‘When I played T-ball, I twirled in the outfield’

Isiah Fish

What does the word “queer” mean to you?

It’s 2007. I get my first job popping corn & frying funnel cakes at a movie theater. With my first paycheck, I buy the “Queer as Folk” complete boxed set. Night by night, I devour it in the dark, sitting in a chair close to the TV, sound on low. I fall in love with one of the characters–Justin Taylor–& I find a boy at my school who’s just as blonde & I date him for two years. I’m not consciously aware that no one on the show looks like me; I’m only conscious of the fantasy: glitter falling from the dance floor in Babylon, gay comic books & men to make love to, torso after torso in a smoke-filled back room, the city as a maze where beautiful men trick & treat their bodies far into dawn–& I’m right there. I’m sitting in a chair, blanket wrapped around my shoulders like the toned arms of Brian Kinney, but I’m there.

“Queer” for me started here. This is what I think of when I hear the word, one consonant away from “Queen.” Rhymes with “clear.” The sound has a glassy ring to it, as if a martini glass was struck with a bread knife. “Queer” is a martini glass in the sill of a stained-glass window. Queer is a cocktail that heteros choke on.

How do you identify?

Artist. Beauty-monger, aerialist, circus-butterfly, mermaid in a martini glass materializing in a moonlit hotel room, a boy with sharp gold stars in his pockets, little witch bitch, little dreamer with the faux-diamond fist running towards a burning mustang with a fashion magazine rolled in my fist.

Where are you originally from and explain what it was like growing up in KY?

Louisville. J-Town.

When I played T-ball, I twirled in the outfield. When my coach asked why I refused to slide into home plate, I told him, “Because these pants are WHITE.” Dirt horrified me. I watched kids bake mud pies behind Mr. Ray’s blue house but never joined them. Middle school was suffocating because everyone was so wearily heteronormative. In eighth grade I made my first queer friend: a bi girl who pierced her own lip with a rainbow stud, & got reprimanded for it. No one understood us, so we moshed in the rain. Enter MySpace. Enter my Puerto Rican boyfriend who lived in Yonkers, NY. I’d ride my bike to talk to him on the payphone outside a Speedway. I can still hear his voice asking me if I owned a horse. Enter my parents finding a note from a boy & asking the question I’d been waiting years for them to ask. Enter my declaration. Enter my dad saying, “I already knew. You never liked to play with trucks,” with a smile. Enter the first straight boy I ever fell in love with, who was white, & played baseball at a Catholic school & would talk to me on the phone for hours each night. Enter my emo phase, the discovery of guyliner, the way I wore belts around my neck because my mood was a sad-boy-rager with an affinity for good lighting and self-portraiture. Enter my first kiss with a boy behind a fence in winter at a fish fry, how his hands were so cold they cracked & bled. How the kiss confirmed my sexuality, but further convoluted his. Enter high school. My boyfriend’s mother saying to him, “Why can’t you just date a nice white guy instead?” Enter a complex about my race, about my masculinity to effeminacy ratio, enter hating my own body, not understanding that my natural hair was just as beautiful as the hair of the boys on the lacrosse team. Enter my best girls, the ones I laughed into the night with, photographed at abandoned churches, & remained a constant lifeline despite the boys who came & disappeared.

What would you say to someone struggling to come into their own identity?

We’re on this planet for such a brief time. I know that it feels like you have to be a certain way in order to be accepted or validated, but realize that the only acceptance or validation that truly matters is yours. Sometimes “realizing” it is just something you have to live through. It’s a practice. Also, the only person in this world who can be you is YOU, so bitch, you better be the best you possible.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself?

I did gymnastics when I was younger, & in my twenties, I became an aerial acrobat for a circus company based out of Memphis. Grace is second-nature to me. The way I carry myself is an extension of that. I’m a lithe birdie, & I’m good at sneaking up on people.

In another sense, I’m vigilant. In his memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, Saeed Jones writes, “Being black can get you killed. Being gay can get you killed. Being a black gay boy is a death wish.”

I know I’m illegal in some parts of the world. I know my existence is illegal. I know there are places I could be battered to death with boulders for loving another man. I know I could be imprisoned for life. I’m grateful that I can be who I am in America, but I still have to be vigilant, okur? Hypervigilant, even.

Once, a white man in denim & cowboy boots called me a faggot under his breath in Borders, while I perused the CD collection. (Do y’all remember Borders? Do y’all remember CDs?) I walked over to him & said, “What did you say?” & he stuttered, “What? Nothing.”

Nevermind that he called me a faggot; nevermind that when confronted, he couldn’t own up to it. Some men skip the name-calling & come straight at your throat with a broken bottle. Some men torture you & then murder you with their buddies. I’m aware that I move differently. I’m aware that some people love my theatricality & flamboyant lust for life. I’m also aware that some men fear it, which is really about them, not me, yet it could be my life on the line. You know what happened to Matthew Shepard. Do you know what happened to Jadin Bell?

What issues do you see in the queer community?

I could list dozens, from racism & internalized homophobia to drug-abuse & body-image issues & many of them are the same issues rampant in the “straight” community (if that’s even a thing?), but I think in the human community, there is a prominent lack of kindness. I think many queer people have been marginalized & traumatized & never learned how to love themselves, so the self-hate manifests as destructive behavior to themselves & to others. I’ve sought validation in other people because I didn’t believe that I was good enough. It’s something I had to live through to realize. An aha! Moment, like wait, I don’t have to live up to anyone’s or any society’s ideal. I just have to honor my true authentic self. I’ve been teaching myself how to love me (thanks RuPaul) & how to be kind to myself. Because that is where happiness is. I used to think I needed someone else to make me whole. Now I know that I have to be whole on my own. Shout out to Oprah on that one.

Recently, I was at a friend’s house & a mutual posted a picture of his battered face on Instagram. His boyfriend had been beating the shit out of him for months, but no one knew. Looking at the picture, my friend says, “but they were so cute on Instagram!” & I said, “Instagram isn’t real.” Instagram is one of the grandest illusions, like gender. I would know, because my Instagram is curated in this flowery, fashiony aesthetic–it’s one of the ways I make my life into a work of art. But some people endlessly scroll, & they get warped into this frenzy of social-media masochism: all the beautiful bodies they see that make them feel bad, instead of logging off, they keep going! When my friend posts a pic & doesn’t receive the amount of likes he wants and then deletes the pic–so this is all for validation then? & what does validation give you in the end? I’ll wait.

Do you feel excluded from the mainstream queer community?

I don’t feel exclud ed, but there was a moment when I felt super judged by “someone in my community:”

I was standing in line for a burger at one of WKUs eateries & this gay boy sees me, & I have this gift where, when people look at me, they know I’m gay right, & so this gay boy comes over & straight up says, “Wanna hook up?” & I said, “Um, no,” & he said, “Why not? That’s what we do.”

It was a really strange moment. It wasn’t even how forward he was, it was the disgusted way he looked at me when I said I wasn’t into casual sex. It’s like, Gurl, you do you, & I’m not judging you for having your casual flings, so can I get the same respect?

I’m really grateful to have embraced what I used to think made me an outlier. Anytime I don’t feel good enough, or I feel like I’m lacking something, I stop & I say, “Who are you comparing yourself to? What ideal are you trying to live up to?” & the negative thought is neutralized. Then I remember that as far as I’m concerned, I’m the new American Standard.

Where do you feel at your most fabulous?

I went to Louisville Pride 2019 & it was pretty fabulous. My daytime look was a yellow skirt & soccer jersey–lots of leg, lots of androgyny. My nighttime look was the real kicker, though: a red crop top that read “1990” & a fucking wide leg trouser that fanned out just above my cheetah print stilettos. After Todrick Hall performed, I walked down the middle of the street to Nowhere Bar, & I was spotlit by streetlights on Bardstown Road & someone called out, “Okay PANTS! I see you!” & a boy broke away from his group of friends to ask me my name. I told him it was Butterfly. I walked slow. So slow that every step dropped honey. So slow that from a distance, I imagined the little girl who was watching me with rainbow face paint on her cheek thought that time was crumbling all around me.