Gay Junk

The gayest road in Reykjavík, where I’m currently doing a writer’s residency

Last June I tabled at a Pride event with my husband. This might sound strange to hear, but he and I are both queer. Gay, if you like, though we’re gay for each other too. 

The event was hosted by the South Street Art Mart, a shop that carries my books and zines. For a few years now the owners of the store, Nicole and Nicole, have been kind, supportive friends to me, and being a part of the community they’ve created went a long way in helping me feel safe to finally, after all these years, come out—first to myself, and then to other people. It meant a great deal to me to be included in their Pride festivities: my books in the front window alongside work by other queer artists, me and my table out in front of the shop one Friday afternoon in June.

Things meaning a lot to me usually manifests as getting really nervous and putting a lot of thought into my outfit, and this occasion was no different. If you’re curious, I wore my dark denim A-line skirt with a little bitty black crop top and chunky black shoes, which is a summer outfit I consider makes me look both cute and tough. I also wore my beloved dragon pendant, privately referred to as DT or Dragon Tits because of where it lands on my chest, because I always wear it when I need extra protection. The dragon is curled around on herself in a circle, sleeping and looking pretty, but ready to leap to my defense at the first sign of trouble.

There was no trouble, though. Tabling at Pride—for it is a verb, to table—was life affirming and sweet. Joe and I arranged our books, tapes, and zines on the table, two perpetual kids with a lemonade stand, and friendly people from the shops nearby came out to smoke cigarettes, shoot the breeze, and buy our stuff. A good number of our friends surprised us by stopping by too. One adorable human from the daycare up the street chatted with us for awhile, making us laugh with charming and somewhat horrifying childcare stories, and bought some zines. When I looked at Venmo later that day, I saw the note they’d left to indicate what the money was for: “gay junk.” In some not-so-small way, it made me feel like a part of the club.

That was my first Pride as an out queer-bisexual-whatever person, and here it is, a whole year later, Pride Month again. I find anniversaries to be useful, and this one has helped me see how much my understanding of myself has deepened over the past year. I mean, I was happy and relieved and proud to come out last June, but it didn’t necessarily feel that good to do. I was scared and uncertain about what, if anything, it might mean to ask people to start thinking about me differently, especially since doing so came with the assumption that they bothered to think of me at all, which is something I’ve never been entirely willing to believe. Talking about my sex life, however obliquely, felt weird too. The whole thing has taken some getting used to, but as I now see, coming out isn’t something you do just once anyway. It’s a process, baby, and I am letting it unfold. 

For instance, at some point last year—even before I “officially” came out—I got brave and changed the bio on my website to add gender and queer stuff to the list of topics I most often write about because, well, it’s true. It’s always been true. There’s a certain power in pointing it out, though. In claiming it. All year long I’ve carried my little backpack purse with a beautiful pride flag pinned near the top, the one I bought at the Art Mart, wondering if people noticed it as I walked away, hoping they did.

It turns out that the people I’ve needed to see me, have. Chosen family is a big deal for queer people, and it always seemed so wonderful to me, the idea of belonging to people that way, not by chance or obligation but by intention. I thought I didn’t deserve to claim this kind of community, to go looking for it, but when I started feeling brave enough to tell my people, one at a time, that I’m queer, actually, I looked around and saw that I already have it. I’ve already chosen the people who matter to me, and for the first time I can see, with a feeling of deep gratitude that does not come easily to me, that they choose me, too. My friends, most of whom are gay and queer, have so easily accepted this thing about me that we’ve hardly needed to talk about it at all. Unless, you know, I wanted to. I can’t tell you what a big deal it not being that big of a deal is. It turns out that “taking up space,” to use one of my therapist’s favorite turns of phrase—to finally accept that however I am right now is honestly just fine—makes me feel a kind of safe that I’ve never felt before. I can feel it in my body right now, that safeness, in my arms and across my chest, a warmth and a sensation of light constriction, almost like being held. 

So yeah. I’ve only been out for a short time, but of course I’ve been queer all this time down deep in my gay little heart, and I’ve always read a lot of queer writing of different kinds. I thought I’d tell you about the most recent gay junk I’ve read since it’s helped me on my path, which I’m happy to say has been long and winding and full of surprises. 

Mylxine #20. Erica Dawn Lyle is a musician and writer who, as the creator of Scam zine, I’ve admired for a long time. Now she’s more famous for playing guitar in Bikini Kill (!), and she’s an out transwoman. Scott, who’s been doing Mylxine since 1995, interviewed Erica at length for issue number 20, and she talked with a ton of insight and sensitivity about her early life and the things that led her to a deeper understanding of her queerness. She also talks about childhood trauma and addiction. I’ve read the interview a few times and I find it so instructive and deep. The idea that stands out to me as being the most useful is something Erica said about questioning being central to the experience of queerness. This opened up for me the possibility that I might never stop feeling uncertain about who I am and what I want, and that this is okay … and might even be something to enjoy.

Bi All Means is a stylish and posi anthology of art and writing by bisexual people that I found on Instagram. Its creator, Julia, runs the Munich Zine Library, a queer feminist zine library out of Germany, and a few of the pieces in this zine are in German. The rest are in English. They all bravely claim an identity that has often been minimized and maligned, and share stories of both triumph and disappointment. I recommend it, especially to people who are newly exploring their sexual identities. 

Pretend I’m Dead and Vacuum in the Dark, by Jen Beagin. These two dark, funny novels both feature the same protagonist, Mona, a cleaning lady with a truckload of a trauma. We’re happy to follow along on her misadventures because she’s smart, unusual, and on her way to becoming a serious artist whether she realizes it or not. She’s also into both guys and girls, which we know because we’re privy to her pervy imagination, and because she addresses it directly, just once, in a conversation with a housecleaning client who she’s joined for a cigarette break: 

“Can I ask you a personal questions?” Lena said.

“Sure,” Mona said.

“Are you straight or gay?” Lena asked. 

Mona blew smoke toward the sky. “Neither. Or both.”

“Ah,” Lena said.

“Why do you ask?”

“A few years ago, my daughter left her fiancé for a woman,” Lena said. “An older woman she met at a coffee shop. They ran away together. I never knew she had it in her to do something like that. She’d always been so boy-crazy.”

“There’s a place between straight and gay,” Mona said, “and it’s a very real place, but most people think it’s an imaginary place. Some fake, slutty island or amusement park.”

Lena smiled. “I don’t think that.”

“Right,” Mona said. “But there’s a stigma. I’ve never liked being labeled bisexual—in fact, I can barely bring myself to say the word.”

“Maybe you should give it your own name,” Lena said.

“Sometimes I tell people I’m part fruit,” Mona said. “I mean, if it comes up. It’s like being part Spanish or whatever.”

There was a silence.

“Which fruit?” Lena asked, and smiled.

“Lime,” Mona said flatly. “I’m part lime.”

“You sound bitter,” Lena said. “Which I love.”

Healing Your Magical Body: Crystal Quartz, by Jo-Jo Sherrow. This one isn’t gay, but it is queer, if you feel me. Author Jo-Jo, a longtime zine buddy of mine, includes in this zine a section on what she calls Wrong Planet Syndrome. She shares that she has often felt lonely and even like she doesn’t belong on this planet, and she lists a few kinds of people who might have experienced the same feeling, including those who are queer in their gender or sexual orientation. It resonated with me deeply. Jo-Jo’s conclusion, after doing lots of spiritual work and self-reflection, is that we all have a place; we belong here, right where we are. We’re all called to a specific purpose. I think I’ll hold onto that idea and try to remember it the next time I need it, which should be any minute now.

Queering Your Craft, by Cassandra Snow. I’ve read a lot of books on witchcraft, but rarely—if ever—have I sat down to read one of them with a highlighter in my hand. This book inspired me to do that. There are just so many ways in which I feel seen by this writer. She refers frequently to healing from different kinds of trauma, and she doesn’t assume she knows how her readers feel about anything (though she’s sensitive enough to make some darn good guesses), and in so doing she makes this book a place I can return to and feel safe. With great warmth and tenderness for her queer audience, Snow affirms that a practice of witchcraft is really a practice of love, for ourselves and each other:

“Proper self-care is also important for your craft and is especially important for queer people, disabled people, trauma survivors, and people of color trying to survive the systems that drove us to the margins in the first place. Pleasure is resistance. Self-care is resistance. Period. It feels like it’s not important, but what you’re doing when you’re taking care of yourself is telling those that do not love or support you that you are fine without them.”

She also acknowledges that many amongst us may have been harmed by religion in the past, which can make connecting to the divine feel very difficult, even for people who hear a call to a spiritual path. She coaxes us along gently: “If you try a prayer to the Earth, a god, your ancestors, the Universe, love, and it doesn’t work, if your inner critic comes out or your trauma screams “wrong,” that’s okay. Step away for a few minutes. You’ll get there. Try easing into it slowly. A quick prayer that is literately just “thank you” when you get unexpected luck or a despairing “please help” when you’re feeling your absolute worst is enough. The intention is clear. The Divine is listening. You’ll grow slowly from there.”

No, it don’t feel right

Looks like it was also used as the cover of Poems of Laughter & Violence, one of his zillions of volumes of poetry. The photo is by Eugene Doyen.

Lately the idea of—the fact of—emotional repression is popping everywhere I look. It’s something I’ve been doing some hard work on recently, learning to feel and name my emotions and not hate them and not be too scared to express them to another person—but the more awareness I have of this, the more I realize how common this problem is.

For instance. I wanted to tell you about this book I’ve been reading, an old RE/Search book from 1991 called Angry Women. The RE/Search books contained long-form interviews with fascinating artists of different kinds; some of my favorite people in the world have been profiled and probed in those books. I’ve got a framed picture on a shelf of the one and only Billy Childish, standing with Tracey Emin (his ex lover who went on to make a career out of more or less making fun of him) in a kitchen. It looks like a snapshot taken at a party in someone’s house, in the middle of some joke that’s making them both laugh. She’s wearing a 40s-style halter-tie bathing suit as a dress and he’s smoking a cigarette and smiling with his eyes. Point is, the photo is on the back cover of a RE/Search book that included an interview with Childish, and I loved the picture so much I tore the cover off the book and stuck it in a frame. 

A few months ago I ordered this Angry Women book from my friend Karen who runs an excellent secondhand books business, knowing it was the kind of book that would have made a massive impression on me if I’d read it as a young woman when it first came out. Sure enough, it’s packed full of enough ideas, photos, and inspiration that I think I’ll be carrying it around with me and picking through it for some time to come. One of the conversations is with the writer Sapphire from before she published her devastating novel Push, which inspired a bidding war and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, when she was still an underground poet whose “uncompromising writings deserve much wider publication,” as the RE/Search editors put it. The poem they reproduced alongside her interview, “Mickey Mouse Was a Scorpio,” which describes childhood sexual abuse, is so blistering it will melt the hair off your head, but in this context it feels like a natural extension of the zero-bullshit interview she gave, in which she aired dark family secrets that the people in her family still actively denied. 

(It’s superficial and me-centric, I guess, but I feel so proud and pleased to look at the pictures of Sapphire in this book and see that I have a long black dress and a wire-wrapped quartz necklace just like she wore here, in 1991. Like, Sapphire saved her own life with her art and her bravery, you know? And maybe in some small way I am like her. I like the thought of that.)

My scan of a photo of Sapphire from the book (photo credit: Chris Buck)

But yeah, the most refreshing— and frankly useful, even life-giving—thing about these artist interviews is their emotional honesty. I’ve always needed this from art: Songs, stories, poems, and essays in which the creator tells me just exactly how they feel. It gives me life. And yet talking about my own feelings can sometimes feel impossible to me. The word feelings, the word emotions: These have felt like such embarrassing things to say. Isn’t it loserish to be sloppy like that? Aren’t me and my big brain above that sort of thing? As I come to recognize this kind of thinking as a problem, I’m also realizing that I didn’t come by it naturally. It was passed on to me and has been reinforced on many levels, and it has hurt me badly, at times even sapped my life-force. And you know how that makes me feel? PISSED!

When you learn a new word, it has a way of showing up everywhere all of a sudden, as if for the first time. Similarly, when I opened the book just now to see which artists I wanted to tell you about, what did I see but this big pull quote from the performance artist and writer Karen Finley on heart v. brain:

“That’s the ‘male’* way of dealing with suffering: ‘thinking’ about it instead of feeling it. And my way is to feel it, acknowledge it. As a culture we kind of have the thinking part down pat, but not the feeling…”

It’s true, I think. (I feel that it’s true. Ha.) As a society, we really have a hard time feeling our feelings and not hating ourselves, or other people, for having them. Intellectualizing them is easier for a lot of people, as it takes the edge off the discomfort and pain—and doing so is often rewarded socially, while showing an honest emotion might well get you shamed or mocked right out the door.

Intellectualizing is one of those things that sounds kinda good but really isn’t, like perfectionism. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a creative type brag about being a perfectionist, as if it’s a good thing to be so afraid of making a mistake that you never let a piece of work out into the world or even start working on it in the first place. It’s really just more fear: Fear of messy human stuff, like emotions and missteps and having an outburst when you were trying so hard to be polite. If your idea of being polite is never saying how you really feel because you’re “expected to sit and take some lesser man’s shit” (thanks Kevin Barnes), then cut it out! Name those feelings and get ’em out there!

*The conversations in this book are a little heavy on the gender binary approach so prevalent in 3rd-wave feminism, except for when the queer artists are talking. For instance, a performance artist and playwright named Holly Hughes, who I’d never heard of before I read this interview with her, talks about her public identity always being tied to her identity as a lesbian, and how reductive that can be for an artist when they are trying to express a range of ideas and feelings, including more “universal” life experiences, like her waitress job at Red Lobster. Andrea Juno, the editor who conducted most of the interviews in the book, says to Hughes, “It’s a trap for women to think they’re that separate. If you start defining what you ‘are,’ you start getting so many exceptions that any argument can be whittled down. Actually, there’s nothing you can say that women are, that men aren’t (and vice versa).”

The other side of that moving window

Let’s get this out of the way: I am something of an Ali Liebegott superfan. It started 13 years ago with The IHOP Papers, her novel about a lovesick lesbian waitress named Francesca that I read almost straight through one hot summer afternoon while I sat at my desk. It’s a wonderful book—heartbroken and messy, packed with arresting images, so funny it hurts. Her next novel, Cha-Ching!, addressed the subject of addiction, and though the main character in that one was more mature, she was still just as tough and funny as I needed her to be. “She’d … always wanted to make a mood ring for alcoholics—the rainbow of colors could translate into words like lonely, and sorry, and marry me.”

Back around the time The IHOP Papers came out, I was poking around the zine section of Bluestockings Bookstore in the Lower East Side when I found an unassuming photocopied zine with Liebegott’s name on it. In my mind the writer was already famous, and I was stunned. Ali Liebegott still makes zines? Not only that, but she’d signed and numbered it; my copy, which I still have, is number 40 of 50. (To sign it she’d crossed out the typewritten “© 2007 Ali Liebegott” and scribbled her signature and an xoxo, which was a very ziney thing to do.) That little booklet held a couple of short pieces, excerpted from a longer work, about sex, suicide, and her dog. It was called The Summer of Dead Birds.

Continue reading my review of The Summer of Dead Birds at Utne