Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Bringing Your Queer Home: Growing Up Queer in Rural Community

Today I had the privilege of supporting my wife in teaching her classes at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In the class Beyond Male and Female, we discussed Eli Clare's Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, and I shared my own story of working class constrictions on queer bodies. The code of my family of origin was very similar to Clare’s.To participate in the family means going along with the structures and assumptions of the family that have been established for generations. There are those who are seen and valued and the others ignored and despised-binary embodiments- white and black, male and female, hard-working or lazy, work of the hands or work of the mind, heterosexual or queer, able bodied or freak. Binary thinking at its worst, where the only folks who are seen and heard are those who buy-in to the identities of the local community- who would you imagine this would be? Respect was awarded to those who stayed in their boundaries, followed the rules of the community. 

Growing up in this context, the queer burrowed deep down inside of me, I learned to be a girl, through lessons that my grandmother and mother inadvertently taught me, my value came through baking and cooking, on holidays being taught to serve the men food before sitting down to eat myself, the assumption that one day I would marry and mother, and this was my informal training, “be a good little woman.” I’ve never been a good little woman. The environment was suffocating. I was frequently told to be quiet at the table, to not share my mind, especially not with Grandpa or Uncle Jack who refused to listen to me. I did anyways, and they would mock me for claiming my own truth. They would mock me for having big ideas, “Rachel, you are talking like a fish!” My dreams of going into the theatre would illicit names like “Miss Hollywood! You and your big ideas!” followed by their laughter. 

My desire to escape this hostile, small-minded, place of origin was clearly articulated through dreams of careers that would draw me into places and professions where I would be far away, where I would be taken seriously. I wasn’t ever asked about my academic success, education was not valued. I was never asked about my sports successes, even though I played soccer, volleyball, and softball from 1st-9th grade.

Adolescence for most is a crisis of belonging, but for me it went far deeper. Naturally as a teenager and young adult my chosen community and family were was ever increasing in nerds, goths, theatre kids, queers, those who had become experts at dancing on the margins, enthusiastically carving brave spaces, widening the boundaries, and unapologetic about wearing the rainbow.

Even though I cloistered myself within these communities, I myself replayed the tape of my family of origin, married at 21 to a man, mothering at 23 and again at 26. Although, I was pretty snug in my own self and communal pit of denial, my curiosity and academic success led me to pursue a professional degree in ministry in Chicago. I knew when I was surrounded by the beautiful rainbow of people in seminary I had died and gone to queer heaven. I came out as queer to my then husband when I was 22. I was always unsatisfied with the relationship. There were many times when he would say, just quit seminary and your job and stay at home with the kids. If hell exists, being the good little woman might be it. It took me 7 more years to get a divorce and come out to my family.

Of course many of you know that Dr. Bychowski and I were married in February. My ex of course is a co-parent with us in parenting our children, and he sent us congrats upon hearing about our marriage, saying to me “I hope you have a better experience as a husband than as a wife.”

As Clare describes bringing his queer home, I want to share a story that happened not so long ago. In September my grandmother died unexpectedly, and when I decided to go back to FL for her funeral I knew that it would come with costs. My mother, for instance, made it clear that her brother, my Uncle, insisted that my partner, and my sister's partner, were not welcome to come to the funeral. My mother also again asked me, for the sake of keeping the peace in a turbulent time, to not be an activist with her family. “Can you just ‘be quiet”’ echoed in my ears from my childhood. But I decided to go anyways out of love for my mother and to offer her needed support, even though I knew I would be headed into a hostile environment.  

The funeral was filled with relatives, some that I recognized though hadn’t seen in 17 years. I walked into the funeral parlor, presenting somewhat androgynous- half shaven head, black tunic, leggings that I wore specifically because my grandmothers favorite color was purple, but they were hiked up to expose the bottom two inches of my hairy legs, with my black leather mens boots. all eyes seemed to follow me. They politely looked down, refusing to make eye contact. Even after the service ended, folks avoided me, looking at me long enough that I noticed, only to look away when I made eye contact. I asked my mother to facilitate a meet and greet, wondering if folks just didn’t recognize me anymore- age has changed me, some think for the better. But that wasn’t it, it was that I wasn’t recognized, I was no longer one of them. I didn’t belong, I wasn’t following the rules of the family. 

On my parents request, I went with them to lunch at my grandmother’s favorite restaurant, the Golden Corral- still none of the relatives would talk and engage with me. They would talk to our children. My mother encouraged me to say goodbye to my Aunt Barbara before I left. So I went to her, sat down next to her, while she finished up a conversation with a close relative, though the conversation just went on and on and on, and I had run out of time. I simply stood up, and walked away with no recognition from my Aunt that I had patiently waited for half an hour to catch-up. Her silence communicated its own message. You do not belong here. And that’s true I do not belong there. I do not belong to them anymore. I have a family of a chosen variety that welcomes the opinionated, outspoken queer activist me, and I’m no longer buried in that pit of denial. I’m wild and free, unbound from the binary.

1 comment:

  1. I feel sad for your family's lack of openness to who you truly are.