Many of us who had the fortune to attend college, or who lived in a tight-knit community can relate to the concept of venturing out around campus and its nearby neighborhoods and running into lots of people they knew. In Syracuse, an acknowledgment or short conversation seemed to happen every 6.3 yards. With my move to Washington, DC, after nine years in snowy Central New York, I was suddenly anonymous. And in that urban landscape, hardly anybody cared if they saw a masculine woman in a tweed jacket, so I was initially pleased that I’d gotten some degree of quiet in my subway/walking commute to work. But quickly, I realized that I missed the little, often pithy small talk from New York. What I missed was that degree of community.
Having come out in 1991, I’d clawed my way into the lesbian community, which if anyone reading this has done, huzzah to you, because it’s challenging. It’s almost like getting made in the Italian mafia. The hazing rituals back then were set at a high bar—proof of entry into at least one concert each by The Indigo Girls, k.d. lang, and Melissa Etheridge, ability to make hummus with only what is available in one’s cupboards, and testament that one had made out with that chick who only showed up once a month at the dyke bar, but always stoned and we figured that she was probably married, but what the hell, she was a great kisser. Did I mention it was 1991?
But in this entry into the local L Word world, were many great people who had each other’s backs. If someone was coming up short to pay the phone bill—it was a recession then, after all—folks pitched in and gave her money. One woman I knew whose partner had a habit of smacking her around saw her friends assemble to throw the abuser out, and now it is really sounding like an episode of The Sopranos. That’s not my intent; these were great women who knew they needed to band together against a culture that hated them. Many of them had lived through bar raids, had lost family, and all of that. Of course they were protective against new people joining their group.
Fifteen years later or so I started my social transition, and yes it’s all detailed with every hilarious detail in my memoir, but the short version is this—there were new communities to welcome me. It certainly wasn’t an easy process, by any means. But I kept up my relationships with several of the queer folks I knew from earlier in my life, and I made new friends, and all the while I attempted to reconcile statements that each pot of people made about each other that were “discourteous,” let’s call them. Certainly it’s been well documented and oft-discussed that some lesbians think transmen who used to be lesbians are traitors, and some transsexuals think that lesbians are bigotedly excluding MTFs from their community. Once we’re in the mountains of generalizations, it gets very hard to hear each other anymore. I try not to go there.
Given the debate—I won’t call it infighting, because I’m sure people are all very well intentioned—within LGBT circles, one of the first things any self-respecting queermo does when gathered in a public space, is check out who else is there. This is where I start to feel strange. It doesn’t matter what I see when I look in a mirror; what others see is a big white guy, maybe even THAT guy, come to stalk unsuspecting or weak-of-heart lesbians into his creepy clutches. I really hope I don’t look like that guy. I’ve seen him from the other perspective lots of times, and he is in every city one could point to on a map.
I don’t look recognizably trans, unless someone knows what to look for and is thinking about it. I don’t look gay—that is, until I open my mouth (thanks, honey, I needed that). And in Seattle, I can pound the pavement for miles before anyone recognizes me and says hello. I have definitely taken my surroundings for granted, and now that I’ve chosen to live somewhere temporarily, that stream of hellos absent, I miss it.
It’s especially tough in Seattle to figure out where one aligns themselves politically, professionally, and in community. All but the most right-wing of the populace looks the same. I’m sure Seattleites would bristle at the idea that blue tattooed stars, self-provided mohawks, pink hair, and black, beat-up clothing is any kind of a uniform, but well, it’s bordering on that. Diasporas of punk sensibility what it is, there are too many people in this one place for what is usually a fashion-defying look to exist that way here. So it is that while I listened to Kate Bornstein speak at Ellicott Bay Books in the heart of queer Seattle yesterday, the people assembled there looked just like the guy who, two hours later, sold me some empty bottles at the beer brewing store in the north of the city. Anywhere else there would have been a big difference in appearance (okay, maybe not in Portland), but here, they looked the same. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they held similar world views, but I guess I would also not be surprised if they didn’t.
That’s just it; it’s hard to tell anymore. Maybe my understanding of people is shrinking with my age. Perhaps I have some issue about not fitting in. Moving to a new place more than once now, I know it takes time to acclimate and meet people. Life after the education system is a different challenge in terms of meeting people. Soon I’ll return to Walla Walla, which in its tininess has been easy to meet people. I run into folks who know me all the time there. But when I’m there, I long for proximity to the black-clad tattooed queers of the city.
The grass is always queerer on the other side.