Monday, March 30, 2015
I'll tell you a story that happened to me relatively recently. On a very extended road trip to a conference, a woman riding along with me self-identified, during conversation, as queer. I made the assumption, one not uncommon, that this meant she was a lesbian. If I had it to go over again, I would not have followed that train of thought. Had it been me, I would find the description a touch presumptive if it were assigned to me. After all, queer is a term I assign to myself in ways beyond my sexual orientation.
What further led me to make this particularly incorrect assumption is that during the full five days I spent in her company, I noticed she pursued other women with great vigor. When one of them proved to be straight, she tried once more, only to find her latest interest equally uninterested. That was five years ago. Five months ago, to my astonishment, I discovered that she had married a man.
I did some Quaker writing work a few years back. For whatever reason, for that assignment, I decided to focus on the homosexual part of me. I enjoy exploring bits and pieces of who I am, even if sometimes I only confuse others in the process. This is not my fault, but it is my reality. The Friend with whom I worked has, since then, always playfully assumed that I'm only interested in men, or perhaps gay is my primary identification. I've never corrected her, because I enjoy this kind of amusing back-and-forth banter and would not have it otherwise. But even so, it makes me recognize how difficult it is to completely peer outside the gender binary. We like to think that things either are or are not, and it's not necessarily our fault to misunderstand.
Other queer Quakers regularly read my writings and draw their own conclusion from them. We held a retreat a couple months back for other young adults, during which I gave a guided discussion. Two regular attenders, having read about a typically honest rendition of myself, were equally silly and playful as I offhandedly discussed and inquired about the dressing styles of women. They've found my identities, as confessed in writing, a little amusing, but I gather that others aren't sure what to do with the information. Everyone has been tolerant, but only those who also identity as LGBT have enough information at their disposal to recognize precisely how much of what I am.
A regular writer to a prominent feminist website has made a recent suggestion that her readers ought to make an effort towards exclusively reading the books of women rather those of men. She is speaking mainly towards other cisgender women and in some ways, this exercise doesn't necessarily apply to me. Reading women writers has never been a particularly difficult effort on my behalf.
Nor has this, as I have also learned, been an issue for queer men like myself. Reading the works of women has never taken a particularly conscious effort on my part, partially because I already find myself routinely attracted to the concerns and interests of the opposite-sex already. I often feel more feminine than masculine, but not every day and at every time. This is not the same with masculinity, which doesn't feel particularly comfortable, but has a kind of numbing familiarity that keeps me reasonable sane with the understanding.
I find myself often more interested in the ways of women because the ways of men felt have isolating at worst, uninteresting at best. These women authors have spoken to me in a manner that the prose of a man could not. But even today, should I read a work penned by a female writer, who I am in totality and how I feel about myself doesn't require any definitive effort on my part. The ways of men, by contrast, make some sense to me, and sometimes make no sense at all.
I wonder if anyone I know truly understands me, or whether they ever will. And maybe understanding isn't all that important. Explaining myself for the sake of being completely and thoroughly comprehended is a difficult endeavor, just as it is difficult for me to understand myself. Maybe playing teacher isn't my role, even though from time to time I feel it needs to be. I can't teach myself who I am, so what makes me think I could ever educate someone else?
If I write or read about who I am, it's as usually as much about coming to grips with myself as sharing anything instructive with another person. I've learned much about women from the words they've shared with me and others, and yet to me, to a large extent, their gender is as meaningless as mine, whatever my gender is. I know that may be hard to believe. Rest assured I don't think that I or anyone else lives in a gender-less world, but perhaps a more complicated world, instead.
This I do know. My partner and my friends, as they are instructed, need to understand how to not be confused by who and what I am. I challenge many assumptions, and I've learned that challenging these interlocking identities are not necessarily easy to manage for myself and especially so for others. At LGBT conferences, we're cautioned not to make assumptions about people's sexual orientation or gender identity, which usually means we're so cautious to not be discriminatory that we don't take mostly harmless risks and assumptions as I did, like the woman I was so sure was a lesbian, yet she turned out to marry a man.
What I did was commit a particularly easy reminder of the complexities of human expression, especially sexual expression. It is easy to forget how complicated binaries are, but it was hardly a terrible mistake on my part. We know those who aim deliberately to hurt, to use discriminatory attitudes to injure. But most of the time, we do mean well, wrapping our minds around someone else's complexities.
I might take some small annoyance at the queer Quakers who find my genderqueer identity somewhat funny, something of an inside joke. But I get to make the ultimate decision, and the more I think about it, the less I worry. We're all in danger of being misunderstood at any time and though we can limit it, we can't entirely stop it.