Normalization & self-awareness

It’s no secret that I am a fan of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. One of the things I really dig about it is the fact that there’s a sweet romance between two men on the show, but the podcast isn’t about being gay, or coming out, or anything. It’s just one of many things going on. And I really love that! I do enjoy a good coming out story, or stories about gay or queer people where that’s more of a focus, but honestly I tend to prefer narratives that just happen to have Folks Who Aren’t Straight as part of the story.

I think the relationship between Cecil and Carlos is a big draw for most fans, especially since most fandom-related same-sex relationships are all subtext and not spelled out explicitly in the source material, but of course there are people who enjoy the podcast but object to the romance. Earlier this week, Night Vale’s creator Joseph Fink shared an email from a fan who’s “not a homophobe” but was “disgusted” by the romance plot, explaining that:

“By doing this you are trying to normalize homosexuality, teens listen to your show and if they see things like that they will think its [sic] normal and that everybody does it.”

To which I say: EXACTLY! I sure hope they do. What a pleasant thought, that young people might find a normal part of life represented in the media they consume and enjoy.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the amount of exposure I had to any sort of queerness as a teenager, and that amount is “almost none.” I knew of one person who was openly gay in my high school, and while we were in a few classes together, we weren’t close. I wasn’t really aware of any media that talked about what it was like to be gay or bisexual, or that even explored what it even meant to be anything other than straight. Putting it like that I feel a little silly, because of course I knew what homosexuality and bisexuality were as concepts, but not in a way that let me identify the feelings I was having as a sign that maybe those concepts could describe me.

I thought queerness in general was just fine, although I kind of wonder now why I felt so strongly about something I didn’t have any real experience with. Maybe it was just Young Mo’s sense of fairness?  I even had a really awkward conversation with my dad in which I tried to stand up for gay people and he told me that I was too young to know what I was talking about (I was maybe twelve or thirteen) and, bizarrely, brought up the “if I wanted to marry Sugar (our dog), would that be ok too?” argument. I may have been young and mostly clueless about gay folks, but I was smart enough to realize that half-assed line of reasoning was bullshit, at least. Even though I was certain that everyone I knew, myself included, was straight, I felt that it was important to be ready to be supportive if someone came out to me.

In late middle school, I used to spend a lot of time hanging out at an art gallery in the town south of mine. I just liked wandering from room to room, staring at the art pieces and sometimes chatting with James-Ben, the owner, who put up with me talking too much the way that awkward kids do when they want adults to think they’re mature and interesting. If I ever irritated him with my presence, he never let on, and I’m still thankful for that. Sometimes his business partner Daniel was there, and while I didn’t talk with him as much, he seemed nice enough. Daniel was a painter; he’d painted a really lovely portrait of James-Ben that was hanging in the gallery. I’m sure I thought something like “oh wow, what good friends these guys are!” when I first saw that painting.

For a few weeks I took a watercolor class after-hours at the gallery, and during one of the sessions, the instructor took us into the largest gallery room to show us the brushwork on one of her paintings. As we were looking at it, one of the side doors opened and Daniel came out wearing a bathrobe and holding a mug, and wandered over to the little kitchen with a cat trailing behind him. It was undeniably domestic, and I suddenly realized that not only did Daniel live at the gallery, but that he and James-Ben lived there together. As partners! As GAY partners! I was a little surprised, but honestly more than anything else I was excited. I knew actual Gay People! How had I never noticed before? It felt like a very important moment, and while I don’t know that I ever really talked to anyone about this discovery, it felt special to me and made me even more confused any time someone talked about gay people being gross or immoral. The only ones I knew were sweet middle-aged men who put up with my dorky self hanging around their art gallery! How could that be a problem?

Looking back on my high school self, it’s pretty clear that I was experiencing attraction to some of my female friends, and just didn’t have the understanding or context to really understand those feelings. I had a pen pal for several years who lived in Michigan (I lived in central Tennessee at the time) and who I developed a pretty close friendship with over an intense first few months of writing. After we’d been sending letters for about a year, she came to our town to visit, and I remember having the vague notion that we might kiss each other when she arrived. I had a recurring fantasy of the two of us slow-dancing together in my bedroom, and then kissing, even though I remember at the time thinking “well, am I attracted to her? I guess I’m not, I don’t like girls that way.” But somehow, the vivid fantasy remained, although it faded once we met; we got along great, but I guess having a more concrete image of my friend helped that crush to evaporate.

Much stronger was the crush I had a friend one year ahead of me in school – she was outgoing, creative, and friendly in a way I really clicked with. We became close very quickly and in true high school girl fashion wrote each other piles of notes (none of which survive to this day, sadly) that we would stick in each other’s lockers and sign “YFL,” which stood for “your forbidden love.”

YOUR FORBIDDEN LOVE.

I don’t recall exactly how that tradition started, but we specifically acknowledged that it was a reference to the fact that we couldn’t actually be in love with each other because we were both girls. And beyond making that a huge ongoing joke… we never talked about it. It’s very clear to me, when I look back, what was going on, but at the time I just didn’t have the sort of self-awareness or general queer-awareness to see it. I think at the time I just thought “oh yeah, it’s normal to feel this strongly about your smart and beautiful friend with an amazing smile and awesome hair who is just fantastic, right?” I just never made the leap from those feelings to the fact that they were just as strong as the ones I was having for boys during that same time.

My partner and I have been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the past few months, after years of peer pressure from friends. I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would, to be honest, although maybe not as much as some of my friends do. We recently finished season 4, and while there some parts of it that weren’t that exciting to me (both Riley & Adam = boooooriiiiiing), I was super-excited for Tara to show up. I actually really dig Oz as a character and was sad to see him go, but: TARA! So great. I’ve been following along with Mark’s reviews over at Mark Watches and once Willow and Tara’s relationship was finally acknowledged, it was interesting to note just how many people in the comments section said that seeing a relationship between two women openly shown and accepted on a tv show they loved helped them to come to terms with their identities, come out to friends, and feel better about themselves. And I think that’s wonderful! I really wonder if seeing something like this when I was in high school would have helped things click a bit better. A lot of those scenes of Intense Looks between Tara and Willow reminded me quite a bit of my own time spent with Tiffany during sleep-overs at her house.

My own media-related lightbulb moment came in college, when I watched But I’m a Cheerleader in the last weeks of a slowly failing relationship with a Really Straight Guy (who was no longer into my shaved head when he realized I wasn’t planning on growing my hair back any time soon and later told me it made me look “like a street thug,” if that gives you any idea as to the depth of the disconnect). I was fighting a mix of gender confusion, vague attraction to a close female friend, and a lot of sadness about the fact that what had seemed like a good relationship at one point had broken down to such an extent.

I don’t actually remember that much about the movie (I wanted to re-watch it this week, but it isn’t streaming on netflix and our local video store didn’t have it, so alas I am going by an 11-year-old memory), but I remember staying awake for a long time after the boyfriend had fallen asleep, thinking of the sex scene near the end of the film, and realizing that I wanted something like that in my life. Probably it didn’t help that Clea Duvall was dark-haired and freckly and the friend I had a crush on was blonde; it was pretty easy to insert myself into that scene. I wrote “some things become painfully obvious at the most inopportune times” in my journal and spent some time IMing my roommate back in our dorm before I cried myself to sleep.

I don’t know that I have a huge amount of regret over how I discovered my own queerness; it was tied up quite a bit into my understanding of (or, to be more accurate, befuddlement by) my own gender and I think wrestling with both issues at once was helpful, if a bit exhausting. And lovely Tiffany from high school was active in an evangelical church that was VERY anti-gay, and while I’m not sure what her personal opinion was, it’s possible that trying to initiate anything with her wouldn’t have gone well, YFL nonwithstanding. Still, I at least wish I’d had some exposure to queerness earlier on, and I can’t disagree more with anyone who doesn’t want teenagers exposed to even the concept of being something other than straight. If I hear someone say “Cecil/Carlos made me realize it was ok to be gay” ten years from now, I will be quite pleased.

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3 Responses to Normalization & self-awareness

  1. I don’t like it when people bring up college and then say things like, “11-year-old memory,” because I am still 21. Also:

    I have always wondered how one might get through law-school, publicly BE a lawyer for a JOB, and then say, “Well, ever’body be dog-fuckin’ in a minute!” in response to civil liberties issues. I can see him pulling out some Darwin or even a church talk argument, but he must have been very tired that day from knowing all that law.

  2. The fact that you had any openly gay people at your school or in your town is impressive to me. Where I grew up, there were zero– at least, zero who told anyone at the time. (Now, years later, many of the people I went to school with have come out.) I’m curious if sex ed in your part of the country discussed anything about homosexuality. They completely ignored it where I grew up (as you know, in the South).

    • I guess this guy (whose name was Scott, I think) was at least mostly openly gay, if I knew about it without being close to him, but I don’t think he ever tried to bring a date to prom or anything like that. I do remember that one of the guys a year ahead of me in band came out as bisexual pretty much immediately once he got to college, so I suppose he didn’t feel safe until then. My high school didn’t have a GSA until 2009 and the principal said, to my face (in 1999 or 2000) “If I allow one student-led club I have to allow them all, so if I let your prayer group to become official then gays and satanists could start clubs of their own.”

      The closest I got to sex ed in school was a run-down of the different symptoms and discharges caused by various STIs. No mention of sexuality or homosexuality at all; we didn’t even really talk about condoms. It was just “don’t have sex, bad things will happen if you do.” This was in suburban Tennessee.

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