If you’re going to get through this and if you’re going to thrive, you need friends and maybe “a community”. It’s sort of a trick word. Sometimes it seems like community is just grant-writing code for demographic, population, or scene. Other times I think I’ve seen it glimmering through a room, a moment, a crisis, a joy, like a cryptid in a dark wood. Whatever it is, it’s vital.
That’s not to say you need everyone within your community to be your friend. It’s also not to say that everyone who shares some of your language and experiences is your community, either. If I could say something to myself ten years ago (or five years ago, or last year, or right now), it’s that putting much stock in a nebulous concept to alleviate your basic existential loneliness can break your heart. You can easily find the people who are mourning the mirage of community they felt they would catch when they came out, whether it was the first or twelfth iteration of doing so: they’re the ones loudly or bitterly disowning the idea; they’re the ones scapegoating some other end of the umbrella for their frustrations; they’re me off and on for, like, the last decade.
I’ll give you an embarrassingly specific example. I’ve been every letter in LGBTQ, and one thing I’ve learned from this grand tour is that telling you at this present moment that I’m an “invert transvestite” versus a “queer trans masc” versus a “gay FTM” versus a “bi boi” versus a “non-binary pansexual polyromantic demi-butch” transmits next to nothing about my day to day internal experience, much less the external material reality. Yet depending on the person describing me, 100% of those would be accurate. I prefer some of these over others, but those preferences would not offer you much certainty, either, it turns out. They’d tell you more about where, when, and how I came to understand myself; which online or offline communities, what bars, what social class and generation and ethnicity I belong to; what sexual history, what books and schooling and friendships inform the language I had that felt right at a certain formative moment.
It’s sort of like how the “best” era of pop music is somehow the one that aligns very specifically with your formative years (hmm, funny that). That doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t real (they’re as real as my unironic love for Blink-182), just that endlessly picking each other apart about terms and endlessly coining new hyper specific ones (because one time we met a mean person who identified with an older or broader one, so can’t be that, oh no) is maybe, just maybe, a deep waste of your time, sink of your energy, and probably harmful to yourself past a certain point.
I’m not sure yet what that point is for me, even. Is it the practical navigation of institutions? The social capital and sexiness? The intellectual comfort of a good theory of self? A framework for the past? A manifesto for the future? Maybe it endures the violence of ridicule. Maybe it actually is ridiculous.
I’ve seen people blow apart entire projects, scenes, opportunities to connect over, say, the fact that someone else uses their word for a different circumstance. Burn it all to the ground because someone casually takes on something that, for you, felt hard earned, in need of defending like a castle. Well congrats. Sit alone on your throne of eroding rights and protections, I guess!
The thing is, uncritical mass inclusivity can be as equally shallow as those defensive, reactionary theory wars. Let’s have a free for all, let’s have hugs and snuggles and affirmations and validation, let’s turn strangers not reading our minds into erasure, let’s make everything about comfort, let’s never interrogate that maybe even self-identification can be weird or flawed or appropriative. Or let’s not. These kinds of anything-goes, faux-uplifting attitudes can quietly alienate and fling out the most marginalized by falsely equating everyone’s problems to avoid oppression Olympics. The stakes are simply not always the same. Feeling uncool or bummed out is simply not, itself, an axis of oppression.
What both attitudes lack is, I am starting to think, a long term strategy about how to actually ensure the broadest solidarity and material survival. And maybe a sense of humor? But I’m perverse. I long for even worse representation and airing all the dirty laundry.
I wish my past self could find nicer ways to raise questions like “it seems like your identity is in contradiction with how you’re living and that gives you a lot of anxiety, so what does this word mean to you? What would have to happen to reconcile these things for you?” I wonder if the way to get that close and intimate with each other, to be able to say “hey you’re maybe wielding that language in a mighty weird or harmful way,” is to let each other in past the defenses in the first place. Maybe you’re right to be a little suspicious. Patriarchy would love for you to let down the defenses so it can bulldoze you. But we can be stronger than that. The things that came before you are now slurs, “dated”, “problematic”, the things that came after you are now baffling, “made up”, “vague”. Embrace them. Ask more questions. Realize no one is an authority or an expert on something so vast.
I think– I say to my younger self, I say to my fear, I say to every mentor and caretaker and figurehead who got me here– if you actually provide the acceptance and support without being precious about it either, people will by and large chill out enough to come to their own conclusions about what’s been a different kind of place to hide from themselves and what’s been a place of revelation. Like, thank God I got to try on so many things that almost fit, or did fit for a passing time. Language will continue to change and branch, and it can provide both new territories and room for old ones.
Maybe a healthy self-check about identity words is that if you’re arguing with people about the semantic aspects of this or that term and it’s getting you truly heated, that is, if it’s making you more miserable asserting the micro-differences than it is bringing you joy to embrace the label, you have lost your way a little. If we acknowledge that people can identify the same way and still have it mean something very personal and disparate anyway, then people going different rhetorical ways is probably less important than the shared stakes. The call is coming from inside the house. All of the terms, turns out, are umbrella terms.
I don’t mean this in a corny, fuzzy, false equivalence way, but like: make friends just like you on paper and let them drive you a little nuts with their tiny differences. See how someone very, very different came to be so. Laugh it off. Mind your own business. Lead with questions, love, and good boundaries. Know your limits. Know that, actually, no one is checking membership cards. Bring a soup to the potluck and try to relax.
Julian’s Garden Gazpacho
- 2 cups chopped cucumber, unpeeled
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1 cup or 1 bunch chopped green onions
- 1 4-ounce can of mild green chilies
- 1 26-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1/4 cup drained capers
- 1 chopped habanero pepper
- 1 whole small head of garlic, chopped
- 1 slice/heel of multigrain bread, torn to pieces
- salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and immersion blend to consistency of choice (I prefer finer). Save a few bits of chopped celery and onion for garnish if desired. Should be a light green color. Add more tomatoes for a ruddier version. Tastes best after chilling in the fridge for at least half a day.
Cover illustration by Flynn Nicholls.
The Care and Feeding of Your Sex Change is a guide to eating your way through hormone replacement therapy, plastic surgery, standing in line at state offices, lying to gatekeepers, fielding invasive questions from strangers, concealing panic attacks, and managing eating disorders, all disguised as a recipe column. Cis people can read it too, but are encouraged not to take terminology cues from irreverent intra-community internet essays. Big moods and big foods, taken with a grain of salt.