Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Tegan & Sara Made Me Queer

Part Eleven of an ongoing series.
Catch up with Part One here.
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Would you take a straight and narrow critical look at me?*

Somehow I knew I was queer long before I knew I was trans. Not consciously, of course – it didn’t make any sense why I felt the way I did. Until the age of 35 I had no reason to believe myself anything other than a heterosexual cis dude. I liked women, after all. Never had so much as a shred of doubt about that fact. So how come, if I was attracted to women, I felt persistently . . . not straight? How to even quantify such a strange inclination?

Women I dated joked sometimes that I acted like a lesbian. There was always a sharper undercurrent, though, an acknowledgment that there was something not quite right about my ostensible heterosexuality. Pieces missing. Unconventional emphases.

I always cared about issues related to queer politics. Always took pride in keeping up on the news. I knew about trans issues (even if I still understood little about actually being trans) long before I had any inkling I was trans. That should have been a warning sign, since it wasn’t a part of the national discourse until recently. But I cared and tried to extend every courtesy I could when it came up, which to be fair it rarely did.

In October of 2009 Tegan & Sara released Sainthood. I bough the album on Christmas Eve of that year, along with a couple Warp Records compilations and Dâm-Funk’s Toeachizown. It was my first Tegan & Sara album, but I tracked down the rest within a couple weeks.

But I promise this, I won't go my whole life telling you I don't need.*

Sex was always a painful topic. I didn’t talk about it. Was actively, sometimes comically squeamish about it. Even now just writing these words and talking in the most generalized terms about sex is uncomfortable. There’s a lifetime of awkwardness and discomfort holding me back.  

It just didn’t work out for me. I was married from 2000-2005, and without betraying any secrets that deserve to stay buried I did not acquit myself particularly well. Subsequent relationships fared little better. It’s not that I couldn’t or didn’t want to, I just . . . wasn’t very good at it, and I’ll leave the details to your imagination.

A few years ago I realized that it wasn’t going to happen. Whatever it was inside people that made them able to have fulfilling, interesting, fun, or even tolerable sex lives, it was missing in me. And I felt shame and disappointment, the latter not just for me but also for the women unfortunate enough to find themselves in my orbit. Any problems were my fault entirely. Other people had sex and seemed to have a grand old time with it, but the universe was telling me it was something I needed to fold up and put away. It wasn’t going to happen and trying to make it happen was only going to bring about heartbreak and disappointment for everyone concerned.

And that’s roughly where I was at in the Spring of 2016, when everything changed.

When you wake what is it that you think of most? When your bed is empty do you really sleep alone?*

I don’t possess any special insight into being queer. I’ve known I was queer as of this writing for a little over a year.

If you want a textbook definition of queer, buy a textbook.

What does it mean for me?

Nothing ever felt right. I did everything I was supposed to but it never worked out the way it was supposed to. What’s worse, not only were women not attracted to me (that I knew of – if any did they kept quiet about it), but they seemed to like and trust me. If that doesn’t sound bad, you’ve never been a teenage boy – or, more precisely, someone who believed they were a teenage boy. Boys want to be tough and mysterious, they’re taught in a million ways implicit and explicit that women are attracted to distance and strength. Girls felt completely comfortable around me in a way that telegraphed the fact that not only was I no threat, but I was essentially a noncombatant.

Looking back and trying to make sense of these years is confusing. I want to stress again that I had no clue, no inkling that I was any different than any other teenage boy, at least in respect to matters of love and lust. There were differences of course, and they were significant, but hardly existential. I grew up poor – but a lot of people grew up poor. I went to junior high and high school in a poor county, so it wasn’t unusual that most of my clothes came from Wal-Mart. Even though it was tough there was always food on the table and a roof over our heads. My parents were disabled so even though we didn’t have much what we did have came regularly enough to keep the lights on. We got by.

I had fucked up teeth growing up – symptoms of poverty and genetics. You wouldn’t know it to look at me now but I had braces twice while growing up – once in grade school, later in high school. Braces in high school sucked, but it was necessary. My teeth still aren’t perfect but at this point I’m the only one who notices my underbite.

On top of being poor and having bad teeth, I was weird. Another thing that has always confused me, especially since I grew up in a conservative area, is why I was never bullied. No one ever called me a fag or spread rumors I was gay, which seems improbable in hindsight. The reasons why are complex and unsatisfactory. In the first place, while I was weird I was weird in a way that didn’t code as gay at all. I was always mooning over girls and that was public knowledge. I was also unpredictable, weird not in terms of being weak or feminine (in ways that kids I saw being bullied were), but weird in terms of being hyperintelligent, erratic, and prone to bouts of sudden and inexplicable violence. I always made people laugh, which was a great defense mechanism. People usually didn’t fuck with me because it wasn’t worth the trouble when they didn’t know which version of me they were going to get: the version of me who laughed it off and diffused the situation amicably, or the version of me who started screaming like a banshee and would haunt you to the ends of the earth at the smallest slight.

But I think the most important reason I never got bullied is that, regardless of the above problems, most people liked me. Girls thought I was nice and funny, so there were no social points to be gained in picking on me. I also figured out a neat trick for social survival: find the coolest person in the room and make them your friend. If you’re pals with the person everyone else looks up to, it’s a free pass. I got lucky in high school because I knew a few upperclassman and I happened to look a few years older than I was, so no one in my own class looked twice at me. I let some football players copy my homework freshman year, and while we were never good friends we stayed head-nod-in-the-hallways acquaintances until graduation.

None of these explanations are fully satisfactory. I just got lucky, I guess. I never got bullied, probably because there were always easier targets. Kids who couldn’t so easily hide being weaker. 

But I was still different, even if many of the differences were internal and private. I avoided activities that were coded as male – never played sports, save for one three-week stretch in a city basketball league during fourth grade (my sole possession resulted in me passing the ball to the other team). I did drama in high school, mostly because it was easy and was disproportionately popular with girls. That meant, although at the time I didn’t know why, I was just more comfortable. Outside of the social element, however, I felt no intrinsic connection to the theater and haven’t thought about it twice since graduation.

There I am in the morning. I don't like what I see.*

The first time I heard Tegan & Sara I knew they were my new favorite band. It was immediate and visceral: one moment I knew almost nothing about them, the next I was listening to them nonstop. Morning to night on repeat.

They’re twins, Tegan R. & Sara K. Quin, born just a week before me. Same age. They could have been my sisters. There was an instant connection I couldn’t quite explain, and it didn’t add up to anyone around me either. Where the heck did these chirpy lesbian sisters with guitars come from? That was a new one.

I couldn’t explain it, so I didn’t try. It was like a drug: I listened to their music and I felt better. I put on Sainthood or The Con and somehow even though I was a doughy hetero cis dude I felt accepted and understood by those records, more than I can explain even now. These words can’t do justice to those feelings.

It hurt, sometimes. I felt at home with them in a way that seemed to gesture at something much bigger inside of me. The title track on The Con is an explosion of angst and anger, outward and inward, and nothing in the world hits with the impact of those first lines – “I listened in / Yes I'm guilty of this you should know this” – frantic, almost panicked, but able to vent that anxiety outward in controlled bursts. It plucks a chord at the bottom of a subterranean channel somewhere I could never quite identify.

Seeing them live, nothing hits with the force of that opening guitar strum, like dropping a bomb on the audience.

Soon it was as necessary as water or air. Listening to Tegan & Sara gave me a fleeting sensation of wholeness, something I couldn’t define but which was undeniable. It was transitory but real, broadcast at a frequency no one else around me seemed able to hear. I wasn’t alone.

I felt you in my life before I ever thought to.*

There was always a point in every relationship where my partner would look at me and realize something was missing. It’s not hard to see why, now – I was pretending to be a heterosexual male, trying my damnedest to fit into a role that I didn’t understand. I understood the expectations and knew from a lifetimes’ observation how I was supposed to act and what I was supposed to do, but it never came out right. My knowledge of being a man in that situation was purely negative, composed mainly of filling in the blanks through inference based on what didn’t work. Chiaroscuro masculinity.

It never occurred to me that this was unusual. I thought everyone had these problems, had to think about how to present themselves to the world, how to act with other people, how to approach women. I knew what didn’t work, but never quite figured out what did.

One pattern that recurred multiple times was being attracted to lesbians. It was so unerring as to be a kind of superpower. I never had a clue. I’d only learn this after asking them out, when they would ever so awkwardly inform me that I was barking up the wrong tree. And that always hurt because invariably the women I felt most comfortable around were queer women. Quite confusing.

I never got too excited about hetero romances in movies or TV. Whenever there was so much as a hint of a lesbian relationship, however, I felt strangely invested in a way that I never could have explained. There weren’t very many of those, incidentally. Certainly not enough that I could string together any kind of pattern. As I say, I grew up in the sticks, and even when I was older there wasn’t much if you weren’t specifically looking.

I never had any particular connection to gay male cultural artifacts, either, with one notable exception – Brokeback Mountain, which became one of my favorite movies the first time I saw it, a position it retains to this day. It’s one of the only movies that ever made me cry, and I never understood why I became so attached. I assume now I responded to the idea of living a deeply closeted life – at the time of the film’s release I was closeted even from myself.

The story that meant the most to me for years and years, however, was the sixth episode of the third season of the British high school soap opera Skins. My partner watched the first two seasons on her own and although it was hardly a revelatory TV experience she was hooked enough to lasso me into the third season. I wasn’t paying too much attention until we got to the episode focusing in on the lesbian relationship between two students, Naomi and Emily. After a lifetime spent seeing lesbian relationships on the edges of the media, through innuendo or – worse – sensationalism, here was an authentic romance between two young women dealing with the consequences of growing up queer in a society that only pretends to be tolerant.

Emily was a very pretty girl but mousy in the way that TV tries to tell us that pretty people are when they wear plain clothes and natural makeup. Naomi had a shock of short blond hair and dressed like a boy. She was powerful and chaotic and every kind of freedom balled up into a single human being. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was obvious that I wasn’t attracted to her, I wanted to be her so bad that every cell in my body vibrated at the thought, and then shuddered at the reality.

I quit watching the rest of the season because that episode knocked me for a loop. I had no idea why, but seeing a romance between two normal women portrayed in such a matter-of-fact manner – it broke something inside of me. I never finished the series, I never even went back to that episode. I don’t really remember anything else about that show but that one single episode remains burnt into my memory. It hurt in a way that startled me, forcing me for a brief moment to confront the fact that I related more strongly to women in love with other women then any other kind of romance I had ever seen or experienced.

Years later the sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror released an episode called “San Junipero” dealing with similar themes. I already knew what I was by then, so it didn’t impress me quite so much. The stories that held so much power over me were the stories that had resonated with a part of me that still lay hidden, sleeping – stories that reached into a part of me completely locked away, brushed for just a moment against something sensitive and trembling and fearful.

Now I wanna write a love song, even though you never ever asked me for one.*

That’s what Tegan & Sara meant to me, had always meant to me, although I hadn’t had the words to describe it. I worry sometimes about appropriation – a common criticism leveled against trans women, that we are mere carpetbaggers using our male privilege (snort) to elbow our way into spaces in which we don’t belong and steal identities that don’t belong to us.

What cultural space am I colonizing, when I sing along to Tegan & Sara? When I feel the same longing, the same desire to be vulnerable, to trust and to be worthy of trust? “Someday” is the last song on Sainthood, and it’s about the aspiration for love, the idea that even if you don’t feel worthy now, maybe someday you might just be:

Might paint something I might want to hang here someday,
Might write something I might want to say to you someday,
Might do something I'd be proud of someday,
Mark my words, I might be something someday.

I want more than anything to be worthy of being loved. How does that hurt anyone? (Of course, the trick to being loved is that you don’t get to decide whether you’re worthy or not.)

You got a shock to your system, knocked your heart right out of sync.*

When I knew I was trans I knew I was queer, practically in the same heartbeat. Here finally was a word that described me, a word that summed up all the conflicted, contradictory, aching feelings I’d had since I first understood what sex and attraction were. I always loved women, but I hadn’t loved them in the right way. Now it made sense that there was a right way.

Heterosexuality is a great mystery, and even after decades of pretense I am still no closer to understanding the rules of that game. What does it mean to be attracted to something so unlike yourself? Men aren’t attractive at all! I’m sure a few of you disagree (har har!) but whatever you see is invisible to me.

Women are good, but when I knew I was trans I knew there was a third option: people like me. People who understand what it’s like to live this odd bifurcated life, raised and browbeat to be one thing before learning that we can be entirely another. It’s a strange life, and not one that I can easily explain to someone who doesn’t already understand.

There are many myths surrounding trans people, trans women in particular. There is the belief that trans women all begin as gay men, and are all attracted to men. In the years before I knew what being trans entailed I probably believed this one myself, but that knowledge was so haphazard and circumstantial that it’s already impossible to discern what I used to think from what I know now, or if I ever thought about it at all. I avoided thinking about these things, probably because there was a part of my brain that knew to be afraid. I never once questioned whether or not I was trans in all the years leading up to my revelation, and probably one reason why the question never occurred to me was that I knew I wasn’t attracted to men.

There is also the belief – related to the first – that we all grow up fetishizing certain aspects of femininity, and spend years as crossdressers or drag queens before transitioning. That certainly didn’t apply to me. The reason why this myth has any basis in reality at all is not that being trans is intrinsically related to any kind of sexual fixation but because those of us do who grow up with an inkling as to our true nature long for what is denied us. Things like dresses and long hair and makeup certainly aren’t intrinsic to womanhood, but they’re intrinsic to many commonly held ideas about womanhood. If you know from a young age that you’re supposed to be a girl and that option is denied you, you will become attached to whatever symbols your mind associates with your correct gender. If you think it’s wrong to associate those objects with femininity, look to society as a whole and not 0.6% of the population to affix blame.

I was an only child. I had no sisters to perform any version of femininity for me. My mom was a tomboy who had been forced to wear dresses growing up and swore upon reaching adulthood to never do so again. She didn’t carry a purse and although she usually kept her hair long she also cut it shorter at various points. We grew up in snow country so pretty much everyone wore the same kinds of clothes for much of the year – heavy jeans and thick sweaters and boots. My mom worked as a 9/11 dispatcher and her work uniform was no different than any other employee of the sheriff’s department. She’s a feminist and she raised me to be one as well, and that included the belief that women can dress however the fuck they want – even if she personally thought dresses were awful. (I’ve still never seen my mother in a dress, although she did go back to carrying a purse a while ago.)

My mom loved sci-fi and fantasy, and when she was a kid she read comic books and skipped school to go fishing. My dad loved sci-fi and fantasy, too, although he cared more for crime and police stuff than either my mom or me. We watched Star Trek together as a family, from my earliest memories up until I moved out of the house at nineteen.

So if I don’t like men, and don’t want to wear dresses or grow my hair out, what do I want?

I want to be like all the cool dykes with sharp asymmetrical haircuts who always seemed to symbolize a freedom and acerbic insouciance I could only ever faintly pantomime while playacting as a man. I don’t have a pair of Doc Marten’s but only because they’re a bit out of my price range – I’m content with my checkerboard Vans. When I transitioned I traded my shapeless denim for tight black skinny jeans that suddenly looked really good on the curves given me by the grace of estrogen.

Maybe I would have been something you'd be good at.*

I’ve seen Tegan & Sara in concert twice: once in 2010 in Northampton, MA, the first date on their Sainthood tour, and again in Oakland a few years later on their tour for Heartthrob.

The first time was only a month and a half after buying Sainthood, but I already knew all the words to all the songs. I had expected to feel out-of-place, seeing them in Northampton – as close as a hometown crowd as you could imagine in the United States for two Canadian lesbians. But there was none of that. As soon as the lights went down I was just another voice screaming in the darkness until I was hoarse. For a couple hours I got to forget who I was and be someone else.

The second time wasn’t quite as memorable. I wasn’t as excited about Heartthrob. It’s not a bad album by any means, but it’s a different kind of album – synthesizers and drum programming, no guitars. They set out to make a Robyn album, and they succeeded, right down to replicating Robyn’s regrettable hit/miss ratio. I’m not one to resent artists who try to broaden their fanbase, but I can still say that trying to do so meant jettisoning much of what made their music so important to me – the raw emotion, the longing and the anger and the wit of being a queer person writing to an audience primarily composed of other queer people. I didn’t hear that so much anymore. Sometimes, flashes.

If Heartthrob was a Robyn album, Love You To Death was CHVRCHES. They seemed more comfortable with the synthpop sound, which meant paradoxically that the sound had become more faceless and generic. Interviews around the release of the record were defensive – not nasty, never mean, just disappointed that some of their fans weren’t enthusiastic about the new direction. Oh well. It happens. I don’t begrudge them doing something different, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way. The album also came out just over a month after I voiced at the end of April 2016. I wasn’t in the mood for pop music. I needed that hardcore emotional shit.

After that I put Tegan & Sara away for a while. I went over half a year without hearing a single note, my longest time away since Christmas 2009. I got back into some other music I hadn’t listened to in a while – Beach House, Animal Collective, Roxy Music. Spoon. Interpol. Arcade Fire. I didn’t need to experience that prosthetic queerness so much anymore since I was living the real deal. But I knew I’d be back. I always come back.

Watch, with a bit of friction I'll be under your clothes. With a bit of focus I'll be under your skin.*

I keep circling around the question, I know – what does it mean to be queer? Why am I queer, how do I know? All that stuff.

It’s still a contested term. Some people don’t like it. Some people try to police, stand astride the gates of queerness in order to enforce some kind of purity test. I’m just a babe in the woods, barely out of the egg myself. I don’t pretend to know anything, but I know I’m as queer as the day is long, and I trust anyone else who tells me they are. Who am I to judge?

I try to be careful with my words because I know there are still many who would twist them, use them to visit harm on myself or other trans people. I know, for instance, many feminists reject trans women out of hand. Although I bristle at their asinine logic I honestly wish them no harm. I am not trying to invade any space where I am not wanted and welcome – which, admittedly, excludes me from a great many spaces, but that’s life. One way to avoid unnecessary conflict is simply to avoid people who want to pick fights with you.

I call myself a lesbian knowing full well that many others will bristle at the description. But I’m also mostly attracted to other women like myself – trans women. Why would I wish to have anything to do, romantically, with anyone who didn’t want to enthusiastically engage in a fully consensual relationship? I’ll be over here doing my thing, thanks.

I can’t take transphobic arguments seriously because I know what I am. (I take the political consequences very seriously, obviously, but the arguments themselves are barely worth discussing.) If there were any doubts they dissolved when my first estrogen pill dissolved under my tongue. It’s common enough to accuse those who seek to exclude trans women from the category of women of biological essentialism, and I suppose I am opening myself up to the same criticism here, albeit from the other angle. So be it. Of course it must be said that not all trans folk undergo hormone therapy – some can’t for various reasons, some don’t want to. Doesn’t make them any less trans or me any moreso, but it’s all the justification I ever needed for myself. Everyone’s different! No one who comes out as trans has to prove anything to me, there’s more than enough hatred and suspicion to go around for anyone who wants to join in.

Because I’m trans, because I’m “other” to so many – I’m queer. No matter who I dated, whether I identified as gay or straight or anywhere in between, I’d still be queer. And what does that mean? What does any of this mean?

It means I had to fight to be who I am. Most of this fighting was internal, but no less violent: we grow up with internalized notions of “normalcy,” notions that are actually the bars on the doors of our prison cells. Being queer means I had to overcome a great deal in order to be able to get to the place I am now, break through those bars in order to get to where I can say with pride who I am and what I want.

And it means that I expect there may be more fighting in the future.

Nothing is lost in the end when you burn burn burn your life down.*

I’m not going to go down the litany of Tegan & Sara albums. The core three that mean the most to me – 2004’s So Jealous, 2007’s The Con, and 2009’s Sainthood – are unimpeachable. Sainthood, because it was my first, will always be my sentimental favorite, even if I recognize that The Con is probably slightly better. But we’re talking about millimeters. 

It’s not in me to be objective about their merits. It always frustrates the fuck out of me to read tepid reviews, in a way that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever had a favorite band. Why don’t the critics hear what I hear? Don’t they understand?

Of course they don’t. Those that do don’t need to read about it in a magazine.

Hearing that in hindsight they were disappointed with Sainthood broke my heart a little bit. Every note is seared into memory. It’s the album that changed my life, although I believe – I am not certain, the memory is jagged and imprecise – that it was actually The Con playing on my headphones when I voiced lo those many months ago, on that fateful late April evening. They were there when I needed them. They saved me.

And if you’re wondering, the elephant in the room – well, of course I didn’t name myself after Tegan R. Quin. Why, that would be silly.

Whoever would do such a silly thing as that?

Everything I love, get back for me now. Everyone I love, I need you now.*

So how am I queer?

There aren’t very many people like me in the world. I suspect – we suspect – that the actual numbers of trans people are greater than reported, simply because the stigma is so great that many will never emerge from the closet. And there are certainly many deeply closeted people, like I used to be, whose nature remains a secret even to them. Even given that we’re still a tiny minority.

Imagine that you have been alone for your entire life. Trapped on an island with a population of one. Seemingly surrounded by people – but not people, phantoms. In your place they see a cardboard cutout of the person they imagine you to be. You can’t touch them and they can’t see you, but no one notices anything amiss. You’re different. You’ve never in your life seen another creature quite like you. You assume everyone else feels this way, too, but you’re deeply uncomfortable, painfully discontented. No one ever seems to understand, and you can never make yourself heard through the isolation.

And then one day everything changes and you realize you’re not alone. And on the day you know who you are, you know why nothing ever fit.

How to explain what does? Imagine seeing someone for the very first time – actually seeing someone, someone like you, after decades of loneliness. Seeing in another creature not opaque mystery but a reflection of the same fear and hunger that guides you as well. To see the sinews and shoulders of a body that has felt the same pressure and the same relief as yours. To see in another your own languor and frustration and mordant wit at the injustice of the world, to just once not feel the burden of having to explain or justify or defend yourself even to the people you love most . . .

I did not understand. I did not understand.

Inasmuch as I understood heterosexuality, I remember a constant nagging inadequacy, and expectation that my feelings and attitudes should complement rather than reflect those of my partner. I was always playing catch-up, trying to guess at what should have come naturally, waiting for cues I should have been able to anticipate – so it was forced. I tried, Lord I tried.

What if other people like me were beautiful, too?

One day, perhaps, I will find another heart to share a spark to fan a flame of desire to light the heavens.

 Part Eleven of an ongoing series

4. Someday We Will All Be Free
5. Trifles, Light As Air

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
6.  One - The Modern Age
7. Two - Slow Decay
8. Three - A Time To Be So Small

9. The Last Star Wars Essay
10. True Believers

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poorzero said...

probably my favourite work of yours yet. even more than ONE HUNDRED ... this speaks to me on a very deep level.
i'm ten years younger than you, and weirdly, i had the opposite problem in terms of accepting my identity. i felt like every trans person i knew online identified as lesbian or pansexual.
i've only ever been attracted to men, but i'm not a gay man who enjoys gay sex. more accurately, i wish i had been born a heterosexual woman.
i'm diagnosed 'gender dysphoric'. i still often question if i really am trans. i was raised by a single mom and two older sisters. my dad was an abusive alcoholic. so i sometimes wonder if, psychologically, i just think men are evil but women generous & loving.
i dunnu.
i was bullied in high school. i hope you don't feel 'guilt' about not being bullied. it's awful and sucks. i'm glad you avoided it.
interesting about your relationship to tegan & sara. i've never connected with their music. i lived in vancouver in the mid to late 2000s doing animation/freelance illustration. they were very popular there, sort of 'just coming up'. i saw them a few times.
but i really relate to what you say about not listening to them as often when you were in denial. i am the same with bob dylan.
i kno he is as straight as straight gets, but his explorations of post-modern identity & existentialism greatly connects with me as a queer trans. when i felt such shame about who i was, i stopped listening.
really really great post. thanks for writing, t. the GOAT, for sure.

harada57 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.