We arrive in this world with birthright gifts--then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.
Amen, Parker Palmer! Soon I will marry the love of my life. My partner is an amazing human being, full of "birthright gifts." I feel blessed at the possibility of sharing the remainder of our lives together and publicly making a commitment to our relationship with friends and family encircling us. My love and gratitude for this person is what makes my growing dis-ease with our upcoming wedding so painful. I have needed to do a bit of digging to figure out what is going on. It turns out that looking backward has helped me to understand the present, particularly its trappings. To borrow from William Bridges, "Journeys, unlike point-to-point trips, have a way of doubling back on themselves so that you find yourself dealing again and at another level with issues you thought you had left behind."
Almost eight years ago, I began to identify as queer. At the time, this decision was professional, political, and personal. As an academic, I had long been drawn to the "queer theory" found in the pages of books like Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands. Although she and I had vastly different life experiences and ancestral histories, her words offered me a glove into which I could slide--without kicking and screaming--and still breathe. As a politically active feminist and educator, "queer" made sense to me. At that point, I had spent most of my life following heteronormative rules. Having recently entered into a significant relationship with a woman, I found that "straight" no longer applied but "lesbian" did not either. Queer seemed to be a "slot" with enough space for my lived experience. On a personal level, "queer" opened up all kinds of possibilities for ways of being in this world. Although I was using the term primarily to describe my sexual identity, I found it freed me up in other areas of my life, where "images of acceptability" had overshadowed other dreams and distorted my "original shape." I began to use queer as a verb. I queered my dissertation. I queered my understanding of family. But mostly, I queered my sense of what it means to be a woman.
Words cannot do justice to the experience of using "queer" as a tool to peel off the layers of expectations in pursuit of my birthright gifts. I invested so much time and energy in my childhood, adolescence, and young adult life trying to mold myself to surrounding expectations of beauty and dominant notions of "femininity." As a young kid, I was precocious. I had things to say--observations to share, feelings to express, perceptions of the world about which I wanted to dialogue with somebody. But I seemed to keep violating so many rules! In a heartbeat, my curiosity seemed to morph into accusations of being "impolite," "unladylike," "inappropriate." So the silence began to wash in, as a kind of protective cape at first. Unfortunately, its delicate threads became a woolen blanket, smothering a sense that my original shape included a strong voice with the power to cultivate and share insights. Like so many young women I encounter today, I frequently ended sentences with, "I'm sorry," or, "I don't know," as if taking up space in the world as a thinking, speaking human being was a violation.
As for my body, I starved it. Stuffed it. Poisoned it. Consistently glared at it with disgust in the mirror. What is still embarrassing to talk about now is how much I came to despise my skin and the lengths to which I went to transform it. It is pale and freckled and sensitive. As a child, I did not see models of beauty anywhere that included it. The beautiful ones in my whitewashed suburban community had olive complexions. I do not remember how many times I burned my fair skin, trying to approximate that distant beauty. So I could be seen--so I could see myself--as lovely. And loveable.
The philosophy of queerness allowed me to begin removing all these unwanted deposits of shame and judgment. For the first time in my adult life, I began to appreciate my body and all that it allowed me to do in the world. I gained confidence in my ability put words on a page that someone else might actually want to read. Ultimately, I finished a dissertation that felt like a genuine accomplishment because connecting with others in an inquiry process nourished me. I had an image of radical acceptance tattooed on my skin to remind myself I could choose not to abandon my birthright gifts. I stopped betraying myself for the approval of others at every turn and began to see my "true self" could offer me the comfort and solace I thought I could only receive from others.
Brene Brown wrote, "What we know matters, but who we are matters more." I absolutely believe that coming home to myself--my true self--allowed me to meet my life partner and our relationship to stick, as I arrived at a place where I allowed myself to be seen, vulnerabilities and all. So I was surprised when several old deformations of my original shape reappeared upon deciding to make a lifetime commitment to this person and our relationship. I felt ugly. Unacceptable. Inadequate.
To understand this reemerging self-betrayal, I began paying attention to the barrage of external messages I was receiving. The incessant pop-up ads on my computer that, alerted to my recent engagement, tried to sell me every kind of product imaginable in the service of making me a perfect "bride." More painfully, the primary question I received upon encountering people I know was, "How's the wedding planning going?" despite my recent completion of a master's degree and the exciting new beginning of a career pathway. All at once, "bride" seemed to eclipse every other slot, and I was having a hard time digging through the incessant chatter about white dresses, good hair, and svelte bodies to the selfhood I worked so hard to uncover.
I remain grateful for compassionate friends, mindfulness practices, and Chrys Ingraham's searing critique, White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, which helped me to establish protective boundaries, thereby keeping insidious social pressures at a safer distance. These words by Ingraham particularly hit home:
White weddings, while important in themselves, are a concentrated site for the operation and reproduction of organized heterosexuality. More so than other prominent heterosexual practices and rituals, e.g. dating, proms, and engagements, weddings are culturally pervasive, symbolically prolific, and are rarely questioned or examined. Yet, they are so taken for granted they seem naturally occurring and function to naturalize a host of heterosexual behaviors that are, in fact, socially produced. In other words, one is not born a bride or with the desire to become a bride yet we have an abundance of evidence that shows that many people believe otherwise. But that's putting the bride before the fairy tale! From the moment we enter the world, culture works to install meaning systems about everything from sex to gender to social class to ethnicity to sexual identity. Heterosexuality, whether naturally occurring or chosen, is organized by those meanings.
As I continue to grow and work with others who are trying to recover their original shapes, I aspire to promote Palmer's message of courage and renewal. I do not think we can come back to our wholeness until we begin to see clearly the deforming social messages not of our own making, cultivate support networks committed to discerning our selfhood, and actively practice the feeding of our true selves. As for disrupting the sexism, racism, heterosexism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression that distort and destroy so many lives, I do not believe we have to fit into a narrowly conceived "activist" slot to effect change since we often unwittingly contribute to harmful expectations via our moment-to-moment actions, thoughts and emotions. As Julia Serano argued, "the one thing that all forms of sexism share...is that they all begin with placing assumptions and value judgments onto other people's gendered bodies and behaviors." I for one can get behind new social beginnings that involve suspending assumptions and judgments so as to clearly discern others' and our own birthright gifts.
On my wedding day, I will be wearing a dress. It will be turquoise.