The moth-like lifespan of our small heavy moments are marked in hours, in days.
You are one of many things I do not understand, but am helplessly drawn to, a moon in this little moth-life of mine.
Comrade, what have I done?
I’ve given up my hope for a better world. So many of my friends, as well as myself, have left our organizations; are fatigued beyond exhaustion, melancholic beyond despair, alienated beyond isolation and mere loneliness. Urgency and excitement have turned to malaise, the work of socialism transformed into miserable drudgery. I find myself so tired, but no so tired as to evade fear.
It seems our small motions toward a better world never seem to accumulate, to avalanche, and, like an altimeter in an impending storm, are so easily thrown off course.
When we met each other, my comrade, everything was so new for me, everything felt so important. We vibrated with the energy of forward momentum, the frequency of freedom in the face of peril. Now, nothing seems as futile as hope, as familiar as bitterness.
A revolution meant we could be free, when at the time I was unfamiliar with feelings of bondage. But I feel my shackles now, shackles of helplessness and dread clinking at my heels with each reticent footstep.
You are over there doing the work with people far smarter and far lovelier than me. You wear the work like an angel of propaganda. I wear it like a black eye.
Any signs of faith come from smuggled, uncertain elsewhere moments in which my efforts play no part.
Comrade, that word, is deadpan nickname now. You do not look at me anymore, for you have found more beautiful and exciting people closer to you, when I am far away and muddled in confusion, and I expected no different. We do not speak except in this hypothetical moment. In a time of fear and weakness, I said things that frightened you away. It is not your fault that I do not know who I am or what I want, or what I should do.
I fear I no longer have the strength to craft vision for a future.
Comrade, there was such softness in every fiber of your being. Around you, though you are younger than I, I was an uncertain child, my heart pummeling my ribcage like a battle cry. When I kissed you in the city square, I felt as if my entire body were in the process of unraveling. And each time we saw each other, you humored me with the affections of a realist, of someone who understands the boundaries of time and possibility. I can conceive of neither.
I am an amateur and outsider both in the movement and in the unexplored depths of a queerness first made real by you. You have, like so many, devoted your life to a better world, a different world, and I ask, what have I devoted my life to?
The answer is, in my closest approximation, to love and to know as much of our existence on this earth as possible, from the smallest seedling, to the most sublime skyscraper, the most tremulous thunderhead, and I see such loss all around me that I must be the hospice nurse at the bedside of a dying world, too much a coward to lead the calvary fighting for a better one. There is a world that exists now we can never return to, and if choosing to be with it makes me an escapist, then I am one. You are brave and rational and forward thinking, and I used to at least be brave, but am too distracted by all that exists to work towards all that should.
Comrade, I like to believe there is a future in which we will see each other again. I like to believe there is a future in which I will look in the mirror and say to myself, this is a person worth loving. I like to believe there is a future in which I understand my own desires, and am not governed by compulsion, by impulse, by hopeless longing. I like to believe in a future in which you forgive my fearful discretions as being inherent to the foolishness of inexperience.
I forced myself not to acknowledge that I could care deeply for you because I knew it would be too painful for me and only end in despair. It matters not, for all has ended in despair regardless. That's how these kind of things go, historically. They call it left melancholy for a reason.
I suppose they call it queerness for a reason, too.
I take cash out of the ATM at the CVS across the street, and it costs me three extra dollars to do so.
Today is the day I go to the noodle place and give her my number, I tell myself. My plan is simple: pay in cash in order to remain somewhat anonymous (to pay with my credit card info would betray my full name), and leave my number on the receipt with a cutesy message. Something like Hey, I know this is a pretty bold move, but it's [current year] and the whole world is falling apart so I might as well leave my number and say I think you're super cute!!
Here's the story so far: I stopped by the noodle place a week ago, because it was past happy hour at the sushi place next door, the specials had ended, and my frugality had gotten the best of me. The older gentlement at the front of the restaurant sat me at my table, but a few moments later, it was a girl who gently set the water, in one of those retro red plastic glasses complete with lemon, on my wobbling table. The colors of both glass and lemon seemed too loud.
Sometimes, when I try for a long time to bury my attraction to women, I forget that it exists, and it returns, at unexpected moments, like whiplash. This was one of those unexpected moments.
She had a slight frame, with delicate hands and short, inky hair. Her eyes and smile gave off an affable warmth, a useful trait for a waitress. Clad in a simple navy long-sleeved t-shirt and khaki work pants, both complimenting the olive tones of her complexion and her dark, almond-shaped eyes, she asked me if I was ready to order. Her voice drifted over me, mellow and soft.
I wasn't ready to order, but I didn't want to inconvenience her, so I picked a random noodle dish off the Specialties menu. She repeated my order back to me, smiled, and took my menu. I watched her retreat into the kitchen.
The sensation that I was an imposter in my own body settled over me. What was I doing growing my hair out, wearing Nike tennis shoes, a Columbia coat, carrying a Coach bag? It abruptly occurred to me that somewhere along the way, I had given up on the possibility of a queer future in order to settle hesitantly into the uncertain, yet quotidian malaise of hetero-passing life. To say these epiphanies naturally caused me great distress would be an understatment.
Unaware of my existential agony, Julia returned to my table with a bowl of steaming hot soup, the aroma of cilantro strong and soothing. I mustered my best smile and thanked her. I felt as though to look her in the eye would be to bear the contents of my anxiety.
It's hard to look at pretty girls, smiling and laughing with each other in coffeeshops, passing by silently, curled up into their bulky coats to brave the bitter January cold. I avoided friendships with other women my entire life out of fear and confusion. When was a hug just a hug? When was a smile or a gentle touch more than a friendly gesture? For me, it was always more, and I walked alone in my own longing, drifting away and back into myself.
I watched her serve her other tables, genteel and elegant, master of the art of stacking bowls of soup and dodging the perils of askew chairs and bags. When she passed back into the dining area, she caught my eye and smiled at me, and I instinctually both smiled back and looked away in shame. She must have taken my eye contact as evidence that I was ready for the check, because she briskly returned to my table with it.
I scanned the check to see if there was a credit card minimum, and at the top, the words caught my eye: Server: Julia.
It occurred to me then that I should leave my number, even though I wasn't single, and wasn't sure if she was queer or if she just had short hair.
A litany of overwhelming possibilities: that I could live my life with women, that I could love them in the real world, that to give a girl my number was an experience I could have, that I could be brave in this way, appeared before me, accompanied by the excitement and anxiety inherent in each fractured potential. I chastised myself for such thoughts of betrayal and foolishness, put my card into the little slip, and sipped at the remnants of my soup.
"I'll be right back with this," Julia chipped, and, not being able to face her, I watched helplessly as her slender fingers collected the black plastic check booklet ubiquitous to all restaurants.
How hard could it be to tell a girl that she's really pretty? Men do it all the time. But the task felt Herculean, impossible, inconceivable. I tried to refocus my thoughts on switching out purses to one a little less ostentatious.
"Have a good night!" Julia's voice, in a split second, was gone, she had dropped the bill on my table with lightning speed. I hurriedly searched for her, and found her disappearing into the kitchen with a cumbersome stack of bowls. It was hard to not take all of this personally. Did she smile at me because she saw me and she knew what kind of girl I really was? Did she hurry off because I gave off the aura of a predator, or because she simply had too much to carry? All of this ran through my mind as I settled my check. I left her a big tip.
The ATM whirrs in its eldritch, musical way, an anachronism from an analog age when all machines used to sing more. I pocket the bills and retrieve my card. My breath is heavy in my chest, part from nerves and part from stepping back into the January cold without zipping up my coat. I find myself peering in all the windows of each bar and restaurant I pass, trying to gain some insight into the intracacies of urban life on a Monday night. Five blocks have passed, and I'm nearing my destination, telling myself, doing things like this is the only way to know.
I try not to think about what would happen if she answered my solicitations. Hey! This is Julia! I got your message and I think it's really sweet. I bury my face into the bulk of my scarf. It hurts too much to hope.
Finally, I approach the noodle place, my pace naturally quickening, both out of excitement and the desire to free myself from the bitter winter. As I approach the door, I realize something is off. I unbury my face and peer up to deterimine if all of this preparation is even worth the effort. I stand on my toes to peer in the window and see whether she's even inside.
The restaurant is closed on Mondays.
Our discourse on romance and sexuality, despite its ever-increasing complexity, still leaves no room for nuance.
The unflattering truth is that sexuality is ultimately a personal experience, tailored to the individual. Ultimately, what someone labels themselves as is the business of nobody but the person in question, and why they choose to do so comes down to personal reasons, reasons which we, the public, are in no way entitled to know. We don’t like this reality. We feel compelled to create elaborate taxonomies of queerness, taxonomies that become more and more tangled in order to try (and fail) to accommodate increasingly diverse lived experiences.
We don’t consider that, for example, somebody may label themselves as one thing and live a different experience for a variety of reasons, including self-protection/assimilation, a desire for inclusivity, or simply because it makes them feel better. Because we define terms so strictly, while the lived experience is so diverse, we end up in an endlessly exhausting discourse of identity and definition, battling whether or not a term should include x y or z, failing to account for the fact that life, if not queerness itself, resists at all costs the reduction to labels.
With an increasingly diverse set of gender identities and presentations, the discourse often takes the form of a debate around the "proper" semantic reconciliation between these new developments and previously/historically defined gender and sexual identities.
For those (fortunately) not in the know, I'll give a few examples of some of the questions that have come up in "the discourse", questions that, I should add, are often deeply offensive and hurtful to many by merely being asked in the first place. One of the most entrenched discourses surrounds reconciliation between broadening concepts of gender within lesbian identity: Should the term lesbian be inclusive of a person who identifies as non-binary whose attraction is limited to women only? Is this the case only when the person is assigned female at birth or is femme-presenting? Are non-binary folks (or even bisexual women, for that matter) “allowed” to use the terms ‘butch’ or ‘femme’? This is a current, and rather nasty, discursive exercise that aims to find some means by which lines can be drawn across intersections of certain gender identities/presentations and sexual practices demarcating semantically the term lesbian.
Similarly, there is a debate of the use of pansexual rather than bisexual to define a person attracted to multiple genders. (Historically speaking, the definition of bisexual has included diverse gender identities as early as the 1990s, coinciding with the first uses of the term pansexual around the same time.) Some transgender individuals find the term pansexual to be transphobic or fetishizing and some bisexual individuals find it biphobic because it implies that bisexuality and by association, the bisexual community, is not inclusive of diverse gender identities, whereas pansexuals find that the term is more broad and denotes a different and freer means of personally defining gendered attraction than the term bisexual. A similar friction exists regarding the distinction between the terms genderqueer and non-binary to describe those individuals whose gender eludes or transcends traditional binary norms, presentation and experience. The more recent introduction of terms like asexual or aromantic, make a clear distinction between sexual attraction and romantic attraction (or lack thereof), adding a whole other dimension to labels that aim to define the personal experience. These debates around vocabulary, identity, and practice are constant, vehement, and forever unresolved. Because the vocabulary of identity has become increasingly complex, governed (and policed) by an arcane and adhocist litany of rules and exceptions, the result is that when someone fails to cleanly assimilate into this roster of terms, they are accused of being wrong and/or homo-, bi-, pan-, trans- phobic, etc.
It shouldn’t, for example, be a subject of intense and often hurtful semantic debate when someone has differing romantic and sexual inclinations, e.g. someone who is asexual and homo-romantic, or pan-romantic and homosexual. The same can be said of people who define themselves by the people with whom they choose to seek romantic or sexual relationships, such as when a woman who is bisexual but explicitly only wants to date or sleep with women identifies as a bisexual lesbian.
Such nuances are complicated by the long-toted narrative that being gay is something someone is born as rather than chooses, which leaves out a great deal of experiences, such as those who question their sexuality after a long period of identifying as something else, and those whose sexuality is fluid, who can literally choose whether or not to be with someone of the same gender, to live life as a gay person. (Whether or not people are born queer because of some murky quirk in their genetic or physical development is entirely up in the air in general, as there has been little scientific consensus.) When people say they are ‘born this way’, what they often mean is that their sexuality is fundamentally inherent and important to who they are and that they will not be coerced into thinking or acting otherwise. Regardless, do the choices people make in their romantic and sexual lives negate inherently how they self-identify?
Because the lived experience is so diverse, we do not have terms that, with nuance, describe such aspects of relationships as companionship, security, and sexual or romantic fluidity, leading to cases of individuals who fall outside the grain of what they define themselves as vs the lives they live. The wide ranging experiences of companionship are especially difficult to pin down in this conversation. (Companionship can mean many things, and is nebulous and far reaching. For example, a companion can be an individual in our lives whose comfort we seek in difficult times, whose warmth we share, whose words reassure us, whose deep fondness and care we find or make a home in, who makes our survival – our lives – easier and more enjoyable.)
Companionship is often categorized via terms like friendship or platonic love, or elaborated to be explicitly asexual or aromantic, when companionship between two (or more!) people can a) be fluid and include times of sexual or romantic expression, and b) words like ‘platonic’ do not do justice to the depth and meaning found in companionable relationships, which are seen in many cultures (especially minority world/Western cultures) as second in importance to romantic or sexual relationships, ignoring both the previous point made that these companionable relationships can be in flux, and that companionable love and mutual admiration can feel just as intense and/or emotionally fulfilling as love that is explicitly romantic or sexual.
The current discourse also often ignores that people have sex for a variety of reasons beyond romantic or sexual pleasure, desire or fulfillment. Sex that falls outside of these categories is commonly seen as demeaning to the people involved, or less ‘real’ or less meaningful than sex had for the reasons above. Our discourse often feels like it lacks the vocabulary and sensitivity to discuss such topics as the sexual experiences of sex workers; sex as a means of experimentation (which may or may not be pleasurable or romantic for one or more of the people involved); sex as a functional means to an end for the purpose of reproduction; sex as an act of gift giving from one person to another; sex between one or more people who fall under the asexual or aromantic umbrella, or sex for the purpose of assurance - to feel wanted, safe, or secure. These are but a few of the nuances that transcend our binaries of consent and non consent, of desire and non-desire, but are common nonetheless and nonetheless make every queer and feminist theorist a little uncomfortable.
The lack of discussion around the nuances of identity, sex, and love outside of romance and desire also erases the diverse experiences of individuals. The erasure of the experiences of asexual and aromantic individuals are a big example. Straight-identifying women who find lasting mutual companionship with other women may never have their stories told, for they straddle a boundary of queerness that is not romantically or sexually explicit. Individuals who define themselves as gay but have a romantic or sexual exception for a single individual of a different gender are another example. (Do they define themselves by the overwhelming majority of their attraction to people of the same gender or by their single exception? And if they choose one label over the other, they are accused of being either homophobic or biphobic for doing so, a true lose-lose situation.)
What about non-binary individuals only attracted to other non-binary individuals, for whom there are few guiding resources or cultural norms, for whom the terms gay or bi/pansexual may not quite fit? What about queer people who because of political or social norms seek shelter in heterosexual-facing relationships that become nonetheless affectionate and companionable? What about the queer desire and sexual fluidity of non-monosexual people, whose sexual or romantic relationships feel at times fulfilling and at others suffocating? What of those folks whose attraction may be to multiple genders but who choose to identify as gay simply because they want to feel more accepted in gay spaces? These are uncomfortable questions. We as people live with our inherent contradictions all the time, and sometimes these contradicting identities and lived experiences give inner and social peace to the individuals involved despite not conforming to labels and running against the grain of discourse.
Often the discourse of identity centers around who is and is not allowed in certain spaces or groups, which ultimately leads to some degree of gatekeeping. (Who is “allowed” in certain spaces? Who is “allowed” to use certain terms to describe themselves?) Those who straddle binaries of any kind often face a complicated situation and feelings of un-belonging, because, unfortunately, the world quite often defines itself in binary ways, ways that feel tumultuous to those such as bi/pansexual and non-binary people whose identities straddle or elude such binaries; to those whose identity may change multiple times across the span of their lives - indeed, to those who ever begin question their gender or sexuality in the first place after years of living one way or another.
In many situations, the questions of inclusion come down to a battle for a limited amount of resources. We should hope that the queer community will fight for equal access to resources for all of its many denizens so that, someday, some of these stresses can be ameliorated. Resource scarcity is one of the key reasons for this discourse of inclusion and exclusion.
Neoliberalism puts the responsibility for care on the individual and groups of individuals. This is why spaces for queer people frequently take the form of businesses, clubs or bars, that rely on commerce for survival. Dependant on the price of rent or land and, due to their limited consumer base, these spaces are often financially precarious. Until we, you know, abolish capitalism or at least institute meaningful economic reforms such as socialized health care, a basic income, or reparations for marginalized individuals, the responsibility for support and care will remain debt-driven and atomized. At its most centralized, it becomes the responsibility of philanthropists or underfunded nonprofit institutions with very limited resources, resources that must be partitioned or ranked by perceived needs. This financialized ranking of needs causes resentment between already atomized queer communities.
For example, when it is perceived by cis lesbians that their trans sisters are more institutionally favored and are getting more access to material support than they are (a skewed view to say the least, considering that cultural acceptance and human/civil rights favor and protect cis gay women much more than they do transgender individuals), it can, if properly agitated, cause the already dominant-culturally-sewn seeds of transphobic views to develop. This narrative of material exclusion as exacerbated by transphobic groups has been narratively linked to the rise of transphobic gay women’s groups in underfunded cities like Baltimore. (To clarify, austerity does not, by any means, cause or excuse transphobic and queerphobic beliefs and behavior, but is routinely weaponized by those seeking to cultivate trans-exclusionary views, similar in a way to how austerity, by being blamed on a vilified "other" is used to cultivate fascist views.)
Another example is when non-binary and trans individuals who may not want to undergo horomone therapy or surgery (i.e. medically transition) often feel shunned by discourse and health care that medicalizes the trans experience. When bi/pansexual people do not get the same recognition and access to support and care as their gay and lesbian comrades, resentment can, and does, form. This intra-community friction becomes even more exacerbated when it intersects with other axes of oppression such as ability, class and race.
Perhaps the most urgent question is: how do we form solid, stable, supportive communities in a world where austerity runs rampant and once-narrowly defined gender and sexual identities are becoming increasingly diverse? The rhetoric of inclusion (sometimes unfairly) ignores the idea that some people do actually want spaces just for people like themselves for reasons of personal comfort and safety or simply because they have similar lived experiences. Is this, too, not valid? In a world with greater economic justice, a diverse smattering spaces - Imagine! a nonbinary community center, a bisexual library, an asexual health clinic, a lesbian gym, a panromantic nightclub! - would and could be possible. In our current situation, where we are atomized and pitted against each other both in the discourse and through material austerity, it is a very difficult subject to tackle, one that, after personally seeing an endless parade of hurtful discourse, the LGBTQ community may not, in fact, be ready for. For those of us whose experiences and personal identities are atypical, nuanced, or contradictory, perhaps the best thing to long for is a post-discourse world.