What it feels like to find identity

I wrote this piece for a spoken word event hosted by Marbles Magazine in October. As it hasn’t been published anywhere I thought I’d toss it up here. 

I grew up on the linguistically undifferentiated western coast of the United States, the only child of white, agnostic, middle-class anglophone parents. Mom and Dad are transplants: they in their turn grew up in Britain and the Midwest, respectively: the only cultural legacy they might conceivably have bestowed on me is a penchant for bland food, and even this legacy, thank god, I managed to avoid.

I grew up without learning Spanish in a mostly Spanish-speaking city–for some reason I decided to take Japanese in high school and my parents, ever-indulgent, let me. I had few white friends growing up, and my closest living relatives, apart from my parents, were in Chicago.

I’m not complaining about any of this, by any means (except perhaps not learning Spanish). Santa Ana is a wonderful place to live and grow up, and I was mostly happy as a child and mostly accepted by my little group of social outcasts. When I think about how–had my parents been able to afford it–I might have grown up twenty minutes to the south, in posh Newport Beach, or ten minutes west, in bland Tustin, I do shudder a little.

But what all this means is that I’m about as close to ‘identityless’ as you can get. I might as well have been grown in a lab, an attempt by an evil scientist to eliminate all possible differentiating variables.

But there was something the evil scientist failed to account for, and that is that I’m super, super queer. I’d known in one way or another that I was probably gay for some time, but where I grew up it was odd enough to win me entry to my high school’s resident ‘social misfit’ club, but not quite so aberrant as to get swirlied, pantsed or shut in a locker.

 

Almost by definition, gender and sexuality are things that are explored only after one’s childhood, as it were, is over. It shouldn’t be this way, but our society tends to frown upon exposing children to anything outside the heterosexual, cisgender norm, to anything that might give them a mirror, or make their own budding identity feel real, legitimate, or accepted.

So it wasn’t until university that I found out trans people were even a thing, that I didn’t need to identify as male or female, that I could like girls, or boys, or both, or neither. Of course I knew these facts intellectually, intuitively, but I’d never heard queer identities–my identities–discussed openly, called what they were.

When I got to university I was given a whole new vocabulary. All of a sudden, I was part of a Community. I was surrounded by people who were like me, with whom I could talk about things I’d never talked about with anyone before. We shared something more important than just geography or language or the colour of our skin.

It’s difficult to describe the release that those realisations represent. I willingly risk cliche to say that it was like coming home. When I think of how unanchored, how aimless I’d likely be without these identities I get uneasy. How would I know my place in the world, know myself, without ‘queer’, ‘nonbinary’, ‘asexual’?

It’s been no picnic, believe me: I’ve been mocked, alienated, depressed, anxious, chased out of dressing rooms and interrogated by public officials. But for all the heartache and confusion and existential terror, of being a thing your language has no language for, I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

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