Free within ourselves

Thinking about yesterday’s post, I’m reflecting on what a position of privilege I’m in to be able to call myself a queer writer. Historically, and still today, there are many writers who couldn’t come out of the closet as queer. And many people in other positions, too. Maybe they wouldn’t necessarily need to identify as a “queer football player” or “queer politician” to establish who they are, but I’m sure it would be liberating if they could just be honest about that aspect of their lives.

A younger me would’ve been shocked to see me in this position. There was once a time when, because of familial and religious pressures, I thought that I would never come out of the closet. I thought I might tell my parents about my sexuality only in the most dire of circumstances, i.e. if I fell deeply in love with a woman and planned to spend the rest of my life with her, and if my parents didn’t know, I’d have to be sure that nobody else knew, so they wouldn’t find out.

And now here I am, setting out to establish a career in which I identify myself as, of all things, a queer writer. I’m “out” in most areas of my life, though not all, but now I’m broadcasting it on the Internet for anyone to find (shout-out to any extended family who are snooping here now — hi! Yes, the rumors are true). The fact that I was able to come out, and I can now proudly declare who I am while keeping my health, my safety and my livelihood, shows that I’m quite lucky. It’s not a matter of life or death for me, like it is for some folks. So while I certainly don’t believe that everyone should be forced to come out of the closet like me, it saddens me to know that even some of the iconic queer writers and artists who paved the way for our voices to be heard today must be forced to remain in the closet, even long after their deaths.

People ask me about my influences, and three names that come up most often are Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Notice a pattern here? Nobody denies that they’re all black. Nobody denies that they’re all great. But, according to some, somehow I’m supposed to believe that identifying all of them as queer will somehow hurt one’s status as a respectable writer.

I’ve loved Langston Hughes’s work for a long time. And I often cite him as a gay icon, forgetting that many people still try to deny this fact. Obviously, his incredible work stands on its own, but knowing that he’s a black gay writer is what makes, for me, the difference between simply respecting his work and revering him as an iconic figure who laid the groundwork for what I do today. Denying his sexuality is, as Saeed Jones puts it, “as foolish as ignoring his race” (in an old post; I’d recommend checking out his newer updates). Must I really disregard who he is as a person in order to appreciate his work?

It’s frustrating enough when mainstream literary circles try to perpetuate the myth that only straight white men can write what can be considered great. It’s downright insulting to include a gay man among them, to recognize his place as one of the literary greats but only by claiming that he, too, is one of the great straight men.

So I’m coming from a place of privilege when I call myself a queer writer. I’m also coming from a place of gratitude, for those who came before me and struggled as queer artists, particularly queer writers of color, to insist that their voices deserve to be heard as much as anyone else’s. Gratitude for Countee Cullen, for Bruce Nugent, for Gladys Bentley, and yes, for Langston Hughes, and for countless others who deserve to be recognized for their work and for who they are — for all of who they are.

As Hughes has asked many times, what happens to a dream deferred? What happens when our dreams only feel within reach if we pretend to be something we’re not? Though many folks are forced to remain in the closet today, there are others who are opening doors, simply by being themselves and putting their work out there without leaving any part of themselves behind. I hope to join them, to reach my goals simply by being me, and nobody else.

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Water-Front Streets

by Langston Hughes

The spring is not so beautiful there–

But dream ships sail away

To where the spring is wondrous rare

And life is gay.

The spring is not so beautiful there–

But lads put out to sea

Who carry beauties in their hearts

And dreams, like me.

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Beyond Tolerance

There are more great queer-themed movies playing!

Frameline, the LGBT film festival, is going on this weekend and all through next week. I’ve been working with the Family Acceptance Project to promote the film they put together, “Always My Son.” There’s another showing on Sunday but last night was their big premiere (it was paired with a film that’s been getting a lot of press, “The Mormon Proposition”). It was followed by a reception featuring a Q&A with the family featured in the film. It was all a great success and I’m very happy for Caitlyn Ryan and Jorge Sanchez, director and program coordinator of the Family Acceptance Project.

“Always My Son” is the first in a very promising series of films created by the Family Acceptance Project (FAP), a program affiliated with my alma mater, San Francisco State University. The films will focus on the stories of families with LGBT children. FAP has been conducting studies about such families and working with them to promote familial acceptance of queer youth.

The studies have shown a huge impact for youth whose families accept them for who they are. The results may be obvious to folks who grew up as queer youth, like me. Young people whose families show behavior of rejection, such as trying to change the child’s sexual orientation or forcing them to hide it, are at a much higher risk for things like attempted suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. Those whose families showed acceptance had higher feelings of self-worth and were more likely to believe that they could grow up to be happy, healthy adults.

The Family Acceptance Project is doing really great work that’s long overdue, serving as a resource for families who may feel like they’re alone in trying to deal with a child’s sexual orientation. The family featured in “Always My Son,” for example, is a religious Latino family living in the Central Valley, where I grew up. When their son, EJ, came out as gay, they felt lost. EJ’s father, in particular, struggled to reconcile his son’s sexuality with the macho Latino ideology he was used to. After a crisis showed them that they were contributing to the suffering that might have them lose their son, the family shifted and went beyond tolerance to full acceptance, embracing their son for who he is. They got help from the Family Acceptance Project, found an affirming church and provided their home as a space for queer youth to come together and find support.

It was an incredible story, and watching the family at the reception last night, I couldn’t get over trying to imagine how EJ must feel. To go from feeling rejected and hated by your own family to having your family serve as an example for others learning to accept LGBT youth must be a great feeling, and it’s probably why I never saw EJ stop smiling. The fact that this was a Central Valley family of color from a faith background touched me personally on multiple levels, and I’m so glad that the film showcased a family that people may not ordinarily think of as a leader in LGBT equality. I think it really shows the potential power of unconditional love to transform hearts and minds in ways that may be difficult to imagine.

I really recommend seeing this film, if you get a chance. There are rumors that Sunday’s showing may be sold out, but it’s definitely worth it to try to get some of the tickets they’ll sell right before the show starts. Even if you don’t get a chance to see the movie, check out the Family Acceptance Project and see if there’s any way you can help. It’s wonderful work that will hopefully continue for a long time.

Published in: on June 19, 2010 at 9:27 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Nature’s Way

New fiction from this morning:

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As a child, Evelyn never would have confessed to something while her mother was gardening. She knew better than to deliver what might be called “bad news” while her mother was on her hands and knees in the dirt, her earth-colored skin glowing beneath the sun as she tended to her flowers with such gentle care that she might simply turn to a tulip in bloom and say, “why can’t my children be more like you?” if Evelyn disappointed her.

Now, as Evelyn was getting older, she reconsidered this strategy. In her eyes, it wasn’t bad news she was delivering, and perhaps if she was in the garden when she heard, her mother wouldn’t see it that way either. Evelyn could only hope, as she approached the towering woman brought down to the size of a hydrangea bush crouching in the garden, that her mother’s oneness with nature in this moment would make everything easier. Perhaps she would listen to what Evelyn had to say and then turn to a tulip with acceptance in her heart, remembering all that it went through before it came to bloom, the winter it hardly survived, the way she planted it carefully in hopes that it would face one direction, only to have it grow to face the opposite, surprising her with the discovery that that’s what she preferred all along.

As Evelyn got closer, the harsh gleam of the sun suddenly felt more hostile and she wiped a line of sweat from her forehead as she began to wonder what she would say, exactly. She’d had the words planned out but now, watching her mother’s fingers abandon a shovel and dig through the dirt themselves, tunneling quickly and carefully as ants, Evelyn felt like her words were buried too. She’d forgotten everything. How would she explain? There was nobody to introduce her mother to, no deep love of which to speak. She was only describing an inkling, a feeling she got around some girls that told her that there would, someday, be a love of which to speak. As her mother looked up to greet her, Evelyn tried to smile, but could only open her mouth in a terrified grimace. Her throat was closing. Her fingers trembling. Her heart and her stomach tightened as one entangled mess.

“Ah,” her mother said, smiling and nodding when she saw her daughter’s face. “So. You’ve finally come to tell me.”

Published in: on June 17, 2010 at 9:45 AM  Leave a Comment  
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