The Feminist Closet
“Look, Becina, this room has two closets: one for your clothes, and one for you!”
One of my friends told me this a few weeks ago as we toured upperclassmen dorms. I couldn’t stop laughing for the rest of the tour. Nothing beats a good closet joke.
I went to my first queer event when I still thought I was straight. The summer after eighth grade, while at a residential camp, a queer girl who lived down the hall invited me to a camp-sponsored discussion on BGLTQ issues. The event was open to everyone and was meant to be an informative panel where leaders could give an overview of different sexualities and genders and queer campers could talk about their experiences. During the discussion, I quietly listened to the speakers and took mental notes of my questions so I could Google them later. I left feeling concerned about the lack of BGLTQ equality in the world but empowered to learn more about it and do whatever I could as a cisgender and heterosexual (aka cishet) ally to change that.
A week later, two queer people in my hall were hosting a small queer get-together in a dorm room. I wasn’t personally invited, but, eager to be supportive in my role as a newly minted ally, I showed up anyways. Other allies had the same idea, and the event quickly dissolved into a Q&A session where the few self-identified queer people in the room felt obligated to explain their identities to a large group of curious allies. I didn’t notice how exhausted they were because I was too focused on my own questions, my own learning, and my own experience as an ally. I invaded their space and prioritized my desire to perform allyship over their need to build community.
A wave of relief flooded over me as I watched Obama's inauguration in my fifth grade science class. I was one of three black students in my grade and the only black student in the classroom, a fact no one ever dared to say out loud, but that silence nonetheless was off-putting. As a kid, even though I couldn’t process why, I knew I never wanted to draw any attention to my race. But, as Obama came onto the screen and started his speech, I realized that the only other person in the room who looked like me was the President of the United States. I felt comforted knowing I was no longer the only one. Suddenly, the idea of standing out because of my skin color didn't seem negative. I didn't need to look like everyone else or worry about fitting in. I could achieve anything and become anyone, just like Obama.
Five years later, I had another “Obama moment” when I realized that I was queer. Coming to terms with my sexuality has been a complicated and sometimes painful process, but one day, while watching Ellen, it dawned on me that she was gay. Of course, I’d known that for years, just like I already knew that Obama was black. But before, Ellen’s sexuality was little more than a trivia fact; in the context of what I was going through, it became a novel and crucial revelation. Ellen wasn’t straight. Neither was I. We shared that identity. The second thing I realized was that she seemed happy. She hosted a successful talk show, married a wonderful woman (and took adorable wedding photos with her), and was well-liked by the public. If Ellen could be happy, what’s stopping me?
I remember my first flannel. I stood in front of the dressing room mirror at Charlotte Russe, sizing up the pink and grey fabric swishing around my torso. This is it, I thought. Liberation. Pride. Acceptance. Finally, I could put my queerness on display for the world to see. This was the beginning of a new era in which everyone could take one look at me and know that I’m interested in girls. I could meet other queer women and talk about queer things and shop at queer places. Right?
Well no, not really. My life hasn’t changed drastically since that fateful day two years ago. I haven’t cut my hair short. There are no edgy piercings anywhere on my body, not even on my ears. My footwear of choice is flats, not black combat boots. I guess I’m not very good at being a lesbian. And therein lies the problem.