Earlier this week, I posted the third in my series of essays exploring bits of my past. I got a lot of responses to one of my posts for the first time. I don’t know whether it was image of the perky chicken sporting a familiar maxim, or that the Facebook algorithm showed my link to more friends on that day.
I was so focused on recalling the matrix of my childhood that it didn’t occur to me how my friends and family might misinterpret its revelations. I re-read what I’d written and tried to view it from a not-me point of view. Oh dear. It suddenly felt important to me to write this coda.
QUEER: Brief Review of Gender vs. Sexuality and Recent Events in My Life
In my reflection on the maxim “Whistling girls and crowing hens will never come to any good end,” I shared some of my experience of growing up in a female-sexed body but feeling I should have been male. As a child and well into early adulthood, I lacked the vocabulary that has existed in abundance now for many years. Most people today remain confused and make many false assumptions about words and ideas they hear and think they understand but don’t.
It’s challenging to keep pace with the speed with which language and meaning change in culture. Many people are well-intentioned. A perfect example is this. Last summer, I was talking with a man I have known well for a few years. He knows I use they/them pronouns, though as so many do, he continually defaults to she/her when referring to me. He was helping me sort through a challenge and said something about me being a capable woman. I jokingly said, “You mean a capable queer, right?” He looked shocked and concerned.
“Don’t call yourself that, it’s not a nice word,” he told me. It was said out of kindness. He thought I was putting myself down. I explained to him that it used to be a put-down, but folx like me have reclaimed “queer” as a term of empowerment to describe ourselves.
I use queer to describe myself as many do because it defies definition. Yet we we live in a culture obsessed with defining and categorizing, so you will find “queer” defined online in various ways. At its most reductive, it’s defined as a term used by anyone who is not cisgender (cisgender means your gender almost or totally matches your biological sex) and/or by anyone who is not heterosexual.
If you were to ask most people in the queer community, however, queer means far more than the the two definitions I just cited. Someone in a group I belong to recently said, “I love queer! It’s free. It defies categories and binaries. What I am today doesn’t limit me. I can be someone else tomorrow, and someone else the next day. Other people don’t define me. I get to define myself.”
Most people continue to be confused by the language of gender and sexuality, even if they consider themselves allies to those who fall outside our culture’s rigidly defined norms. I’ve been involved in Pride movements for more than twenty years and I still stumble in my attempts to keep up with rapidly evolving language and its respectful usage. My children frequently school me on my outdated references. But I am continually surprised by how many people are still unaware of the basics of difference between sex and gender.
I have been queer forever, although I didn’t have any words for what I was, other than “tomboy.” Back then, the words for what a tomboy or a sissy became beyond childhood were not only nastier, but often inaccurate. The girls I eventually met who’d been tomboys and hadn’t caved in to the feminine forces as I had came to be called “butch” and were assumed to be lesbians. Some were. Some were bisexual. Some were heterosexual. Guess what? One’s gender identification and expression is not the same as one’s sexuality and who they’re attracted to sexually. My gender is not feminine, and I do not identify as a woman. (Most everyone has some mix of masculine and feminine in them in them–gender falls on a spectrum; I just happen to have a lot more masculine than feminine.) I do, however, have a body of the female sex, and I am heterosexual.
It’s possible that my essay may have given readers the impression that it was a “coming out” story and new in my life. Some who know how dramatically my life has changed over the past nine years may wonder whether my queerness relates to those changes. It does not. I and a good-sized handful of others have known I was queer for a long time prior to the onset of my severe physical illnesses that were later complicated when the trauma from my past that had been neatly stored away found its way out through my weakened and exhausted body. The only relation between my life’s changes and my ever more public sharing of my queerness is that I gradually stopped fearing how other people would judge. I simply began to be increasingly more open in talking about both my illnesses and my gender identity.
It’s funny how crises in one’s life shift perspectives on one’s fears. Once I could no longer do the activities I enjoyed, gradually had to give up my volunteer work and my career that gave me a sense of identity and self-esteem (not to mention income), couldn’t be as active in my dear children’s and husband’s lives as I had formerly been, and could no longer be relied upon predictably to accompany my family on outings, a lot of my former fears and anxieties from the past seemed trivial in comparison to those I faced in my present and future. I was focused on learning how to live a different kind of life that was uncertain and utterly unpredictable. I learned to navigate my physical world on my hands and knees, with Canadian crutches and in a wheelchair. I focused on how to navigate my social, emotional, intellectual, creative, and spiritual worlds, maintaining what loving and vibrant connections I could, in the intermittent times between PTSD crises and physical crashes when my body forced me to rest or sleep for long periods. It is impossible to live what people think of as a “normal” or “functional” life when one has disabling chronic illnesses for which no effective treatments have yet to be determined. Yet I did as best I could and continue to do so.
Last summer, I learned the key lesson when I dangled my legs over the brink of death. Someday I will write about it. On the last day of July 2020, I was admitted to the hospital with sepsis and rapidly entered into septic shock, the severest form of sepsis when your organs begin shutting down. I was dying as the doctors were working to save my life, which they did. My recovery was months long during which I had a great deal of time for quiet reflection because I was unable to do much of anything requiring physical or mental energy. I emerged from the experience with a deep appreciation for my life. As bumbling, confusing, disorganized, and full of ill-health and weirdness as it is, it’s also filled with love and wonder and joy and silly fun. I don’t want to waste any more of the time I have left worrying or feeling afraid or trying to twist myself into someone else’s idea of who I ought be or what I ought to do.
There is a song that Unitarian Universalists often sing at the opening of their gatherings, and I’ve always been fond of it. Its simple lyrics, sung in a round, are: Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet again come. The song is adapted from a poem by Rumi. It’s a shame it leaves out the key piece. We’re invited to come over and over again, just as we are, to connect even though we’ve messed up a thousand times. There is no despair, only welcome and compassion in this caravan for us and burdens we carry of the thousand ways we’ve failed by fault or circumstance.
Come, Come, Whoever You Are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.Jalaluddin Rumi
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.
I’ve adopted it as one of my many theme songs for the mornings, welcoming myself into my own day, into my own life, just as I am. I suppose in some way it is one of the ways of thinking that has been allowing me the courage to begin releasing some of the writing I do about my past out of my journals and onto a blog where others will see it and a connection between us may happen. I welcome the potential for that.
If you’ve read this, thank you for indulging my wish to clarify. And thank you for reading my blog. We writers get much of our energy from writing by believing that people want to read our stories and thoughts and ideas. It’s just no fun to talk to yourself!