On Becoming Political

The disorder peculiar to my country (the United States) is its citizens’ inability to care about anything but themselves. I blame this on the Christian principles of “aspir[ing] to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs […] so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

I just gagged, too. But to know it is to understand it–and everything that is wrong with one-issue voters.

Politics by their very nature are at once an intensely personal matter as well as an obviously public one. The thought that one can “live quietly” and “mind [one’s] own affairs” while also partaking in democracy is mind-boggling because when you vote, you’re necessarily voting in your own best interest (or at least you hope so) while also necessarily attempting to either shift or maintain how others will be/are forced to live.

So when–hypothetically–someone says that she is just minding her own business and voting the way her sister/her church tells her to vote (i.e. for whoever claims they’ll make abortion illegal), she doesn’t care that her vote for the pro-life candidate is also a vote for the schmuck who argued that it is legal to fire employees for being gay, to deny service to LGBT customers, and to discriminate against LGBT couples seeking to adopt children, among other offenses, not to mention the whole host of anti-trans positions and policies he encouraged while in office.

To me, being queer and voting blue out of necessity is not the same thing as voting red “because the Bible says so.” I am voting for my life, while they’re voting for someone else’s… and against mine.

The fact that people I love (and who supposedly love me back) vote red because they’re concerned about the wellbeing of a cluster of fucking cells more than they’re concerned about my rights and wellbeing hurts me so fucking badly that I don’t even have the words to express it. (And, not for nothing, worrying about what other women do with their bodies and the clusters of cells in their bodies doesn’t really sound like “liv[ing] quietly” or “mind[ing] your own affairs,” now does it?)

The fact that they refuse to (or perhaps cannot) understand my argument against voting for potential life over the wellbeing of people who already exist and suffer every single day under the guise of Christianity is exactly why I loathe this religion, this country.

The fact that they’d rather blame my woes on “taking politics too personally” or “too seriously” than recognize that their individual votes work toward stripping me and my LGBTQIA+ siblings of more and more rights and opportunities is the reason why my family falls away from me more and more with each passing day. It’s the reason why half my family has disowned me, why I’ve also disowned them.

Wouldn’t you take politics “too personally” or “too seriously” if someone was trying to make it illegal once again for you to marry your partner of nearly 8 years? If that someone’s Vice President

The fact that they vote in favor of their own economic interests over my rights makes me feel less than the dirt stuck to the shit on their shoes. How does one come to a point in life where they can look someone in the eye (someone they’re very closely related to, by the way) and say they’d rather make even more money than work toward protecting you? Even when you tell them the righthand man of said schmuck has dedicated himself in a roundabout way to funding groups that do the work of conversion therapy? Even when you have to explain to them what conversion therapy is–that it is, in fact, still legal in 30 states, even though they’ve never heard of it before and thus do not care about it and/or believe in it.

Even if I weren’t queer, I’d care deeply about women’s right to choose and about queer individuals’ rights. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t selfishly vote for my own interests. Voting blue is not selfish–I’m just asking for equal rights, which, for some, is “too much” and “unfair.” Remember, civil rights are free–they’re not confined to the logic of a pie, from which everyone must take equal slivers of sustenance. Granting rights to marginalized groups doesn’t mean taking away the pre-existing rights of those who already have and enjoy them.

I wish I had the privilege of not caring who gets elected–the privilege of being absolutely fine no matter who ends up in office. But I don’t. As a neurodivergent lesbian married to a neurodivergent Dominican bisexual with African and Indigenous ancestry, I can’t afford the luxury of blindly trusting a book or a religious institution to make these life-altering decisions for me, my wife, our future children. Yours.

Can you?

On Becoming a Bride, or Everything NOT to Ask Queer Couples Getting Married

The identities of the individuals discussed have been disguised in order to protect their businesses.

My then wife-to-be and I were sitting in side-by-side styling chairs at the salon for our trial hair and makeup session for our wedding day. The makeup artist had just introduced herself, and although I had told the salon over the phone that my wife-to-be and I were coming together for this appointment, it was clear that the fact of two brides was not computing in this woman’s head.

“Who’s getting married?” She looked back and forth at the two of us.

“Both of us,” we’d say in unison. This wasn’t the first time, so we added “To each other” to make it clear.

The woman was clearly embarrassed, and like all the wedding industry professionals we’d met before her, she asked the first question that everyone (including family members) asked us as soon as they learned we’d got engaged: “Who’s wearing the dress?”

As though only one of us could.

And the question they didn’t dare ask for fear of our answer: “Will one of you be wearing a suit?”

As though it would be the ultimate betrayal to our sex or our gender. As though there necessarily had to be one dress and one suit.

This kind of bifurcated, heteronormative thinking permeated every step of the wedding planning process. If I had a dollar for every time we had to cross out the word “GROOM” on all our contracts, or inform secretaries that there was no groom but two brides (this confused them–they didn’t know how to fit us into their bride/groom computer systems), or clarify that we weren’t best friends doing their wedding planning together but that we were marrying each other, or every time (upon clarifying our engagement to each other) the vendor said they had gay/lesbian friends and/or colleagues and/or had attended queer weddings in effort to establish common ground with us “alien queers”… we could have paid for this wedding.

I can’t say I wasn’t expecting any resistance from the wedding industry. I was expecting a fair bit, but I put my faith in capitalism, hoping that their need to get queer couples’ business would necessitate their unfaltering acceptance and accommodation. But the stubbornness we were met with was troubling.

The “Who’s wearing the dress?” question takes many forms:

  • Who cooks?
  • Who cleans?
  • Who is going to have the children?
  • Who is going to stay home with the children?
  • Do you normally wear dresses/dress up?

Many times all of these questions are asked, not all at once, but spread out over the course of a one- or two-hour meeting, just so they can figure out who is “the man” and who is “the woman”–as though these divisions necessarily mean anything anymore in the 21st century. I’d answer these questions for you to prove how neither of us is the man or the woman, but since I wouldn’t ask you these questions, I won’t answer them for you, either.

These questions are so irritating because they are so invasive. No one thinks these questions are worthwhile when the bride-to-be is marrying a man. Nobody cares, nor should they. Every time we sat down with a new vendor, we felt like science experiments–like we were the very first gay people they had ever met or done business with, although that was highly doubtful since SCOTUS struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, and same-sex marriage had been legal even longer in New York State. And if you work in the wedding industry, you better get with the times, or you’ll be alienating a great deal of potential customers.

The wedding industry is unapologetically gendered and resists change in the stupidest of ways. How hard is it to write “Spouse 1” and “Spouse 2” instead of “Bride” and “Groom” on the countless contracts we’re forced to sign? How hard is it to call the dais not “bride and groom table” but the “sweetheart table”? How hard is it to correct yourself once you realize that you’ve just called the brides-to-be’s dais the “bride and groom table”? (Why would you persist, unless of course you don’t feel we, two women, belong there together at all?) How hard is it to ask for a “partner’s” name instead of assuming there’s always a groom?

Somehow, the visible relief in our vendors’ voices when we told them we’d both be wearing “the” dress (underlining “THE” here–there’s still the expectation that there will only be one dress, one center of attention, as though a wedding is all about THE bride instead of the wedded couple) was more irritating. One vendor excitedly squealed, “That’s great! You both get to be the bride!” Another said, “As you should,” as though a tuxedo or pantsuit would be repulsive.

Ironically, two of the best experiences we had were in the bridal shops we visited. Of course our answer to the “Who’s wearing the dress?” question made them twice the commission. But I don’t have it in me to tarnish those very good memories in a sea of disgusting wedding planning nightmares.

Our answers to the “Who’s wearing the dress?” question were just one side of the homophobic, heteronormative coin. Not only did we have to prove that we were “women” on our wedding day, but we seemingly had to promise to “remain women” after it.

We quickly learned to avoid bringing up the big post-wedding chop. While “the big chop” is named precisely because so many brides lob off quite a bit of hair after getting married, somehow the idea of two queer women doing it was particularly harrowing. They’d rush to ask how much we planned to cut, begging us not to “chop it all off” (i.e. get a “boy” haircut). One of the hairstylists we did a trial with spent two whole hours trying to convince us not to cut our hair. As though it mattered to her or her wellbeing. As though we cared what she thought.

All this policing of what my then wife-to-be and I should or should not wear, what we should or should not do with our hair, and how we led our lives in general made me so irate that after a 6-hour joint hair-and-makeup trial, I lobbed off six inches of my own hair with a pair of scissors in the bathroom. I swore that if anyone told me not to cut my hair one more time, I’d buzz it down to the scalp. And believe me, I came very close to doing it.

As aggravating as this was for my wife and I, I understand that we don’t have it as hard as couples where one or both partners are trans, nonbinary, and/or gender nonconforming. I can only imagine that these issues multiply, that the questions become even more invasive. While no vendor refused us service, I recognize that not every queer couple is as fortunate as we are. I cannot begin to imagine the invasive questions other queer couples are asked. Frankly, I don’t want to. I’m ill enough as it is.

Perhaps what bothers me most about all of this homophobic/heterosexist crap is the fact that, after all was said and done, the vendors who asked “Who’s wearing the dress?” were also the first to beg us for pictures, which we knew would be plastered across all their social media accounts before we’d even left the wedding venue. They didn’t have the common decency to change the language in their presentations and contracts (or to keep their damn questions to themselves), but it was important for them to project a progressive image by making us the lesbian poster brides for their business.

Knowing that we specifically looked for queer representation in each of these vendors’ social media accounts before reaching out to them, it hurt even more. They were using us just like they’d used those who came before us in a ploy to get our business even though they didn’t necessarily respect us the way they respected their straight couples. Even though they tried to force one of us into the “bride” side of the contracts and the other into the “groom” side.

If I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t. My wife agrees.

We’d still get married, of course, but we’d run off and elope in some beautiful garden, just the two of us. Neither of us would wear “the” dress. We’d both chop off our hair. It wouldn’t matter who carried a bouquet, who wore a boutonniere. It would just be us with flowers in our hair and love on our lips.

Ah, what a queer utopia that would be.

On Becoming the Only Queer in the Family

“It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew.”

― Nella LarsenPassing

Sexuality was a conversation I never imagined having with my mother. I saw the way she rolled her eyes at the flamboyantly gay Kurt on Glee. I felt her silence when the very feminine Santana fell in love with the very girly Brittany (Ryan Murphy was my only source for queer content/community in 2008-2010). The more I watched, the more I knew I was watching myself (and watching my mother watch me) on TV. My mother once believed that we stood on one side of a line (not gay), and those characters stood on the other (gay). And because she assumed we stood on the same side of that line–rather, because she’d accusingly parry “Sometimes I think you’re gay” (she spit that out like a disgusting, shameful morsel)–I was forced to deny myself, remaining on her side, looking across the line into the TV screen, the land of make believe where every vestige of queer desire and life resided, fictionally–or at least for other people (not us, certainly). How could I tell her I was 99.99% sure (denial was a powerful drug) I was gay when she couldn’t even utter the word (and god forbid we use “lesbian”–she hated that word) without shuddering?

Not a single member of my family had ever outwardly identified themselves as part of the LGBTQ community. If I crossed that line, I’d be crossing it alone. I’d stand (perhaps in the rain) on the other side, calling attention to my difference, but to what end? What was the point in inviting more criticism into my overly-scrutinized existence (my clothes weren’t right, I wasn’t devoutly religious, did I really deserve to be on top of my class?)? But I couldn’t go on living like I had, forcing myself to date atrocious men to make my mother happy.

“Sweet mother, I cannot weave — slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a girl.”

–Sappho, 102

I was the lonesome rainbow leaf on an otherwise heteronormative tree. Or was I?

The family secret I was about to learn would make things infinitely easier–but also infinitely more difficult. Every time I think about this revelation, I always go back to a specific moment in time.

I remember sitting in seventh grade science, learning about different types of cancer. I stared into a bookshelf that was oddly placed in the center of the room, like an artificial wall as my friend yammered on. This friend (who told me I was a lesbian before I knew that the word could apply to me) mentioned that her family member had melanoma. Overcome by a wave of sadness, I one-upped her: my uncle had died of it. She expressed her condolences, asked if we’d been close. I almost felt idiotic when I admitted that he’d died five years before I was born.

I didn’t know why I felt the need to speak him into existence, or why I felt such a deep sense of loss and scorn and anger at the fact that I never met him. I didn’t know him beyond the fact that he was the eldest Roedel child, that he shared a name with my grandfather. I’d never heard his voice in any home movies. I’d only ever seen one or two pictures of him in my lifetime. He was literally nothing to me, yet I walked around with him on my mind, my heart–like his death was something I had to personally avenge. My friend might not have understood why I’d brought him up, but my heart did.

My uncle, John William Roedel, Jr. about 1966-1968

So imagine my surprise when my mother told me my uncle was gay–that she and my father didn’t find out until after he’d died when my father was cleaning out his belongings (“Don’t you dare tell anyone,” my mom insisted: only a few of my father’s six surviving siblings knew). He had lived a “normal” life: he married (and divorced) a woman. He knew how to have fun. He had the greatest sense of humor of all his siblings. So I wasn’t the only queer in the family, not the only one on that side of the line. But I would be the only out queer. And now I wasn’t just carrying my secret around but his, too.

This posed a conundrum. My parents couldn’t disown me because they had loved my uncle so dearly. He’d even lived with my parents when he was really sick at the end of his life. But this didn’t make them immediately accepting, either. When I asked my mother (never my father–he’s never part of difficult conversations) if they would’ve cut ties with him, she’d always shrug. It was an irrelevant question about a hypothetical situation that never came to pass. Yet another instance of queer encounters in the fictional realm, beyond the line, beyond this life, even.

I’m well aware of the fact that I am outing my uncle by writing this, though it’s doubtful anyone who knew him will read this. I would hope he’d forgive me–in fact, I feel his forgiveness as I write. The fact of his queerness being a “family secret” is both a problem and the result of his closeted life. I’m not saying that he speaks to me from beyond the grave, nor am I saying that I am him. But I feel him here. And I want to cry for him.

I want to cry thinking about the years he spent hiding, even though he lived through gay liberation. For the (secret) friends, lovers he might have lost during the AIDS epidemic. For the life cut too short (36 years old, a cursed age in my family). For the lovers he (never) had. Did he ever find love? Or was he forced into hiding, never to come out of that shell? Certainly he must have reached out to someone. Certainly he broke his silence–other hushed whispers say his discharge from the Navy wasn’t what he made it seem. I cry for the lonely man, who grew up in a conventional Catholic family, and who could never speak his truth to the ones he loved while he was alive.

I came out for me. But I came out for him, too.

It had been rapturous. For the first time in my life, I loved life and myself. I felt like myself–felt happy. It had been the Kristen Renaissance for many years. We were moving forward, I thought–I’d been practically disowned by my mother’s family, but I still had my father’s (which I was perfectly content with). I’d been so happy for so long until, believe it or not, I joined Twitter and learned that not every gay kid grew up entirely alone. And then I became incredibly bitter.

I’d been convinced for so long that a dead gay relative was better than none that I didn’t know what I’d been missing in being the only queer in the family. I met all kinds of LGBTQ writers–ones with (found) families and children of their own; ones with biological queer family members; ones who “created [their own] tribe[s].” These connections are very precious to me, but they have also stirred such sadness. They called into focus a whole history of queer existence that I’d been robbed of. How much easier would it have been navigating my lesbian identity had I been born into a queer family? How many years would I saved had a queer family member recognized my struggle and guided me through? I never would’ve questioned my right to love if someone had walked that path before me.

Much of my family is wonderfully supportive, but they don’t understand what it’s like to be related to a whole room of people and still feel so alone, so alien. How could they? They replicate themselves in their children, in each other. They pass their heteronormativity from generation to generation at their ladies-only bridal showers. They gender-code their babies pink-blue-pink-blue. They don’t question their duplicates, the receptacles for desire and identity. But when I look into my mother’s eyes, I know she’d rather not see what she sees in me.

I know I can’t be the only queer in my family. It’s statistically impossible. Yet when I look around the room, I’m entirely alone. I look backward to my Uncle Johnny and understand why he hid. I get not wanting to come out–I lived almost two years after coming out to myself in hiding, but I was outed when I spoke at my college graduation ceremony, and they announced me as the President of the LGBTQIA club in front of my entire family. But I’m glad I’m out, even if it means I sit across the line at family parties–at once a part of and apart from my family.

I know I’m not the only queer person in my family. They’re just on the other side of the line, and I’m over here, waiting. I might’ve been holding up my side of the line alone all these years, but at least they won’t be alone if or when they decide to cross the line.

An image of two headstones in a cemetery. The left headstone is a landscape-oriented rectangle reading "Roedel: John W. and Emma L.". The second is a portrait-oriented rectangle reading "ROEDEL, John W."
North Babylon Cemetery — Babylon, NY

On Becoming Me (An Intro)

“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 52

I already know I’ll regret setting all down in writing, attached to my face and name. But I’m doing it anyway because I’m sick and tired of folding myself back up into the box I was born into, of swallowing my heart and mind just because what I feel and think isn’t palatable. This is my “barbaric yawp.”

August 2020: I’d just spent two long months revamping my entire website in anticipation of the publication of the first chapter of my novel, Death Rattle. This would be my third professional creative publication, and I was hoping to impress the agents I was querying at the time. Possibility was vibrating in my veins, and I was so damn proud of my shiny new site that I decided to show it off. Like the goody-two-shoes firstborn ever in need of validation, I showed my mother. I pulled my site up on my iPad and handed it to my mom. She sat and stared in silence for a long time at my header (below).

Screenshot of the home page, featuring a typewriter and the text, “Kristen Roedel: Author of queer contemporary fiction”

The only thing she said was, “Did you have to write ‘Author of queer contemporary fiction’ for the world to see?”

Let’s take a moment of silence for the pride and joy I’d taken in my gorgeous new site. And then another for what I thought was slowly becoming an open and understanding relationship between me and my mother following her cancer diagnosis in 2017.

As I write this, I’ve got the same heaviness in my chest, the same shame in my heart that I had at that moment. This was another of the many instances she made her discomfort with my queerness known, which I’ve written about at length. I suspect she would’ve had less of a problem with the “advertisement” of my queerness had the descriptor not followed my legal name–a direct connection back to her.

“Yes,” I told her. “Because I am a queer writer of queer contemporary fiction.”

Her disapproving sigh awkwardly ended the conversation.

That night, I went home and added “QUEER” and rainbows to all my social media bios. Her desire for silence made me want to scream it louder. It was an echo back to the time she discovered through a family member that I’d come out on Facebook for National Coming Out Day and scolded me–first for telling others before I told her and then for telling the world that I was “gay” (she still hates “lesbian” to this day). She begged me to take the post down. She’d taken my euphoric moment of metamorphosis and squashed it.

She’s not the only family member who’s taken issue with my very out-and-proud stance on social media. I’ve heard through the grapevine that “being gay is [my] only personality trait.” More on that another day.

Since the incident, I’ve thought of eliminating “queer” from my site header. I know there’s a diversity “trend” in publishing that’s just waiting to eat me up and spit me out. But I literally write queer contemporary fiction. Why would I drop that from my tagline other than to appease my mother? No, fuck that, I thought. I’m keeping “queer.”

It’s become increasingly important to me, as an almost 30-year-old individual, to assert my individuality as though I am still a defiant teenager. It’s not that I want to throw my identity in their faces or make them uncomfortable (though their discomfort is a big part of the problem). I just want to be seen, heard, understood. Not thrust back into the closet because my parents are uncomfortable telling people that I married a woman–that they refuse to even utter the word “wife.” It’s not a matter of demanding that they come out on my behalf to everyone they meet. Rather, it’s a matter of not being silenced, of not being botched and spliced in such a way so as to omit my queer details.

As I sit here and write, I think about how they’ll one day talk about the children my wife and I wish to have–to strangers, to our own estranged families–whether we’ll ever be spoken of at all, whether they’ll even tell their family we’re having children together, whether I’ll just disappear into the ether like I never existed. These thoughts make me want to scream even louder.

I label myself because I run the risk of disappearing, of passing for straight. (Well, maybe not anymore now that I’ve got my gay wings…IYKYK). I label myself because my identity shapes the way I walk through and perceive the world. I label myself because I refuse to be erased, forgotten. I label myself because I walked through life for so long without others like me. I want to be easily identified so others like me can find me, talk to me, stay visible with me.

This blog series, which I’m calling “On Becoming,” is selfish. I needed a place to set down all these horrible feelings swirling inside me–the anger, the jealousy, the feeling of being shortchanged. But it’s my hope that someone reads these and feels seen, heard, validated for feeling the way they feel. It’s also my hope that if you are unlike me that you learn something about what it means to be queer, at least how I experience it.

I am woman. Hear my bleeding, barbaric queer YAWP.

“Dressing Yourself” as Method: Meditations on Queer Daughterhood

This essay was originally composed in May 2019 for Professor Lisa Diedrich’s Feminist Interdisciplinary Histories and Methods course at Stony Brook University. The essay appears in its original form.

“Definitely, too,” Nella Larsen writes in her 1928 novella Quicksand, “it conveyed to Helga her exact status in her new environment. A decoration. A curio. A peacock” (67). As protagonist Helga Crane is paraded around by her aunt and uncle in Copenhagen, she discovers that she has been lavishly dressed in exotic costume in order to display their worldliness—she, an American mulatta, has become cultural capital within their white Danish social circle. While I am neither black nor an expatriate, I realized at age fourteen that I, too, had become a decoration, curio, and peacock for my mother.

I was raised Catholic by my first-generation Italian-American mother, who was also raised to dress in traditionally feminine clothing, go to church every Sunday, and eventually marry “a nice man.” I had implicitly internalized these expectations, which were further reinforced by the television shows I watched and the small community in which I grew up, with a mission to make my mother happy—to become someone that she could both accept and love. Yet, faced with more emotional difficulties and body image issues than I could handle, but that were not unique to me, I decided that I wanted to wear my heart on my sleeve—literally.

My mother and I were shopping in our favorite department store. We had just scavenged the entirety of the junior’s section and convened in the dressing room with armfuls of clothes. This store had always offered “appropriately feminine” selections, but this season, it had introduced a line of clothing that couldn’t quite be considered “goth” but was edgier than my mother was used to. I was struck by one item in particular—a black and purple checkered button-up shirt with a garish gold-starred breast pocket that came with a clip-on black tie. Not only was it comprised of my favorite colors, but it hid my body and had that Guitar Hero punk rocker look that I had always secretly coveted. So I decided to try it.

My mother was beside herself. “You look like a man—it does absolutely nothing for your figure,” she said. “You look like those devil worshippers who shop at Hot Topic. How are you ever going to get any man to want to go out with you in that?” Of course, this was before I would develop my own sense of style or sort out my feelings regarding my faith—and this was several years before I would start discovering my sexuality. But I fought for it. I loved the way it looked and the way it made me feel. I did not loathe the way I looked in the mirror, as I did when she forced brightly-colored floral blouses and slim-cut skirts on me. “It’s just one shirt,” I pleaded, though she was convinced that it was the gateway to dyed hair (I tried—she refused, though with the exception of disastrous do-it-yourself highlights), tattoos (I still want them), and a big fat lesbian life (she didn’t even know what that meant—neither did I). After an embarrassing fight in the crowded dressing room, she caved in. She had allowed me for the first time in my life to dress myself. 

Having lived another fourteen years since this incident and having failed to meet my mother’s expectations in each of these three categories—that is, gender presentation, attitudes and beliefs, and heteronormativity—I find that I am less frequently changing costumes, holding my tongue, and guarding the details of my personal life in order to please my mother. But this was not always the case. I recognize that I live in a particularly privileged age where I can get away with this, whereas my literary counterparts, committed to the confining late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, could not. It has taken an extraordinarily long time to extricate myself from the clutches of my mother’s wishes as well as to understand why it was that I needed to do so. But I never would have gotten to this point of self-understanding had I not approached literature with a mission to discover how characters “dressed themselves.”

Queer theorists like myself, as Eve Sedgwick points out in “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” have capitalized upon suspicious reading as both a method of discovering themselves and their experiences in literature as well as a method of “bearin[g] [. . .] witness” (141) to their pain but to the detriment of their scholarship. She highlights Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity as a prime example of paranoid reading for its obsession with “revealing” knowledge. In seeking to constantly prove the queer subject’s dastardly position within society, Sedgwick recognizes that we have self-sterilized the possibility for more generative and reparative forms of scholarship at the mercy of uncovering what we already know to be true. Sedgwick does not necessarily want us to stop uncover these truths—rather, she recommends that we work toward projects that move beyond these truths to capitalize upon positive affect. Thus, as a frequent-flyer of Butler’s theory of performativity, I take heed of Sedgwick’s recommendations and wish to propose a method of reading for positive performativity, or “dressing yourself,” that wishes to look beyond Butler’s self-squelching, negative-affective performativity to ones that affirm positive experience. While I do not claim to have fully escaped paranoid reading, I intend to see beyond it, though this project may turn out to be one of those “[sexy] mistakes” Joseph Litvak imagines (qtd. in Sedgwick 147).

“A DECORATION”: SELF-PRESENTATION

I was not Helga Crane. I was not content with being paraded in front of my mother’s family in form-fitting blouses, lavish jewelry, and high-heeled shoes. And, God forbid if I should ever leave the house without makeup on. But this was how her mother raised her and her older twin sisters, who were given the most lavish fur coats and the most stylish sandals their parents could afford while she was left pining away for their hand-me-downs. When she could control the way she dressed, she made herself up like her mothers and sisters and sought to do the same with me.

It is worth acknowledging at this point that this war-mongering shirt was not the most masculine thing I could have decided to try on—even my mother would admit this. The biggest problem she had with the shirt was that it was not traditionally feminine—it was not something she ever would have imagined herself in. My wearing of this shirt represented the fact that I did not care to perfectly reproduce her idea of femininity, and for her, my refusal represented her failure as a mother. Carolyn Kay Steedman reflects that “children are always episodes in someone else’s narrative, not their own people, but rather brought into being for particular purposes” (122). Though my mother is not as callous as Steedman paints hers, she often tells the story of how she never wanted children—until she felt that something was “missing” in her life. I often wonder if she still secretly feels this way given that she has “failed” to replicate herself in me, whereas her sisters succeeded in doing so with their daughters.

In rupturing the feminine self-presentation she had so carefully crafted for me, I had also shattered her belief that sex and gender were inseparable and thus indistinguishable. As Butler has philosophized, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (45). My appearance was unnatural to her, for it disrupted not only the façade of femininity I had attempted to emulate for her sake but her genuine belief that she, a straight woman had given birth to a straight daughter. She believed that this shirt was the gateway to more masculine clothing, a shorter haircut, masculine swagger, and an ultimately “dykey” existence not unlike Radclyffe Hall’s—I know this because she repeatedly thanked me after coming out for not “dressing like a man.” Despite her belief and the images of “lesbians” I saw on television, I did not see myself becoming like them—and because I did not see myself in them, I floundered when it came to labeling my sexuality. These internal conflicts preoccupied me, slowly creeping into my college papers and presentations until I found myself in awe of Butler’s gender performativity and dedicated to the quest of seeking out “my people” in the literature I read—those who had been forced to pander to gender stereotypes and traditional social roles in order to survive.

In fighting to “dress myself,” I discovered that I was fighting not only in favor of Butler’s theories but against them. I recognized how normative gender performativity had flattened my experience out into the narrative of universal self-effacement, but I also knew there had to be more than that. I knew that I did not have to confine myself to one self-stylization—that I could exist in an androgynous space, but the weight of my mother’s expectations upon me—to confine to one gender or the other—stifled my self-recognition. In Mary Jo Bona’s project on the “generational rift between [the Italian-American] mother and daughter,” she posits that the queer daughter “recognizes that she futilely longs for a mother she cannot have” in that her mother is unable to imagine life beyond “the limitations posed by heteronormative behavior on all women from her mother’s generation” (187). I do not believe that my mother, had she the opportunity, would have developed a different self-presentation than the one she came into in the 1970s and ‘80s—at least I do not believe that any other identity she might have developed would have been helpful for her understanding of me. She happens to be one of those women who is relatively content with the lot laid out in life for her in most respects, which makes my dis-identification with her that much more difficult for us both. My refusal to be content with the life she imagined for me also signaled other ideological departures that would later reveal themselves.

“A CURIO”: ATTITUDES AND SILENCES, OR, SURVIVING INTERROGATION

Every room of my grandmother’s and mother’s houses was filled with curios that displayed very specific things—Blessed Mother figurines, ceramic flowers, and Hummels, always little girls in pigtails and skirts holding farm animals and little boys in cropped hair and lederhosen carrying lunch pails. They literally showcased our family’s outspoken faith, a reverence for the “natural,” and their gender conformity. When it came time for my mother and her sisters to empty my grandmother’s house after her death, they hesitated to open her curios and dismantle her carefully-placed knick-knacks as though they were tasked with opening a perfectly-preserved casket. If there was one thing you didn’t do, it was that you were never to alter what my grandmother had set up decades ago.

That checkered shirt was the tip of the iceberg. In rearranging my self-presentation, my mother sensed the “death” of my willingness to bow down to her will—that I would also seek to evade each of the values she sought to instill within me. A shift in presentation was also a shift in presentability—the shirt outwardly signaled a discontinuity between my mother and I, not only in terms of gender but of identity, faith, and politics (which, for her, aligned with Catholic doctrine). While these figments of selfhood do not always travel in packs, mine did, and my total departure from her desires was something she refused to expose to her family, and she thus forced me to present more traditionally in their presence. Bona asserts that the queer daughter’s quest for selfhood is met with the “tradition of omertà,” or the code of silence, “about personal matters” (188). Non-normative gender presentations fly in the face of this rule, for they make external matters that traditionally would have been dealt with either privately or not at all. The shirt might as well have been a sign that read in large red letters “I don’t know if I’m a lesbian, but I do know that I don’t buy into this religious hoopla.” For her family, gender non-conformity was equated with homosexuality and godlessness (that is, anything outside of organized religion)—I would eventually discover both these things to be true about myself. But for the time being, I felt inordinately chastised for deciding to wear something that I felt good in. Simply put, I was done being told who to be and sought out to prove that I was not the first person in this world who had felt this way.

In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow,” Nick Adams seeks consolation for his romantic difficulties from his best friend. Interestingly, the issue Bill focuses on is not Nick’s compatibility with Marge but his unwillingness to navigate her mother’s expectations:

Imagine having them around the house all the time and going to Sunday dinners at their house, and having them over to dinner and her telling Marge all the time what to do and how to act. [. . .] You came out of it damned well, [. . .] Now she can marry somebody of her own sort and settle down and be happy. You can’t mix oil and water and you can’t mix that sort of thing [. . .]. (46-47)

“The End of Something,” which directly precedes this story in In Our Time, explains the reason for their breakup: Nick is tired of being out-performed by Marge. The paranoid reader’s inclination—as was my own the first time I approached this text—is to unveil the coded language, i.e. to reveal Nick’s homosexual panic through his crisis of emasculation. In being told “what to do and how to act,” traditional masculine performativity is forced upon him. However, focusing on this, it is easy to miss the fact that Nick has left Marge precisely to stop performing and to embrace his true self. Hemingway concludes, “None of it was important now. The wind blew it out of his head. Still he could always go into town Saturday night. It was a good thing to have in reserve” (49). Nick recognizes that shirking Marge signifies his own queerness, which is precisely what triggers this crisis, but his ambivalence about returning to this rigid performance of Victorian masculinity suggests his desire to escape self-stifling roles. Like oil and water, Nick’s self-separation from his surroundings has rendered him a pariah, but he does not feel as despondent and hopeless as paranoid readers make him out to be. Without Marge, he is no longer forced to perform or to deal with inquisitive stares—he is free to be or “dress himself” however he pleases. Nick’s positive performativity, as it turns out, is not a performance at all—it is a natural enactment of self.

In Sedgwick’s landmark text Epistemology of the Closet, she takes up the issue of the position of the lone queer subject in the heteronormative family structure. “[G]ay people,” she posits, “seldom grow up in gay families; [. . . and] are exposed to their culture’s, if not their parents’, high ambient homophobia long before either they or those who care for them know that they are among those who must urgently need to define themselves against it” (81). I, like Nick Adams, was caught between the urge to blend in with my religious, homophobic family (if only to avoid their fervent diatribes about fire and brimstone) and the urge to “define [myself] against [them].” For me, this meant hiding in front of my family by “dressing myself” as my mother would have. As much as I would love to be able to say that I shouted, “I don’t care what you want. I’m not fucking wearing it!”, as young Carrie “Big Boo” Black does in Orange Is the New Black when presented with a frilly frou-frou dress (“Finger in the Dyke”), I didn’t have it in me. My survival depended upon presenting in a way that my mother could be proud of. I would camouflage the ways in which my attitudes and beliefs differed from my mothers’—how I evaded the customs of the family that prided itself on producing carbon copies of themselves in their children. But, as Butler theorizes in The Psychic Life of Power, “a feminine gender is formed (taken on, assumed) through the incorporative fantasy by which the feminine is excluded as a possible object of love, an exclusion never grieved, but ‘preserved’ through heightened feminine identification” (146). I was too young and scared at the time to do anything other than evade interrogation and abide by omertà, but I certainly had not “excluded” the feminine. In fact, the longer I performed, the more it became evident to me that I was homosexual, not because I felt out of place in my gendered performance but because I desired a different form of femininity—both for myself and in a potential partner. But where the narratives of so many queer theorists stop at melancholia, my story does not, and neither should the narratives we perpetuate about the literature we analyze through the lens of performativity.

 “A PEACOCK”: HETERONORMATIVITY, OR, MEASURING UP TO HELGA CRANE

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936) is perhaps the most well-known lesbian text published after Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), yet she is famously known for insisting “I’m not a lesbian. I just loved Thelma” (Martins 108). Barnes’ refusal to adopt the “lesbian” label echoes the controversy surrounding Hall’s censorship trial. The “scandalous” novel was censored almost immediately after publication for its positive portrayal of its “invert” protagonist. Significantly, the reportage of the trial “rendered the author as a type, visible not as fashionable but as a mannish lesbian” (Marshik and Pease 141-42). From that point on, according to Laura Doan, “life changed utterly for all women who lived with other women, or all women drawn to masculine styles of dress, whether lesbian or not” (qtd. in Marshik and Pease 142).

To be a “lesbian” in 1936 was to be grouped with women like the masculine-presenting Hall, and Barnes saw no kinship with Hall other than their shared love of women. This idea of the “quintessential lesbian” has not only haunted individuals like myself into the twenty-first century, but it has also created a partisan “visibility” for homosexual women. The idea that a “lesbian” has a “certain look” has made passing for feminine-presenting lesbians quite easy, but it has also perpetuated this damaging stereotype to the effect that “femmes” have been rendered invisible to the public eye and therefore “do not exist.” My mother believed that the moment I came out as a lesbian that I would “progress” into this “lesbian-ness” and begin dressing like Ellen DeGeneres. (Of course, the fact that DeGeneres’ wife, Portia de Rossi, was an example of a feminine-presenting queer woman escaped her mind.) She was hung up on the possibility that either I or my partner might present masculine because the only time my mother ever “saw” a lesbian, she was dressed “like one,” and her partner—if not butch—was “just a friend.” I would use her assumptions about homonormativity to find myself in literature—to prove that queers existed outside of those rigid structures, though perhaps that’s my paranoia talking.

My mother’s knowledge of gays and lesbians as I entered the queer dating scene in 2013 was comparable to the attitudes presented in If These Walls Could Talk 2. In the “1972” segment directed by Martha Coolidge, Linda (portrayed by Michelle Williams), a feminine-presenting lesbian, finds herself attracted to Amy (Cholë Sevigny), a masculine-presenting one. Given 1972’s relative distance from the self-effacing era for the women depicted in “1961,” Linda comes up against the same issue my mother did. While her generation recognizes that “women love women,” she mistakes Amy’s masculine performativity for the desire to become a man. Pressured by her friends to seek a more “ideologically-progressive” partner, Linda resists Amy because a relationship with her would suggest that she desired to replicate the heteronormative patterns she and her progressive friends sought to escape. In “2000,” directed by Anne Heche, Fran (Sharon Stone) and Kal (Ellen DeGeneres) seem similarly stuck in homonormativity. While their union would not have been legally recognized in 2000, nor would have been their parentage over the child they attempt to conceive via sperm donor, their adherence to a normativity recognizable to the rest of society betrays their fear of being perceived as illegitimate. Representations of queer livelihoods such as these, though Fran and Kal are filmed dancing and embracing happily through the credits, are still self-squelching ones. Perhaps they are happy in their homonormativity. But to suggest that this is the only way queer women can find a happy ending perpetuates a model of negative performativity for others.

There was one thing I did want for myself that my mother had also wanted for me—a family of my own. Of course, replacing the “nice man” she always hoped I’d meet with a nice woman made her renege on that particular desire. The fact that my partner and I both present feminine boggles her mind. Though she does not ask “Who is the man in your relationship?”, she does ask which of us does the dishes, as though the answer would provide her with some more insight as to how our relationship “works.” I recognize that I have not quite escaped homonormativity either, as my partner and I are engaged and intend to have children (I can already hear my mother asking which of us will wear the dress). But I cannot say that our performances are self-squelching—they are our attempt at positive performances, for they do not seek to hide or alter anything about ourselves for anyone else’s  benefit.

Had my fourteen-year-old self sat across from Helga Crane upon her return to Harlem, I would have admired her newly-acquired self-assured performativity. Helga did not blush when admitting that she did not wish to either marry or have children. She laughed in the face of the men who approached her to fulfill such a role. She would have been the model of positive performativity that I needed. Nick Adams knows that he can return to his performativity, currently “in reserve,” if he so wishes, and Fran and Kal are happy in their homonormativity—all while Djuna Barnes died a miserable, grumpy old woman in her New York apartment, insisting that she was “not a lesbian” (Herring).  The bottom line here is that these people shine brightest when they do not take heed of others’ expectations. They are in “full bloom” when they dress themselves in a way that embraces their truest selves. Of course, I may just be paranoid about Barnes and looking for symptoms of this supposed happiness. But that, according to Sedgwick, would mean that this happiness was already there and that I’d merely uncovered it. These readings certainly feel do better than those negative-affective ones Butler’s disciples cling to.

CONCLUSION

Last weekend my mother nearly guilted me into attending a family gathering. Even though I now present more feminine, the engagement ring on my finger violates the code of silence no matter how quietly I sit at the dinner table. The kicker in all of this is that my mother is still my preferred shopping partner. Perhaps it is because it affords me the opportunity to rail against her desires and reassert my identity—but perhaps not. I horrified myself last year when we both tried on the same blouse and loved it. Perhaps I have so deeply internalized my melancholic performance of gender that I no longer realize what I have become. But there is no foreclosure of desire here—I have not denied myself anything, and thus I am happy. While she did not succeed in pushing me back into the closet, nor did she convince me to dress myself differently, I now realize that my mother has been wearing me all these years—that she has been the one performing for her family. But “None of [that is] important now” (Hemingway 49), for I have successfully dressed myself.

WORKS CITED

Bona, Mary Jo. “Queer Daughters and Their Mothers: Carole Maso, Mary Cappello and Alison Bechdel Write Their Way Home.” La Mamma: Interrogating a National Stereotype, edited by Penelope Morris and Perry Willson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 185-214.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd reprinted ed., Routledge Classics, 2008.

—. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Palo Alto, 1997.

“Finger in the Dyke.” Performance by Melanie Hinkle, directed by Constantine Makris, written by Jenji Kohan and Lauren Morelli. Orange Is the New Black, created by Jenji Kohan, season 3, episode 4, Netflix, 11 June 2015. Netflix.

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. 1925. Scribner, 1996.

Herring, Scott. Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History. U of Chicago P, 2007.

If These Walls Could Talk 2. 2000. Directed by Jane Anderson, Martha Coolidge, and Anne Heche, HBO, 2010.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. 1928. Martino Publishing, 2011.

Marshik, Celia, and Allison Pease. Modernism, Sex, and Gender. Bloomsbury, 2019.

Martins, Susana S. “Gender Trouble and Lesbian Desire in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 20, no. 3, 1999, pp. 108-26. JSTOR. Accessed 7 May 2019.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Updated ed., U of California P, 2008.

—. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke UP, 2002, pp. 123-51.Steedman, Carolyn Kay. Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. Rutgers UP, 1986.

DEATH RATTLE: Chapter 1

Dear readers and friends,

Today is a big day!

Please join me in celebrating the publication of DEATH RATTLE: Chapter 1 in The Writing Disorder, an online literary journal!

This excerpt is especially important to me because it is the oldest section of my novel–it pays tribute to the short story that DEATH RATTLE was in 2013 while ultimately representing the growth and evolution of this story over the last seven years.

If you love suspense, crude humor, and having your heart broken, you’ll definitely want to check out this excerpt!

Click here to read Chapter 1 now.

DEATH RATTLE is a contemporary romantic drama novel, which explores the tumultuous marriage of Neil Aldridge (a funeral director) and Annabel Aldridge (an art teacher and artist) following their struggles with infertility and multiple miscarriages. Their relationship is further complicated by the re-entry of Anna’s ex-best friend, Steph, into their lives, for Neil suspects Steph’s feelings for Anna are not as unrequited as his wife has always insisted.

Read the full DEATH RATTLE synopsis here.

As always, thank you for all your support and kind words. I am forever thankful to my Twitter and Instagram Writing Communities.

Let’s keep in touch

If you’re not already signed up to receive new content right to your inbox, you can do so by clicking here.

Want to read more?

Death Rattle

Funeral director Neil Aldridge is used to grief, but he stumbles when his wife, Anna, loses not only several pregnancies but her lust for life. The Aldridges work around the clock to abate the crushing costs of their mortgage, student loans, and fertility treatments. When they decide to pause their journey to parenthood, Neil believes the crisis has been averted until Anna leaves for work and doesn’t come home.

Anna returns three days later, apparently happier than she’s been in years. However, Neil’s relief is short-lived when she reveals that she spent her extended weekend with her fiery ex-best friend, Steph, a woman whose enduring love for Anna has jeopardized their marriage before. And she neglected to tell him that they’ve conceived again.

A heated fight between the women reignites Neil’s fear that Steph’s feelings aren’t as unrequited as his wife has always insisted. But when Anna walks in on Neil embalming an infant, they’re forced to reconcile with their history of conception—and abortion. Neil must extricate Anna from her despondency and remind her why she chose him over Steph, or else he risks losing her for good.

DEATH RATTLE is an upmarket contemporary fiction manuscript that explores the shattered American Dream, reproductive rights, and lives worth living. Currently querying agents.

Can’t wait for publication? Check out these DEATH RATTLE excerpts today:

“DEATH RATTLE: Chapter 1”

“Neil Aldridge, Sr.”

Double Publication Alert: Novel Excerpt & Literary Autobiography

Celebrate with me!

My first Death Rattle excerpt was published today! This passage explores the protagonist’s difficulty with maintaining a relationship with his father under the constraints of working class life and the American Dream.

Read “Neil Aldridge, Sr.” here.

The literary magazine has also published my literary autobiography, “Escapes,” which you can read here.

View all of my publications here.

Upcoming Publication: The Writing Disorder

I’m pleased to announce that The Writing Disorder, an online literary journal, will be publishing the first chapter of my first novel, Death Rattle, in late September, 2020!

I cannot wait for you all to read it!

Thank you all for your overwhelming support and kindness.

Click here to read Chapter 1 now.

View all of my publications here.

“A Body Bag Will Do”: The Misogyny of Lovelife’s “Your New Beloved”

“We aren’t platinum selling artists yet, so a hot girl in a body bag will do.” – Lee Newell, lead singer of Lovelife, to MTV (2013)

Yes, you read that correctly.

Spotify introduced me to this wonderful synth-pop band under a week ago with this track. I instantly gravitated toward the deep electronic waves – a sumptuous blend of vocals reminiscent of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” and a hauntingly tribal backbone. Taking the next step toward enjoying the song most fully, I called up its lyrics.

A type-2 composition: a break-up song. Nothing out of the ordinary, yet profound in itself.

Continue reading ““A Body Bag Will Do”: The Misogyny of Lovelife’s “Your New Beloved””

Spike Jonze’s “Her”: Critiquing America’s Love Affair with Hollywood

 

The world’s love affair with celebrities has gotten out of hand. I’ll admit that I’m a part of this massive head-over-heels, obsessive group of individuals (ranging from 12 to mid-fifties and beyond) that craves a three-hour block on Tumblr (or Reddit, or Buzzfeed), to scroll through images, GIFs, Avengers fan fiction, and even interviews with all of my favorite celebrities. I swoon, I cry, and I get excited over the smallest things — from a change in haircut and/or color to the news of a pregnancy, or another interview with an actor who this woman has worked with several times before. But what, exactly, am I swooning over? Who she really is? What that actor actually thinks about his co-worker? What I can only imagine he or she feels about the film and his or her costars? So how does Spike Jonze’s Her comment on all of this?

Continue reading “Spike Jonze’s “Her”: Critiquing America’s Love Affair with Hollywood”

All Publications

An image of a cemetery. In the foreground is an empty weathered wooden chair. Behind the chair is a headstone with a flowering plant in front of it. The grass is sparse.

DEATH RATTLE: Chapter 1

(DEATH RATTLE excerpt)

The Writing Disorder

September 22, 2020

Read here.

An image of the back of a 1960s red Volkswagen Beetle as it drives away down a leaf-strewn road. The road is lined with tall trees.

“NEIL ALDRIDGE, SR.”

(DEATH RATTLE excerpt)

Litbreak Magazine

June 22, 2020

Read here.

“ESCAPES: A Literary Autobiography”

(nonfiction)

Litbreak Magazine

June 22, 2020

Read here.

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