Some thoughts on the election, in no particular order 

1. I woke up this morning in the arms of my girlfriend, and I thought “how could anyone hate this thing we have, this sweet early morning thing we have, this warmth against my spine flowing to my heart, this love which has opened up wells inside me, so I always have more love to give?” How could they hate us?

2. My mom told me that she couldn’t remember being this distraught since JFK was shot. She’s not a very political person, but she wept when Hillary lost. I hope she sees a woman president in her lifetime.

3. I want to be empathetic to those who feel disenfranchised by American politics but I’m angry that their vote came at the expense of so many lives.

4. I want to be able to utilize my anger, but my heart is broken and I am tired.

5. I can’t stop thinking about my wrists, and how close my veins are to the surface. We are, all of us, so fragile.

6. “Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.” -Edith Wharton

7. Sometimes guardian angels are the people organizing protests and writing petitions and organizing resources and offering money and to walk people home. They are everywhere if you are looking for them.

8. We did not start “making things political.” Sodomy laws made death a punishment for being gay in America. Until 2003 you could be arrested for being gay in 14 states. When white people came to the United States they brought black slaves and committed endless atrocities against them. They committed genocide against Native Americans for land.  Disability was treated with institutionalization which was often violent. Marital rape wasn’t criminalized until the 1970s, around the same time women received the legal ability to apply for credit separately from their husbands. All of this was legal. They made our bodies political, and our ancestors had to fight for our freedom. We are still fighting. We will not stop being political until we are all liberated. (My liberation can not ever come at the expense of anyone else’s).

9. For all the disagreements I had with her, I feel for Hillary Clinton. The sexism she experienced (has experienced, is experiencing) on a national stage has been an unsettling reminder of how we value ambitious women. I hope I channel her steely perserverence. I hope somebody has hugged her and told her she matters.

10.  You matter. You are valid. You are good. You are not monstrous or disgusting. You are not dangerous, except to the heterosexist white supremecist ableist transmisogynist system. You are a brilliant offering to the world around you. Your resilience is inspiring. Your vulnerability in the face of hate is breathtaking. You are cared for and loved. It is not alright now but I will fight to make it alright to you, wherever you are.

All my love,

Marnie

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Intentional Communities and Why We Need Them

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes Howard University, the historically black college he attended, as “The Mecca.” This sacred place, Coates tells us, was the “crossroads of the black diaspora.”

I first witnessed [its] power out on the Yard, he writes, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set… It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.

What interests me about Coates’ description of the Mecca is not so much what it says about Howard University, in particular, but rather, what it says about the continued need for intentional communities, built around shared identities that are, and have been for centuries, under siege.

I say under siege because I don’t want anyone to confuse my argument with a general apology for narrow-mindedness, at best, and xenophobia, at worst. White Lives Matter and Men’s Rights Activists have nothing to do with what I’m saying, and everything to do with what I’m trying to say. There is nothing simple about the intentional communities of which I speak, but there is something sacred about them, and it is to this sacredness that I wish to speak.

I went to a women’s college. The usual response when I shared this news with my fellow high school students was “I’m soooo sorry!” or “But how will you meet boys?” or “Are you religious?” or just plain “Why?” At the time, my answers to their questions were evasive. Living under the false impression that I was straight, I took their concern about meeting boys as well-intentioned, answered that there were men at the other colleges in the area, told them that I was not, in fact, religious, and explained that I had chosen the school for its academic merits.

I was not lying, not exactly, but what I said to them was untrue.

I went to a women’s college because women had been at the center of my existence for as long as I could remember, because the company of women was the only place I felt like I could truly be myself, because the night I visited Mount Holyoke College for the first time, I sat around a table with women from all walks of life, with long curly hair and shaved heads, a knack for chemistry and a love of Latin, crosses around their necks and hijabs on their heads, talking about their girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, lovers, and everything in between, about their latest lacrosse game, or an interview with a corporate bank, or a new DNA pattern they had just discovered, or the way it felt to look at the stars in wintertime. I went to a women’s college because I needed women plural to understand how I, a woman singular, was actually just myself, and could choose the words to name this self with no regard for other’s projects or prejudices. I went to a women’s college to find out that there was no one way to be a woman, that it was alright not to be a “woman” at all, that this word was both the most important and most contested word I would ever use to describe myself, and that this contestation was perfectly alright—that it was, in fact, encouraged.

I am reticent to draw the connection between Coates’ description of Howard University and my own experiences at Mount Holyoke College, knowing full well that white feminists have too long appropriated the work of black activists and thinkers for their own ends, without giving credit where credit is due. I am also weary of establishing false equivalency—the need for historically black colleges is different in tenor and volume than the need for women’s colleges. The two are not mutually exclusive, nor is one a more important endeavor than the other. Rather, I believe that both spaces offer a lens for understanding the limits of mere inclusion as a catch-all solution for past (and present) oppressions.

We don’t join communities like Howard University and Mount Holyoke College to be with people who are just like us. We join these communities because under the umbrella of a shared identity, we are free to explore our differences. When I entered the gates of Mount Holyoke College, I was free to be more than just “the smart girl.” We were all “the smart girl.” Instead, I could be the eccentric translator. The friend who never forgets your birthday. The figure you see walking around the lake every evening at sunset. The girl who wears her grandmother’s ring and her grandfather’s sport coat. The lover. The joker. The dreamer. Myself.

In the past few weeks, I have been privileged enough to witness the birth of an intentional community here at my place of work. As co-facilitator of an LGBTQ meditation group, I have been deeply moved by the willingness of my peers to explore spirituality in a queer-centered space. For so many of us who identify as queer, religion and spirituality have been sites of oppression and injustice, especially in our childhoods. Though there are numerous spiritual leaders at the front lines of this battle, fighting for the inclusion and full acceptance of queer folks into spiritual communities across the country, there is something particularly sacred about a space where we can explore our spirituality and our sexuality in tandem, without being the only lesbian, or trans woman, or gender non-conforming person in the room. To be able to speak about the pains of missing my ex-girlfriend without secretly worrying that someone is thinking “but she doesn’t look like a lesbian” is more powerful than you might think. To be able to share our stories of tragedy, discovery, and triumph is not only affirming to each of us as individuals, but essential to our continued survival as a community.

We are who we choose to be. I wouldn’t have made it anywhere if I didn’t believe this to be true. And though, too often, choices are made for us in which we have no say, there is ultimately a deeper place where we have the right, and the freedom, to curate our hearts. Whether others recognize or cultivate this freedom is another story. Whether our bodies are safe enough to worry about our hearts is something else entirely. But the hope is that by carving out spaces for fellowship with those who share our identities, we can remember what it feels like to just be ourselves. 

Radical healing, or a room with no doors

Reposted from the Global Spiritual Life tumblr.

The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.

I remember the first time I ever read these words in my tattered library copy of Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde. It was the summer of 2015, and I had just graduated from college. I was back home in Colorado, going through a break-up, counting the days until I boarded a plane and moved to New York City. On my bedside table were two stacks of books. I can still see them in my mind’s eye, their fat and thin bindings creating a tapestry of colors, embroidered with words.

I feel, therefore I can be free, I said aloud to myself, over and over again. I feel, therefore I can be free.

I carried these words around like a mantra, thinking that maybe if I said them enough, I could make them come true. I certainly had no shortage of feelings. I woke up crying, went to bed crying, walked around my neighborhood crying, sat in my room crying. Later, sadness would be joined by anger, resentment, shame, and fear.

“Acceptance,” writes author Cheryl Strayed, “is a small, quiet room.”

But after a few months, I began to see that mine was not the only room. Peeking out of the door that I had closed on myself, I began to see a whole world of doors, a whole world of rooms where people wept, and prayed, and screamed, and wrote secret notes on the corners of the wall. Rooms that I could not enter, rooms that had long been empty, rooms with their doors left ajar, rooms full of light.

I came to discover these rooms because of meditation. That summer, books weren’t the only thing that kept me afloat. It was also the summer that I came to the practice of meditation. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew that my cushion was one of the only places where I felt truly safe. In the months that followed, as I began sitting in the community and reading work by teachers near and far, I felt the same way about the practice of meditation that I had felt reading the words of Audre Lorde. I knew that I had discovered something true, but I also knew that there was still so much more to learn.

This past Wednesday, as I sat down for an LGBTQ meditation sit at my school, I felt nervous and excited about the opportunity to practice in community. Though I meditate on a daily basis, I have struggled to find a steady sangha, and I hoped that I had finally found a place I could come home to. When our teacher, Danielle Saint-Louis, pulled out her own copy of Sister Outsider, I knew I had found what I was looking for. When she opened the book to the very same passage that had touched me one year before, I knew that I could finally hear these words as more than just an affirmation of my own particular sorrow. I could hear them as a call for radical love, the kind of healing that can never be contained in a single room. The kind of healing that opens doors.

It was the dharma that taught me how to sit with my feelings, with my fears, with my suffering, and with my pain. But it was also the dharma that taught me how to rise, how to seek, how to listen, and how to love.

Friends, this is no small lesson. In a world that teaches me my whiteness needs protection at the cost of other lives, it is a radical act to practice healing in community. It is a radical act to practice metta – or loving-kindness – not only on the cushion, but in our everyday lives. Not just to say that we value the lived stories of those who experience oppression, including our own, but to listen deeply to these stories, to investigate honestly the content of our own biases and fears, and to love against the forces that tell us we should hate. Love not as sympathy, or courtesy, or empty words of encouragement. Love as the messy business of accepting that our liberation is tied up in the liberation of others–that liberation cannot exist in a room with no doors.

Audre Lorde was a feminist, a lesbian, a woman of color, a writer, a poet, and an activist. To read her work without recognizing each of these intersecting identities is to undervalue the complexities of her lived story, and to hide away from the complexities of my own. Buddhist meditation is a practice developed and cultivated by people of color. To practice meditation without recognizing this history is to take possession of something that is not mine to take.

Healing is a practice. It is a practice of recognizing and tending to pain, of giving and receiving care, of offering and building strength.

To heal without feeling is to stumble in the dark.

In metta meditation, we offer loving-kindness first to ourselves, then to our loved ones, and then to the world.

May all beings be happy, we say. May all beings be healthy. May all beings be free from harm and suffering. May all beings be at peace.

Healing may start in a small, quiet room. But it does not end there.

Love is all we have

There are no words for what happened in Orlando last night; or rather there are too many and none of them are quite right.

There is the fact that I have already seen people asking not to politicize this tragedy, saying we can not blame the hateful ideology of a presidential candidate, or gun laws for what happened. It’s true there is no one thing that convinces someone to take a gun and use it to kill people he perceives to be “different” and “wrong.” But this didn’t happen without context. There are many ifs. If he hadn’t been able to access a weapon that can kill many people in a short period of time. If he hadn’t been exposed to political agendas that say that LGBTQ folks don’t deserve basic rights and heard the underlying message that queer folks, trans folks, and people of color don’t matter and don’t deserve to be alive. If if if.

There is the grief for the queer folks who died while celebrating their identities. It’s pride month. It was latin night at Pulse. It is a time of joy and community and conversation about how to make our communities stronger. There is grief for the families and loved ones of these queer folks, and the knowledge that family often looks different in the queer community. There is imagining the fear of not knowing if someone you love was hurt because you’re not “next of kin” on government forms.

There is anger that this could happen. Why did this fucking happen? Why did this have to happen? Why has this been happening in smaller, less publicized ways for years and why hasn’t it been stopped? Why is my queerness perceived as such a threat that people debate if me and my community deserve basic rights and safety? Why are trans women considered threats when they want to pee, when they are part of a community that constantly has to worry for it’s own safety?

There is fear for those I love, for copycat attacks that will follow, for losing more queer people, who are just trying to live.

There is a sense of impotence for what I can not change, and for the privilege I have that means I am less at risk for these kinds of attacks because I am white and middle class and cisgender.

And there is love. Love for my queer community. Love for the people who are already organizing vigils and donating blood and writing their representatives. Love for the others afraid for their own safety. Love for the grieving and the bereft. Love for Muslim folks in the U.S. (especially LGBTQ+ Muslim folk) who already are the scapegoats for so many tragedies.

It can feel trite to quote Martin Luther King Jr but since reading about the shooting, what has circled in my brain is this:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We have to continue to love each other as hard as we possibly can. The root of justice is love. The root of our community has always been love. In heartbreaking times like this, love is all we have.

It’s An Exercise

The summer before my senior year of college I decided to live in a dorm at my school, and do a little bit of project work for my boss. It had been a rough year for me, but tempered with a lot of therapy and self-discovery. Therapy is great for self-discovery, but only if you don’t mind feeling like you’ve been ripped open at least once a week. It’s like losing the top layer of your skin; everything feels red and raw and it hurts if anything touches it, but it heals pretty cleanly.

One day I was working with my boss, when I made a joke to the effect of “lol I’m the worst.” You know, the kind of casual, self-deprecating humor that people use a thousand times a day. But my boss stopped me, and looked me in the eye and said “now say something nice about yourself.”

I was taken aback. Didn’t she know it was a joke? I didn’t actually think I was the worst. But I still couldn’t come up with one good thing to respond with.

I had never realized how those jokes could add up, until they became the lens in which I viewed myself. Someone who was annoying or loud, or generally the worst. The things I said in public became the thoughts that circled my mind, like vultures zeroing in on a kill. I’mtheworstI’mtheworstI’mtheworst.

I’m sure you’ve heard the idiom “no one can love you until you love yourself.” It’s been pointed out many times how harmful that line of thinking can be to someone with a mental health issues who doesn’t love themselves, to believe that then nobody can love them. But I think there is still some wisdom there. Until you learn how to appreciate the fact that you are worthy of love, it is hard to believe that anybody would truly love you.

I decided I would stop saying negative things about myself, or at the very least, I would counter it always with one good thing. I needed to break up the pattern of self-abuse, and start believing that I could be good enough.

A few months ago I was out with some of my old friends, when one of them started apologizing for being indecisive. I told her it was fine, we are all just people, and we have quirks that make us who we are. I suggested we all list one thing that we think of as a flaw about ourselves. Everyone could think of one easily. Then I said “now let’s do an exercise where we all say one nice thing about ourselves.”

Everyone got immediately uncomfortable. They fidgeted and made fun of me for being corny. Answers were tempered with “I guess I’m not that bad at….” and “maybe I’m okay at this.” Some refused to answer at first. One friend said in jest “I’m really good at tricking people into being friends with me.” This dragged out over many uncomfortable minutes because I didn’t want to let it go. I wanted everyone to find the thing in themselves that they were proud of.

These were smart, accomplished, funny, hard-working, beautiful women, some of whom I’d known and admired for most of my life. If they couldn’t think of one thing  that they felt proud of, who could?

Their experiences and mine don’t exist in a void. When you spend your whole life hearing you’re not skinny enough, not pretty enough, not smart or straight or white enough, not gender conforming enough or able-bodied enough, it becomes entrenched deep within your mind, until it feels impossible to untangle. Some days it always lurks at the top of your mind, and all you can think is “I suck I suck I suck.” Other days it comes as a surprise. “I thought I was past that, I thought that was healed.”

I don’t know if it ever quite heals. But as an exercise, I try to be actively being kind to myself. I try to not compare my accomplishments to others, because there was a time when my depression was so debilitating that I couldn’t  focus on much beyond “get out of bed” and “ask for help.” I do my best to feel proud of how far I have come and what I have accomplished. I try to reach out to friends who get it, so we can mutually complain or laugh or just feel understood. Community, I am learning, is an essential part of healing, and of living.

What if instead of downplaying our accomplishments, we let ourselves be proud of them? What if when we felt good about ourselves, we said it out loud? What if we told others that we are proud of them, or that  they are brilliant, interesting, and beautiful?

I think love is an exercise. It’s something we have to practice, until we get it right. It’s something that takes energy and time. And it’s something we have to do for ourselves, in addition to doing it for others.

Last week I put on my favorite blue dress and went for a walk with my wonderful girlfriend. I told her “I feel so pretty today.” She said “it’s nice that you like yourself so much.” It made me smile. Maybe it’s unusual to hear people compliment themselves, but I think it’s an exercise we should do more often.

Queer Exhaustion

Recently I have started to believe I am suffering from a severe case of queer exhaustion.

It comes from being the only queer person in a room. Or being outed at work to some co-workers I don’t know that well. Or having a well-meaning straight person tell me repeatedly that her kid “definitely isn’t gay” but he really cares about “those issues.” Or reading news about anti-LGBT legislation, that seems to be growing everyday.

At a recent party I was joking with my one other queer coworker about Mean Girls, and how we were both “too gay to function.” A straight coworker who was standing there immediately replied to our laughter with “You know I never said gay as an insult, even when I was a kid.”

Okay? I thought. Congratulations, you’ve reached the most basic level of human decency by not using someone else’s identity as a slur. Then I realized, maybe he thought we were saying gay as a joke, to make fun of ourselves. Maybe our long hair had tricked him into thinking we were straight women, laughing at “the gays.” I’m still not sure what he meant.

All of these incidents are tiny and from people with good intentions, but they add up and take a toll on my spirit. I’m tired of being used by straight people to make them feel like they’re good people because they are nice to a queer person. I’m tired of being erased by people who don’t think a woman who dates women looks like me. I’m tired of feeling like I then have to explain to these people why what they said was hurtful in my work place, and in my personal life, and to strangers I just met.

I am incredibly grateful that I came out at my liberal, historically women’s college, where the queer population is large and varied. Being queer has first and foremost been a joyful identity for me. I love being queer. If I could go back in time and choose my sexual orientation, I would pick being queer every time. It is the lens in which I see the world, and the vehicle that has pushed me into being a more compassionate person, and the means through which I have found my amazing partner. It’s like finding out there is a fourth primary color that everyone knows about, but pretends doesn’t exist. I didn’t come out to people outside of my college, because I wanted to protect that feeling of joy. But then I decided I wouldn’t downplay the person I was in order to make other people comfortable.

One of the tenets of my femme identity has always been practicing compassion and empathy for others. Even before I knew what femme identity was, I liked to be someone who others knew they could go to with their feelings and not be judged. For me, the basis of all relationships is the ability to be vulnerable with another person and trust that you will be received with love. When I started to think about being femme, not just as a way of presenting my gender, but as a way of being, I started to think about how I can practice empathy, not just with folks I’m close to, but also with people who hurt me and disagree with me.

And it’s hard. I am trying to learn how to be compassionate with those who offend and also give myself the room to feel angry when I am erased or tokenized or when I give my trust to someone and feel let down. Sometimes it involves explaining to people why their good intentions can still cause pain. Often it involves retreating to my queer community, to be reassured that I’m not being “too sensitive.”

Right now I am trying to learn the boundaries between caring for myself and allowing other people room to make mistakes. It can be exhausting when those mistakes are made with something I hold dear, like my queer identity, but I believe it is ultimately worthwhile.

Fuck is a four letter word

“Say it!”

“No.”

“Say it!”

“I can’t.”

“Just say it!”

“F…..”

“C’mon Hannah, it’s not that hard. Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

This, in a nutshell, was my childhood.  

It’s funny, right?  I, the consummate lipstick lesbian.  I, co-author of Femme as in Fuck You.  I, with my lace up combat boots and sassy undercut and distressed denim jacket.  

I, Hannah Leffingwell, was unable for the better part of twenty years to say the word “fuck.”    

I was that girl, front of the class, hand in the air, long straight hair parted precisely down the middle of my head, wearing an ugly chunky sweater and ill-fitting bell-bottom jeans.  I was that girl who felt nauseous if I realized I had forgotten my homework (which never really happened).  That girl who shhhhshed you in the library.  That girl who fast-forwarded through sex scenes even when she was all by herself at home.  That girl with her nose in a book and her head in the clouds.  That girl. 

If you had asked me, at the age of fifteen, what I wanted from life, I would have given you two solid answers: To go to Mount Holyoke College, and to marry a man.

If you’re laughing right now, I understand.  

Would you laugh more if I told you I also planned on “saving myself for marriage?”

Probably.

Needless to say, “fuck” was not in my vocabulary.

I remember the first time I ever said it, by accident, alone in my car.  I was driving home from ballet class, blasting “Little Lion Man,” dreaming about a boy I had only met once and knew I would probably never talk to, and it just… slipped out.  I really fucked it up this time, I sang.  And then I blushed, my whole body filling with a tangible wave of shame.

This word was never just a word for me.  “Fuck” was an expectation, an as-yet-unexperienced but inevitable submission, a visceral fear.  “Fuck” was all the things I didn’t want to do with that boy I was singing about.  “Fuck” was the reason I never called him, or tried to set up a time to meet.  “Fuck” was the way boys laughed at me when I started talking in class.  “Fuck” was the way I hid my breasts beneath too big sweaters to avoid their attention.  “Fuck” was wait, you’ve never dated anyone?  “Fuck” was you’ll like it when it happens.  “Fuck” was you’re going to a college with no boys?  

“Fuck” was everything I wasn’t able to say about a part of myself I didn’t understand.

Fast forward to my junior year of college.  I’m sitting in the common room of Safford.  It’s Thanksgiving break, and there’s no one around.  It’s just me and two friends, eating dinner.  Well, when I say two friends, I guess I should specify.  One of them, yes, a good friend.  The other?  Someone I had known ever since my first day of college, but rarely talked to.  Someone who made me blush every time she walked into the room.  The same someone I would fall head-over-heels in love with the next summer.  The same someone who would guide me, definitively, out of the closet.  And then break my heart.

But I didn’t know any of this at the time.  All I knew was that I could barely look at her without turning bright red.  When I learned she would be joining us for dinner, I felt this unfamiliar sense of dread and excitement.  I wish I could say I was confused by these feelings, but in reality I was so deeply buried in my repressive tendencies that I couldn’t even allow myself to enter a stage of confusion.

“So,” this someone said, her eyes like two laser beams shooting into my deepest self, “P. tells me you aren’t having sex until you’re married.”

It was just as abrupt as it sounds.  No segue, no easing in.  My friend P. would later describe it as an “intervention” – something they had both, apparently, been planning for months.

We can talk about the ethics of this situation another time, but the point is, I was taken off guard.  

“I just want to wait for the right guy, you know?” I said, stumbling over my words.

“But how will you know he’s the right guy if you don’t have sex with him?”

The answer to this question seemed simple to me: sex with a man was bound to be disgusting, I reasoned, and therefore, would only be enjoyable if coupled with the sentiments of true love.  If I found a guy I truly, truly loved, then maybe one day, somehow that love would magically make it okay to touch his dick.

This someone, the one who had been asking all the questions, looked at me in disbelief.  She looked at me like she and everyone else in the world knew something I didn’t know.  And then she said:

“What would you rather have in your mouth?”

The only way I can describe my embarrassment at being asked such a question is to say that my body felt like it was being invaded by a million tiny bugs, all of whom wished to make their way through my skin and eat away at everything beneath.  Every single muscle in my body was tensed, my cheeks were the brightest shade of red, my teeth were clenched behind the conciliatory smile I kept forcing to my lips.

It went on like this for what felt like hours.  Pointed questions, flustered answers, all interspersed with this someone’s own tales of sexual discovery.

At one point, she looked at me, with that “fuck if I care” look in her eyes, and said:

“You know, there’s a big difference between fucking and making love.”

But wasn’t that what I had been saying all along?

That night, I tossed and turned in my creaky twin bed.  It was Thanksgiving Break, and the campus was empty.  No voices shouting across Skinner Green, no raucous bands of students stumbling back from Chapin.  Just the arrhythmic clanking of the radiator, the occasional flush of the toilet, and the distant sound of traffic on 116.

I remembered back to all those nights, growing up, when I had lain in my childhood bed – no bigger than the one I lay in now – and wondered what it would be like to kiss a girl.  Wondered is probably too strong a word.  I didn’t really let myself wonder.  It was more like I found myself thinking back to certain encounters with girls during the day, encounters where I felt this burning need for an undefinable closeness, and thought to myself: What if I were to kiss her?  Is that what my body is telling me to do? Usually, I wouldn’t go any further than that.  My thoughts would jam, my body would close up like an oyster, and I would force myself into a tumultuous night’s sleep.  But from time to time, surrounded by the inky fears of night, I would think to myself, What if I was a lesbian? A word filthier, scarier, more taboo than any other.  More forbidden, even, than “fuck.”

On that cold November night, as I lay in my dorm room, all of this came back to me like a deathbed epiphany.  All the girls I had ever felt indescribably, but unquestionably drawn to.  All the times I had hugged them for a just few seconds too long.

What would you rather have in your mouth? What would you rather have in your mouth?  What would you rather have in your mouth?  What would you rather…

Her words played over and over again in my head, her face floating in my half-dreams, her supple lips taunting me to choose, to choose, to choose… that feeling, my body drawn into itself as it fought the desire to hold her, to kiss her, to do all those things I had never even let myself imagine… remembering the way her small body had fit so perfectly in mine as we hugged goodnight… 

I fell asleep, and the next day I pushed every thought, every question, every desire from my mind, and continued on as I had for the past twenty-one years… I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m….

In love.  Or so it seems.  Three months have passed.  I’m standing in at the bottom of a spiral staircase, looking into the eyes of someone I care for deeply, someone I’ve only just met.  A different someone from the question asker, but who shares one very important characteristic: this someone is a woman.  We are holding each other, and I can’t seem to let her go.  We stand there like that, inextricable, for the longest string of minutes I have ever lived.  

It was around that time that I learned to say it. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.  Everything was changing.  I was learning the taste of wine, the smell of sweat in a crowded club, the feeling of 2:00 am on a deserted street, the meaning of the words “queer” and “femme,” the way to properly apply rose water to your wrists in a cramped French bathroom, the feeling of a woman’s body when she wraps her arms around you and lets you rest your head on her breast.

As the months passed, and I returned home to the States, I would learn other things too.  How to kiss, how to hold hands with a woman in public, how to wear my shirts buttoned all the way up, how to casually tell people I had a girlfriend, how to not-so-casually tell my parents the same thing, how to comfortably share a twin bed night after night after night with that someone and still get some sleep, how to say “I love you.”

I would learn in my body what I had never understood in words.  How to be gentle, and how to be strong.  How to ask, and how to answer.  How to give, and how to receive.

I would learn, in sum, how to fuck.  How to be a part of someone else, and let her be a part of me.  How to become, together.  How to be inextricable.

But I would also learn darker lessons. How to lie about who I was, how to disappoint the people I loved by telling the truth, how to let go of my girlfriend’s hand when we got off the bus in a new town, how to call her “my friend” without wincing, how to touch her leg secretly beneath the kitchen table when I met her family for the first time, how to lose myself when she left me, how to lose everything we had inextricably become, together…

I would learn that fuck wasn’t just a word I said in wonderment, in desire, in love.  I would learn that fuck was dirty in a way I never expected – dirty like life is dirty, in the way that dirt forms the basis of everything we love.

But in order to learn this, I would have to take a word that, for so many years, had alienated me from my own body, and make it my own again.  I would have to say it over and over and over again, in public, in private, in the least and most intimate of moments. I would have to study its vibrations in my throat, its shape in my mouth, its frequencies in each room I entered.  I would have to teach my fingers to type it, my pen to form it, my body to enact it.  I would have to estrange this word from its burden of past meanings, estrange myself from the burden of past selves, and meet it anew.  

Reappropriate, verb: to take possession of, to steal, to take for oneself.  

For twenty-one years, “fuck” was a word that did not wish to recognize me.  A word that challenged the very essence of my being.  A word that told me I was wrong.  

So I stole it.  I snuck in late at night, in the inky blackness of all my childhood fears, and I took it for myself.  

“Fuck” is a four letter word, and it is mine.

Why we all deserve a happy ending

Hopefully, you’ve all seen Carol by now.  If not, you should go see it, if for no other reason than to relive those glorious five days in May when we thought Cate Blanchett played for our team.

The Price of Salt, the novel by Patricia Highsmith on which Carol is based, holds a very special place in my heart.  At the age of twenty, lonely and confused in Paris, I decided the only way for me to know if I was actually feeling what I thought I was feeling for the girl I had a crush on was to read a novel about it.  Some people consult the internet to unravel these kinds of feelings.  I went to a bookstore.

I don’t remember how I learned about The Price of Salt.  All I knew was that it had something to do with lesbians, and I needed to read a book about lesbians.  Preferably, a book about lesbians who didn’t know they were lesbians until suddenly they fell head over heels for one another, and lived happily ever after.  

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Cover art for The Price of Salt

There are a handful of English-language bookstores in Paris, and the most famous one – Shakespeare and Co. – didn’t carry The Price of Salt.  I remember walking into a smaller shop, just a few blocks from Notre Dame.  There was barely enough space to walk comfortably between the shelves, eliciting several awkward run-ins with fellow browsers, who scowled and walked away with their worn-out copies of Ulysses clasped pretentiously in hand.  

I was having no luck, so I finally asked the owner if he had a copy.  “Never heard of it,” he admitted, noticeably puzzled.  “Well,” I said, discouraged, “can you recommend another book for me?”  He asked me a few questions, and then handed me a copy of The Magus by John Fowles.  Clearly, he had no idea what I was looking for.

Long story short, I got hold of an audiobook version of The Price of Salt online.  I remember leaning against the window of the train on my way out of Paris, watching the countryside pass.  I couldn’t stand the build-up… I just wanted Therese and Carol to makeout already, have lots of lady sex, and vow to love each other forever and ever.

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How my face looks when I’m listening to sassy lesbian lit on the train.

But Highsmith isn’t one for easy-bake romance.  The narrative is slow, the audiobook version even slower.  Eventually, I became discouraged.  There’s no way they’ll end up together, I thought, and I didn’t think I could withstand the disappointment.  If they didn’t end up together, then clearly my own budding romance was doomed to fail.

Incidentally, Therese and Carol had a lot more luck than I did, but I couldn’t have known that at the time, because I couldn’t bring myself to finish the book.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic to learn that somebody had the gumption to turn The Price of Salt into a film.  I was so ecstatic, in fact, that I attended a queer book club to discuss the book, met a cute girl, and asked her out to the movies.  Ah, to be young and… questionably, kind of in… what exactly was I in?

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In freefall, reeling from my break-up, grasping for straws.  That’s what I was in.  I cried all through the movie, missed my ex like crazy, dreamed we would get back together just like Therese and Carol and live in an apartment on Madison Avenue… the date went downhill from there.

I moped all the way home, frustrated that two fictional characters from the 1950s (the 1950s, for God’s sake) had an easier time finding love than a motivated young lesbian living in the queerest city in the world.

Most of all, I was confused.  I was confused because two years after giving up on what I assumed to be a depressing novel about 1950s lesbianism, I discovered that Carol did, in fact, have a happy ending.

Ever since coming out, I’ve gotten used to being told that queer relationships aren’t built to last. It’s a story told by numerous books, films and TV shows, not to mention straight people.

Just to give one example of the negative impact of these stories, I would like to give a shout-out to one of the most soul-crushing films ever written about lesbians (are they even lesbians?): Kissing Jessica Stein.  It’s an old movie, but I watched it for the first time this summer, at a particularly terrifying moment in my personal life when I was beginning to realize that my relationship with my girlfriend was falling to pieces.  Imagine my chagrin when, after two lighthearted hours of queer romance, the narrative jumps forward in time, revealing in quick succession a painful falling out, a teary break-up, and then… boom, we see the main character finally getting together with the man that she’s been oh so in love with all this time.

Ultimate heartbreak, ultimate frustration.  At the time, this movie seemed to reveal my deepest darkest fears: that the woman I loved would break up with me, and society would make me straight again.

Thank god only the first part of that nightmare came true.

The point is, it’s hard enough to be queer without being consistently bombarded with images of tearful breakups and temporary lesbians.  It’s hard enough when the people closest to you think it’s “just a phase,” but to turn to a book or a film hoping to find some reflection of yourself and find yourself utterly betrayed is downright heartbreaking.

Looking back on it now, I was right to choose The Price of Salt as the first queer novel I ever read.  I was right to seek solace in the story of Carol and Therese, two imperfect individuals who find love.

What’s less clear in the film than in the book, however, is that they don’t just find love.  They make love.  Therese learns to stand up for herself, to say “no” instead of giving in to Carol’s every whim.  And Carol learns to back off a little, to be vulnerable with Therese even when it means feeling out of control.

This is the kind of story that needs to be told, the kind of story that we are so often robbed of in mainstream depictions of queer women.

A love story with a happy ending.

 

Our Selfies, Ourselves

It may sound strange, but sometimes I forget I have a body.

Sure, I use it everyday. It’s part of everything I do. Without it I could not walk or type or even think. But often I forget about it.

(This is a privilege. You better believe I remember my body when it stops working the way I want it to, or when I’m suddenly faced with a world not designed for me. During the two weeks I spent on crutches after spraining my ankle in college, I was constantly aware of my body. And hills. And the insurmountable distance between my bed and the dining hall).

When I imagine myself, the details are blurred. Often I am a bit thinner and taller. When I look in the mirror, sometimes I feel jolted. I am surprised by the face that looks back at me. Who is that?

There are a lot of reasons I imagine. I’m a cerebral person, I tell myself. Having anxiety means that sometimes my brain can’t stop thinking, there is a whole universe of worst case scenarios and alternate endings in my head. I imagine it to be like a a highway of flying cars, like in The Jetsons. The thoughts swirl around in empty space, and sometimes collide without clear street signs. I can feel them in the space right beneath the spot where my forehead meets the bridge of my nose, a knot of twisted metal.

Thinking of myself in those terms rests the blame squarely on my own shoulders. It was inevitable. My brain is hardwired this way. Maybe if I just thought less.

But there is something else. As far back as I can remember my body has been under observation. Being called fat as a second grader. My older brother’s friend telling me he “liked a curvy girl” when I was in the fifth grade. Finishing my lunch in my seventh grade math class and a boy mocking me for “always eating.” My mom once asking me why I always wore my dad’s hoodies. They weren’t flattering. She didn’t understand that I had to cover my body up, hide it. It was too big. I was too big.

And this: I can only eat certain foods. It’s not an allergy or OCD, as has been suggested. Since I was a toddler I simply have not been able eat certain things without throwing them back up. There have been doctors and nutritionists, and half-baked theories picked up from Yahoo News and TLC’s “Freaky Eaters.” (Flattering title TLC, good going). The only thing that has stuck with me is something a school counselor told me in college. “Most eating issues that originate in early childhood are based in a lack of control over one’s own body.”

 

 

Sometimes I wonder what could make a toddler feel their lack of agency so acutely that they would take it out in such a drastic way. I don’t know if it started as a preference or if I always had a physical reaction to new foods. I am missing some of my own narrative. I don’t know how to tell this story without it’s beginning, but I don’t know if it matters that much.

The truth is that no matter how unique my reaction might feel, I’m not the only little girl who ever felt like she didn’t have control over her body. I’m not the only person to feel disassociated from their own body. I’m not the only person who has taken drastic measures to get that control back.

Which brings me to the selfie. Omnipresent on social media, derided by many think pieces mocking millenials, the selfie is one of those things that “teen girls like.” Other things include boy bands and fanfiction (both of which I think are invaluable to young people trying to safely explore their sexuality and identity, but more on that another time).

Given the ubiquitous presence of technology in the U.S, I think it’s easy to forget that smartphones/webcams/ipads are relatively new, and have given most people an unprecedented access to cameras. Before the millennial generation getting your picture taken was a process that either involved expensive digital cameras, or developing film (not being able to see a picture before it printed!), and if you wanted a picture of yourself, someone else usually had to take it. It’s only in past decade or so that the subject of a picture could really be the photographer. No more “say cheese,” the selfie is not beholden to the gaze of someone else. A person can look at themselves and decide how they want to be seen.

I have been known to spend 10 minutes setting up the perfect selfie, then filtering it appropriately for social media. (Not photoshopping you’ll notice. The subject here is my own face, not an imaginary face). It may seem silly, but it allows me to have some control over this body of mine, and reminds me that it exists. It takes the time I need to be deliberate with my body. I test the shapes my face can make. I see how I look in motion through the mirror-like front-facing lens of my phone’s camera.

(To me selfie taking is an art form. A good selfie is one that takes time. There is staging and lighting to choose. This may seem artificial, but I think a bad picture is like pausing Netflix while a character is in the middle of moving. They don’t actually look like that you guys).

Through the art of taking a selfie I make something beautiful where once I only saw something ugly. The image in my head becomes that picture I took.

I’d like to be able to say I love my body all the time, but the fact is, I need help a lot of the time. I don’t always remember that my body is a part of myself. We’re more like awkward roommates. When I can use a selfie to show how I feel it feels like we’ve successfully merged, even for a moment.

I think selfies have the opportunity to be helpful in this kind of personal healing. They encourage us to be a little sillier, to find the beauty in ourselves, and to share this moment in a world constantly telling women, queer people, people of color, people with disabilities, and every intersection therein to take up less space. It can be brave to put yourself into the world and say “I am beautiful and I deserve to be here.”

There is a downside to selfies of course. They are fighting against the pressure to appear “perfect” on social media, showcasing only our best attributes. So much of our social life takes place online, another place we are disembodied, shrunk down to a profile picture or an avatar, where we can curate our own lives. It’s easy to start defining our value in terms of number of likes.

I don’t have any easy solution to that. I do think it’s easy to forget that the people we interact with online are real people. I think there is value in placing parts of our vulnerable selves online, and recognizing that as being a strong and hard thing to do. On more than one occasion I have been moved to tears by the kind notes I have received from friends on my Facebook wall or in my Instagram comments. I know firsthand the power that social media has for meaningful connection. I think there is also space for intentionally positive online communities that encourage us to support one another as well as ourselves, like #BlackoutDay and College Compliments Pages.

I do think the pros out-weigh the cons. Speaking for myself, as a queer femme woman I often feel like the expectations of how my body should be are completely unrealistic, or catering to someone else’s gaze. I spent years being afraid of being feminine because I didn’t want to be sexualized and then because I didn’t think I could be feminine and queer. Taking selfies gives me my agency back over this body which sometimes rebels against me, and which I often neglect. It reminds me to look at myself through my own eyes. I am not the subject of anyone else’s gaze but my own. My selfie, myself.

Femme-ily

Tonight, sifting through my old belongings in my childhood home I came across an old teddy bear that I used to carry with me everywhere I went. A tiny, barely stuffed scrap of fabric with a rattle in her belly, I remember I use to squeeze her into my barbie’s bathing suit and take her swimming with me in my neighbor’s pool. Holding her again, I was transported back to the feeling of being a little girl, needing the companionship of something constant, and always loving.

For me and so many others, being home for the holidays is bittersweet. My hometown is the most beautiful place on earth and when I am away I constantly long for the local restaurants, my little dog, and more than anything the proximity to the sea. I feel the absence of it acutely, like a dull pain in my chest, an irresistible pull to the place that was my home for so long.


Whenever I come back, though, I feel the person I am collide with the person I used to be, and I know that this place will never comfortably be my home again.

Traveling home for the holidays can be very emotionally charged for us queer folk. Although I am grateful to be able to return to my family and my home, when I am here I feel I can only be part of myself. I have to reign myself in to keep conversations civil and for my life to be comprehensible to some of the important people in my life. I also have to do it to protect myself from the experience of having the life I have built with intention be rejected by those I love.

When I first started therapy I told my therapist that I had a charmed childhood. She was very skeptical of that, and she was right to be. I hadn’t been able to understand or accept the many ways my emotions and my body were being put down for being “too much.” I didn’t understand how harmful it was as a young girl to be told that my body was too large, that the food I ate was unacceptable, that the feelings I had were overreactions. I thought my depression didn’t have a root, and rather struck indiscriminately. I didn’t realize my thought patterns went so far back that I couldn’t tell you when they began. I blamed myself for so much and I held a lot of shame. It has been my first instinct for so long, and it has taken a lot of time and hard work with a therapist to figure out where those patterns came from and how I can change them. It takes so much energy to be able to look at the dynamics in my home and believe that they are not my fault.

If you are reading this and you are a child of a tumultuous home, I want you to know that it is not your fault. You don’t have to apologize for the ways you have chosen to survive. You can love your family and also know that you have been hurt by them in ways that will take a long time to heal. Your healing can mean that you choose when and how you interact with them.

Many of us queer folk know what it means to build a chosen family out of necessity. These are the people who see and love us fully. They have no obligation to be a part of our lives, but they choose to because they value who we are, and because we have done the work to cultivate those relationships. They can help us unlearn all the lies we believe about ourselves and our lovability. They actively help us disrupt our old patterns, and create new, more honest and compassionate ones. When we feel alone they remind us, maybe with texts or letters or long walks, that we have valuable and long-lasting connections, that will always carry us through our grief. It’s important to take a moment to realize that we made these connections happen.

My family began with this tiny bear many years ago, an ally through everything, a witness to my anger and my sadness and my joy. It has since grown into many beautiful, loving relationships, that buoy me daily, and remind me that I am loved, and more importantly: that I deserve to be loved. I am forever grateful for it.

Happy Holidays, and I wish you so much love in 2016.