My queerness blossomed in Florida. I was visiting my aunts who pamper me with Italian food and trips to their private beach club. When I am with them, I do not feel much like myself. I feel the same way when I’m with my parents and friends. I only feel like myself when I’m alone.
When I’m alone, there is nothing between me and my truth. There is not much opportunity to be alone in Florida; my aunts are doting, they love me very much. They want me to understand how much they love me, and I do, but I wonder if they would love me if they knew the truth.
The word is queer. I shut the bathroom door and turn on the light and the fan and I come out to myself, bit by bit, piece by piece. I don’t say the words aloud, but I mouth them, sitting on the closed toilet lid with the whir of the overhead fan in the bathroom. I am queer. Queer is what I am.
Not in the Alice and Wonderland sense, curiouser and curiouser; that becomes my favorite sort of phrase. Queer in the deviant sense. Queer in the Oscar Wilde sense. Not gay as in happy, but queer, as in fuck you. I am here, alone, rebelling against nothing, because there is nothing to rebel against, because no one knows the truth.
The word is queer. I take in a breath like a sob, and then another, and then I breathe out through my nose. I feel a stirring in my heart, a sharp intimate pain, like a needle. I look at my face in the mirror, wash my hands, pull myself back together — the version of me that they’re used to seeing.
I go back out.
It’s a retreat or something like it for young adults; really, it’s an excuse for a camping trip, though we aren’t camping, not really. Mostly we’re sitting inside the lodge and playing board games. My friend from Pittsburgh brought me along. We have been friends since high school. She is bisexual.
She has recently come out. It’s my understanding that these people who have gathered for this camping trip, this group of her college friends, are cool with it, or otherwise queer themselves. I don’t know any of these people and none of these people know me. What I say here is without consequence. It’s freeing. It means I can be whoever I want to be.
We play Life. The first time I get married, I plug a little blue body into the car seat next to mine. Mine is pink. Pink and blue, the way things are supposed to be. I lose that game. The next time I get married, I choose a pink little body.
A wife. I can do that, right? Nobody says anything; I’m not even sure if anyone even notices. My heart thuds in my chest like popcorn popping, random and erratic.
We are walking around in the park behind my old college roommate’s first apartment building with her husband; they are living in the basement. Rae and I have spent the day watching YouTube videos and old episodes of “Parks and Recreation.”
“So you know how everyone always comes out to you?” It’s true. It happened a ton of times in college. Rae was the one that everyone came out to first, and I felt bad using her this way, because I knew she was safe. Because I knew she wouldn’t judge me, and I knew she would accept me. She’s my best friend and I can’t hide this from her anymore.
She quirks her eyebrow at me. The summer evening is settling around us like mist; soon the mosquitoes will be out. “I’m bisexual,” I say, the words small like a heartache.
“Well, that means you have more options,” she says. It’s not some big explosion. It’s just a quiet little thing, like a kitten wrapped up in a blanket. I expected fireworks, either the violent kind or the celebratory kind, but there is nothing but the quiet of the evening, heavy around our ears.
“How long did you know?” she asks.
“Oh,” I say. “Forever ago.” I don’t know how true that is. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment I came out to myself, the moment the abstract became concrete. Maybe I always knew. Maybe I still don’t know.
Rae is quiet, which is what I need. We go back to the apartment, and we don’t tell her husband. I’m not ready for other people to know.
“It’s National Coming Out Day.”
My mother has just gotten home from work. We’re living together — that is: It’s after college, and I’m living at home with my parents. I’ve had trouble finding work, which means I’ve spent all day today fretting over what exactly to tell her. This moment, I have decided, is my moment.
“Okay!” she says, dumping her oversized purse on the couch.
“So. I am.”
I can’t tell if this fazes her. I can’t tell if she knew already; I have never asked if I was one of the kids where you could tell, one of the kids where it was always obvious. I remember asking her in a parking lot what the word “gay” meant. She told me it was when people of the same gender loved each other, and I imagined two clowns in an old black and white movie kissing.
I knew the word a long time before I knew to apply the word to myself. Queer felt like coming home. So queer is the word I say to my mom.
“Okay,” she says. “What do you want for dinner?”
There is no hand wringing, no heartfelt conversations. No discussions on if, or how, this will change things, or if I will give her grandchildren (isn’t she worried about whether I’ll give her grandchildren?).
She doesn’t ask me to define what queer means to me. I am quiet that night, like a mouse.
I am 25 when “Fun Home” comes out. It is a musical, and earlier a graphic novel, by the esteemed Alison Bechdel about a lesbian cartoonist relating to her homosexual father, who killed himself. There is a moment in one song where the music swells and Alison tells her mother and father in the form of a letter: I’m a lesbian.
I am 28 when I type the words in a draft of my own, and I think back to that song and that music swelling and that moment. I write an essay about coming out to myself as a lesbian, falling in love with my best friend over a weekend spent in a mental institution.
The words feel right at the time, but I outgrow them, like having long hair. I spend a long time thinking that I want long hair, but I have no patience for maintaining it. I grow it out to my shoulders and brush it so that it looks wavy. When I post a picture of it on Facebook, someone — of course a man — says “pretty, but this doesn’t look like you.”
Later in life, I will shave my head. Lesbian is a good word, but “lesbian” is not my word.
Queer is my word. Queer with its vagueness; queerness is so ill-defined. You say that you’re queer, and what does that even mean? There are a thousand variants to queerness. You can be genderqueer, experimenting with femme and masc traits; you can be aromantic or asexual; you can be gay, pan, bi; you can be anything outside of the norm.
My roommate did a presentation on Charles Ludlam’s “The Theater of the Ridiculous,” which involved queer people, though it wasn’t inherently queer itself. Camp, performance, glitter; I watched the three of us in the apartment living room as he went through the PowerPoint. “The things one takes seriously are one’s weaknesses,” one of the axioms went.
I have a community here, and they don’t ask me what I mean when I say I’m queer. I don’t have to add decimal points to my Kinsey scale position to get them to know what I mean. I am something, gloriously different. I come out to myself a little bit at a time.
I am queer because I am not straight. I am queer because I am something other than straight. I am queer because I reject straightness. I am queer because I favor emotion over logic and heart over head and passion over rage.
I will come out a thousand times over the course of my life — to family members, to potential dates, to landlords, to bosses, to cab drivers. Each time might mean something different. To be queer is to never be understood, except by people who are something like you.
May we all find a little solace on National Coming Out Day.