Telling Our Own Stories

As I wrote on this blog’s about page, this is where I go when I have nowhere else to go. One of the main reasons I started this blog was because I had started to feel like people needed my writing to be everything to everyone, and the pressure of those expectations was producing some unprecedented writer’s block. The intense personal writing that I had initially become known for was what suffered most, because that’s where it was most impossible for me to address every possible angle of each situation.

Sometimes when I wrote about my personal experiences, people would show up in the comments section and leave their own perspectives, both the similarities and the differences. Sometimes, stark differences. There they would discuss other personal factors that I had been unable to discuss because those weren’t my own factors. This is good. At its best, that’s how internet commenting should be.

But I would also get so much anger. “What you haven’t considered is ____.” “Yeah well what about _____.” But I’m _____ and that’s not how it is for me at all!” “Why didn’t you address _____?” “I’d like this article a lot more if you’d talked about _____.”

And I started getting angry, too. Why were these people expecting me to write about their lives and not my own? Why couldn’t they get their own blogs? How is one person struggling through depression (the thing I wrote about most often) supposed to address every conceivable experience anyone has with depression ever?

And so, writer’s block.

Of course, when I’m able to take a step back and think about it more charitably, it makes sense. Many people wish so much to see their own stories in print, but either they don’t know how to find the words or, more likely, they worry about the consequences of writing publicly about the things I write about. I’m very lucky in many ways, but remember, too, that I face many of those same consequences.

It made a lot more sense to me recently when I read this article about Black Widow and “high-stakes stories,” and why people were so upset about the treatment of Black Widow in the new Avengers movie:

There’s nothing wrong with stories about women who are housewives or stories about women who struggle because they were forcibly prevented from having kids as a condition of whatever mission they chose to undertake. The problem is that with so few women in superhero movies, each of these portrayals stands not only for the choices Whedon made, but for all the choices he and many others didn’t and don’t make. The portrayals of Natasha and Laura rankle at some level, for me, not because they are stories about a woman traumatized by not having children and a woman waiting for her husband to come home, but because it’s another story about those two women rather than any of the other bazillion women who could exist in this universe and don’t. If you had five butt-kicking women in this movie, it would seem perfectly logical that one of them might have a story related to getting pregnant or not. Why wouldn’t she?

These, for me, are scarcity problems. They are problems because there are so few opportunities to show women in action blockbusters that I tend to crave something very much capable of moving discussions of what those portrayals can be like forward.

This is, of course, a different situation and my writing is not a Joss Whedon film (in either the good ways or the bad ways), but I think that there is a scarcity of stories being told about things like mental illness and queerness and sexual assault, and so those of us who are telling these stories are expected to speak for everyone who has lived these stories.

And even though these stories are being told more and more now, and there are many more of them than I could ever read, many people don’t feel like they can share their own. So they look to those of others.

But I can’t tell other people’s stories for them. If I could, maybe I wouldn’t have dropped out of that journalism program years ago.

What I can do is share the writing of people whose stories are different from mine, and I do this online literally as much as I can. I have 2,000 articles saved on my phone that I still need to read. I read them as fast as possible and then I post them, with quotes, to make sure people get at least a little of it if they don’t click.

There’s nothing more I can do now besides hand over my blog to someone else and have them write it instead. And then that person will have the same (possibly overlapping) set of people angry at them for telling their story and not someone else’s.

What else is there? I could end each sentence with “but of course a person of a different gender/race/sexual orientation/class/ethnicity/nationality/religion/body type might experience this differently,” except that 1) that makes for horrifically bad writing and 2) even someone who is exactly like me on all those dimensions might experience this differently. Annoying put-downs about snowflakes aside, we are all unique.

I’m frustrated but I understand. Everyone deserves to have their story told, but not everyone is able (for any number of reasons) to tell their own story. I don’t see how I could do it any better than you, though.

So I try not to take it personally, but in the meantime, writing has become very hard indeed.

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The Glass Closet: On Queer Female (In)Visibility

#homophobia #sexualharassment

I had an awful dream recently in which my girlfriend and I were running around in the city, trying to find a place we could be alone. I don’t remember much of it except that we couldn’t seem to find any privacy. The city felt dark and unsafe, not at all the way it usually feels to me.

Finally, we ended up in the dark basement of some huge apartment building, where we found a single bathroom stall. We went into it and started kissing, only to realize that the stall was made out of glass and that the building super was standing outside of it, watching us.

I don’t attach much importance to dreams, usually. I don’t think this “means” anything other than that these feelings have been on my mind, and the dream brought them out in a stark and horrifying sort of way, as dreams do.

Queer women are simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible. We’re invisible, though increasingly less so, in the sense that we are almost always presumed straight until proven otherwise, that our girlfriends become our “gal pals,” that our sexual experiences become “just college girls experimenting” or “just girls trying to get guys’ attention.” We’re invisible in the sense that you almost never see queer female relationships in shows or movies or books that aren’t About Gay People (such as Glee and The L Word). (Even with shows like Glee, though, queer female fans often had to fight for that representation, to fight for characters like them to be treated seriously.)

Queer female relationships, when they happen in film or television or literature, are rarely anything other than the Main Point of that work. You don’t get the badass ex-Soviet spy who happens to have a girlfriend. You don’t get the detective on a cop show flirting with the girl at the bar. The surgeon on the medical drama doesn’t come home to her wife and kids, who are upset that they so rarely see her. (Yes, there are exceptions. There’s a reason I’ve stuck with the mess that isĀ Grey’s Anatomy for so long.)

Maybe it doesn’t seem like this matters. “You have your gay women,” you might say, “so what more do you need?” But the fact that queer female characters are virtually nonexistent except in Media About LGBTQ Issues suggests a divide: Media About LGBTQ Issues, and Media About Everything Else (hospitals, crime, law, spaceships, spies, drugs, college, elite New England boarding schools, aliens, Medieval Europe, politics, etc). Do queer women have a place as doctors and detectives and lawyers and spaceship pilots and spies? Or are all those things exclusively for straight people?

Yet at the same time, in some contexts, queer women are hyper-visible. I think of the glass toilet stall from my dream again when I remember how I’ve felt out in public with my female partners. Queerness is a “marked” identity, which means that sometimes it’s way more obvious and noticed and remarked-upon than straightness. When I’m out with a boyfriend, nobody pays us any particular mind. Sure, sometimes people might notice us and think, “What a cute couple!” (or maybe I’m just flattering myself, but really, people have this thought about straight couples sometimes), but certainly nobody’s going to stare, let alone point fingers or giggle or glare disapprovingly.

But if I’m out holding hands with (let alone kissing or cuddling) another woman, it becomes very obvious. The mere act of being affectionate with my partner marks us as queer and makes us vulnerable to all the bias and hatred (and, potentially, even violence) that may result.

Luckily, in New York, there’s obviously a lot of acceptance and people are used to seeing queer couples, and even if they weren’t, New York has a very strong culture of LEAVE OTHER PEOPLE THE FUCK ALONE DO NOT STARE AT THEM. (I love this about New York.)

But even in New York, hate speech and hate crimes against queer people happen. I feel silly to be afraid of it, especially as a white cis person, but the thing about oppression is that it doesn’t just go away because you have other privileges. When a partner and I are walking up to my apartment building, holding hands, I think about the men who catcalled me right at that spot, late at night. One of them said he wanted to come and tuck me in.

It’s enough that they know where I live, but to know that I’m gay, too?

And now I’m in Ohio, where I might have to stay for some time. Here I don’t know how to navigate it at all. Will people admonish me because “there are children here”? Will they tell me I’m going to hell? Throw bottles at me? Am I being completely overdramatic and unreasonable? If so, can you really blame me, considering how deep the well of Midwestern Christian homophobia runs?

It seems that we get the worst parts of visibility and the worst parts of invisibility. Our relationships, when they are represented at all, are never treated casually in the media, like obvious givens. Yet in real life, we can never seem to fly under the radar unless we get back in the closet.

And even that’s not exactly a guarantee. The closet, too, often feels to be made of glass–transparent and fragile at the same time.