The Exact Right Word: National Coming Out Day and Chosen Identities

For #nationalcomingoutday, here are some words I use to describe myself and some identities that I have actively cultivated:

white
butch
queer
writer
survivor
genderqueer
masculine of center
poet
teacher
bookworm
introvert
HSP
hedonist
working artist
social activist
able bodied
Pacific Northwestern American
Daddy
Master
cock-centric
college educated
2nd generation woo
Buddhist
foodie

For a while, I kept a list of words in the back of my journal, making a note to myself anytime I heard myself say, “I’m a _____.” I would write it down and think about it, pondering if I really am that thing or if it was a passing moment of identifying as such. Some of the words that came out of that are survivor, introvert, and hedonist, as well as the more often-used social justice ones, like butch and queer and dyke and gendequeer.

There are some other words—like lesbian, dyke, and trans—that are almost the right word, and which I sometimes use and sometimes identify with, but that aren’t always precisely right.

There are a few more that are complex and I hesitate to list, like yogi and tantrika, because while I do practice yoga and tantra, I haven’t quite been able to reconcile the cultural appropriation that surrounds me with those activities enough to be comfortable to use the identity labels to refer to myself. (So for now, I go with 2nd generation woo.)

There are a few more that I aspire to, but don’t quite have yet … like gardener and runner, which are identities in progress but not quite integrated. I do have a garden (finally!!), but I frequently forget about it. And I did run two 5k races in the past two years (hurrah!) but again, that habit doesn’t feel consistent, and isn’t quite an identity yet, just an occasional burst of interest.

And what’s the word for someone who tends to be depressed, or who struggles with depression? I don’t quite want to say neurodivergent or depressive, those seem too intense. Something a little more mild that says that I tend toward internalizing emotions rather than externalizing, and tend toward feeling down rather than feeling up (anxious). Or maybe this is a case where I have to reclaim a word, or use something that seems overly harsh and is misunderstood (like depressive).

There’s a lot to think about on National Coming Out Day … I’m particularly interested in identities, and what we call ourselves, and how we claim our power in these words and communities, but I also recognize that for many people, being associated with the identities that have marginalized them feels an awful lot like being marginalized all over again.

I believe that we should find the precise right words that are big enough to contain all the multitudes of us, and not sacrifice our selves to fit into labels which constrict. I believe the identity should conform to us, that we shouldn’t conform to it. And I believe that labels and identities and words that describe ourselves should always be the starting place, not the ending place, of the conversation—a place of opportunity to know more and ask questions and listen, not a place to fill in our own assumptions and determine the truths of others.

I’ll leave you of the Mark Twain quote: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.”

What identities do you claim? What words do you use to define yourself?

Marriage is so gay*

Last week, I dreamt of my future wife.

That’s a strange thing to write down and admit, actually, especially publically; but I thought exactly that when I woke: that was my future wife. I still know exactly how she tasted, smelled, how her waist felt in my arms.

I’m not sure how I feel about marriage, really. My mom has always said I should wait until I’m 30 to get married, and thinks too many people get married too young. I don’t really think the government should have anything to do with my personal relationships, and I don’t think the government should value certain kinds of relationships over others – one man + one woman? What about a triad, a lesbian couple, co-habiting straight men? Who cares how people make a household work, as long as they do?

But: I do believe in commitment, in stating publically that you love someone, in gathering friends & family in a ceremony that celebrates and affirms the difficulty, the support, the community around a relationship.

Since I came to be aware of the inequalities of queer relationships in the eyes of the law in, oh, I don’t know, high school? middle school?, it has just been a given that I couldn’t “actually” get married.

“Whatever,” I told myself. “Like I would get married anyway. Like I want The Church + The State involved in My Relationship.”

And the activist circles I ran in were skeptical of marriage as The Gay Rights Issue: “There is so much to be done!” we argued. “Marriage is such an issue of privilege. What about hate crime legislation, discrimination policies for the workplace, queer homeless youth, AIDS, suicide rates, the drinking/drug problems in the queer communities? What about foster kids and adoption and simply BEING KILLED because of gender and sexual orientation? What about cissexism and trans advocacy?”

Unfortunately, the momentum of queer activism isn’t necessarily in the radical queer youth & college students – it’s with the money. And mostly-white mostly-middle-class homos have already decided what The Gay Issue is: marriage.

It’s a symbol, really: not just a symbol for normalcy, but a symbol for a relationship. And that’s what is at the heart of this movement, the heart of the difference in sexual orientation: the right and ability to choose whom we love, with whom we partner.

While my personal beliefs are still a bit more radical than that, I’ve studied the history of social change enough to know that chnage happens gradually, in pockets, a little bit at a time. I also feel like gay marriage activism is a limited scope – like aiming for the mountaintop instead of the sky – because it still defines marriage as two people, right, we’re still talking about working within the monogamy system here. So while many of our poly friends are going “rah rah gay marriage! And PS, what about us?” the gay marriage activits are kind of saying, “Shhh, we can’t talk about your issues right now.”

But then again, it’s easier to go little-by-little than to overhaul the whole system. It’s a classic social change model conflict – after observing a system of oppression, do we a) work from within it to attempt to change it, or b) throw it out completely and start over? My radicalism wants marriage to be thrown out. I mean really, what good is it? But I feel the same way about other institutions that seem to matter to some feminist theorists and reclaimists, such as Christianity. I don’t personally have any investment in the system of Christianity, so I can’t imagine going inside of it to fix and change the oppression and hierarchical marginalizing structures that are in place – but others do have that investment, and are doing the work to include women in clergy, to research the history of more women saints, of queer history in the church, etc. Lesbian and feminist priests and nuns and churchgoers – what they find in the practice must be worth the work of reclaiming and rebuilding, for them.

Actually, I can draw a parallel here: for me, it is language. I am a poet at heart and never cannot be. People ask me why I use language they deem offensive – dyke, fag, pussy, cunt, slut, butch, femme, queer – and I try to explain it is because I love these words. As if they were delicate glass boxes filled with mud, I pick them up from being buried in the compost heap and wash them, dig the dirt from their creases, make their silver shine, make them see-through again. I am invested in the system of language, even though within it -built into the very makeup – is a hierarchy that says certain people are better, best.

Which brings me to my next point: words. Of course “marriage” is not the same thing as “civil union” or “domestic partnership” – the words are different. “Beautiful” is not the same thing as “cute” or “gorgeous” or “attractive” or “stunning” or “elegant” or “handsome,” right? Those all have slightly different connotations, even if their definitions are overlapping and very similar.

I am a poet. I’ve worked hard to say that sentence. I eat words for breakfast and fall asleep with book after book open on my pillow. I theorize language and meaning and definitions and semantics, revive words that are suffering, influse love and equality and value where I can.

It doesn’t matter how many rights there are in a “civil union” or “domestic partnership,” they will never be marriage, because they are not the same word.

Period.

Mark Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

It is the difference between fire, and a firefly.

Words are not some static, fixed thing. They are living, they have lives and evolutions, they are manifestations of the culture from where they come, in which they are used. We can change them. They do change and evolve and grow to suit the needs of culture – they reflect a culture, but they also shape a culture. A new concept, term, or phrase can define a movement, a change, activism.

Researching all this information about the state of gay marriage in my country recently has really got me thinking about my own future. I don’t come from a very traditional family, I’ve never thought I would have a very traditional wedding – bridesmaids, groomsmen, white dress, any of that. I’ve received some amazing, beautiful, moving photographs from queers over the last few days, and I find a part of me is craving to have some beautiful party, some celebration, where my love and I can costume up and wear cool clothes and be surrounded by our friends looking dashing.

So I have some ideas forming about what I’d do for my own ceremony. No real dealbreakers, just ideas that I like. Although I am really attached to the idea that our first dance would be choreographed – let’s hope my future wife knows how to swing. (Let’s also hope next time I’ll dream her phone number or URL, so I’ll figure out how to contact her.)


* I hate this common use of “gay” and not infrequently call people on it when I hear them say it. But the tension in this sentence – calling marriage “gay” – cracks me up. Kind of like the bumper sticker I saw at Little Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver, BC many years ago, which read, “Straight people are so gay.” Hah!

8 Against 8: 8 bloggers – 8 days – as much money as we can raise to defeat Proposition 8 in California. Vote no on Prop 8!