Where I live, the air is oppressive. The thickness of expectations and conformity chokes everyone in its path. I am no exception. Each day I go into the office, I make conscious decisions about how I will show up. Tying my tie is an act of defiance, the gentle sag of my jeans a silent middle finger to gender expectations. I present in a masculine-of-center way because that is authentic to who I am. I once tried to fit in through dressing up in feminine clothing and talking about how cute boys are, and I was miserable. I still talk about how cute guys are, this just happens to occur without the assumption that I will marry a man. The road to self-acceptance proved to be difficult in my adolescence and young adulthood, and it took me a long time to come to terms with the extent of my queerness, beyond the begrudging admission that I had fallen in love with my best friend at 16. Though I celebrate my queerness each time I straighten my tie, and jam out to RENT in my car, I am reminded just how hard the road has been every day I spend in rural Ohio.
One of the first nights after I moved, I went to McDonald’s after a long day of training. I still wore my business casual attire because I was working late, and I do not typically take off my tie until I finish for the day. Since I had no plans to eat inside, normally I would have just taken the drive-thru, but I really had to use the restroom. I opened the door to the fast food restaurant, my eyes landing on a group of teenagers. Never before had I been stared at like I was that night. Their eyes raked over my body, boring into me, and sending silent messages of unworthiness and exclusion that pierced my heart like daggers. I looked away to gain my composure, went to the bathroom, and ordered my ice cream cone, a reward for a job well done after a long day. When I left, I hoped the group had cleared out, alas there they sat. For a second time that night, I felt their gaze. It wasn’t flattering or cute. Never before had I felt so unsafe. This would not be last time I felt the stares of others, and it began to take its toll.
The September after I started my graduate program, a campaign offered me the moon. I could leave Ohio, go back to my home state, and work for LGBTQ equality. A huge part of me wanted to accept, due in large part to the feelings of uneasiness about the place where I lived. The night before my decision was due, two students came into my office wanting to talk. One student, whom had come out to me earlier, brought another resident, whom I thought was gay, but had not said anything to me. For the next twenty minutes, we talked about what being out meant, my experiences so far, and the importance of community as queer people. I knew in that moment, that I could not leave, no matter how sweet the offer.
For the next year, I clung to that moment as a reminder of why I do this work in this place. Being visibly queer is a challenge, to be sure, and one that has only intensified since I started to date. My current girlfriend came to visit a month or so ago, and I had to ask myself a very important question: “Would I hold her hand?” I never saw queer couples on campus engaging in any sort of affection, so I knew that such a statement would draw the stares from which I desperately sought shelter. Normally, this would not be a question at all. I believed in the hand holding and the “hello” kisses, just as I believed in putting on my tie most mornings. My hesitation, the briefest moment of fear, reminded me why I needed to hold her hand. On a campus lacking in pride, where rainbow does not exist, communities are underground, and students cry in my office because they “know” they cannot be gay and an ambassador, I needed to do my part. Being out is a privilege, and not a place where everyone wants to be. For me, however, I can be out, and I want my students to see me, a queer person living and achieving. I realized today, that was something I never really had.
When my girlfriend came to visit, I held her hand, and people noticed. When we got back to my apartment one afternoon, she looked at me. “You know, everyone stares at us.”
I took her hand in mine, and gave a sad smile. “I know.”