being seen, part 2
when i first moved to kansas city (missouri not kansas) in the mid-90s, a group of women who were a decade or more my senior took me into the hull of their ship: a lesbian vessel captained by strong, yet tired women, who had been weathering the stormy seas of homophobia on crafts made of cardboard, daily, for decades. & while most of them survived, drugs & alcohol took some of them, their lives cut short by the cruelty & unkindness of a world that tells you to stay hidden or suffer, making it easier for some to strenghthen their resolve through false gods—not dissimilar to the god put forth by the distrubuters of that very same cruelty & unkindness. though easily judged by some, indulging in things that alter a reality, that create a new, albeit momentary society, are less dangerous sometimes & more palatable than the realities wicked with the darkness of a culture ruled by religious idelogies that are twisted to cut off the umbilical cords that should feed all of mother america’s children; selfhoods stretched until the image pressed into the silly putty no longer looks like its true meaning, now gaunt, now broken. a shrinky dink pushed against the lip of the cookie sheet, disforming its outcome. those of you who don’t know what it’s like to alter who & how you are, daily, all the while monitoring if that alteration is working as you suss out the danger in the crowd, the office, your town, your home—those of you who haven’t been relentlessly & violently questioned as to why you are, who have never had to be truly closeted—to be forced to lie about who you are, marry someone you don’t love as cover, tailor the way you live & breathe—you have a different kind of veteran to thank. if it wasn’t for them, we’d all have been more harmed. the pyramid of sacrafice isn’t one you want to be on the top of, which in no way diminishes the suffering many of us still endure, which doesn’t mean we are done fighting. imagine the toll it takes on someone’s mental fortitude, their overall wellness, when they have to be more concerned about their physical safety, job safety, family safety, financial safety, home safety than just being a joyful & carefree member of our society. it’s more than many can imagine. people of color know. the lgbtq community knows. & often, if they are truly paying attention, & not stuck in brainwashed roles of defend, deny, defer — women know.
these lesbians, these captains my captains: they knew the types of things i needed to know in order to not get my ass kicked or killed: where the gay friendly places were, where to go if you needed support or literature or hair dye or where you could buy men’s clothing & not have people call management on you. they knew which doctors were out there that treated you kindly, if any. there weren’t many gay friendly places in those not-so-long-ago days. i remember them telling me that if you wanted to hook up with someone outside of the bar scene, just cruise the aisles of the westport sunfresh where you’d sooner or later find someone giving you that looky-look. so, it was there we shopped for groceries. not to hook up. not really. that might have just been a gay urban myth, but because being seen by members of our own community provided a level of saftey, a calmness we could donn, a brief release of holding up our guards — heavy things to carry so often, so long. under those flouresecent lights existed a tiny safe-haven, & a refuge where you could have someone look at you with compassion or, better yet, admiration because you were gay—not hatred or disdain or judgment or fear. it’s true that while grabbing our beer (not on sundays!) & cereal or our nutter butters & bananas, we’d see someone there who gave us that look we used to give each other back then & now again in post-trump america, that means we see you, we are with you. we used the term family to discern friend from possible foe. are you family? we’d say. if you were, this beautiful code phrase was all you needed to know you were safe & in good company — a few simple words that gave some whose own families had turned away from them a feeling of belonging. it was our big gay metaphorical closet housing a compiliation of misfits & outfits & furniture & dishes that we’d eat off of in apartments we couldn’t believe we shared with our lovers, who, even then, we still had to call our “roomates” even though nobody we knew could actually afford a two-bedroom apartment.
my gaydar was sharp back then. honed by a need to know what kept me from getting fired, or punched, or yelled at or worse. & even though there is nothing straight about me, you’d be surprised how many yahoos chose not to pick up on it — so i needed to be the one who knew who was looking at me so that i could dodge what was coming. gaydar isn’t a myth; it’s a lifesaver. it’s a secret handshake whose order of operations is unknown to the unqueer set. it’s invisible ink written on the soundwaves that requires a decoding potion you have to be brave enough to carry with you, a puff of breath across a cold window where you can write out a heart that some in the world still manage to see as backwards, even though it looks the same on this side of the glass. & while silent got you safely to the other side of the street, more often than loud, we wore ourselves on our sleeves like hearts beating, marching to that different drum that graduating classes across the nation hailed as their anthem until the Casual Friday Police caught up with them on wednesday & said keep those drum beats in your books, shut, on your shelves; closet them away & dust them off only when it’s time to thoreau them in the trash. gaydar is just another word for awareness, & awareness is just another word for, we don’t just see each other, we see you.
i had queer role models growing up. of course i did. although, i didn’t know that was what they were at the time. during the 80s & 90s, there wasn’t a safe way for queer people in most of the world to live their lives openly. so they chose to either cover with a marriage to someone of the oppostie sex, or to live life solo, without a partner, & pretend that’s what they wanted. sometimes they chose death. these are choices & compromises that people all over the world are still forced to make. & be clear: even the most “out” of us made compromises & difficult choices, daily, that chipped away at our confidence in ourselves & our trust in society. i know that i would have suffered quite a lot more than i did, if i’d been born in an earlier time period, even by just a few years. i may not have survived it. lives & choices i think those coming up in this generation can’t possibly understand, & sometimes place unfair & uneducated blame or judgment on people who chose & sometimes still choose, to have safety first: physical & financial safety, to be able to live in their towns, small or large, without being driven out into the unknown. for some, any support system, no matter how much you have to lie to that support system is better than not knowing what support system you’ll find, if any, out there in a world that seems to want you to live as a martyr or die like one. if you haven’t told yourself a story about who you are or were that isn’t false, you’re a rarety & i applaud you for it. we do untold amounts of actions, tell untold amounts of tales, for our own safety: we humans are good at pushing our feelings, our truths, our selves, down & away. repression is the great american accomplishment.
westport was no greenwich village, but it was, not counting the infiltration of suburban frat boys & sorority girls who came into town on saturday nights & acted like we were somehow in their house, closer to it than anywhere i’d ever been. in some bars, you could sip a drink & hold a woman’s hand & it didn’t matter if it wasn’t a lesbian bar: you wouldn’t have someone break a bottle over your head. (that’s a nebraska story for a different day.) in wesport, we pumped out punk rock music & defiance to a world that demanded we be khakis & skirts & pressed collars & nylons instead of ripped t-shirts & purple mohawks, leather pants & steel-toed boots. we broadcast our desires through our haircuts, our tattoos & our wallet chains. we weren’t part of the soap opera called the status quo. sometimes we even believed that we lived in a world where love would win. where kindness & compassion were the guiding light that, as the world turns, is the truest part of the days of our lives. alas, as often as we’ve been right, we’ve been wrong. & ok, yes, i’ve been binge-watching jane the virgin & the telenovella concept has heavily influenced at least the first draft of what i’m trying to say here. which is: somewhere along the way (was it since its inception) religion decided to become a means to an end. an end of itself. it’s writing itself into obsolescence, & people like me are kicking back on our non-bible-loving heels & watching them go, not gently, into that good night. they have jumbled up their own reality, & believe that push has come to shove. my favorite spoonerism, the lord is a shoving leopard, perfectly describes the followers of an ideology that at one point gave me hope. but after decades of living as a loud & proud member of the lgbtq community, it’s clear to me daily, that many christians, misunderstand the fable of crucifixion that was meant to teach them that bullying is wrong, that the soft-hearted man who just wanted to hang out with his boyfriends, & gang of misfits was killed because he was kind, compassionate & accepting of all people, that love your neighbor meant love your fucking neighbor, & that neighbor was a metaphor for every person in the world. but still, after centuries, the meaning of the story escapes so many, so they wear their crucifixes & take every opportunity to damn us to hell, using the name of a man, who preached love, to preach their own hate. they’d rather shove than love. they’ve donned the bully’s clothing as cape, they’ve picked up their hammer & nails & relentlessly seek ways to tack us to the splintered wood of their false beliefs.
speaking of …
it was a summer night, & if you’ve spent any time in kansas city, missouri, you know two things: 1: real humidity is like a new appendage or a sixth & unwanted sense, & 2: it may not be the south, but it suffers from the proximity to implicit racism & fear of the other. it was a cruel place, in my experience, which isn’t to say i didn’t learn, grow, laugh & love there. i often say i was raised in wyoming, but i grew up in kcmo.
a group of us would gather every friday night in westport where wine & copious amounts of poetry flowed like our youth, stretching out a fabric of hope over our broken expectations & dreams — a quilt made out of thrift store t-shirts, misshapen by too many industrial-strength washers under fluorescent lights in the quarter graveyards we lugged our underwear & socks to once a week if we were lucky, once a month if we were quarter-deficient. we were each other’s security blankets for the rest of the week when we’d go out & face the 9 to 5’ers who couldn’t make us forget that on friday nights we were the shapers of the future, the gusto in the breath of life that was blowing towards the left. we were a group of misfits who found each other through gay bars, coffee shops & poetry slams, & we embraced the radical idea that art & expression in opposition to the status quo mattered. & as i did before each of these gatherings, i’d stopped by the sunfresh in westport to grab a bottle or 2 of cheap merlot; the or 2 depending on how good tips had been that day at the coffee shop.
it was a normal day, & i mean that even though what happened didn’t happen on a daily basis, not quite so overtly anyway, but it wasn’t surprising once it all went down. it was the reason i always took that here goes breath before going into any place that wasn’t a friend’s home, a coffee shop, a gay bar — i was conditioned, WE were conditioned to be ready to ride a spectrum, a rainbow, of dirty looks & shocking emotions, of arms placed protectively on children’s backs, of name-calling & threats of violence. you don’t think we chose the rainbow just because it’s pretty, do you? we’ve always known our position on the scale between two extreme or opposite points: safety to danger is a short street, & asphalt does an unpredictable dance when the weather rides the same spectrum of extremes.
he was a scrawny old bastard wearing a dingy undershirt. his shoulder bones trying to poke through his skin, pointed out the years of hardwork they’d endured, & an old bulldog tattoo on his forearm made me think he’d served in the marines, maybe he was even a wwii veteran. his black pants were hiked up high & he had on glasses under a little beaten & black fedora. he was wearing a saint christopher medal & a cross on the same chain. he was shorter than me, & it may have been that the years had hunched him, but we stood nearly eye-to-eye. his wife was wearing a house dress with a floral print in an array of oranges & greens, white piping around the hem. she was about the same size as him, & definitely as old. she was standing in front of him, silently existing in a glassy-eyed world that seemed truly unreachable to me.
i got in line behind them. & i tell you now my guard was down, which was unusual in those days, but i was at the wesport sunfresh where my people shopped, & i was standing behind two people who seemed grandparent-y. i smiled at the woman, as i’ve always had soft spot for the elderly & tend to go out of my way to help them or let them know that i see them & i honor them. because we’ll all, alternative endings aside, get there some day. i grabbed the grocery version of this is your dance space, this is my dance space, & placed it on the conveyor belt to separate our purchases, & i lifted my bottle of merlot to place behind it & it was as if the wine bottle was a bomb that had just ticked down to zero.
now for a quick lesson in the anatomy of a wine bottle. there’s a hollowed-out space on the bottom of most wine bottles. it’s called a punt. i have no idea why, but i like imagining it’s because it looks like a tiny football landed there as the glass was being shaped by the winery fires of whichever cheap brand of wine i currently had in my hand. this one was flawed. because it … exploded is really the only word for it. let me be clear: the wine exploded. the glass was basically intact. the seam where the punt had been attached to the rest of the bottle came perfectly clean of the rest of it & the entire contents of deep red merlot released itself all over the conveyor belt & floor beneath it, splashing up like a cannonball had just landing in the ocean & the ocean was checkstand #7.
the old man spoke: what have you done, son? you’ve made a mess! i quick-checked my surroundings: the cashier looked annoyed & hungover, & there were other customers staring, & i could see the manager about 100 feet away looking towards the commotion, which for now was just this old man saying in a relatively annoyed voice, what have you done, what have you done, son, but then he noticed his wife’s house coat had absorbed couple of small splashes of the red which upset him greatly. he started yelling about how careless i was. at this point i hadn’t opened my mouth to say anything because i was stuck in freeze-mode, still assessing what i needed to do, when the cashier said, sir, it’s ok, she didn’t mean to. & this is where it all went south. me & my buzz-cut wearing a democratic socialist t-shirt, & cut-off postal pants had misled old undershirt into thinking i was a young man, which is a mistake that happens often, & one i have come to not mind, but has over the years caused me a ridiculous amount of trouble from people it does mind. & this must be his ultimate trigger in life because his yelling changed. he wasn’t just mad at the mess my faulty bottle & i had made—he’s mad because i’m not a boy, & if i’m not a boy, i must be a girl, & if i’m a girl who dresses like this, i must be some sort of monster, & if i’m some sort of monster, i must be slain. his yelling turned from grouchy, old man to possible nazi-in-hiding discovered at sunfresh grocery store, headline-making grouchy, old man.
as soon as the cashier said, she didn’t mean to. he lost what was left of his mind. he turned red. his jaw clenched. his hands became fists. i was honestly afraid he would have a heart attack & die. he began screaming, loudly: LOOK WHAT YOU DID! YOU’LL PAY FOR THIS! YOU’VE RUINED HER DRESS. YOU’LL PAY, YOU’LL PAY! YOU’LL BURN IN HELL! i don’t think i said a word, & at this point maybe only 30 seconds had passed from shanked punt to now.
& then he shoved me.
he shoved me so hard i stumbled backwards into the arms of nicole kidman, whose face was on every tabloid at the time because tom cruise is a dumbass, & then old man undershirt began hitting me with his closed fists, yelling that phrase seemingly elicited, genetically, by fragile & toxic masculinity: WHAT ARE YOU! WHAT ARE YOU! & though it sounds like a question, & should be diagrammed as a question, it is always used, by these men, as a rhetorcial accusation. i put my arms up in front of my face & chest in a defensive stance & i could tell, feel, that the look on my face was one that had never been there before. at that moment there was no one in the world but me, him, his wife, the cashier, & the manager who was now running in slow-motion towards us. i have never been able to decipher the look that was on his wife’s face. she didn’t speak & her expression stayed pretty much the same throughout. the cashier was as shocked as i was, & kept repeating, stop hitting her! stop hitting her! i remember wondering what i should do as a means of defending myself. i wanted to push him away, but i was afraid i’d break him. i wanted to hit him, but i was afraid i’d get arrested. so i just stood there as he assaulted me, backed into my wall of sad tabloid faces. i had nowhere to go, plus the manager was coming & i felt some sort of obligation to pay for the wine because in the heat of that crazy moment i thought i was the one who was going to get in trouble. his strikes didn’t not hurt, but it wasn’t painful. he wasn’t weak, but he was really old, & i’m grateful that the gay-basher in front of me that day wasn’t 40 years younger. sidenote: i feel i have to add that it is my indoctrination, my culturally internalized misogyny as a member our society, as a woman, as a gay woman, that somehow forces me to write the sentence above that i be grateful for any of it.
those of us who have been slapped or punched know that there is something about getting hit in the head that makes you mad in a way that is hard to explain. it sets off something innate inside of you that wants, no needs, to fight back. again, be clear: if i had struck back, if the police had come, those were the days when i would have been disregared & blamed or possibly harmed further. minorities are often blamed for their own troubles. that fear of getting in trouble doesn’t come from a bad childhood experience. it comes from being “the other.” if comes from being blamed for things you didn’t do because you don’t fit in. because you are seen as lesser. because you are used to being punished more severely than someone who isn’t an “other.” walter scott knows what i mean. if he were alive he’d be able to describe it far better than me — why we run when we have our backs against the wall.
once, i went to meet a woman i’d spoken with over the phone about renting an apartment. we had a great conversation & when we hung up i’m sure we both had mental images, i suppose, of what the other one looked like, based on the sound of our voices, our cadences, our choice of words, but whoever it was she thought she was meeting didn’t show up at the apartment that day. it was one of those many & ongoing moments that taught me to be always on guard, & to trust people, later. as i walked towards her, i was smiling at her & ready to continue the friendly conversation we had been having. i felt at ease. but she too, was not the person i was expecting to meet. she was cold. said the key wouldn’t work. asked if i had a girlfriend. when i said yes to this odd & personal question, she said, with a clenched jaw, with an upturned nose-on-a-cross look that hypocritical christians seem to be born with: so both of you will be living here. i said, no. i mean she’ll come hang out, i guess, but …. she interrupted me & said we don’t rent to couples, & then she turned & walked away. taking her crucified nose with her, brusquely brushing me with her shoulder as she walked the fuck away. we. don’t. rent. to. couples. translation: we don’t like gay people. translation: we don’t like gay people like you who are obviously gay & flaunting it. this is the adult version of getting in trouble. just by being me, by being someone who refused not be seen, i risked ever finding a nice place to live. it’s equivalent to having someone yell, fucking dyke at you, & having everyone turn to stare at you instead of at the person yelling terrible things, of having someone discipline you for something that is wrong with them. because you aren’t who they thought you’d be. because they are broken they say you are wrong. so this day at the sunfresh, don’t get me wrong, i didn’t choose not to knock this old fucker flat on his ass because i was afraid i would kill him. no, i didn’t fight back because i knew without a doubt that i would be made the bad guy if the police were called. i was certain of it. i was also certain i was going to have to pay for the wine & then be told that they don’t serve gay people & that i would never be able to come back to the sunfresh again. as it turned out, i was hurried from the building by the manager, given a new bottle of wine for free, & sent off with a phrase that echoes in me still: just get on out of here. & while his tone wasn’t mean or accusatory, it was a just tiny step away from everything i knew to be true. i was still the one in trouble. yes, in some ways, the outcome was better than i thought it would be. but what has always bothered me, is that they didn’t hurry him out. they didn’t send him on his way. they didn’t say, just get on out of here to him. they didn’t tell him that he was never welcome back. & maybe, possibly, that’s what they did after i left, but i think we all know how unlikely that scenario is. i’m certain his male ego was coddled, & he was given his groceries for free, & that somewhere in the calming-down phase, they all found some common laughing ground in the prevalent belief that lesbians were definitely not normal.
this happened just before i moved to portland, oregon, where i would spend the next 16 years. it was a telling bookend to a turbulent time period in my life, where being in public meant placing myself in the laser-eye of those empowered by the silence of others. free-access to abusive behavior is something society gives & only something society can take away. my lesbian elders put themselves at risk of jail time & police beatings just by going to bars to spend time with others like them. to spend time with me. my generation fought for our rights in a different way. bravely, all of us, put ourselves OUT there, & sometimes today’s generation wonders what the big deal is, & the big deal is this: every punch i took, every threat i received was for every other lgbtq community member. for those in closets, that they might finally find a world in which they could come out in, & for those not yet born, that they would be able to know the beauty of being themselves, that they would never have to take that here goes breath before walking through a door. that they could be free to be seen in whichever ways they chose.
i never hated that old man who was, obviously, a sad & bitter person. maybe he stifled his feelings for other men, or maybe his silent, expressionless wife longed for a life without the regrets of living her own lie. or maybe, he believed in a false god that was created by the same kinds of men who believed white skin was god’s divine designation of superiority. either way, the only one living a truth that day was me. & what i really was that day, as i have been so many days prior & since, was shocked. because here’s the thing: no matter how often humans let me down, i still hold onto a deep hope that they are better than they show. & when i’m proven wrong, again & again, my shock is just a badge of relentless hope that some day, the only thing that will shock me is that we ever lived in a world where people just didn’t get that we’re all just people.
& so over the years, the seas have, at times, become less stormy, & when the waves rise to move against us, the ship we sail upon is made of wood & steel instead. we are stronger, & we have more people on board then ever. i think of friends i’ve lost who drowned in those seas, after treading water became a matter of endurance vs. erosion. & every time i stand up proudly, every time i raise my own mast, even when i am uncertain if i have the strength to stand up yet again, i think of them, & i rise up & make certain that i am seen.