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 me...is 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.”