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Pride Month and being visibly queer

I spent fifteen minutes or so this morning scrolling through various gay hashtags on Instagram while laying in bed half-asleep. While I quickly got bored of the tanned abs and biceps on my feed, the rainbows and sticker adorned selfies reminded me that it was first day of June. This time of year has been special to me ever since I went with a group of young queer friends to Philly Pride in 2014, shortly after finishing our first year of college. My thighs led those blue shorts to an early grave, but thankfully my arms still look great in that tank top.

Since then, whether in Philadelphia or Boston, Pride has been an opportunity to celebrate queerness and have fun for a weekend without feeling unduly burdened by heteronormative society. It has also been a chance to reflect on queer history and the gay/trans/queer ancestors who devoted their lives to a harrowing struggle for liberation. Sometimes it feels like my life as a queer person (particularly as a queer person of color) is always equal parts jubilation and mourning, where every day that I am alive is a triumph. Despite some privileges like socioeconomic status and educational attainment, I am among the most likely of minorities to be the victim of a hate crime. Black gay men trail transgender women of color, but seeing as hate crimes against LGBTQ people are notoriously difficult to trace, these numbers are incomplete.

I think about these lives lost every morning. As someone that gets read as queer every day of my life, I am always in some sense thinking about the possibility of being assaulted and/or killed when I walk out my front door. Overall, Philadelphia isn’t a bad place to be a young queer person, we have a few thriving communities that extend well beyond the boundaries of the Gayborhood. But still, sometimes when I get called a faggot by an adult man for daring to walk by him in mid-thigh length shorts, I wonder if that might be the last thing I’ll hear. Being a visibly queer person makes navigating public space an exercise in anxiety management. Having a rose gold septum piercing and vibrant green certainly hasn’t helped me blend in. And yet, even if I wore the baggiest jeans and lumpiest t-shirt I could find, my voice and mannerisms would give me away. Passing isn’t really an option for me, even if I wanted to try. I have been “out” since middle school, but I’m sure I started being read as queer long before then. Femme black boys die a hundred times before puberty, a thousand times during it, and perhaps find some solace in college – if we’re lucky.

On June 12th last year, 49 predominantly Latinx LGBTQ people were murdered inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. 53 more were wounded, and Pulse became a reminder for us that we aren’t really safe, not even in our own spaces. I was at a gay club in Cambridge that night, doing exactly the same thing as those folks. Pride parties are full of flirting, dancing, grinding, touching, laughing, drinking, and loving. And yet, they can also be the perfect place to kill us. That night and the following day, I exchanged over a thousand texts and messages with queer folks in my various networks. I probably received another couple hundred from strangers and loved ones alike, concerned about how I was holding up. I even exchanged emails with professors, some of them queer themselves, checking in on how I was doing. I spent the next few days crying randomly, I couldn’t read or focus on my research work, and I developed an aversion to all of my social media networks because I didn’t want to see the faces of those beautiful queers whose lives were taken from them. It took me almost two weeks to sort through the details that emerged about the shooter and the logistics of the attack. I broke down sobbing uncontrollably when I finally read an article that covered the lives of many of the victims. However, even something like this won’t take Pride away from me.

The late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz argues that queerness is something “not yet here”. Perhaps then a queer way of being in the world is always tied to imagining a more loving future. Pride season is a reminder of this yearning, a desire to dream of something better than what we have now and from which we came. Every day is an opportunity, and at 22 years old, I have never been more proud to be my authentic queer self.

Lost and Found

I wasn’t quite sure who I was for most of March. It might have been the last vestiges of seasonal depression, or maybe some sort of cosmic malaise, but there were a lot of moments where I wasn’t sure where to find myself. It is a scary thing to feel yourself slipping away just as you were making so much progress towards becoming who you always wanted to be.

Amidst all of that, I felt like I was sort of going through the motions of the many roles that I occupy. As a soon-to-be-graduated college student, I struggled to find the joy that I had cultivated in recent years in my academic pursuits. When I found the courage sometime in 2014 to take myself seriously, to really believe in my ideas, I figured that it would be a one-way street. I thought that it would only get easier to drive the vehicle that is my ambition towards the city on the shining hill that is my future. And in many ways it has been, but that road has also been full of twists and turns and road blocks that I didn’t account for in my pre-planned route.

So much of my undergraduate experience has been about giving myself the space to be vulnerable and the time to be unsure of who I might become, but it has also hinged on this idea that I knew I would lead myself somewhere “successful”. Through this sort of radical softness married to iron-clad determination, I gave myself permission to make a lot of good choices and many more mistakes. And yet these past few weeks have had me questioning myself and my future in a way that I think is at once normal for a graduating senior but also deeply unsettling for the narrative of progress to which I had tied myself.

I will admit that I am still shaken by the curious position of being an educated black queer person in America today. I regularly hold space for the ways in which I am oppressed just as I recognize all of the privileges by which I have been shaped. As an aspiring scholar and cultural critic, of course I always have something to say about the world around me but I am certain that the hardest words to find are those about myself. I am writing this blog post 30,000 feet in the air on the way back from a queer video game studies conference. I was reminded just how radical it is for someone like me to exist in the world, and I am no stranger to how earnestly it wants to destroy me.

I think that March was about me working through a lot of swallowed trauma, and it was about reckoning with what I was really willing to make possible in this world. So many of my journal entries have me asking and trying to answer questions like: what do you want? what world do you want to imagine into being? how are you doing your part to reduce the suffering of others? I think that it was through this questioning that I eventually found my way back to myself. I don’t yet know where I am going, in all senses of those words, but I do know that I will have to work to bring myself with me.

February’s departure, March is here I guess

February always feels like an annual Tuesday. It doesn’t have the same hopeful air of January, the feeling that you really can make yourself over into someone else in the New Year really gets tested in the shortest month of the year. That being said, this year’s February felt like a lifetime. Part of me thinks that was due to the current shit-show that is US Politics, but most of me knows that it was that plus the fatigue of last year catching up with me. Starting my last semester of undergrad and getting adjusted to being back in the United States took up all of my mental and physical energy in January.

And so, February was the first month where I really started to feel present and able to sit with myself. It was kind of terrible? Well, better put, it was overwhelming in that I realized I had been neglecting a lot of things that were important to me like exercise, self-care practices, spending time with loved ones, and so on. I felt like I would try to prioritize something, only to lose out on something else that I wanted to devote attention towards. This time around, February was the longest-shortest month.

I am trying to do better in March, and for being only five days in, things seem to be going well. With any luck, I’ll find out about being named a finalist for the Fulbright award that I applied for to Montreal this month. I am excited at the prospect of doing more game studies and queer studies work, and lately I’ve been more confident in my proposed “trajectory” as a scholar. Believing in oneself is hard. This month will also be an important one for my honors thesis work especially since I’m incorporating some sociology of illness stuff into it. Theorizing an absence around a speculation about what ought to have been produced in the AIDS media ecosystem is really hard, so I’m glad that a long talk with my second reader for my project gave me the idea to ground it in a medical sociology theoretical framework.

January, lately

I have been putting this post off for a few weeks now. It has been hard to find the words for anything other than sadness and some version of quiet rage. I am not sure of where exactly this country (my country? was it ever?) is going. However, I am certain that our destination is nowhere good. Or at least, not good for people like me. In the month or so that I’ve been back in Philadelphia, I’ve been called a homophobic slur six times. Twice in one day even, in different parts of the city. And this is in Philly, one of the most progressive cities in the country. Things like that don’t really bother me anymore, sadly I’m used to it. What I am worried about is the how more and more people feel empowered to say things like that. Words are never just words, and rhetoric can easily become physical violence. I am a little afraid, to be honest. Not so much that I’ll be hate-crimed (though I’ve started making jokes about this to random white straight people because I don’t think they realize what’s really going on), but that there are going to be some major policy changes under our new administration. Interning for an LGBT non profit this semester has made me more sensitive of the ways in which policy can severely impact the lives of our most marginalized. In some ways, my class privilege and my social capital shield me from a lot of harm, but then I’m still a relatively femme black queer person. So I had to kind of accept that I could be murdered any day of the week a while ago. So it goes. “Faggot” kind of loses its edge when I’m more concerned with not being raped and knifed while walking home late at night.

This semester is not quite my busiest but it’s coming close. As I mentioned, I’m interning at the William Way LGBT Community Center this semester in order to complete my fieldwork requirement for my LGBT Studies minor. It’s been a fun program to work with – especially since I took every single one of my seminars in a different department. I’m doing two independent studies, one in post-colonial francophone feminist literature and the other in digital game studies. More excited about my digital game studies one, especially since I’m writing an honors thesis project in conjunction with it. And then there’s the graduate sociology seminar in contemporary sociological theory that I have, which is probably my favorite thing this semester readings-wise. Oh and I have senior seminar for my sociology major, in which I’m being taught by the same professor that taught me in Introduction to Sociology like three years ago. So that’s fun. I am still working at my job in academic advising that I’ve had since 2014, and then I’m doing research for a professor as well. So like I said, busy but not too much. Like myself, it seems to be just the right amount of extra.

Thinking about the future is not an easy thing. I am a Fulbright semi-finalist now, which is exciting. But all the same, I’m finding it hard to imagine what life will be like in April, let alone in September. Who knows, maybe I’ll win an award and move to Montreal in 7 months. Otherwise, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing with the gap year that I’ve created for myself. I’m certainly not regretting delaying my graduate school plans, a PhD is going to take 5 or more years no matter when I start. I’m not in a rush to do anything at all really. Despite all of this, I’m still optimistic that things will be okay. And if they won’t be, at least they’ll be bearable – until they aren’t.

Farewell 2016

This year has probably seen me through the most changes, in just about every part of my life. I learned how to say no to things (and people). I like myself a lot more. I have so many wonderful loved ones to share things with. 2016 was really beautiful in a lot of ways, notwithstanding all of its tragedies.

So first a quick recap of the good things: Early in the year, I had one of my best semesters course-wise. I decided to study abroad instead of graduate a semester early. I made a couple new friends that are so dear to me now. I won a very large amount of money from Temple to finance the aforementioned study abroad adventure. I presented my work at two academic conferences at Temple. I returned to Harvard for a second summer of research and professional development. I decided that I wanted to take a year (or more) in-between undergrad and a PhD program. I applied for a Fulbright US Student grant to Montréal. I moved to Paris to study at Sociology and Comparative Literature for four months. I got much better at French. I made more lovely friends abroad. I got to visit quite a few countries in Europe. I learned how to love things about myself that I used to feel bad about. I moved into a beautiful old home with two great housemates in Brewerytown.

Last year, there were three deaths in my close family and I was away from home for all of them so that was hard.

And then there was the Pulse shooting. I hadn’t expected something like that could happen let alone during Pride season when myself and so many other queers were out clubbing that time of year. I was in a gay club in Boston the same night and only heard about it the next morning. The only consolation was that I realized just how deep and caring my network of queer friends really is, the deluge of support and check-ins were a really beautiful reminder of how important it is to be there for each other.

Studying abroad was one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my 21 and a half year old life. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have lived in Paris for a short while and finally make a serious effort to learn the language that I had been dabbling with for a few years. My time abroad was also marked by a strong bout of Paris malaise, coupled with the events of our election season and a decent fit of seasonal depression. So all of that was pretty difficult, but in retrospect I don’t think ruined my experience overall. All in all, I’m still not yet ready to process everything that happened in these last four months but I look forward to that eventually.

I am equal parts excited and anxious for what this year has in store. So many big things are happening to me, from graduating college to supposedly finding a post-grad thing to perhaps even applying to PhD programs. But there’s also so much potential bad stuff with our political trash fire, not to mention the augmented air of violence towards marginalized that is permeating everything now. I hope that I don’t get hate-crimed. We might not even have hate crime laws still in 4 years.

So here’s to 2016 being mostly good but also really shitty at times. As I get older, I get the impression that it’s kind of how this life thing goes.

loneliness is still time spent with the world

I have been meaning to write something for a few weeks now. Or perhaps more accurately, I have been trying. The title of this post comes from one of my favorite poems entitled “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong“. Ocean Vuong is a gay Vietnamese-American poet, and my life was changed a little bit when I first heard a recording of him reading that poem. His debut full-length poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds is one of the few non French literature related texts that I allowed myself to pack into my suitcase. My two months in Paris found me reading and re-reading his poems while doing things like: taking the metro, standing at the bus stop, waiting in line for a museum, queuing at Forever 21, crying while laying upside down on my bed, taking in the stillness of a mid-autumn afternoon with the Eiffel Tower peeking over my shoulder in the distance.

I don’t feel as cosmically lonely here in Paris anymore, equal parts thanks to the friends that I have made and the comfort that I have found in being by myself. In Philly, I find that I spend a lot of time alone but it feels different. I imagine that being in a different country away from my friends and family has something to do with it, but moreover I think that this time abroad has coalesced with my general introspection about my place in the world. I would say that this is a normal existential crisis for a senior in college, and one that may or may not have been exacerbated by re-reading Camus’s L’Étranger. Being away from everything that I’ve gotten used to over the last few years feels like putting a spotlight on all of the things I have been trying to shove under my bed. The language thing really doesn’t bother me anymore, I am comfortable enough with my French to do most everything without thinking twice about how my tongue and throat work together. It is only when I encounter something beyond my routine (how quickly we form habits) that I fret about whether or not something takes le or la, or if I should conjugate something in present tense or the subjunctive.

I went to Normandy this past weekend with two guys that I’ve gotten close to here. We rented a car and put just about 960 kilometers on it, crisscrossing the French countryside. Our first major stop was visiting Omaha Beach, the site of the D-Day landings during World War II. Vague flashbacks to AP Euro aside, it was a really special experience to walk the shoreline and see all of the memorials. As a child of immigrants from former colonies, my relationship to the concept of nationhood is a little tricky. I don’t really feel any longing for European conquest or any real sense of pride in American war accomplishments like many of my white friends. Then again with my father being a Navy veteran, and virtually all of my relatively comfortable upper middle life being built on his career, I have some sort of intimacy with the military system regardless. Critiquing a system that has sustained me is certainly a challenge. I feel it when I talk about the American university, my own urban public college and its role in the ecosystem of North Philadelphia, or even when I think about my own Blackness and our current political moment. Sometimes I feel like I will never be radical enough. Or maybe my politics will be ever changing.

My courses are going fairly well at this point, after a shaky period of forcing myself past my fear of sounding dumb in my second language. The only way to get past that uncomfortable wall was to climb it, sentence by sentence. To be honest, my pride was getting in the way of me really getting substantially better, as I wouldn’t let myself leave my comfort zone of small talk and safe phrases. But then, after some reflection, I realized I wouldn’t really be taking full advantage of this opportunity if I don’t dance in some unknown linguistic territory. The worst thing that has happened is that I’ve had to figure out a different way to say something. Hearing Je ne comprends pas is not a death sentence.