Image Credit: Jesse Shofner
Last winter, your father asked if “queer” was still a slur. He asked this carefully, as he always does when it comes to your sexuality. His curiosity was measured–he wanted to know just enough, not too much. After all, he was raised Catholic: Mass every Sunday and a crucifix in the hallway.
After a moment’s deliberation, you said no, you didn’t think so. But you supposed anything reclaimed could be taken again. Silence ensued. Outside, skinny pellets of snow dusted the lawn. By morning, they disappeared, leaving you to wonder if it even happened at all.
Queer. Funny, how the word embodies itself. Queer is queer. A preliminary search on the term provides a scant etymology. As far as you can tell, the word first appeared in the sixteenth century in Scottish and old Irish languages, queir and cuar respectively. At the time, the word was used to describe something curved or bent. The queir spear. The cuar nose. As centuries passed and the languages transformed, “queer” described someone (or something) perverse, strange, unusual. By the end of the nineteenth century, “queer” entered the American vernacular as a slur against effeminate men and their “deviant” sexual proclivities.
What’s interesting is that the word also became a noun—you could be described as queer and you could be aqueer. In a swift transmutation, what you are becomes who you are. The self-referential nature of queer is dizzying, like trying to count the concentric rings of a stump through cataracts.
But your father didn’t ask for any of that. And if he had, what would you say?
Perhaps you’d say your queerness started with words. Or rather, a lack of them. From a young age, you learned that every title has an inversion, that you could be defined by the negative space of what you are not. To exist in negation, then: if you are not interested in boys, what are you? Who are you? These were the foundational questions of your childhood. Not knowing was frightening, so you turned to language. You hoped it might decode the calculus of your desire, prove that you weren’t as broken and indecipherable as you feared yourself to be.
In high school, you claimed to be asexual. You discovered the term in the book, The World According to Garp, where one of the characters was asexual. Her preferences seemed to suit you: no men, no problem. The crushes you tried to have on boys were half-assed and tiring, anyway. It was a performance you never quite remembered the lines for.
Asexual. Taking this title gave you thrills, even if it didn’t completely fit. To belong to something was better than to belong to nothing. What you actually felt you couldn’t quite name. Or maybe you could—you just wouldn’t. The silver thread of desire snaking through your body refused to stay still long enough to be examined, so you never quite knew if you simply admired or desired other girls. Besides, your loneliness was too bright to touch.
Your classmates wondered aloud about your sexuality, but their curiosity wasn’t cruel. It was as if they’d stumbled upon something rare and interesting. You felt like an exhibit in a museum, and for once you welcomed the attention, even if it wasn’t quite as you imagined and you had no answers for their questions.
“People at school keep asking if I’m gay,” you told your mother one evening, on the drive to a rainy soccer practice. She stared straight ahead, hands placed firmly on the wheel. Silence pooled between you like spilled ink, thick and dark. Finally, she adjusted the rearview mirror. “I wouldn’t read into it too much,” she said, her voice sharp, conclusive. The windshield carried on its metronomic hum, and you were surprised to find yourself disappointed, as if she failed to take the bait, or maybe you did.
And then you met Cypress Mars at summer camp. You were seventeen-years-old. Cypress wasn’t pretty. Her teeth were crooked, her legs hairy, and she smelled like cheese sitting too long in the sun. Still. She was a brilliant writer and very strange. She stole sandwiches from the cafeteria and talked frankly about watching porn, something you hadn’t dared to try. (Where would you even begin? Your parents never had “the conversation”, and the little knowledge you had came from rom-coms and a Catholic abstinence program called, PSI: Postponing Sexual Involvement, where you roleplayed absurd scenarios and dissected sexual transgressions of women in the Bible.) You were deeply attracted to Cypress in a way you’d never felt for anyone before. Around her, your body was full of kinetic energy that slipped through your pores, radiated heat from your skin. Notions of your asexuality withered, but you barely cared.
One evening, when the two of you were sitting alone in the dormitory hallway, she turned to you. “Are you gay?” she asked.
You stared straight ahead at the wall. You wanted to be careful with your answer. It was the first time you realized that your life can hinge on a series of decisions, like the Choose Your Own Adventure books your father used to read aloud before bed. Turn to page 54 if yes. Turn to page 68 if no.
“I don’t think so,” you said finally, the words curdling on your tongue. Page 68, then. Better to play it safe.
She stared at your mouth. “Oh,” she said. Up this close, you noticed that her eyes were brown, not green. “That’s too bad.”
When you told your friends back home about this, they shrugged it off. “Weird,” they said, snapping their gum. “What kind of name is Cypress?” Cypress. The sibilance seeped into your gums, a sound you couldn’t brush loose. For years, you wondered what would have happened if you’d said, “Yes.” Like all close encounters with love, it haunts you.
Pansexuality, genderqueer, hegemonic sexuality. These were the terms you learned in women’s and gender studies courses in college, where the language was unfamiliar and exciting, the words so sharp you could barely hold onto the edges. Is this what discovering the Rosetta Stone was like all those centuries ago?
For a few glorious semesters, you committed to tearing down the patriarchy and dismantling heteronormativity. On rainy winter evenings, you stayed up late reading Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, and James Baldin, convinced that every page you read brought you closer to some inner truth. On Thanksgiving of your sophomore year, you informed your parents that gender is a performance. You lowered your voice to sound mysterious, as if speaking of a realm they couldn’t possibly understand. They stared at you as if suddenly you’d grown a benign tumor. “Okay,” your father said slowly, before asking for the potatoes.
Something was starting to take shape. At parties, you sat stoned on couches, watching women enter and exit the room with enviable ease, the proximity and heat of their bodies almost painful. You admired the elegant bone structure of your cancer-ridden roommate, how the shadows spilled beneath her eyes. “You look beautiful,” you told her on a winter evening. She adjusted her beanie over her bald head. “Yippee skippee,” she said, and that was the end of that. Silently, you wondered about the entry price of queerness, how anyone could know the right words for certain. Not that you wanted to know. Not that you didn’t.
Even so, there were boys. The first boy who kissed you used too much tongue. The second boy asked you to sleep on the couch, not his bed. The third boy placed his cold fingers inside of you as if jamming an elevator button. You lost your virginity to the fourth boy, whose breath smelled like garlic and Listerine. As he entered you, The Virgin Suicides played on his laptop in the background, and you remembered your favorite detail from the book, how one character was so thin the rain pooled in her collarbones. After he rolled off you, you gathered your clothes and rode home in the dark autumnal night, pride and relief surging through your pores.
What you refused to admit: your desire was still indecipherable. These boys were subjects in an underwhelming experiment. There was no love in your data collection, only a detached curiosity and an urge to join the ranks of the statistically sexually “average.” Joy did not compute into your sexual activity, only a determination to get it over with and move on to the next thing, as if you were building up a respectable credit score. It will take years for this to break your heart.
When you found your first girlfriend, you could hardly contain your excitement. Finally, you could say: I’m queer, with the evidence to prove it. Finally, language had delivered on its promise of an answer.
You pinned a rainbow button on your backpack. On double dates with queer friends, you mused aloud on all the women “who just didn’t know it yet,” the varied nuances of their own sexuality, never once admitting that you had just recently graduated from their ranks. When you had loud sex on your squeaky Craiglist mattress, you made your voice joyful, defiant, as if casting off the pallor of loneliness that never seemed to fade.
But were you queer enough? The possibility of losing this newfound identity filled you with shame and fear. Ever the faithful student, you borrowed books on queer theory from the library, reading them with the fervor of an Olympian taking up the torch. With their confident sentences and tightly packed rhetorical arguments, the authors presented a version of queerness you wanted to embody but feared you couldn’t. The promise of academia: if you stored up enough knowledge, you could somehow make amends for your confusion, your blurry sexuality.
Your girlfriend never read them. When you asked about her identity, she shrugged. “I love you,” she said. “For me, it’s as simple as that.” You envied her certainty. Once invigorating, the books soon filled you with a sense of dread and inadequacy. Still, you kept them stacked neatly on your coffee table, choosing instead to pay the hefty overdue fines. Better to leave a breadcrumb trail of your queerness, in case anyone asked for proof.
But all that was years ago. Now, you wonder if intellectualizing queerness misses the point. When a friend asks you to explain, you mumble something about the constrictions of naming conventions, the fluidity of identity. “But giving something a name gives it power, a sense of validity,” the friend argues, and you nod along, wishing you’d never brought it up in the first place.
What you want to say: language and theory can’t cover everything. There are gaps. These days, the taxonomy of sexuality seems to suck all the oxygen out of your lungs, leaving you brittle, two-dimensional as a scrap of looseleaf paper. You never seem to know enough, the words are always just out of reach. How is it possible that after all these years, your queerness is still maddeningly abstract and wholly intimate? What’s worse, you fear the more you name it, the more you lose it.
Still. You read queer books. You watch queer films. You listen to queer music. You buy queer porn. You have high culture discussions. You have low culture discussions. You move forward. You move backwards. You suspect you’re not moving at all. You fear that all of this thinking and writing and memory is for nothing, that perhaps you knew yourself better earlier, when you weren’t entangled in the politics and polemics of naming and theory, when you didn’t trip over your own rhetorical traps.
Queer. The word spirals. Your confidence slips. You stumble upon an old letter where your younger self wrote: “Does loving a girl make me gay? I don’t know. Probably.” You start to cry, not out of pity, but because you immediately recognize it as the truest thing you’ve ever written.
Of course, your father couldn’t possibly know any of this. Because neither, really, can you.
Bethany Kaylor is a writer and illustrator in Berkeley, California. She writes personal essays and erasure poetry. Her passions include petting dogs, wandering around public libraries, and playing ultimate frisbee.