I wasn’t even yet sure enough to call myself queer. But queer I was.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” the repeated calling out of my childhood.
And then the androgynous ties, striped purple, black, and silver, so narrow on my button down shirts. Men’s suits, I wore. My body swam in them. And 1950s party frocks festooned with chains and cinched in with leather.
So. Much. Anger.
Slamming doors open with my feet. Swaggering through into Southern California sunlight. Everyone else thought I was a dyke. I was, but didn’t really know it yet.
I hadn’t kissed a girl. Not really. Sort of.
But yes, I’d been in love.
With my best friend. A girl who drove us through the twilit streets of L.A.
Rejected by boys – over and over – as too weird, too aggressive, too damn smart. Targeted by men since before I could comprehend. The moment I first noticed, I was twelve (though there’d been earlier times). Told that this man would like to carpet a floor with mirrors, and have me walk across them in a mini skirt.
Then I was thirteen years old, at a cast party for our local community theater. I was told I shouldn’t tempt older men.
Men pressed their lips against my freshly tightened braces, and their hands against my breasts.
I was a virgin. Whatever the fuck that matters, or that means. Until I was eighteen.
I hung out with the gay boys when I dropped out of high school for community college at sixteen. We were flamboyantly theatrical, every one. We’d go to gay bars in Los Angeles. The only places that would let us in, despite our ages.
The only places our mixed crew could be.
We danced. Oh how we danced. Some of my friends were joyful. Some were so afraid. But we were there.
At eighteen, I moved north, from the smog to the fog.
Men were dying, everywhere. Sarcoma lesions like plum islands on their skin.
Marching from the Castro to City Hall, holding our candles. Chanting “Harvey Milk and George Moscone!” Martyrs, dead not quite a decade, but fresh in the minds of this city. We were a sea of light in darkness and they were our guides. When we reached the dome, and the rows of pollarded trees, so lumpy and misshapen, Sister Boom Boom’s voice rose on the bullhorn, whispering sharply in the night,
“The word came down from Washington. Let them die!”
Maud’s. Amelia’s. The dim lit, lesbian bars of San Francisco, long since gone. Pussies in Pajamas singing silly songs. I asked old school butches to dance. They were so hot I could barely stand it, in their crisp shirts and tight jeans. Filled with my desire, I’d broken the rules. They were the ones who were supposed to be asking me.
Beautiful women intimidated me. It was easier to be with men. To swagger and kiss. To stomp my boots and ride my motorcycle. To ask for dates and get them.
But there were women, even so. Gorgeous, all of them, because of who they were. Butch and femme. And some men as queer as me. Black men in mini skirts and lipstick. White men in dandy outfits. Nerds in glasses who discussed philosophy.
Dancing in a mirrored box filled with naked women, as small windows rose and fell, fell and rose. I would crouch down to the glass, “Who’s your favorite ecstatic poet?” I would ask. One man came in to discuss science fiction in the seconds between songs. He left me a hardbound copy of V for Vendetta.
All too fitting, even still.
Queer Nation taking over bars and slapping neon stickers everywhere. Queer magazines abounded: Taste of Latex. Frighten the Horses. RFD.
I kissed my girlfriend goodbye on the sidewalk, getting ready to put my helmet on and hop on my black motorcycle, festooned with glowing stars. A small convertible GT backed up, knocking into my bike. My girlfriend and I broke our kiss. It had been a mistake. A slipped clutch. Right? The car backed up again. Then again. Revving and backing. Revving and backing. Shoving the metal bike against our flesh.
Confused, I fought to keep the Virago upright. My girlfriend attacked, screaming at the man, and kicked her powerful, tiny feet against his car. He – and the woman with him – drove away.
Years later, I married a man. Not sure if I could go to Pride that year. Was I allowed?
Young men strung up in the desert. Trans women killed. And killed. And killed.
I dated, some, per our agreement, but only while I was out of town. A woman. A man. All too rarely. I was learning things, but missing others. My hair was clipped to nonexistence. I wore loose men’s jeans. Singlet t-shirts. My tattooed arms hoisted large pots at the soup kitchen. I scrubbed mountains of potatoes. Wrote a book. Went back to school.
Gender non-conforming. That’s what they call it.
Marriage ended. Back with women. Back with men. Practicing packing a cock, both soft in trousers for going out, and hard for the mostly naked, panting, shoving, kissing, leather harness thrusting itself outward on the bed.
Back at queer bars and Goth clubs. Leather pants or corsets, always the plumage of shadows. Of beauty and darkness. Of the need for bodies moving in their joy.
Every sweaty corner was a refuge. Every pulse of light a prayer. Every song a cry of passion to the world.
Years rolled by. Trans marches with my sweetheart, her feet aching in high heels. Concerts with my girlfriend. Brunches with my partner. Politics and wine. Meditation on the streets. Books. Justice. A march for Chelsea Manning. And for too many shot down. Arrested with queer clergy bearing witness to the violence of police.
We are a family, my partners and I. You cannot tell us otherwise. We make a home, each with our separate, introverted space. Two men. One woman. Though one man and one woman are not quite a man, or woman. Not really. We can pass, sometimes. Sometimes not. But the shine is always there. The strangeness. Even the one be-suited heterosexual among us gets called “Lady” sometimes.
“Boy or girl?” “Straight or gay?”
Queer is the only word to define us. Queer is the word we will wear. And an ocean of strange friends that we call family, ebb and flow around us. All making up their families as best as they can, too.
And another year follows yet another day. Checking in after morning prayers, there is word from a beloved friend: There’s been a mass shooting. His friends go to that club. One still unaccounted for. He is bereft.
A day of grief shatters a month of joy. A month set aside to mark the uprising, a riot where trans women led gay men to say, “Enough!”
Enough harassment. Enough beatings. Enough killings. Enough arrests. Enough denials of housing. Of children. Of jobs. Of health care. Of being with our loved ones. Enough. Enough. Enough.
We too say enough.
You will not kill us. A few may fall, cut down, but you cannot kill us all. We will not let you. And we will not let you use our blood to organize more hatred and more war. Yes. I’m looking at you. And you. And you, too.
Last night, I made a decision. It is one I’ve made before:
I don’t want to, but if I have to, I will die in the streets defending my siblings from harm. Be they cis or trans. Black, brown, or white. Men or women. Not men, not women. Queer or straight. Or something wholly new. A parent defending a child. A band of Pagans. A Muslim at prayer. A young black man just hanging out. Two women, white, or brown, kissing on a sidewalk. Comrades locking down. A group of friends dancing and laughing, drinking beer at one a.m.
Whether that harm comes from a bigot backed up by an army, a police force, or wielding a single gun. Whether that harm comes from elected officials, or heads of churches, or demagogues spreading lies. Whether that harm comes from a community, slinging words of dismissal or hate.
Or whether that harm comes from one person, pumped full of vitriol by others so fearful, so greedy, so angry, they’ve forgotten what it is like to love and be loved.
No matter what: I will die loving you, my brothers, sisters, and siblings. Whether that is fifty years from now, or five years, or today.
We are fierce. We are tender. We are weak and strong. We shatter the doors of City Hall or we can’t get out of bed.
We are beautiful. Remember that.
I’m willing to die for you, my friends, but I’d rather live. I’d rather you lived, too.
As my comrade Elena Rose so eloquently puts it: "It's still a world with plums in it, my loves, & chamomile & lipstick & cellos. It's still a world with us in it. Find a hand & hold on."
And as I say, all too often, and I mean it every time:
Stay safe. Stay strong. Stay in love.
copyright T. Thorn Coyle, June, 2016
I wish to acknowledge the lives stolen from Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. I wish to acknowledge that they were largely Puerto Rican. It matters to their closest community. And it should matter to us.
Also, I was remiss in not stating the names of Marsha P. Johnson (a Black trans woman) and Sylvia Rivera (a trans Latinx). We have them to thank for the Stonewall Uprising.
Here is a beautiful statement from Black Lives Matter Bay Area.
This is reader-funded writing.
I give thanks to all of my Patreon supporters, who donate every month so I can offer one essay and one short story to the general public for free.
I give thanks to brand new patrons Joanna, R.M., Ember, and to ongoing supporters San, Miriam, Leslie, Sharon, Mary Anne, Joanna, Tony, Angela, Constance, Stone, Omorka, Unwoman, Shemandoah, Sarah, Rain, Cid, Alley, Mica, Christine, Vyviane, Katie, Emilie, Louise, Victoria, Greg, Ealasaid, Jennifer, Louise, Rose, Starr, Sinead, Lyssa, Aeptha, Cara, Crystal, Angela, Misha, Eridanus, Cheryl, Lori, Soli, Peter, Angela, Ambariel, Sonia, Jennifer, Ruth, Miranda, Jeremy, Jonah, Michelle, Jenny, Jen, Mir, Ruth, Emilie, Jonathan, Kate, Roger & Nancy.