Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Children Are So Cruel

One of the reasons that I started this blog was to have documentation of my relationship, as a queer adult, with my parents. I hoped that documenting the episodes of our relationship as it changed would give me perspective, and perhaps give others comfort.

There were some pitfalls and minor breakthroughs in encounters and conversations with my parents last year, and yet each of them felt like an echo of something that had happened before. I worried we were going in circles rather than breaking new ground.

I have little interest in circles.

About a week and a half ago on a Sunday, my parents joined Sonia and I for When the Rain Stops Falling (NYT review here).

The visit came about following a series of increasingly bitter emails between my mother and I last winter; after the dust settled, my father asked if they could come for a visit and see a play. It was a tradition I'd instituted in my early days in the city, a way of spending time with them and giving them a little exposure to worlds and ideas beyond what they're used to.

There are no plays in the summertime, so we were able to put it off.

I woke before eight the Sunday they came. Sonia had sprained her ankle, so my original plan was thwarted: a quick tour of the apartment followed by brunch and walking around the city. We adjusted, and I started cooking shortly after nine.

We'd have time between brunch and leaving for the play. I texted my dad to bring his drill. Our apartment walls seemed to be made of granite and I was having trouble getting our curtain rods up. That would give us something to do, and I know my dad enjoys few things more than a practical task involving tools. He was eager to help.

It was a brisk fall day, and I met them in front of our apartment complex, and led them inside. My mother wore purple and a determined smile. Dad was a little uncomfortable in a light suit, which he managed to sweat through before the play. They claimed to be impressed by our apartment building.

I've loved every place I've lived in the city, and my mother has done her best not to criticize them when visiting. The last place, she was most concerned by the stairwell, which she claimed was a fire hazard. It probably was. My parents built their home dream home by the time they were thirty-two; they don't understand choosing to live in an old building.

Most of the places I've lived were built in the early 1900s, which I thought gave them charm. I could also afford them.

My parents took their shoes off dutifully, and offered compliments about the apartment to Sonia and I. My mother even brought a gift wrapped in light green paper: a beautiful, heavy silver tray with a tree pattern. Sonia loves trays -- something about the implied luxury, I think -- but we both liked this one. Dad checked out the whole place; mom avoided the bedroom.

When they come for a play, I'm always torn between choosing something like The Importance of Being Ernest, The Lion King or The Nutcracker, and choosing a play I'd like to see. Every time, I choose what I'd like to see, trying within that to find a play as simply beautiful and non-controversial as possible.

Of course, I love theater most when it pushes my own boundaries. I'm inevitably mortified, sitting next to my father during an explicit sex scene or my mother as someone ticks off the reasons God cannot exist. The only difference this time was that Sonia sat next to me instead. My parents were good sports, despite the cursing and dark themes. I was shaken.

"Parents are so cruel," says one character about his mother's silence. This is a play about the secrets parents keep from their children, the secrets that may be horrible but are never as horrible as the silences that are built up around them.

I knew instinctively that the other line was coming, twenty or thirty minutes later, and it did: "Children are so cruel." It's also a play about children and the expectations we set forth for those who brought us into this world, the godlike expectations that are not fair and cannot be fulfilled.

Ok, I cried. A few times.

I was glad to have Sonia in the seat next to me in the final scene, as a father in the year 2039 handed down mysterious artifacts of his family history to his estranged son in a rare meeting. The artifacts passed through the hands of the ancestors and piled on the lap of a young man looking for answers.

We don't get those answers. They are impossible to know, within all those silences. Who were my parents before I got here? What were their desires and demons? Did they learn anything about life or happiness that could ease my journey?

If asked, my father is quick to point to the importance of family as the central value in his life. My mother would say it's accepting Jesus Christ. I don't mean those lessons, the ones they intentionally pass on. Those lessons are nothing more than their own incomplete stories.

I mean the deeper lessons that they haven't yet been framed or even acknowledged, the stories that arise out of their traumas and silences and wonderings.

Sonia would probably say that parents deserve respect, and it is not our right to ask these kinds of questions or try to see our parents this emotionally naked. She told me recently that I'm not fair to them. When she meets them now, absent years of baggage, they seem like genuinely kind people who are making an effort to understand their daughter.

It doesn't feel good to admit it, but she may be right.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Jenny (Part 3): On Becoming Honest

Jenny and I had beers on her front porch Sunday afternoon, and I realized how much time you have to spend with a person to get a decent interview, to make sure you've covered all your bases and captured at least a little bit of the nuance of their experience. 

Traister argues that even for most straight women, relationships with women are more fulfilling in every way. "So I just felt so lucky," Jenny said, "that I'm also sexually attracted to women, too, because I can get so much more from those relationships -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- than I could with a man."

"I'm generally happier when I'm in a relationship," she'd said the week before. "When I'm happy, it's because my life feels full. It feels like the things I'm doing are honest projections of me, and what I want, and what I want to give to the world."

As a teen, Jenny remembers meeting gay women and feeling an inexplicable admiration for them, an awe for their bravery. She remembers being impressed when any woman -- gay or straight -- was able to present themselves as strong and down-to-earth, in opposition to a culture that wanted them to preen and pluck and perform. 

After she came out, she realized that this admiration came because she knew deep down that she wasn't being brave in the same way.

Now, she knows who she is but still finds LGBTQ labels -- lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer -- spectacularly insufficient.

"Meeting someone new, I say 'gay' because I'm dating a woman, so I feel pretty gay," Jenny said. "I do identify as queer, but I don't say that when I am first meeting people, because they're like, 'well, what is that? What does that mean?' If they don't say that, they're thinking it, and that's almost worse."

Queer, for Jenny, carries with it an acknowledgement of the men and the F-to-M trans people she's crushed on and dated. As she puts it, "It's a little more than just lesbian." Queer also gives her the freedom to embody her own version of the strong and down-to-earth women she's admired. 

Jenny is petite, with a tough and determined walk. I most often see her in straight-legged pants, button-down shirts and dangling earrings. She explained her thinking behind her look. 

"I don't like to portray a whole lot of feminine qualities. I've been cutting my hair shorter and shorter. I have a very strong aversion to portraying myself as super-feminine. I don't want to be masculine, just somewhere in between. The last time I dressed really feminine was Halloween. That felt really right to, only on Halloween, put on a dress."

Five or six years after Jenny first started to settle into her own identity and feel comfortable in her own skin, she met her current partner. They've been together for a little over a year now, and the five year plan involves a child. Jenny hopes it involves her current partner. But marriage? Not necessary.

"I'm not sure that marriage is super-important to me. It's a huge waste of money. I'll have to spend money on having a baby. But yeah, I think in five years I want a kid. Just one. Then I'll get another one in seven years," we laughed.

There was something in our laughter that hoped it would be that easy for her to become a mother.

At least some of the confidence and excitement around this vision -- of a child and family, in a few short years -- comes from her current girlfriend.
My relationship has made me feel more fulfilled. Sometimes, I'm overwhelmed by that feeling of being fulfilled, but I feel that I could be with her for a long time and never get bored. She makes me feel confident in myself. I can bounce ideas. She's a question-asker who challenges me without making me feel stupid. 
I feel better matched in my relationship than I ever have, in terms of us being able to talk about anything. She's the first person I've dated who I can see a really long-term future with. In the past, I have been terrified of settling for something that's not right for me, or getting stuck in something, but that has nothing to do with being gay.
Maybe there's a key in there to gay happiness, or to what Jenny called "grown-up happy": learning to separate the trials and dramas of life, the hang-ups and heartbreaks, from our sexuality. Or at very least, to not blame our sexuality -- or bigots' response to it -- for the challenges we face.

Few people lead truly charmed lives. Gay or straight, everyone has their inner and outer demons to face. We're all just working towards being, in Jenny's words, honest projections of ourselves and what we want to give to the world.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Jenny (Part 2): Technology as a Practice Forum

As a member of the Oregon Trail Generation, Jenny came of age alongside technology. We have similar memories of this: chatting via AOL in middle school, discovering music via Myspace in high school and stealing it via Napster in college.

She described that feeling of entering her first chatrooms as a painfully shy middle school student.

"It was the first feeling of being anonymous," she said, "which gave me the freedom to say helped me learn that I could say whatever and it won't be shot down."

Today, school kids are identifying 100% with their online profiles, and cyber bullying carries all of the drama and danger of face-to-face bullying, so I wonder how many young people today discover this feeling of anonymity. When technology first emerged, it was everything.

Jenny remembered her AIM chats with her first (male) crushes, and how she used technology to make friends senior year of high school at Interlochen Arts Academy.
At Interlochen -- again I was really shy, really self-conscious -- I started a Live Journal, which was like the first blog. A lot of us had them, and I ended up making friends through that, that I was having trouble making just in the world...We had this whole interconnected thing. Because I was so shy, people didn't know me very well, but they got to know me more through my Live Journal. Then, I ended up dating one of the people who I'd connected to on Live Journal. He was a male who, shortly after dating me, came out. And I took many more years. 
Jenny described Live Journal as a Facebook-like platform in which you have a network of people, and keep a journal. You could share your journal with the public, keep it to your friend network or make it completely private. I was surprised to find that Live Journal is still around.

Her description of Live Journal, and how it worked for her, made me think of how I'm branding this blog. Although I'm sharing the blog with friends and family and even a few colleagues, my name isn't on it.

I can explore this writing voice and connect to readers and like-minded writers, all in a relatively anonymous setting, thanks to technology. In a year or two -- if it continues to feel satisfying and vital -- I'll find a way to weave together my current education-focused brand with Gay Happiness. But right now, the task is simple: write.

When Jenny first came out, she went immediately to OKCupid, but the way that she branded herself on her profile changed significantly in a very short time.

"I wasn't very popular on there right away," she said. "I was like, 'I'm not sure if I'm gay. I'm pretty sure, but I just want to date some women.' I don't think anyone wants to read that!"

In those first iterations of her profile, Jenny was trying to be as honest as possible. "I identified as bi," she said. "That lasted for about a year, and I changed it gay. After I realized that no one was going to date me if I seemed so unsure, I got rid of all that."

And that's the luxury of platforms like OKCupid. You're name isn't attached to it. You're free to change your identity daily with little to no consequences. You can experiment, see what feels right. Sometimes, you even feel like you're leveling up.

"There was a question on OKCupid," Jenny said, "'Have you ever had a girlfriend or same-sex partner?' For a while, the answer had to be, 'no.' Then when the answer was 'yes,' I felt so great!"

From her first curious flirtations with gay boys in high school, to embracing her own gay identity in her twenties, technology was pivotal every step of the way.

"Technology has helped me be more comfortable in was this practice forum where I could be a more honest, less shy version of who I was...It would have been much slower for me to get comfortable with myself without technology."

And that's why we're lucky, the Oregon Trail Generation and everyone who came after. Relationships, identity and our future's course have been taken out of the domain of stuffy living rooms and parent chaperones. 

Increasingly, young people have the chance to explore what they want their own future to look like in a forum that is safe from ridicule. And thanks to the Internet, there are more and more stories of gay happiness for these young people to stumble upon and see: it really does get better. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Jenny (Part 1): Grown-up Happy

Monday night, in a walk through West Philadelphia, Jenny called herself "grown-up happy." It's not the giddy happiness of our first relationships or the inspired happiness of a newly discovered art form. There are fewer firsts, but greater calm. Occasional satisfaction.

Jenny and I met on OKCupid in our mid-twenties. We were both new to any kind of gay community and ready to get out there. I'd already suffered my first major heartbreak with a woman but would date men again; Jenny had just broken up with her boyfriend of two years because she was gay. 

Romance was never in the cards. We both needed a like-minded friend more than we needed anything else. We hung out weekly in those early years, and the friendship blossomed into one of my closest adult friendships. Before Sonia and I moved in together, Jenny and I lived together for a year. 

She agreed to be my first blog interview. After seven years, I still had plenty to learn.

Last Friday, I arrived at Jenny's third-floor apartment and we settled at her circular, dinette table -- the one I'd left behind when I moved out. She prepared a peanut butter treat for her white pit bull mix, Snow, so the dog would leave us in peace.

We'd shared dozens of meals over the same table but this felt different, more formal. We started with religion, family and community.

Religion played a peripheral role in Jenny's experience of being a gay person in the world. Although her mother's family was secularly Jewish and her father's family Christian, Jenny said, "both parents explained it: people who believe in God are silly, and God doesn't exist."

Easy enough. Or not.

Even being religion-adjacent can be tough for LGBT people. The atheists have an easier time with it, but even atheist parents are still parents. 

Jenny explained, "My mom, who grew up atheist, her uncle came out as gay back in the 70s. She and her parents had already gone through this. But she was very adamant that she know -- 'you can't be bi, you can't be questioning' -- she needed to know, 'because I need to know what your future is going to look like.' Besides that, she was very accepting."

The Christianity on the other side of the family was a little tougher to navigate. 
My dad didn't really believe me for a while. He wanted me to go to therapy. He wouldn't let me tell his family, and that's where the religion part plays in. He thought his dad would view it as this moral dilemma -- either disown your granddaughter or accept something that you completely disagree with and hate. So he basically said, "Don't tell him until you're going to marry a woman." In his mind he was thinking [my grandfather would] be dead before that would happen. 
When I finally did tell [that side of the family], I was in my first long-term relationship with a woman and I wanted to bring her to my cousin's wedding. I told my cousin, and asked her what my grandfather would think. She [disagreed with my dad], and she was right. 
My grandfather took a few days to respond to my email and said, "this isn't what I would have wanted for you, but I still love you and accept you." Even now, if I'm single, he'll ask me if I'm going to date a man. I'm glad he'll say things like that rather than just not talk about it at all. 
I certainly felt this huge weight lifted once I was able to come out to that side of the family...I was watching my cousins get married and have babies, and to their knowledge I hadn't dated anyone in years. That was so weird and dishonest, so once that didn't have to be the case, I felt so much better.
Whatever chosen family and communities we can build up around ourselves as gay people, there is no denying the import of the love and acceptance of our family of origin.

Despite her religion-adjacent traumas with religion in her extended family, Jenny explored her own spirituality in different ways throughout her life.

"When I was a teenager, I started going to synagogue with my best friend. I connected a lot to her family's ritual around Judaism, and the community that they had around Judaism, and how it brought so much warmth to their lives." 

What if these were our standards for religious communities: warmth, inclusivity, richness and support? 

Jenny's personal spirituality matured when, in her mid- to late-twenties, she worked in hospice as a music therapist. Despite her resilient personality, I remember sitting across from her those years -- usually on someone's porch with beer or wine in-hand -- and noticing a new weight and intention in her approach to daily life. 

It's not easy to be around death all the time, even if the dying are older folks who led long and relatively healthy lives. Not all of Jenny's clients were that lucky, though. There were too many rough days without a supportive supervisor or administration. She had to find the answers for herself. 

"What I realized then was that music was my larger-than-self form of expression and form of connecting," she said. "I was very attached to music since I was five, so maybe there was always a part of me that was using music [to connect to spirituality] without even realizing it." 

I learned a few things through this first interview, and I'm so grateful I could run this experiment with one of my dearest friends. I learned that transcribing an interview takes a hell of a lot of time, and that I need to ask interviewees to trust me, rather than offer to let them read the post ahead of time. There's an urgency to blogging that will keep me engaged, and I lost it for a moment this week. 

Strangely, this interview with Jenny felt more like our first intimate conversations than it did our more recent, more comfortable friendship. The stakes were higher: to listen carefully, guide the conversation in a worthwhile direction and be true to her words. I'm grateful she's a key part of my community. 

Jenny's also been thinking a little bit about her communities lately, those she shares with her girlfriend and those they navigate separately.

"Moving to West Philly in the past year or two," she said, "I've developed a really strong queer community. I go to a party with some of these people, and the minority of people are straight couples. When I was first coming out, this was the kind of community I craved. It took years for me to find it, and now it feels so normal and so good. It helps me to interact more openly and honestly in my other communities."

From our first times dipping our toe into the pool, nodding across the bar and whispering to one another, "do you think she's gay?", to our now mostly-LGBTQ friend groups, Jenny and I ran toward queer adulthood arm-in-arm. I couldn't have asked for more thoughtful or kind partner in crime.

Perhaps because of that, there's a lot more interview to share. Stay tuned for Part 2.