Being Queer

Beth Rich, Queer Kentucky Writer

 

I am thrilled to be a writer for Queer Kentucky, and excited to share my story here. This is the first time I’ve shared parts of this publicly, and I am excited to have the space and support to do so.

Queer-ness to me is about how I see, experience and interact with the world. It’s connected to gender and sexuality, sure, but it’s also more than that. To me, queer is not fitting into the boxes, queer is being on the margins, queer is feeling like an outsider. And those things are difficult. I’ve been hurt because of them, but there’s also so much beauty and opportunity there. Being queer presents me with the opportunity to see, discover, and embrace all parts of myself, no matter how desperate they might seem. Being queer invites me to celebrate myself in my entirety. Queer-ness, to me, is about integration, wholeness and discovery.

I identify as queer. I am a cis woman married to a cis man, so there’s a lot of privilege that comes with that. I’m in this place where I could choose never to come out and people probably wouldn’t know the difference. When I first realized I was queer, it felt more about who I am attracted to. Right now it feels more about the ways I think, the ways I experience my gender, my body, my mind, my self. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about balancing and embracing the femininity and masculinity within myself. There are parts of me that are very masculine that sometimes bring up defensiveness, fear and anger because I’ve spent much of my life fighting for those parts of my self, body and personality to be recognized. And then there are parts of me that are very feminine, that I’ve often downplayed or ignored because I didn’t want to be seen as weak, didn’t want to be sexualized and objectified any more than I already was, didn’t want to be left out because “I was a girl.” I am starting to see all of myself, embracing both the masculine and the feminine within me and giving each of them room to grow and thrive. I really want to accept all of it and make room for myself, so that I can harness the power and beauty that comes with full expression.

I am from Alabama, and moved to Louisville, Kentucky a little over three years ago. Honestly, there is much of my growing up experience that I don’t remember. I grew up in a Christian family, and was a sure, steady, believing Christian myself for much of my life.

Eventually, after college, I started having doubts, but before that things just stopped feeling “right.” I had no words for it, it wasn’t a conscious transformation in the beginning. But I stepped down from several positions of church involvement, started reading different books, started asking questions. And in the middle of all of that, I moved. I was on my way to North Carolina, dying to get a PhD in Comparative Literature from either UNC or Duke, but doors just kept slamming in my face, and I ended up living for the summer in my great-grandmother’s house in Central KY. My entire family, both my mom and my dad’s side, live in a tiny, two-stoplight town. I spent a summer with nanas, papas, grannies, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Though I don’t love everything about small town life, I am really grateful for the family support I received from them that summer, and for a quiet place tucked away in the middle-of-nowhere to read, rest, and figure out what was next. When my plans in North Carolina fell through, my family members suggested Louisville. They connected me with a couple of friends and I got a part-time job teaching English (ESL) to adults at Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

When I arrived in Louisville, I still considered myself a Christian, still felt like one, still believed. But I knew I had issues with the denomination I’d grown up in, and wanted to find something else. One of my issues was the racism I’d seen growing up, not always overt or conscious, but there nonetheless, so the first church I attended was an AME Zion church, a traditionally African-American denomination. I wanted to learn from church leaders who were people of color. I attended several services, and asked to meet with the pastor to better understand the church’s beliefs and practices. I had also chosen this church because the main pastor was a woman. I had grown up in a church that believes women can’t be in positions of leadership, and the most a woman can do is teach Sunday School or Bible studies to people younger than herself or other women. In that meeting, I asked the pastor what she thought the Bible said and what she believed about queer people. (Actually, I probably asked about homosexuality; I didn’t have the vocabulary and understanding that I do now.) As a woman, as a Black woman, I expected her to be accepting of queerness and homosexuality. Maybe that was assumptive of me, and I didn’t know then why her answer was so important to me. I had little conscious reasoning behind why I asked that question, I think the most I had a sense of was that I didn’t want to join another church community where I’d be taught, asked, required to look down on, police, or judge another group of people. When I asked, she immediately said something like “Well, it’s wrong. The Bible clearly says homosexuality is wrong and anyone who says differently is lying to themselves.” I remember feeling disappointed, like if I stayed I would just have to leave again because I’d be asked to see yet another group of people as wrong and less than. So I left that church too.

After that I tried what is, in many ways, the other end of the spectrum when it comes to churches; I attended an Episcopal church for several months. I rode my bike to an Evensong service where it ended up just being me, a church member, and one of the priests. I had coffee with them after the service, and ended up asking the same question. They were more accepting it seemed, and said something like they weren’t sure what the Bible says about homosexuality, but they did know that the Bible asks Christians to love, and so that was their focus. If I remember correctly, they seemed to disagree with each other a bit, but didn’t openly state their personal views. A few weeks (or months, I’m not entirely sure) after I began attending that church, the entire Episcopal church ruled to make the rite of marriage through their churches available to all people, regardless of gender. I don’t know all of the ins and outs of it, but the church I was attending split (or nearly split, again I’m not sure) because of that decision. Many members thought homosexuality was a sin, while others were convinced that the Bible asks Christians to love all people, and that that love freely extends to queer people. I didn’t stick around to learn more or take sides. I felt fragile, frustrated. It was enough work to hold space for myself to work through my own conflicting ideas, I knew I was unable to be a part of yet another community set on arguing over who is right and who’s wrong, who deserves love and respect, judgment and condemnation, and who doesn’t.

I know that there are queer people who are Christians, who are religious. I know that there are Christians and religious people who are fully accepting of queer folks. I know there are probably many people who were (and are) a part of my life and church experience who wished (or still wish) that I would have taken more time to talk things through, to understand their point of view, to be more gentle in my exit from the church and Christianity. (There are also Christians who love, accept, and understand me just as they did when I shared their faith, and there are those who are trying, and for that I am so very thankful and glad.) I also know that there are people who wish I would have stayed. People who want me to come back. But I couldn’t, I can’t, and I won’t. Though some of my reactions to Christianity have been motivated by hurt and fear, my decision to leave the church and identify as an atheist was driven by love and curiosity. (Note: I’m not completely happy with the word “atheist” or its associated identity, but it’s the closest word I currently have to define my worldview; humanist and nihilist also sometimes stick.) Love for myself, love for other people that I care about and refuse to judge, correct, convert, or convince. Curiosity about the world, and desire for an open, ever-growing worldview that has room for all of my discoveries, truths, and experiences. It’s taken three years for me to feel comfortable and safe enough to share this publicly, but this is my truth. Sometimes my experiences still hurt. Sometimes I miss pieces of the church community, practices, and beliefs. But I am free, I am healing, I am happy.

I don’t think it’s particularly notable that I had this experience in Kentucky, I think it could have happened anywhere. But I do find it interesting that I’ve wound up here and that this is where I left Christianity and discovered my queer-ness. I had always grown up visiting Kentucky (which as a kid, to me, meant that tiny town in Central Kentucky) but never planned to move here. When I moved to Louisville, people would tease me: “Why would you choose to move to a place like Kentucky?” When I said “Well, I came from Alabama,” they’d laugh and tease me even more. “Oh, well that makes sense. At least Kentucky ain’t Alabama.”

I am a strange Southerner, someone who’s often wanted to leave. Many days I still do. But, I’m also glad that I’ve stayed. That I’ve lived in both Alabama and Kentucky. That I’ve learned and grown here and grappled with what it means to be a queer, college educated, non-Chrisitan, white woman in the US South.

I discovered this interview in the Bitter Southerner with Lee Bains III when I was a senior in college. I was still attending church, still identifying as a Christian, still totally unaware of my queer-ness, but I LOVED every one of his words, and hung onto them even before they meant to me what they mean now. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the piece:

“The discourse of the powerful in the South has held Southern identity outside the grasp of multitudes. So, yes, I, personally, as a leftist, reasonably intellectual, open-minded Southerner, feel that I have been disallowed of my very identity by the discourse of the powerful, and, with this record, I am engaged in a process of reclaiming that identity for myself. But I hope too, and really more importantly, to invite other, more marginalized Southerners, and members of any culture anywhere for that matter, to engage in that same process — to refuse to be treated as strangers in their own land.”

That’s how I feel about being Southern, living in Alabama and now Kentucky. Even in Louisville, a city that celebrates its liberalism, openness, and culture. (No place is perfect, sure. But I think Louisville has a lot of growth to do, and it’s growth that I’m not altogether convinced will happen because the power in this city is nowhere near evenly distributed. In many ways the city is still segregated. Our laws don’t protect all of us, in fact they hurt many of us. So. I don’t want to live here forever. It’s not a place I want to raise my kids one day. It’s a place that’s difficult for me to live in. For those of you that feel that way and choose to make a life here anyway, you have my deep respect and gratitude. For those who don’t feel that way, good for you.) So here—in the US South, in Kentucky, in Louisville—I am deeply, passionately engaged in a process of reclaiming a Southern identity for myself and in creating and celebrating places that make room for Southerners more marginalized than myself to do the same. I refuse to be treated as a stranger in the land I grew up on. (Note: I’m hesitant to call it my or our own land. I appreciate the sentiment, but I think that it’s important to acknowledge the reality that this is not my land, our land. In many respects, this is stolen land.)

Later in the article, Bains says:

“It doesn’t matter where your parents were born or what religious tradition you follow or what type of person you find attractive; if you say you’re a Southerner, then you’re a fucking Southerner, and we need to hear about it. We need to hear what you love and hate about it. We need a real, open discourse about authentic culture and identity.”

I find this statement true about Southern identity, and true of queer identity. I am queer, and other people, queer and straight, can benefit from hearing what I have to say about my identity. I don’t really feel a part of “mainstream” queer culture. Because it’s very easy for people to assume I’m straight, and many do, I’m not always readily included or thought of in queer spaces or culture. Like the brilliant Hannah Gadsby said in her Netflix special, Nanette, “I don’t even think lesbian is the right identity for me…I identify as tired.” Queer is part of my identity. But I also identify as tired. As a bitter Southerner. As a million other things, a few that fit into mainstream, popular queer culture, and many that don’t.

Instagram has actually been a really big part of my queer journey, it’s been a way to find community and find people that I admire and identify with. I am studying to be a doula, a person that offers physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual support to people during times of transition (traditionally through birth, pregnancy, and postpartum, but I also want to offer similar support to people dealing with loss, academic and career transitions, cancer, other medical procedures and issues, and death). One of my favorite-ever doulas is a queer woman married to a cis man, Erica Chidi Cohen. Another doula I super-admire is Lindsey Bliss of Carriage House Birth, also a queer woman married to a cis man, and Vyana Novus-Magee is another amazing person that I’ve connected with through Instagram who’s a queer woman married to a cis man. Writing this makes me realize that I used to feel pretty lonely in my queer identity, and that it’s been empowering and encouraging to find queer people who share a similar experience to my own. Which takes me in two directions: issues in the queer community and a person who’s influenced who and where and what I am today.

Issues in the queer community: there’s a lot of cliques. Like any other segment of the population, we’ve created in-groups, we often stick with people who look and act like us and that can cause a lot of disconnection. I think it’s important to recognize and examine our personal experiences and specific privileges, and I also think it’s important to come together, to connect with queer people who don’t look like you, talk like you, act like you, identify like you, have sex like you. I think there’s a lot of healing that can, and I hope will, happen within the queer community. Racism and sexism are very much a part of this community, this culture, even if queer is already a marginalized identity. I’d love to see us heal some of our individual and collective wounds, and move into a more accepting, curious way of interacting with one another.

My person: I’ve mentioned being married already, I’ve mentioned being a queer cis woman married to a queer cis man. For most of my life, I was unable to imagine a person I’d want to marry. When I left the church and Christianity, I wondered if marriage meant anything to me. It does, but that’s meaning I’ve created, we’ve created. Meaning that would not exist for me if it weren’t for Bobby. Bobby is my favorite person, the biggest piece of my world. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure when I would have realized I was queer and I am sure that coming to that realization and stepping into my identity would have been much more challenging and painful. I met Bobby soon after I moved to Louisville, and he was a friend, a listener, a support as I navigated moving to a new place, leaving Christianity, and defining my identity for myself. A 6’5”, 200+ pound person who studies Nietzschean philosophy, writes poetry that scares the shit out of many, and lifts thousands of pounds of what look like torture implements in his home gym every week, Bobby would not be described by all who meet him as friendly, loving, or open. But I am luckier than I imagined I could be that, since the day I met him, he’s shown me nothing but friendship, love, and openness. When he came out to me as queer, he texted me (I went back and read the texts, this is verbatim):

“I’m with you because I want to be with you. [Being queer] is something you need to know about me. Because you can know more fully who I am, and because I can be closer to you through being more open and honest. And also I want you to know because if you ever feel like you need to express or explore gender expression or sexuality differently, I want you to know you can. I have no expectations except for you.”

That’s proven to be true, and his acceptance of his own queerness has encouraged and inspired me to accept and explore my gender, my sexuality, my self. We eloped last summer in Cherokee Park, on my birthday (and had a second, bigger wedding ceremony upstairs above Ramsi’s cafe in October, on our second anniversary). We wrote our own vows and this is how mine ended:

“Your teacher, your friend, Nickole, and her wife wrote an essay about their marriage. In it, her wife, Jessica said:

What can be a greater act of self-definition than making you my wife, my chosen family?

I want to echo her words here.

I choose you as my family.

I choose to define myself as yours. Not because you own me or as someone forced to stay. But because this is what makes sense, more than anything else. Being your family, being your wife.”

And now, just a little over a year later, those words ring true. I imagine they always will. Bobby is the person who’s influenced me most and there’s no one else I’d rather define myself by, with, and alongside.

That’s my story. For anyone struggling to come into your own identity, I would encourage you that you’re not alone. And that, even if it doesn’t feel like it, you fit into the queer community. Your experiences, your feelings, your preferences matter, and there’s room for them. Stay curious. Whenever you can, reach out to people who make room for you, people who listen to you, people who love you.

Here is to chosen family, beautiful acts of self-identification, and the reclamation and celebration of our stories, as queer, as Kentuckians, as humans.

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