To be American: I am my Sisters’ Keeper

The morning the Supreme Court ruled “gay marriage” legal, I sat up in bed and called my sister. Later, my girlfriend now fiance would ask me why it wasn’t her, first. I don’t have a perfect answer to that, except for I was part of something before everything, and that person was my sister.

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Part of something before everything. Who was I before I was anything else? There are lots of words to describe all of us that we didn’t ask for: straight, girl, boy, mother. We grow up and we decide for ourselves; we shed the weight of the words that weigh heavy on us since birth.

I was born a citizen of the United States of America. My patriotism rotted at the root in Sociology classes in college that were accurate, but, frankly, lacked true perspective. In the Midwest, people often go to college to forget where they come from. There are plenty of valid reasons for that. I did. What it really means is to shed the weight of burdens that never belonged to you. For a long time, shedding the weight of being an American  felt right to me.

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Until it didn’t.

We are in an age, my peers are at least, where we must be accountable to the heritage we have, not what we chose. I was born an American. During this election, I realized that this is something that I cannot shed.

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It’s important to know that the U.S.A. was built on the backs of black people, and that this replicates itself today through incarceration. It’s important to know that this country was built and runs on the backs of brown people, who we constantly villianize.

It’s important to know that just because you know this, you aren’t any less American. It’s most important to take responsibility for your heritage.

How? I don’t have all the answers. But there is a sense of reclamation in this; a sense of defiance, of pride, of saying, “no, you will not disgrace my country with hate speech, bigotry, and intolerance – I am here to stand for the progress we have made, and to help push us forward into a better future.” My starting point comes from the commitment to not let those voices drown out mine; drown out ours.

My neighbors down the street, all of election season, flew a giant American flag alongside all of their Trump signs. Every time I walked past that house while walking my dog, I felt as if I didn’t belong; isolated. In the days after the election, I thought to myself, I am just as much of an American as they are and I belong.

I bought an American flag to put on my house.

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We have incredible Americans to remember and to look to. I refuse to allow them to go unnamed; to put them in the shadows by stating my shame. I stand with the Americans that made this country what it is. I stand with Ellis Island and its open arms.

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I stand with the Statue of Liberty, in all her glory.

 

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I stand with whatever woman stitched together our flag for the first time. I am an American, and I stand with Sylvia Rivera, Assata Shakur, Ida B. Wells, Janet Mock, Michelle Tea, Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cory Booker, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Sanger, Amy Hagstrom Miller, Emma Goldman, bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, Michelle Obama, Former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and so, so many more incredible Americans who have given us the knowledge, the theory, the praxis, and the grit.

I have a responsibility as an American to own my country, my constitution, and my government. To acknowledge its flaws and injustices. I have the responsibility to not discredit the brothers and sisters in my country who have given themselves to bring justice, peace, and equality to our nation. This is what it means to be a good American. This is the ultimate patriotism. This is “…the joyous work of citizenship,” that Former President Obama spoke of in farewell words.

I will not rescind what was mine by birth; I will fight to ensure that my country makes good on its promises. I am my sisters’ keeper. I fly an American flag outside of my home, because I belong here, and so do you.

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Gender Falsehoods: The search for authenticity

At lunch with a friend before heading to the theater to sit in recliner seats and drink wine (I didn’t know this was a thing!) while watching Office Christmas Party, she said something to me that was very poignant, and touched me where I live. She described an incident when she was a boy where her mother discovered that she was going by ‘Ava’ on an internet chatroom for Star Wars fanfiction.

At the time, she just liked the name, and didn’t realize it was a traditional girl’s name. “I thought it sounded cool, and science-fiction-y, and pretty,” she told me.

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Her mom asked: “Are you pretending to be a girl on the internet?”

Pretending. Through that story, I can feel the heaviness cascade for the first time for my friend as a child: the idea that pretending to be a gender was a possibility. Not a possibility that we can truly be, but a possibility that we can be accused of.

I have led a life of beautiful gender possibility, stretched my arms out to see if I could touch the walls of what gender is, and basked in the bliss of learning that there was nothing to touch: the experience of finding authenticity is limitless. There is no boundary. There’s no such thing as pretending.

Gender identity has become such a jargon-y buzzword in our society. A lot gets lost there. When I used to talk to people a lot about gender identity, I would point out that gender is a historical process for all of us – every single person in the world. Meaning, it is ultimately a search for our own authenticity. Unfortunately, in this world, there are people who feel empowered to call some pretenders.

Let’s go ahead and get into some semantics. What about if you dress up as a woman for Halloween? Isn’t that pretending? My response is this: let’s take gender for what it truly embodies. Can someone truly pretend to be the thing that woman is to you? Or man is to him? Can you pretend to be the sun? Trick us all by emanating it’s warmth? No. You can water it down, to mimic; make a caricature of it. Gender cannot be replicated in a false form. There is no gender falsehood.

The first time I told my best friend my name, it was a blue May morning, over a tofu scramble. How beautiful is that? To name oneself, and have it feel a color, be profound; to remember the time and place. It had taken a few years. I would go on to consider top surgery and hormone replacement therapy. I would go on to embrace a trans-fag kind of masculinity. Then I would go on to feel less and less attached to masculinity, and more attached to dresses.

I evolved from an anarchist politic focused on gender theory that glorified Judith Butler,

to a realist that bought and gave away Mattilda Bernstein-Sycamore’s Nobody Passes nothing short of four times,

to a Hillary Supporter before-it-was-cool who cried over Michelle Tea’s How to Grow Up.

I went from not wanting to get married until I wanted to get married.

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I went from not wanting children, to being unsure, to being so ready to go on that adventure with the woman I loved and had a future with. I went from being so fucking poor I stress-cried about it weekly, to making a livable income and be able to develop a collection of high heels.

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What makes a lie? I have been determined at times to be a pretender. Why? Because through considering going through hormone therapy, I wound up in dresses. Because my journey led me to a conclusion that didn’t “match.” Because why would you change your name and then turn around and be a girl again?

I was never confused, and I was never pretending. I was who I was in the moment, and eventually I felt secure enough to evolve – and again, and again. And on and on our lives are. In my journey for authenticity, I underwent several haircuts, relationships, and gender presentations. Let’s get real – who really hasn’t? I was always honest, and I was always myself.

We are never concluded people. That is one of the most important lessons of my life. I went through a period of being really afraid to evolve because I knew the idea that I had been pretending would mark me. I held back on dressing exactly how I wanted, not because I was holding back the real me, but because I was worried the real me would be taken away. As I got older, I began this enriching journey of grappling with traditional womanhood and what it meant for me as a genderqueer person. It felt scary to know that engaging with womanhood in some ways would deny me my gender – that I would be re-named by others; that I would be labeled a pretender.

When I met my fiance, something really clicked for me. Her masculinity framed against her woman-ness helped me feel like I fit in my femme-ness next to her, without requiring explanation.

 

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I am in love with my gender, and our gender dynamic together. Around that time, I wrote this in my journal:

I remember wanting to slice the curve. The things my mother left me with, I have with hate. I wanted to carve it down to angles and straight lines. To flat, to chisel. My body wasn’t made for that. I had wanted boy like other girls had boy, like short messy hair and flattened with a sports bra breasts, with noticeable shoulders and slim hips to slouch a belt with. My body wasn’t made for that. My clavicle is fragile. My hair dyed red is always going to elicit at least one catcall a day. My hips were made for children, there is the promise of life there. When I saw Alice’s breasts bare on an episode of The L Word, I thought: those are like mine. Full, slouched, moving. I cried in the shower, maybe for the boy I would never be, but maybe also for the only kind of boy the world said that a girl could be. So I swathed myself in velvet. I woke up to sunshine and dipped my feet in it – I called a truce on trying to wrap my faults in bandages. There is no blame, here. What a waste of time, to spend it wishing my body wasn’t mine. Stepping away from the imposed modesty of my Christian upbringing and the layers of wishing myself away while I grew into my own name, when I stepped into the sunlight at the beginning of this summer in a lace bra and see through v-neck, I felt whole. I started stealing lace underwear from target, stuffed in the drawer next to my boxer briefs, my bedroom finally felt like home. My unshaven legs pulled through floral leggings that make me look like I might be bleeding. Once, my girlfriend asked me how I was able to wear pants without a belt – how I won the war between gravity, I guess. I ran my hands down the side of my thighs, the same area she grips and pulls me closer to her smile, and asked, “Have you seen this?” I am centered, I am grounded, I am staying, I am taking up space in skin tight jeans. I am noticeably my own.

I am not pretending. My pronoun was once she, as a little girl with tangled messy hair, then it was he, as I wore butch with a smirk and a shot of tequila,

 

then settled into a mixture of she or they, because I feel comfortable acknowledging the complexity of who I am within the world itself. I look forward to a deeply hoped for pregnancy,

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to teaching my children every empowering female country song there is, and how to be clever enough to make a meal out of nothing  – all things incredible women have done in my life, while having my own name, and owning my entire story.

Some things will likely change as I get older – but, of course it will: we are not concluded.

When Home is Where the Red State Is: The Midwest belongs to all of us

I was nervous the night before the election. I drank wine out of a mason jar and listened to the Dixie Chicks as I cleaned my house into the night.

 

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I live in a liberal pocket of Indiana – South Bend, home to my gay mayor, Pete Buttigieg, fantastic locally owned restaurants and shops, a beloved Purple Porch Co-op, our up and coming Smart Streets, and a downtown that is unequivocally a real life version of Stars Hollow.

I’ve spent the better part of my life in the rural Midwest, having moved here and planted when I was 12. Before that, my mom, sisters, and I flitted from mostly small, poor town to small, poor town from the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and for a brief stint, Texas. We landed in Indiana, I was home schooled through high school, and once I got myself into college I moved to South Bend to go to IU.

I came out, I discovered the nuances of my gender identity, I found nuanced politics that were anarchist/leftist/democrat. As I did, I found myself shrinking from my history. The country songs I sang as a kid with the windows down, that strange midwest “hillbilly” accent (that doesn’t make sense because we’re not southern) in my voice filtered out, the acceptability of bare feet in your own front lawn and flannel that doesn’t mark you as butch, and the fact that I knew how to shoot a gun with accuracy because it was my American right whether or not I chose to have one in my possession.

 

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I cleansed my life of these subtle things, like I was taking a shower and scrubbing as hard as I could to get the residue to wash away so that when I walked around no one would know I was that person. The person who grew up home schooled in the very small town of Nappanee, Indiana. They would see my academic and professional achievements, untainted. My upbringing just wasn’t who I was anymore. It never felt as if there was the option to have both. It was one or the other.

When I was growing up in Nappanee, there was only one gay woman that I knew. She was well known because she worked at the local bank as a teller. My upbringing was excruciatingly evangelical, and the town extremely conservative, so I knew her as the town homosexual there to ruin us all. But I remember her. And I remember this moment at some kind of town gathering, seeing her with her partner and another family with children, and she was playing with the kids, and in my confused young adolescent mind, thinking they trust her with their children? Because the rhetoric surrounding me told me that she wasn’t to be trusted – but in front of me, clearly she was – trusted, loved. Human.

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I have never met that woman, but she helped me overcome my upbringing and become a better person: because she stayed.

After the election, my partner and I looked at that solid red map of Indiana, at each other, and wondered: do we need to leave? It’s hard to make any definitive decisions about what the next four years will be – but in this moment, I’m not going anywhere.

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blue is a warmer, kinder color

And possibly more importantly – I’m not liberal-washing my rural midwestern background. The most inspirational, feminist women in my life are women who will never call themselves feminist. I’ve coped in the past few days with a continual stream of Martina McBride Pandora radio, planning gatherings with exceptional amounts of hospitality, and going out to a pancake house with my 1 1/2 year old niece and 6 month pregnant sister.

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Samantha Bee said something that rings true: if all brown people have to take the responsibility for every thing a brown individual does wrong in this country, then in this moment when white women (and white people) failed our most vulnerable populations and voted in favor of Trump, white women (and white people) need to take on the responsibility.

How?

What I am talking about is macro – a large sense across broad communities. How we apply that to the more individualized scenarios in each of our lives is a building conversation that I can’t pretend to have all the answers to.

But for me, looking back at my life, at where I have come from, at where I am now, and at what the data is telling me – there is a disconnect. A disconnect between white people – liberals and conservatives – that feels insurmountable. However, I don’t think it is. For instance, consider – there is evidence that states that if someone knows a gay person personally, they are less likely to agree with things that will harm them.

This next one’s hard: we keep leaving. Or cloistering. Or rebranding. And all I keep thinking, while I listen to Love’s the Only House, is about that woman who worked at the bank, and who I might be if I hadn’t known that families trust gay people with their children.

It’s hard, because we need to be safe out here. My queer folks, trans brothers and sisters, my tired activists, women – almost none of us ever wanted to leave home. It feels like it asks us to leave. And so, I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you what I’m going to do:

I’m staying.

Because I belong here, and I have a right to have ownership over the best parts of my Midwestern upbringing – we all share this experience. We live in this space together. My tireless effort will be in our common ground: to return to it, again and again.

She came down to the grocery store and
She said I, I wanna buy a little carton of milk but I don’t have any money
I said hey I’ll cover you honey

cause the pain’s gotta go somewhere
Yeah the pain’s gotta go someplace
So come on down to my house.

Love’s the only house big enough for all the pain in the world.

Love’s the Only House, Martina McBride