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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The queer artist

Yesterday I explored some ways I can feel like an authentic writer, methods like blogging from cafes and drinking coffee. It’s clear that these things aren’t what define me as a writer (although, full disclosure: I’m back today, at the cafe with coffee).

Today I’m thinking about how I can identify myself as a writer. Not that I’m eager to put myself in a box, but in many ways I’m sometimes expected to. I try to avoid it sometimes, and succeed for as long as I can until the next person asks that question: “what do you write?” It’s that question you might get from many people when you identify yourself as someone who writes.

Maybe there was a time when answering this question would’ve been a simple one, but it’s since gotten more complicated for me. I often say I’m a fiction writer, but I feel a little guilty about it, because that’s not entirely true. But does each person who asks really want to hear about my internal struggle over whether I’m writing fiction or poetry?

I’ve taken to identifying myself as a queer writer while trying to figure out how to answer the question. You might wonder why I would want to put myself in such a box, especially if not everything I write is distinctly queer.

It’s kind of like the question of why I’d taken on the label of queer. I’ve been asked why queer people want to “flaunt it,” why they would have to broadcast their sexuality as such a primary part of their identity. At times I’ve tried to put this perspective in terms of a bookstore. I can walk into the fiction section of an average bookstore, and I’m sure I’d find plenty of great books, but I might have a hard time finding stories that reflect people like me. I’d scan book covers and summaries on the backs to see if there were any featuring women of color as main characters. I’d try to read into every description of character relationships to see if there could possibly be a queer character somewhere within the pages.

But of course, the majority wouldn’t focus on queer characters, or women of color, and surely there would be very few featuring queer women of color. In all the time I spend searching each book for them, I would definitely find some wonderful books, but the number of books I’d find including my identity might range from very few to zero.

That’s why I have some kind of nerdy bookgasm when I walk into a bookstore to find sections like Black literature, queer literature or (gasp!) lesbian fiction. I don’t necessarily want to limit myself to reading books by authors like myself, but since such books are so rare in mainstream literature, I love finding entire sections devoted to highlighting such work.

So maybe that’s why I call myself a queer writer. As much as I would love to be simply considered a good writer (period), to be identified as a black writer or a queer writer would mean that folks like me, in search of some reflection of their own story, might find my work and hope to find it.

And I would have to ask myself, what would be the advantage of eliminating the labels, identifying myself as only a “writer” without distinguishing myself from any other? Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in 1926, and his words still resonate with me today. He writes of the black poet who just wants to be “a poet — not a Negro poet,” in attempt to fit into the white American standard as much as possible. The black poet says it “as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world.”

I identify who I am as a writer because I’m not ashamed. I’m saying that, although voices like mine have long been ignored in many mainstream literary circles, my world is as interesting as any other world. Even if I’m never accepted in those mainstream circles, I will find myself amongst others in celebration of who we are. As Hughes writes: “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

What the hell am I writing?

What the hell am I writing?

I think one of the reasons I’ve been feeling so strange about my writing lately is that I’m having trouble identifying what it is. I was once a poet, see, and then I became a fiction writer and I was comfortable with that title. Comfortable, at least, with calling myself a fiction writer who sometimes writes poetry, but always able to identify it as one or the other.

Then, in my last semester as an undergraduate Creative Writing major at San Francisco State, I decided to take a poetry class with the incredible and talented Toni Mirosevich. Partly because Toni is so incredible and I didn’t want to graduate without ever having taken a class with her, and partly because I thought that reconnecting with poetry would help me think outside of the box with my fiction.

Well, the class helped me think outside the box, all right. So far outside that I didn’t know what to call my writing anymore. If you’ve ever read Toni’s work, you might know that she’s the queen of creative non-fiction and you might have expected that I’d end up writing some kind of poetry/fiction/non-fiction fusion that could never be categorized.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I’m all about letting go of labels, after all. And I have great respect for writers who can pull off these sorts of things. But with my writing, of all things, I’ve always been something of a control freak. I like to go into it knowing that I’m writing fiction, that my paragraphs will begin with capital letters and end with periods. That it’s fiction because it’s not true and it doesn’t rhyme and there are no line breaks.

Right?

Then I find myself writing pieces like this, and when I go to post it I have to tag it as something, so I have to decide: is this fiction? Is it poetry? What about that truth element? Does that make it creative non-fiction? Can I call it poetic non-fiction, prosey poetry, poenonfiction? And what about when I write something that’s not true for me, but it’s somebody’s truth, and that’s why I write it? And what happens when I rhyme?

According to Toni, this is a good place to be in my writing. I’m on the edge of discovery, on the verge of… something, I suppose, though I’m not sure what. To me, being on the edge of something unknown feels like I’m about to plunge. I ask myself what’s the worst that could happen if I wrote something that can’t be categorized, and my mind goes to all kinds of illogical places, like the crumbling of the universe as we know it.

Then again, I wrote a few uncategorizables this morning and the world seems to still be in tact. For now. We’ll see what happens.

_________________________________________________________________________

‘Til Morning Comes

We know morning will come

but we try to carry this night together

by holding our breath

keeping darkness in our lungs

to release

when dawn begins

its painting of the sky.

I’m holding on until

your breathless laugh

makes me sigh.

I watch the air from within me

move to you

and I hope you’ll hold my breath

‘til morning comes.

Published in: on July 17, 2010 at 10:42 AM  Comments (3)  
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Queer words

In an ideal world, maybe, we would be free of labels. We would respect and care for one another not because of what we’re called by others but because of who we are. People often claim to have moved beyond labeling but clearly we have a need to hold on to some types of categorization as a way to understand and evaluate each other.

“What are you?” we ask, squinting at the light-skinned girl with freckles and an afro.

“Wait, are you gay or straight?” we ask the guy whose ex-girlfriend introduced him to his boyfriend.

So, though I’d ideally rather not label my sexual identity, the closest I come is identifying as queer. I’ve heard and participated in many debates and discussions regarding this term, queer, and about categories in queer communities in general. I’d like to explain my use of “queer” and what it means to me, but I want to emphasize that this is my perspective on terms as they apply to me. Part of what can make these conversations so difficult, I think, is assuming that what works for me works for everyone else, which simply can’t be true.

That said, since I could ramble for days about queerness, I’ll organize my thoughts into reasons I identify as queer:

1) The pressure to identify as something. I suppose if I wanted to I could refuse to succumb to all labeling when asked about my dating experiences or attractions, because it’s frankly nobody else’s business, but for the sake of those whose minds seem to be BLOWN if they can’t identify someone as gay or straight, I identify as queer so that I have something to say if asked. They might get it then, or they might still be confused, in which case it’s a chance to teach them about something they don’t know much about.

2) Also because I’m very proud to be queer. Don’t think that wishing I didn’t have to label my sexuality means that I’m ashamed of it. I’m proud of who I am, and one advantage of finding a word that fits is being able to declare it proudly. I love that identifying as queer means taking a word that was once used to oppress people and declaring that we have nothing to be ashamed of.

3) I find it easier/more inclusive than trying to find an all-encompassing acronym. Besides simply rolling off the tongue easier, I feel more comfortable using queer than LGBT… (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender…) because the acronyms always seem to leave someone out. In some circles saying “GLBT” is sufficient, while in others it’s “LGBTQQI…” and so forth. While I don’t have a problem adding on letters for the sake of inclusion, our attempt to do so suggests that we can include everyone. We might say, “well, as long as I include both Qs and the T I’ve got everybody!” when in fact we’d have to include every letter of the alphabet, twice, if we were to truly seek out how each person in the world would like to identify. There are many other questions too, like why is the “T” so often added at the end as a sign of inclusion while transgender concerns are ignored? But on the other hand, perhaps it’s a mistake on my part to use “queer” as a substitute for all these terms, because inevitably there are some within those categories who are uncomfortable being identified as such.

4) “Bisexual” doesn’t cut it. I guess if I were to find myself in the often-used LGBT acronym, I would fall under B, because I’m attracted to both men and women, which implies bisexuality. But in my experience, identifying as bisexual often leads to a fundamental misunderstanding about my sexuality. For one thing, in our society the term comes with several negative connotations, such as a person being “confused” or “slutty.” I could reclaim the term and fight for its true meaning, of course, but its true meaning doesn’t resonate with me either. The prefix “bi” supports the binary gender system that I believe is so hurtful to those who don’t fall under typical understandings of gender and sexuality. To say that I’m bisexual would imply that I’m attracted only to traditional men and women, disregarding the genderqueer folks in between. And I view my sexuality as fluid, rather than strictly defined, so I feel that “queer” comes closest to capturing that.

5) And finally, queer can refer to more than who I’m sleeping with or dating or attracted to. Like the dictionary definition, it can refer to someone who’s just different in some way. I feel that it encompasses more about me, supporting what I believe about my identity, that I am who I am regardless of the romantic partners in my life. So often we base our opinion of people on who they date, labeling them straight or gay and piling on all of the ideas we have about either identity. For the love of all divine things, I am not confused. I’m not going through a phase. I am. I just…am. I only ask to be accepted for who I am today. Because let’s face it, I’m a fucking weirdo. I do things like take myself out on dates, and have conversations with my cat, and then I don’t even have the sense not to blog about it. So yes, I truly am queer, in more ways than one. It works for me.

But like I said, this is only what works for me. What do you think of the word queer, or the acronymns? Are there any arguments against queer that you think I’m missing or don’t understand? I’m always open to conversation about this.

Published in: on June 17, 2010 at 9:48 AM  Comments (3)  
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