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Queering Spaces Where You Are

Down the long lawns and manicured gravel paths of the Duncan Perennial Gardens of Manito Park in south Spokane, there’s a small stone bench. The bench—a garden variety sort, concrete, smoothed, gently suggesting the impression of marble—is one of three cumbersome examples to encircle the round reflecting pool installed there, as part of a 1995 renovation. The whole setting, the less-imposing cousin to the Duncan’s larger jetted fountain erected from quarried stone, which sits at the garden’s center—drawing engagement photographers, romping children to get soaked in the summer spray, dawdling elderly couples, weddings.

Sixteen years ago on this day, June 22nd, 2000, I took my first boyfriend, Jason, to this bench. We’d been before—because the bench was already special to me, as the quiet space I’d go to escape the confusion of my thoroughly-closeted compartmentalized teenage life. Jason had even given me a handful of wildflowers there, maybe two weeks before. But June 22nd was different: I didn’t have a boyfriend before that day, I had never said the words—“Yes, me too. I’m gay, too”—aloud.

How swiftly one can be ushered into a new existence, become even a new creature… We were teenagers together. Cheesy as fuck. Amazed, dumb, crazed with hormones, practically debilitated by infatuation. I’ll say love, too. I don’t know do I know anything about love, even now I’m at a loss to describe what it is or means, but I was beginning to understand what all the fuss is about. If this is what being gay feels like, I reasoned, then sign me up!

“My bench” became “our bench.” And Jason and I would escape there together at need—we could hold hands in public(-ish), sneak kisses, simply be, unafraid of discovery. Away from our bench, we had to talk in code (“143” for I-love-you, “my bird” to speak about him to the friends who knew at school), like in a warzone. Our bench at Manito was the only no-man’s land. With our backs to the tall hedges behind us, we could survey the whole garden to make ourselves the only people in the world for a while.

You might be thinking there is nothing essentially queer about this space, or about us, for that matter—at a glance. A bench is just a bench. A first love just a first love, with all its heartbreakingly overwhelming trappings.

Yet I insist to you, now, this bench is a queer space precisely because Jason and I were there. We made it queer. (And queered you a little every time you sit there…) I’m with theorist, Kathryn Bond Stockton, who asserts in her 2010 Lambda Literary Award nominee, The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, that queer spaces are experiences of “moving suspension.” As the title suggests, you move, grow outward—not up.

When a friend and I were discussing an earlier draft of this piece, which indeed wasn’t working for either of us, she talked about the why of what wasn’t working in the following way:

I think why your spaces don't quite work for because they are only queer spaces because you've entered them... The bench for example, is only a queer space because you and Jason used it as your make-out spot. It doesn't serve your essay well, because it makes it seem that any queer person that enters a space would deem the space queer.

My friend suggests that queer spaces are evidently queer, that something about the space or its people should be identifiably queer at least to other queers, maybe even outsiders alike. And indeed I don’t think many would disagree. Hell, one of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s reviewers, dismissing an argument about the inherent queering in “animal/child bondings, especially for girls attracted to girls, [as] an outlet for feelings they long to express,” said simply: “Sometimes a dog is just a dog.”

Yet I have to dissent, insisting it is queer to read too much into things. Even into spaces.

Let’s make a little room here. When I moved to Utah for college, and settled into a shared apartment with three straight returned missionaries at Brigham Young University—strangers—I felt re-closeted once again.

It didn’t take long for my presence to be disruptive, either. I put up a rainbow Pride flag in my bedroom; one roommate asked me what country it was from. I made a couple of gay friends, though I never directly identified them as such, and brought them over to hang out. I took pictures of male subjects, my interest in intimate portraiture just barely spilling into being; but I was always careful to shoot when no one else was home and always with fair warning to my roommates first. Despite being respectful, my queerness was poorly hidden. Roommate meetings were called over this. Reports to my ecclesiastical leaders and the property management were filed—anonymously, the BYU Honor Code encourages this kind of tattle telling—and I was asked to leave. The first time I’d have to relocate in Provo due to my sexual orientation, discrimination that was legal in Utah until 2015 and is still allowed in BYU housing under a religious exemption today.

Compare that to my frequent escapes into Salt Lake City on the weekend, where I’d hole up in the city’s 9th & 9th District, the unappointed gay district—no, not Sugarhouse or the PRIDE Center’s Marmalade District—at Coffee Garden. Coffee Garden sits on Salt Lake’s newly renamed Harvey Milk Blvd (after a unanimous vote by the City Counsel in May of this year).

Coffee Garden was the first destination my very first BYU gay friend took me outside of Provo. I had barely started drinking coffee in those early days, my Mormon eating and drinking habits were the last to go in my journey towards “vice.” A few years later, when I would flee BYU and Provo altogether, I searched for apartments around 9th & 9th with two other gay friends in a mini exodus. Coffee Garden was a must-visit during these escapes and a staple of our newly-resettled queer lives in the city. I returned to the coffee shop in 2012, with a whole load of out-of-town friends, to celebrate my 30th birthday. For a poetry-obsessed queer intellectual college nerd made (a little) anxious by the gay clubs, Coffee Garden was the perfect haunt.

While coffee might seem normal to you, like going to the movies on a Sunday, in Salt Lake City, coffee is the mark of an outsider, a sinner, a transgressive. To me, then, an outsider and sinner and transgressive myself, coffee was a defiant haven. In the proverbial headquarters of Mormondom, the grand majority of people would never set foot there. We queers could hang out, plan queer activist-y things, talk about boys and gossip about our dating lives, read gay fiction and queer theory, or hold hands completely free of judgment. Be marked by our to-go cups as we waltzed around outside. Truthfully, sometimes a latte is not just a latte.

Yet it’s equally interesting to me that, whether living in my Provo apartment unwelcome or sipping a latte at Coffee Garden in relative peace, the expectation of normalcy is the same everywhere. As Stockton’s critic points out in Fanzine:

The child has moved from a nonentity, not even worthy of protections against abuse, into a romanticized, enforced innocence. This innocence can only fall away when adult society permits it to, through various milestones referred to as “growing up.” Stockton contends that the phrase “growing up” implies an upward, teleological movement: the “average” or “normal” (read as future heterosexual) child will “grow up” through various events (puberty, first dates, proms, etc.) that eventually see the child arriving at adulthood, where the growing ends: the adult is married and produces children of its own. Given how heteronormative “growing up” is, how does the queer child fit into this ascension? Stockton asserts that it does not.

I was queering my Provo apartment and Coffee Garden both, just as I was queering my bench at Manito: the only difference, I was welcome to queer my sit in Coffee Garden. Yet the question for Stockton, and for me, is one of existence.

This is ultimately different than the questions of identity politics—identity turns on the coin of self-awareness and self-expression (“I am gay,” “I am trans,” “I am Christian,” “I am black,”) and flies or falls based on perception (“She is a girl,” “He is Asian,” “They’re apostates”)—and I don’t trust them to settle matters of existence.

While self-identification and others’ perceptions work together to build a cohesive narrative of self within our relatable world, we are too fond of saying that our identities are what define us, or grant us belonging in our communities. If you haven’t already, consider the utter paradoxical weirdness of Rachel Dolezal: elected into a chapter position with the NAACP, then unanimously removed from that position in 2015, for claiming a black identity while having two white parents; her claims were widely—and I mean widely—dismissed as ridiculous (they are), though what we’re supposed to do with our own perceptions, I don’t know. Dolezal is an extreme example of a violation of the unwritten contract of identity politics: that our self-identity will match other people’s perceptions. This contact hinges on belonging, itself an outgrowth of our concerns about safety. [More reading on this, from a feminist perspective, HERE.] Ousting Dolezal was, ultimately, a reclaiming of the NAACP chapter as a safe space for black citizens and black community organizers in Spokane.

The problem is, of course, that that unwritten contract of identity politics—delineating safe spaces, policing social boundaries—is being violated in small ways by ourselves all the time. Why is this so? How is this so? Because there’s no convenient line between identity and behavior that can be effectively drawn. Our thinking about categories is as much at fault, let alone the way intersectionality can violate the assumptions that guide them. Selfhood is its own sort of paradox, problematizing this further. And that is before ethics come into the picture, for how can you claim that another person is responsible for hazarding an understanding of you, or perceiving you aright, when you yourself are changing all the time. It’s certainly not mine to demand that anyone do so.

Moreover, there’s safety to consider. And safety—as the shooting in Orlando proves once again—is a lie. Saeed Jones puts it this way in a 2013 article for Buzzfeed, entitled There Is No Such Thing As A “Safe” City For Queer People:

And so, what are we left with, besides the awareness that even in our refuges we are not safe? Perhaps, little more, for now, than an unsettling reminder that maybe — just maybe — there are no true cities of refuge.

Jones insists that, like the Self, Cities as we think of them are a dream, that the real cities are “organisms, ever evolving and shifting.“ He’s right. It’s true for the city and the person both.

I’d go even further. I’d say that trusting in safe spaces is a kind of doomed denial of reality. Buzzfeed is not the first publication to note that gay neighborhoods are disappearing, nor will Backwords be the last. The same can be said of our selves, ever-changing, unfixed. To adopt a worldview that claims otherwise is to deny the fact that they’re literally not safe either, city or soul. Because both of them are the site of psychopaths visiting the night to murder and wound—in this latest example—over 100 people with legally-acquired weapons.

So what does this all have to do with a park bench?

Well, if Stockton is correct about children, then we’re already growing into our queerness. As others follow a script of “growing up” into “normalcy,” so we are relegated into psychic territories and physical spaces (even bodies) of harrowed difference. But by our own pride and civil disobedience they can be hallowed.

No, they’re not 100% safe, neither our bodies or our clubs. And we’ll have questions to grapple with in the future—like what to do as more and more of our clubs and bookstores and places to gather disappear, are traded out for internet forums and social media platforms. What happens to our bodies if there’s no place to go after something like Orlando happens? To hold each other and mourn and organize and be who we are?

I am moved by making spaces where otherwise none have been. As a gay bar in Toronto did last week, changing its name to Pulse in solidarity for the Orlando club; “In the end, every queer space in the city is Pulse, every queer space in the world is Pulse,” they claimed.

As my friend, Phillip, echoed last week, so I will echo Richard Kim of The Nation again now:

Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression. They take sound and fabric and flesh from the ordinary world, and under cover of darkness and the influence of alcohol or drugs, transform it all into something that scrapes up against utopia.

Quite frankly, it’s the transformation I’m interested in. That’s why I think the bench is so important. Not because it’s evidently queer, but because we made it so. In truth, we are deeply different, even essentially so.

I am moved by Pride parades, like Portland’s Pride on Sunday, which brought me to bubbly little sobs as I watched thousands cheering and dancing and marching along streets normally flooded with mere afternoon traffic. (If you cried with me, you are one of us…) I am moved by a small-town Idaho gay boy, starry-eyed at his first visit to New York, dreaming of crushing it there with poise, courage, and intelligence. Or a thirty-something straight girl, empathetic, concerned for justice, respectfully silent at first for another community’s tragedy, realizing she has something to say about it after all. Or a bi-girl, brave, dating a man these last seven years (and still), who decides to come out anyway, because it’s important.

Because we know always, I think, deep down—or after tragedies like Orlando, closer to the surface—that it isn’t safe for us anywhere. That the lie of safe spaces is a pernicious one because (though others may repeat it) we tell it to ourselves. To defy the lie courageously, is to accept the need to be open and make it queer where we are.

The kind of community I want and will make is the kind who refuses to choose the safe delineations, who eschews the typical social boundaries and rhetorical bullshit. Who responds: Fuck those boundaries and rhetorical bullshit, you’re welcome here anyway. Who says: It’s queer to widen the circle, it’s not our job to police or shrink it. Who flatly decides that normalcy does not apply. Who admits the warzone but chooses still to defy it and break the bow. Who drinks lattes where they’re not welcome. Who hangs rainbow flags and salutes them like a new nation. Who concludes: Instead, we’ll grow sideways.

Stay Backwords,

Matthew D. Kulisch

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