Coming back to self


Jon Tenholder, Louisville Kentucky

What does the word Queer mean to you?

Queer for me is knowing, existing, embracing that I am part of a minority, outside of the
heteronormative stories we have been told year after year about human life, survival, purpose.

Being queer is my heart saying my journey is different, more creative than roles, societal messages, behaviors surrounding my body and its purpose for existing. I am here to connect, to create art, to breathe, to learn, and that is affected by more than a filtered image of what consumerism, capitalism has instilled in us about gender, sex, and avenues to live as a human.

I am greater than someone else’s imagined life for me. Being born with XX chromosomes came with assumptions about what I was supposed to do, what trajectory I would take in life, and those ideas do not apply to me! I never identified with womanhood in a Western, cultural sense. I never have been. I played those roles as best I could and harnessed those energies and still do. I am human, with soft and firm traits, passive and assertive, passionate and caring, boyish, talkative. Queer is claiming my body, my mind, my spirit and setting it free from beliefs that have agency over my purpose or my image.

How do you identify? Why? Or why don’t you identify as anything at all?

I identify as trans-masculine, the term implying an intentional change to present and live within an historically understood view of masculine bodies while also allowing myself the flexibility of queerness for my body, how it moves, how I use it. Not restricting myself to Western masculine roles, but also taking them on and becoming what I want with them, reclaiming them.

I now know that this journey is an internal exploration of childhood dreams, of breaking free from a patriarchal, authoritarian family and community culture, while also trying to nurture what I appreciate about masculinity. I can now walk like, look like, exist like role models and humans that matched my spirit and interests as a young kid. That includes a mixture of female and male individuals from actors Leo Dicaprio, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen, to soccer heroes Ericca Todd, Mia Hamm, Landon Donovan, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Where are you originally from?
I am originally from Cape Girardeau, in the “bootheel” of Missouri. I consider it the south and it is still a vastly conservative place.

What has been your experience growing up and/or living in Kentucky?
I have lived in Louisville since 2014, Mississippi for almost 2 years before that, and I grew up in Missouri so my life has been under a Southern umbrella. My experiences as a queer person stretch from affirming and embracing to threatening, scary, hostile, rude upon coming out to people or being in public, from curiosity and genuine interest in my personhood. As early as I can remember, I identified openly as a boy and was criticized, laughed at, beat up by boy neighbors, ostracized by girl peers.

I always felt like I did not feel safe being me, or at least without experiencing resistance. On 7 out of 8 place of employment, I have experienced harassment, demotion, fired, transferred, lied to, gaslighted, written up, ostracized by customers and co-workers alike. These actions were not related to a lack of character or work-ethic, but directly connected to the openness of my identity, the bias and misunderstanding about my personhood, my persistence to address these issues, and the fact that I am naturally open about my thoughts and opinions.

This is my experience as a white, trans-masculine person with panic/anxiety and with a lack of sensitivity to it. With that said, I am grateful that I have had amazing, kind, patient friends who validate my pain, my feelings, my perspectives on the job and in the world from both queer and cis-het identities.

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?
I would say be brave and dig into past memories and feelings, validate and explore them. Find ideas, feelings, and descriptions for self that resonate deeply, intuitively and try them out. Personify them. Talk about them with trusted friends. Find role models, seek to meet your individual needs relentlessly: housing, health, emotional and social and take it a day at a time.

The whole process of coming back to yourself should be cherished, the dark and light and everything in between. Know that it may be painful, even dangerous, but we are capable of overcoming these pains with wit, passion, connection to others and self-love.
How does your own identity affect how you carry yourself? Or does it?
My identity does affect how I carry myself. When I am most anxious or working through panic attacks body dysphoria, I slouch, hunch, take up as little room as possible and try not to draw attention to myself. Recently, I have been walking in sync with my breath, my shoulders back, chest open, even though I am still waiting to have top surgery. Some of this is to maintain alertness and high energy for my safety, some of it to show that I am here and alive and worthy.
It is scary as hell to walk with courage and grace. It is vulnerable and empowering all at once. You tell the world its ok to be ok with you. Now being perceived as a masculine person, public life has changed for me. Femme people are coy with me, less open to socializing with me, which does make me sad because I grew up with women and I feel safest with them. But I understand their fears of course! Before coming out, cis-men harassed me to flirt or assert themselves inappropriately. Those memories and experiences have stayed with me, but now men still approach me thinking I will automatically welcome their presence and this creates anxiety for me so I sometimes step up my bro-ness to help me safe, but I hate it! So I try to maintain some type of queer edge, no matter what.
What issues do you see in the queer community? What do you think would solve those issues?
I think the queer community has to function from spaces of poverty, betrayal, internalized hate, lack of adequate or sensitive healthcare to no access at all to doctors or hormones. I think this sets the stage for daily living to be a continual challenge. Trauma changes you. It changes your brain and your body. Being marginalized deeply affects us; abuse, homelessness, ostracization from family and friends, change, grieving old identities and the way we used to function are all issues we deal with to varying degrees and with intersecting identities. I think focusing on healing ourselves, body, mind, and heart, whatever that looks like to each individual could help us immensely. Not just existing, but really working through our trauma and pain so we can be loving to ourselves, so we can thrive. Speaking out for ourselves, advocating for others, living
boldly, supporting each other politically, communally, learning about and listening to black, brown and non-Christian human experiences may help us develop legal, social, political, spiritual spaces and resources that are not present without intentional creation.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)?
I feel at my best when playing music and performing. When I am releasing my voice into the world, I feel bigger than my thoughts, my worries. I become my inner self for others to see and feel. Even playing my guitar by myself soothes me. I also love coffee shops because of the smells and destination for connection. In nature, I feel the most loved and rejuvenated; I am alive without talking or explaining myself. I am nurtured by the sounds and beings and smells. I love art galleries and craft stores because I can get lost in the colors and figures and messages from others worlds.