When I was in eighth grade, still a sexuality-questioning thirteen year old, our high school Spectrum club came to visit the middle school and talk about sexual orientation. I asked, in a do-de-do I’m totally straight why would you ask that kind of way, two questions: What’s the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality? And how many high school kids are out? I don’t remember #1 but the answer to #2 was essentially, “just a handful of high schoolers are out”, which didn’t ease any concerns. In the middle school, there was only one other “out” girl, and I didn’t know her as well as I wanted to.
In the third week of school, we were sitting in an identity seminar and our teacher asked us to play a game wherein were to move around the room depending on whether we agreed or disagreed with a statement. The first statement was “should gays be allowed to marry?” (Comically, it was phrased as gays.) Every single person in the room said they agreed, which was so nice, but I realized their theoretical opinions didn’t really matter. At camp over that summer, I met a girl who kept talking about her “gay friend”, but wouldn’t go within a foot of my roommate, just because she was lesbian. Half the people in that room would probably be like that, I thought. I thought I knew.
A week after that, our school’s Spectrum club had its first meeting. It felt so freeing to be there as others talked about lgbtq issues without being judged (I mean, not me, but I was there having opinions, I guess). I came out to my first person a few days after that first meeting.
Or, let’s start another way. The first week of high school came and I fell in love. She was my height, one of the nicest people ever, and just as much of a Harry Potter fan as me. Criteria for crush: fulfilled! What did I do about my first real, identified-as-such girl crush? I spent weeks listing, in my head, every sign that she might like girls too. (Actual Inner Dialogue By Me: She’s read all the queer lit I’ve read? Cool! Oh, has she heard of Fun Home?) And then, five weeks into the school year, she flat out, out of the blue, told me about her (requited, naturally) crush on a girl from another school.
This is not a love story but she was the first high school friend I came out to, because she was the first person who had ever made me feel seen. But she was not the first thing that made me feel seen.
My mother is a San Francisco opera singer. So when I was around six, I got the talk from my mom: sometimes men like men, and women like women. I think I also got a talk about the AIDS crisis and the blood on Ronald Reagan’s hands, which, like, go off, mom. But that was… about it. We did not talk about sexuality questioning. I got the impression that this was other, not a possibility for me. My mom’s gay friends were still the most safety in queerness I would ever freely receive, from anywhere except books.
I also read almost entirely queer books for most of 2014, which probably should have told me something at that point.
Before I started reading queer books, I’m not sure I fully understood that girls could like other girls. And maybe more importantly, I had always been taught that you found out you were gay as a tiny kid and felt alienated in a very specific way and had this one specific experience. When that turned out not to be true for me, it didn’t make sense. How could I have grown up, I wondered, missing this about myself? How could I have walked through the world unaware that I didn’t like boys?
The answer is of course I could, because I thought of queerness as something fundamentally other. I didn’t want to be other and I didn’t particularly consider the possibility that I could be other.
Because here’s the thing: queerness is an experience in being other, and a shared experience in being other.
It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what movies and television we consider to be gay, or to be gay culture (I submit these tweets for your consideration). We (well, I) joke a lot about stories being honorarily gay, and certain things belonging to the gays, but I genuinely think there’s something very beautiful about how we read ourselves and our identities into narratives that aren’t our own. Because here’s the thing: we have to search for ourselves in little pockets of identity, and where we see ourselves is in the other.
When I get invested in any character I almost always read them as queer and I don’t think that’s me reading too far; I think it’s that I get invested in characters specifically who share aspects of their identity with me. We identify with the other. It is through the other that we see ourselves.
And it is that, precisely, that makes both the platonic and romantic love between queer people is so powerful and important. That’s why mlm/wlw solidarity is so powerful and important. That’s why meeting a Fellow Gay feels like recognition, like coming home. That’s also why romantic love between people who are both queer no matter the gender is powerful (romance between bi men and bi women in media is deeply romantic).
We have to find ourselves or risking losing ourselves entirely in a society that considers us the wrong sort of person, something to be accepted conditionally at all. In society as a whole, we are not people but gay people. Amongst each other, we are human again.
So gay culture, in its most general terms, is a rebellion against ostracization.