This is the second post on my participation in a Boston University study of urban and rural queer folks and their social interactions with non-queer folks. You can read about my initial interview with researcher Holly Donovan in the first thoughts post I wrote back in October.
This past Monday I sent Holly the journal I’d been keeping since our initial meeting. I’m not going to make the journal publicly available because I wrote it for Holly’s research specifically and also because it contains details about my interactions with third parties that can be kept anonymous in the context of a PhD dissertation where I’m not identified — but not in this blog space, where I’m pretty transparently me.
Journaling. I used to do a lot of it, but the demands of the past few years and my own shifting priorities have caused me to stop keeping such a detailed and in situ account of my daily life. So it was kind of a familiar novelty (to coin a term) to find myself keeping a daily journal again. Journal writing is liberating in that the pressure to have finished and connected thoughts is erased — at least for me. In this case, I was writing on a particular theme: my social interactions and the way those interactions did or did not actively engage my gender identity and sexual orientation. Yet I still felt that I could keep notes that were in bullet-point format, with sentence fragments and open-ended observations.
What were some of those observations?
I spend more time thinking and talking about sexuality than I do sexual orientation. A significant portion of the notations that I made in my journal had to do with conversations I had with friends, family, my therapist, my colleagues, people online, with authors (via reading their work), about human sexuality. I spend a significant portion of my waking time thinking about human sexuality because it’s one of those things that makes me happy to ponder. I did this before I found language to articulate my own sexual identity as such, and before I was in a sexually intimate relationship with anyone. I love that I move in circles where sexuality is part of casual conversation, and that our conversations are often intellectually stimulating, enthusiastic, and joyful rather than full of shame and angst. Yes, we all have emotional and physical struggles that sometimes need conversation to work through — but I’m grateful that that is only part of the discourse surrounding sexuality that I am a part of.
I don’t feel in physical or emotional jeopardy in the spaces I live, work, and move through around Boston. This is a complicated one with lots of layers of class, race, gender presentation, and the rest tangled up in it (as I observed in my first thoughts post). But keeping my journal these past three weeks reinforced the fact that there are no spaces in my daily life where I feel the need to self-censor the fact I’m in a lesbian relationship. My colleagues know, my family knows, our friends know, our bank knows, our doctors know. We hold hands on the walk to work, we doze on each others’ shoulders on the T, kiss goodbye when parting at our favorite coffee shops. We’ve never experienced anything stronger than a glare from a random passer-by (and even then, perhaps they were just having a bad day?). I don’t know if it would be different if we lived in West Michigan. I know when we visited Holland last spring I felt comfortable behaving in public the same way we do in Boston — but Hanna points out that I have a talent for ignoring negative vibes. So perhaps if we lived there full-time, we’d have more run-ins with homophobic weirdos. Like I said, I don’t know all the factors at work here — but I’m glad that our social experience has been so positive.
A significant part of my social interactions, particularly around sexuality themes, take place through reading and blogging. There were a number of entries in my journal that began with phrases like, “Received and advance review copy of … on trans* sexuality today” or “Wrote a blog post about forthcoming collection of erotica …” or “Finished writing 3K words of lesbian erotica …”. Outside of my professional writing and reading, a significant portion of my intellectual exploration right now has to do with sexuality — and a lot of that takes place in conversation (see observation one, above) and through reading articles, books, and blog posts, listening to podcasts, and engaging in discussion in comment threads. A lot of this is mutually reinforcing, since the more I read and review work in this area the more likely I am to get offers of advance review copies, virtual book tour requests, and other quasi-professional offers in a similar vein. I welcome these engagements with open arms because it’s stuff I love to talk and think about. I do think it’s note-worthy that I feel comfortable making this a quasi-professional part of my life, and that I feel comfortable pursuing it online in ways that are tied directly and openly to my actual identity.
And, as something that came to me toward the end of my journaling (though I’ve thought about it before), I get something out of existing on the margins of heteronormative society. That is, there are material ways, obviously, that Hanna and I (and our other non-straight friends) experience discrimination based on our sexuality, or relationships, and our gender expression. And I didn’t, obviously, choose to be attracted to Hanna because being in a lesbian relationship would be transgressive. I just desired her. But I made choices about following through on that desire, about building a life with another woman, and part of the reason is that I like living on the cultural* margins. I feel comfortable and energized here. I feel less claustrophobic. I feel like choosing to live my life in some basic, categorical ways that disqualify me from the norm give me freedom from other peoples’ expectations that I will conform to mainstream expectations of femininity, or American middle-class ambition, or heterosexuality. I think (and this is a very tentative hypothesis) that perhaps growing up home-educated, in an era when that was far from mainstream, primed me for feeling most at home in spaces that folks around me considered “weird.” And so I think I gravitate toward people who are willing to think and live outside the boxes. It feels familiar and it feels good to exist in that space.
I think that’s counter-intuitive for a lot of folks, who assume that non-normative relationships and/or a “weird” sexual identity would be cause for anxiety and stress. I remember the transition being somewhat stressful — going from thinking of myself as “mostly straight” to thinking of myself as bi/fluid/lesbian/queer. But it was actually an incredible relief in a lot of ways to feel I had legitimate feelings of attraction that would support moving into queer spaces and identifying that way socially. Because those spaces called out to me as welcoming psycho-social spaces for years before I felt I had enough evidence of my own sexual desire to claim them as my own. I know this sounds kinda backward to many folks for whom sexual orientation/identity works differently or more decisively. But for me, that seems to be path I needed to take.
I meet with Holly this evening to do a follow-up interview, based on my observations in the journal. If any new insights crop up during our conversation I’ll be back with “third thoughts” on this process.
*And I choose the word “cultural” deliberately here because I realize that the aspects of my self and my values which are marginal to the mainstream are largely self-chosen rather than imposed upon me. In terms of my race, my able-bodiedness, my socioeconomic status, etc., I’m far from existing on the material margins of American society.