“To the queerest person I know.”
This is how my childhood best friend signed my high school year book. I am now in my fifties and don’t remember that much from high school — that I want to admit to — but I do remember this comment.
She was right. I was different. I read books rather than watching the TV. I followed the news — and in a working class milieu this meant that I was an oddball. Then in my early twenties, I came out as a lesbian-feminist.
It wasn’t easy being different when I was a teen in the 1970s. But being different is a good and necessary thing. People who dare to be different make change. As I write in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, a few of us girls on the elementary school playground hung upside down on the parallel bars in protest of girls not being allowed to wear pants — before the women’s movement: “It was 1969. The following year, having learned the power of showing out (almost) bare asses, we were wearing bell bottoms.”
I came out in the early eighties. About ten years later, I began hearing the word “queer” in the gay and lesbian community. This was before we had the term LGBT. I had some resistance to the word “Queer” until I talked to a younger friend who embraced the term. She explained to me that “Queer” included everyone that didn’t fit the gender and sexual orientation expectations of society. In other words, queer was not heterosexual — or “het,” as we said in those days.
We are still figuring out gender. A older friend who is a strong feminist began researching transgender issues when her nephew, who started out life as a niece, transitioned. My friend had some old school feminist notions at first but quickly came around to supporting her nephew whole-heartedly. At one point she said to me, “I’ve been gender non-conformist my entire life.” So my friend (who is a celibate bisexual), her nephew, and I, are all queer.
So I applaud the HuffPost for changing “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.” Queer recognizes our commonalities — in the fact that we are all different. We are a community and we do have enemies — although that is not the only thing that makes us a community — and there is strength in numbers.
I recently read two books about queerness back to back. One from the other side of the world — is called From Darkness to Diva by Skye High, a leading Australian drag queen. The other, about a man who grew up near me in a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia, is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times written by Samuel G. Freedman with Kerry Donahue.
In From Darkness to Diva (O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.) the tall gay man who took Skye High as his drag name writes of his growing up gay and being so badly bullied that he had to leave high school. High writes unflinchingly about the beatings he endured, but also delves into the self examination and spiritual lessons that he experienced. He also writes of the trials and triumphs of finding a gay community and of the liberation he experienced in entering the transformative world of drag.
I was on the journey with him — as someone who was a teen who was bullied (to a lesser degree) and as someone who came of age and found my place in the world. But at no point was I more riveted as when he stood up to a bully in his second high school. He had to leave his first high school because he was bullied and after working several for several years returned to another high school for his degree and was bullied again. High explores how he felt as he eventually stood up to the bully:
“I now had the power over him. I was in control. In that moment, I finally felt vindicated. It was as though my actions would have been justified had I wanted to snap his neck and kill him.”
But ultimately he showed mercy on the bully and let him go, explaining that he felt “saddened by the sight of him helplessly lying on the floor.”
Dying Words, The AIDS Reporting Of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times (CUNY Journalism Press) is a moving tribute to Jeff who died at the age of 39. It is arranged in the form of interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives (including his sister the literary agent Wendy Schmalz Wilde) of Jeff’s and by the time the book presents his reportage on the AIDS epidemic, the reader feels a kinship with him.
“I think often of the dozen friends who have died of AIDS, and I feel them with me. It’s not that I am writing editorials, avenging their deaths. It’s that I feel their strength, their soothing me on. They are my conscience, their shadows with me everywhere: In the torchlight of the march. Over my shoulder. By my desk. In my sleep.”
Jeff had to break out of the box of the Times impeccable third-person reportage into the finding of his own voice. Participant-journalist doesn’t quite describe it, but it comes close.
Former Times colleague Samuel G. Freedman writes eloquently in the foreword about the reasons that he put the book together:
“For a lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt. And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.”
What impressed me about both books was how different they were — yet universal to the human experience. Who isn’t different in some way? In my view, anyone who says they are the same as everyone else is either lying, extremely boring or both.
previously in The Huffington Post