Sunday, October 07, 2018

queering the texts through which we stumble

1. barnacles

“Every time I work directly with students, it helps me do my job better.”

I say this a lot, to myself and others, but there’s a part of me that believes anything that’s too much fun, or too meaningful, must not be my actual job. I had a very vegetables-first upbringing. That analogy doesn’t work, though, because my point here is that candy is nutritious.

As I was packing up to leave the office on Wednesday, Cathy, our Field Trips Coordinator, asked if anyone present had Barnacle experience.

Mr. and Mrs. Barnacle are the fictional husband-wife team who run the publishing house inside each 826 location. When elementary school students file in, the day’s field trip leaders explain that one of their bosses is so nice! Always knitting sweaters for penguins, etc. The other is, well, kind of grumpy. But no worries, that Barnacle is out today.


Then Mr. or Mrs. Barnacle (depending who is playing the curmudgeonly publisher that day) comes booming through the loudspeaker, threatening to fire their hardworking employees for writing such dull tomes as Watching Paint Dry and Eating an Apple.

I had no Barnacle experience, but I was the most available of those present on Wednesday night, and so I agreed to step in for Thursday’s field trip, imagining myself as the understudy heroine in a backstage musical. This would be my accidental big break!

And you guys, it kind of was (except for the part where my life changes substantively as a result).

Kenny, our previous Field Trips Coordinator, said it helped to have a motif, so I decided my Mrs. Barnacle would be a perpetually dissatisfied boss, tragically oblivious to the stunning and generous feats of her exotic pets. Her dog bought her a half-birthday present? Pshh, it was turquoise, when he knows her favorite color is teal. Her giraffe made her macaroni and cheese? Who cares, it had breadcrumbs. Yuck.

The second graders from Gabriella Charter School were a generous audience, and by the time they broke for lunch, I was on a high.

2. glitter and warts

My second performance of the night was with a handful of Foglifter writers, at Akbar, as part of the Lambda Literary Festival. Just as my 21-year-old self would be shocked and saddened to learn that I no longer attend musicals regularly, my 32-year-old self would be shocked and saddened to learn that I don’t go to literary readings regularly. I used to go to so many that it became a bit of a slog at times. I guess the good news is that going to a reading every five or six months makes them much sweeter.

Miah—grad school friend, brilliant writer, badass activist, Foglifter editor—asked five writers to read on the topic of “Queer Sweet Home,” whatever that meant to us. The obvious fit for me was an excerpt from this piece, about my house privilege and the intersections in a neighborhood of immigrants and transplants.

I imagined a Q&A in which I would be called to task for said privilege, for my whiteness, for my failure to be a truly positive force in my neighborhood. I would stand there and take it, because shame is a small price to pay for middle-class subsidized housing, right?

I texted AK: I’m going to try to just own it. I’ll own it like the landed gentry owns land.

I imagined myself adding, during the Q&A in my head, the complicated defense I work through every day: Listen, I know that maybe the most helpful thing a white person can do is, like, move to the suburban Midwest? But I’m queer, and my family isn’t white. Those other parts of the country don’t feel so welcoming. We have friends flooding out of the city for more affordable places, but it doesn’t feel like a very real option. At the same time, I know it’s only my class privilege that makes staying comfortably in L.A. an option.


But when I read about our eccentric neighbors, the Akbar audience laughed. Some of this is a function of reading live—people like to laugh with other people. But I also think it’s a function of queerness. Yes, social justice, but for centuries before we were allowed to demand rights, and occasionally squeezed by the narrow if fascinating pathways of intersectionality, we survived by being subversive. By seeing humor and oddity in hegemony.

Linda Ravenswood (a new favorite of mine, for sure) read fierce poems about pop culture and her own family’s relationship to property. She said re: my work, “Girl, I wouldn’t be ambivalent if someone offered me a house. I would be like, give it to me.

I felt like she might have taken something from what I read that I didn’t intend, but in a way that liberated me. I felt like to be queer, to queer the texts through which we all stumble, is to free ourselves from the narratives of privilege and lack-of. That might be the sort of thing that only a privileged person would say, or it might be the most radical act of all. Both?


Claudia Rodriguez, another grad school buddy, read bold, vulnerable, hilarious poems about BDSM and butch identity. How do I describe her writing? She grew up in Compton and is fluent in academia. She has a vibe I recognized in a lot of the homies I met at Homeboy, though her content and language are different. It’s like an ability to puff up and perform while simultaneously laughing at the performance. It’s playful and honest.

Terry Wolverton read a piece about her grandmother burning her grandfather’s home to the ground. Yuska Lufti Tuanakotta read a sweet and elegant homage to an Indonesian mother, flipping various immigration narratives on their heads.

What I felt, reading with these writers, was home. It was also queer pride. Not gay pride, but queer pride. The absolute need—a need that so often gets lost in the daily seriousness of fundraising for under-served communities and trying to keep a child alive and trying to pay the subsidized rent I can barely afford—to play. To be weird. To say fuck you. To say yes, and. To say the wrong thing. To remember that I am not (just) the oppressor. Or (just) the oppressed. I am glittery and warty, an angel-witch from a Francesca Lia Block novel, flocking to my birds of a feather.

3. chest cat

Last weekend, AK and I became tías. AK was in the room, coaching her sister while nursing her own sinus infection. (She draped a washcloth over her face and earned the nickname The Masked Doula.) I got to meet Harper yesterday.

Walking into Lori and Brett’s house, I felt a surge of all my old issues: that oldest-sibling, non-bio-mom feeling that something about the world of moms and new babies is Not For Me.

It’s to Lori’s credit, as someone who’s had her own long journey to parenthood, that the feelings dissolved quickly. They were figuring out how to use our old Beco Gemini carrier, and I asked if I could give it a try.

“Of course,” they said, “you have credentials.”

Even though I’ve forgotten plenty since Dash was a baby, I felt a surge of pride. They saw me as someone unlikely to drop a baby! They did not look at my neurosis and fake boobs and see someone hopelessly un-maternal!

Soon, Harper—big for a newborn, tiny for a person—lay on my chest like a cat, pressing away my stress with her warmth.

Art by glait.
I don’t know yet what it will mean to be a tía. It will be different from being a mom. I think there’s something queer about the role, not just because historically there have been many more gay aunts and uncles than parents. In pushing to become a mom, I wanted to step out of the margins; I didn’t want to be a tertiary character in someone else’s kid’s life. It was an important push, my own form of labor.

But now that it’s done, I can, I hope, enjoy what makes the margins special. They’re a low-pressure place where we can all play. Where, no matter how kind and woke a kid’s parents are, other voices are needed. It’s a tía’s job to step in and say, “Sure, but how about this.” To practice a kind of angelic witchcraft.

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