong, though.

I’m wrong because a man told me that I gave him new words.

Someone is connecting with the content of what it is I write. Someone didn’t need the explanation or the justification. Someone is okay with stepping into the unconventional, highly political world that is me.

It seems to be a common comment that fiction writing shouldn’t have an agenda. I usually comment that I have an agenda – if not several – at which point someone will say that my agendas are ‘light’ or ‘well-handled’ (so it’s not a problem). Apparently, I’m good enough to be an exception. This is said with the best intentions, I think, but it can’t help but remind me of this mythical ‘gay agenda’ or the fact that the word ‘agenda’ has been so highly politicized it now must be seen as a negative. Being told I’m good enough to work my agenda is not actually a compliment. My agendas are not subtle or light: my writing would fall part without them to the extent that my words and my story would be meaningless. Imagine my writing, if you would, without the agendas of my queer identity, my mental illnesses, my chronic pain, the bullying and abuse I have suffered. What, exactly, is left? How am I saying anything new and compelling about the human condition when everything interesting I have to say comes from the intersection of all of the above?

Why do we so fear this concept of wearing our heart and soul on our sleeves? How does it detract from our art, exactly? I am a political being – my very humanity is up for political debate – and my art is highly political in response. Yes, we have an agenda: the validation of our humanity.

We do fear this, though, and I think this is the reason why I feel I have to downplay a URL that screams the queer gender agenda. Once again I’m so damaged by the words and beliefs of the privileged that I’m frightened to stand behind my agendas without diluting them for public consumption.

This, though, isn’t true. It’s not a universal truth. It doesn’t have to be a universal truth. I can do something to challenge this truth and show humanity in all its diverse and amazing glory.

One man, one stranger I don’t know, taught me that.

It’s not easy to be who I am and do what I do in a community that isn’t a queer safe space. It’s not easy to sit there and peddle my writing, be it my book or my blog, to people who don’t come to me already knowing who I am and what I’m about. It’s bloody frightening, in fact. The act of being myself makes me vulnerable to potential emotional violence. It is an act of empowerment, yes, but it comes with a price and a great deal of danger that most often results in pain.

Powerful and profound is never comfortable.

I think this is why I’m not wholly in agreement with the idea of ‘it gets better’ as directed to queer youth. In many ways, it doesn’t. Trans and non-binary queer youth, in particular, face down a lifetime where chances are high that it may not get very much ‘better’.

It’s just that we choose to live the dangers of being ourselves, and, every so often, we run into the right kind of people who remind us that there’s something powerful, profound and worthwhile in the danger of being openly who we are. In a world where we feel the need to diminish and dilute our own agenda to be accepted, this reminder is what we need to muster up our courage and soldier on with our emotional authenticity. We can be accepted as we are. We should be.

Our stories, our words, our agendas, our hearts on our sleeves – they matter.

I hope the memory of this man’s encouraging words make it just that little bit easier to stiffen my shoulders and tell people I’ve just met that I’m a queer writer of queer words on a queer blog.

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