The question stared up at me in detached Helvetica from my gmail inbox for three days before I attempted to reply. It wasn’t a confrontational email. I had no reason to be apprehensive. It was from the editor of a website tied to a magazine I wrote for monthly, someone I’ve known well for almost ten years and consider a friend. The subject line read simply, Have time to chat about a potential op-ed idea?
On identity, and Pride, and the importance of having a voice.
I’ve been increasingly outspoken about something, and a few people have asked why. I’m happy to tell you.
It was early 2017, and her idea was an interesting one, as most everyone we knew was reeling from the first roller coaster days of our current administration. She wanted to put together a series of short op-ed pieces on what it was like in today’s America from the point of view of various demographics of citizens. What it’s like to be Muslim in the age of Trump, What it’s like to be black in the age of Trump, etc. What she’d penciled me in for: What it’s like to be LGBTQ in the age of Trump.
So firstly, I identify as queer, a fact that comes as no surprise to many of you, as I do talk about it here and there, but perhaps comes out of the blue to others. If you’re in the latter camp, I don’t know what to tell you… I tend to joke that if you don’t know, it’s simply because you’ve never asked. Let’s grab a glass of wine some time, and I’ll be happy to start at the beginning. Probably, I’ll make a lot more sense to you. I certainly made a lot more sense to myself when I figured this out, too, in my early years.
Despite this, my initial reaction to being asked to write this piece was, “Why are you asking me?” I’m a travel writer, not an opinion writer, but also, when you’re not straight yet in a monogamous marriage to a man, you can count on wrestling with the guilt of your own privilege. You can talk yourself into thinking you have less of a voice, have earned a lesser seat at the table, because you’ve suffered less on some perceived scale of shaming and intolerance.
Basically, I deemed myself unqualified to weigh in. I gave my editor a few names of friends who might be more worthy of a say in her editorial. Then I went back to my comfortable but frustrating outlier status.
But I kept thinking about my editor’s question. How did I feel, as a queer woman in today’s political climate? In order to answer this, and for you, in turn, to understand it, it’s necessary to first understand how it always feels to be queer and married to a man for 20-plus years. In a nutshell: invisible. Even though relationship status does not define a person’s sexual orientation, if the people in your daily life have always known you as married to a man, they’ve gone ahead and labeled you and filed you away on the shelf in their minds marked straight, and I get it. We all do this.
Of course, some might say I’ve chosen the easy road, the heterosexual road, in my conservative county amid alt-right neighbors who would hate me if they bothered to really know me, to which I would say careful now, because A. I have no more choice in my sexual orientation than anyone else, and B. there’s nothing easy about taking one path for a myriad of reasons, some of which are healthy and some of which, you realize too late, are not, and then watching the other path turn to dust at your feet as it occurs to you, Wow, I don’t think I get that back. Oh and C.: until you’ve existed in that dual-world where you live undercover in your own life while people you counted as friends or family make homophobic jokes or judgments in your presence and you’re left to comfort yourself with, they wouldn’t say that, if they knew, to which you are forced to correct yourself: they wouldn’t say that in front of you, you don’t really know.
So there I sat, spinning on the edge of these two sides of the same coin, worried that if I offered an opinion, I’d either be told to check my privilege because I’m presumably heterosexual and I don’t understand and can’t understand and won’t ever understand, or because I’m queerl but living in a heterosexual world, and don’t understand, and can’t understand and won’t ever understand.
While I debated the op-ed piece, I started writing a new novel. As one does, if you’re me. A novel with an unapologetic focus on an LGBTQ theme. And as it turns out, I do have something to say. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, since I’ve been grappling with this novel’s central questions of identity and self-awareness my whole life. I do know what it means to be sidelined and marginalized. I know that it hurts, that something inside you, maybe your soul but more likely your gut, takes a hit each time, until finally, you simply decide, toughen up.
And a little toughening up has been exactly what I needed during this climate of gay law reversals and acceptable bullying. Maybe I notice this especially where I live, stranded on the island of a rural, conservative county surrounded by the blue of a liberal state. I see more hate rhetoric every day. I don’t know, maybe I’m looking for it by this point. But it’s there for the taking, on bumper stickers and flags and a few church reader boards in my town. Just last weekend, in signage at a local Memorial Day parade. I hear it and see it in all age groups and across most demographics: the ‘harmless’ gay jokes. The casual insults. The anger from people on Facebook who want things to return to how they were decades ago. And I can’t change policy, and I sure as hell can’t change presidents, but I can straighten my spine and speak up.
In the end, the op-ed series never happened. The website in question experienced restructuring, I lost my freelance travel gig there, and my editor moved on to another publication. But the novel lived on, and it pleases me to say that the polished manuscript will be ready to pitch to agents before the month is out. I dislike the querying part of the writing process, but I’m amused by the timing. For the first time during a Pride month, I’ll be using my voice.