Pride & Coming out

It’s Pride month, and I’ve been listening to the coming out stories of people I know and admire. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my friends who either aren’t out or are out but their family doesn’t quite accept them... They have an “understanding” that they don’t talk about it.

So here’s my coming out story, a queer memoir in 3 acts: Childhood, Puberty, and Adulthood.

Childhood

When I was a kid, I was called a Tomboy. It’s not even entirely accurate; I played with Barbies and makeup and costumes. I just also enjoyed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and video games and comic books and getting dirty. And since this was the '80s, having an androgynous haircuts wasn't an indicator of gender or sexuality one way or another, it was simply the fashion.

“being funny” pretending to pee standing up with a Gatorade bottle.

Here’s a fun fact: My dad potty trained me, so I first attempted to pee standing up. He quickly realized he had to demonstrate sitting down if he was going to be the one teaching me.

My idea of femininity - instilled in me by my mother - was also rather androgynous or 'tomboy'. Because she had always been skinny and flat chested, I grew up naturally assuming I’d be the same. I came from mom so I’ll look like mom when I grow up, right?

I remember hating Easter. It was the only time mom made me wear a big frilly dress for the pictures we'd send to Grandma. Pictures which inevitably involved me sitting on the side of the highway in a field of bluebonnets. In these photos, I am wearing a hot, unbreathable dress with scratchy tulle to make it 'poofy', sitting in a field (probably next to some fire ants), breathing in fumes of the highway with the afternoon sun burning my retinas, and trying not to squint too much for the picture. I remember thinking, “Boys don’t have to deal with this crap” (To this day, I still take bluebonnet pictures in the shade.)

I remember liking pink because, “I’m a girl, I’m supposed to like pink. Barbie’s favorite color is pink, so if I like Barbie, I like pink.” Gender Programming in action, folks! Eventually I rebelled against this gender standard, and, to this day, I’m still allergic to pink. Later I felt vindicated when I figured out how olive-yellow my skin tone was and thus how pink will always make me look sick. But I think it will always make me feel sick, too, because it was forced on me so heavily as a child. Forced by society, that is, it wasn’t my mom’s fault.

I remember not knowing quite what was going on with David Bowie in Labyrinth but being really into it. {see previous blog on the subject}

My parents watched a lot of MTV in the '80s, which explains most of my music and aesthetic tastes. But, more importantly, as a kid who would not understand the negative sides of the decade - the war on drugs, the AIDS epidemic, the Yuppies - until much later, the '80s were a magical time for a baby queer. Grace Jones was a strong masculine woman of color; and Nick Rhodes made it okay for “straight” men to have what I still call the gayest pink wedding I’ve ever seen. I could go on about my influences from this decade but the points that are relevant right now are these: Androgyny was fashionable, and Genderqueer was fashionable. In so many ways, the society of my early childhood, the '80s and early '90s, accepted all this stuff far better than that of my pre-teen and teenage years, the later '90s and '00s. At the time when I was affected most by society’s views on sexuality and gender identity, the culture was shifting, becoming less fluid... More into dividing by categories and labels and, to some, moralities.

In my childhood, my mother was a department store makeup artist. This is a key ingredient in the Life Story of Iana. She was a department store makeup artist for Clinique, but she really wanted to be a special effects makeup artist for the movies ... like back in the days before CGI became the most efficient option, when they still hired artisans to create prosthetic movie monsters. (RIP the glory days of prosthetic SFX.) This is why I grew up watching horror movies and wasn’t scared by the scary stuff. She always explained to me how they made the zombies look dead, or blood look real, or those amazing transformations in American Werewolf in London & Thriller.

Horror education aside, she also notably introduced me to makeup, brought home by her from work for me to play with. This was her most glorious, single-mom, life-hack moment: Tell child they can play with makeup and get them set up in the dry bath tub, allow them to draw on themselves and on the walls (because it’s only tile and it’s only makeup) while you sneak in a nap on the fuzzy bathmat floor. Dangle arm over bathtub so that the child knows you’re still there. When they are done, surprise! it’s bath-time, and you’re already trapped in the tub, kid! ... Frankly, it was a true stroke of genius.

When people tell me “you’re so good at makeup,” it's like, of course I am! It was one of my first toys, and I’ve been playing with it ever since. You'd be, too, if you’d been playing with it as long as you can remember. It’s simply a matter of practice: do a thing 1000 times, and you’re a master, right?

Really epic makeup mess, mixed media by Iana, age 4

Puberty

I grew up in Cuernavaca, the “affordable” hippie area of Westlake at the time. Cuernavaca is a weird little microcosm all on it’s own... I once referred to it as “The Twin Peaks of Westlake” and I stand by that statement.

I attended West Ridge Middle School from 1996 to 1999. Although I was closer to my mom, I had to live with my dad in order to go to this “better” school. All the people I'm still close to from that time were kids from my neighborhood. They weren’t completely spoiled jerks, and most were probably a little weird like me.

I had a beautiful best friend named Jane. I’m using her name because I want her to know if she ever reads this. Her parents were hippies while mine were weird, artist nerds into cyberpunk and technology, and we were from opposite worlds in many ways. But both of us, along with our other close friends Chelsea and Saira, were great at art. We were like an antisocial fantasy art coven who didn’t want to get involved in school politics ... we would keep to ourselves and draw when we were supposed to be taking notes, draw during lunch, and hang out after school to draw and listen to music. We hang around after class to talk to our favorite art teacher, Ms. Mouer, who always would say, “You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever!” (That’s not relevant to the story; it’s just a shoutout incase she reads this, too.)

I remember this time was when Labyrinth was out of print, and I was the only girl in the neighborhood who had a VHS copy, taped off of HBO. My girlfriends would frequently come over to watch it, although once it got re-released on DVD, my house was suddenly less popular.

It was in this environment that I was able to explore different aspects of my aesthetic. In hindsight, if I had been this age nowadays, I’d describe myself as non binary or genderqueer (not the same thing, but I’m not sure which I’d have used then). But at the time, I looked like an outcast no matter what; people could make their own assumptions, and I certainly wasn’t going to defend myself to anyone judging.

The first Bowie album I acquired (read "stole from mom") around then was the Ryko edition of Scary Monsters - one of my favorite David Bowie songs still is Teenage Wildlife. This part always brings a tear to my eye. I think most teens can relate to this because most of us were “others” in some form:
You'll take me aside, and say "Well, David, what shall I do?
They wait for me in the hallway"
I'll say "Don't ask me, I don't know any hallways"
But they move in numbers and they've got me in a corner
I feel like a group of one, no-no
They can't do this to me
I'm not some piece 
of teenage wildlife


I had developed an androgynous, genderfluid aesthetic, but, problematically, I did not have an androgynous body. I did not develop into a lanky, Twiggy-esque waif like my mother. I developed hips and breasts so suddenly that I had bright red stretch marks, everywhere. To this day, my breasts were never as big as they were then. I’m assuming it has something to do with still having “baby fat” and all the new hormones working overtime, and also my diet being sugar/dairy heavy (fatter = curvier). Later, in my 20s, I was relieved they got smaller as I cut HFCS out of my diet. In any case, sudden curves meant that I had to drop out of gymnastics ... it’s very difficult to safely throw your center of gravity around when your center of gravity is extra jiggly and changing daily.

Spring 1994:  My FAVORITE tshirt, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I wore so often I accidentally wore it on picture day many years in a row. I don’t know why I’m wearing a cross because we weren’t religious, I think a relative gave it to me and I wore it to “blend in” considering I wore this vampire shirt all the time.

Spring 1994: My FAVORITE tshirt, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I wore so often I accidentally wore it on picture day many years in a row. I don’t know why I’m wearing a cross because we weren’t religious, I think a relative gave it to me and I wore it to “blend in” considering I wore this vampire shirt all the time.

Spring 1998: Same photography steps, SAME DRACULA SHIRT. More appropriate jewelry this time; chokers, poison bottles, and pentagrams on chains. Definitely hiding under my clothes. Oversized sweater, oversized pants. Airwalk shoes.

I didn’t know how to dress for my body type. At the time when I just wanted to wear oversized band tees, the only bras I could use were underwire ... it would be years before I discovered the glory of sports bras, much less breast binders. So I wore oversized band t-shirts with underwire bras, paired with pants that never fit quite right (they still don’t) or full skirts. On top of wearing what most often resembled a giant tent, I had started cutting and coloring my own hair, so it changed regularly and got shorter. Sidecuts, mowhawks, pixie cuts, and a fully shaved head at 14 years old.

From the outside looking in, you could definitely tell I was either “gender confused” or “on my way to becoming a butch lesbian” to use the language of the times; non-binary was not yet a label, especially not a respected one.

My room was covered in posters of comic book women (mainly the characters from The Sandman), male rock stars (mainly Robert Smith and Keith Flint), and LOTS of pictures of Brandon Lee from The Crow, with whom I have been obsessed since age 9.

One day, mom told me about a “joke” she made to my father; taking one look at my room covered in pictures of Brandon Lee, she said to him, “At least we know she’s heterosexual”

It was the first time I wanted to speak up, to argue about it with someone. I didn’t care if people outside my family assumed one way or another, but I was so angry that my mom just jumped to a conclusion like that. My own mother - who enjoyed short hair and androgynous fashion, who herself had been “a lesbian in college.” She was the one that taught me that gender and sexuality were a fluid spectrum to begin with.

Mom, being a lesbian in college. I wish I could read what her shirt says, “Anita ____ causes cancer in ____ “

Mom, being a lesbian in college. I wish I could read what her shirt says, “Anita ____ causes cancer in ____ “

I didn’t argue with her though; I didn’t have any evidence to the contrary, I just knew she was wrong. I grew up watching The X-Files from day one - trading her love of David Duchovny for a deep interest with whatever Gillian Anderson was doing onscreen. Mom also took me to see The Fifth Element when it came out, and I have been in love with Milla Jovovich ever since. To this day, I have bonded with many of my male friends over these two female crushes. At this point in my life, I didn’t know if I was gay or bisexual. I wasn't sure if I was comfortable with my cisgender female identity, or if I was something else. I just knew she was totally wrong.

In this time also, I would say that Jane was my best friend. She was beautiful and looked exactly like Claire Danes in Stardust, which is crazy to me now, because she and I had been obsessed with Neil Gaiman’s works long before any movies and Stardust was always one of her favorites. It's impossible for me to watch the movie now without thinking of her.

A hypothetical picture of Jane.

A hypothetical picture of Jane.

So I was close to my best friend because we were weird kids. So I thought she was beautiful because she objectively was. So what? Was I gay for my best friend? Probably a bit but no more than is normal to be gay for your best friend. ... I mean, I think even heterosexual, same-sex besties should be a little gay for each other. That’s how close friendships work! This is a person you love so much that you have their back in 99% of situations, you would bury a body with, etc. You should think they’re attractive even if you don’t want to sleep with them yourself, you should enjoy their company often even if you don’t want to marry them yourself, you should love them enough that it doesn’t matter if people accuse you of being gay for them. Platonic love is still love, so even if that person is gay and you’re not, it doesn’t mean their love is romantic.

What I’m building up to, dear audience, is the other shoe dropping. Jane’s “hippie” father didn’t like me. He was in the National Guard and had just come back from dealing with the aftermath of the war in Bosnia and living in Russia for a while. After Russia he was different; he bought Jane very sexy (for a fifteen-year-old), form-fitting dresses, dressed her up like a Barbie and became more strict at home. I remember her finding it distressing, but she liked fashion, so it seemed like the typical patriarchal tradeoff that my gender faces: If you want to have shiny objects bought for you, you have to obey the breadwinning man of the house.

And then, in the midst of that, here came I, parading around their house with my strong sense of self, thanks to my '80s-influenced, genderfluid upbringing. How dare I waltz in there and preach the word of David Bowie to his little Stepford daughter? I, on the other hand, just knew that they were hippies, they were supposed to be into peace, love, unity; acceptance of other, races, cultures, and “free love.” I was just a kid, how was I supposed to realize her father was so threatened by my very presence in his daughter’s life? It was so long ago that I don’t quite remember if he accused me of being gay to my face, or if Jane relayed the questions he asked her about me when I wasn’t there. But I vividly remember uncomfortable dinners, where vague personal questions that would be downright unacceptable to ask a child today were posed to me.

When I asked my mother what to do, she wrote Jane's father off as “an asshole,” because she was familiar with the type of man he was. She told me to just stop going over there. But then how was I supposed to hang out with my best friend? Well, in truth, after that I didn’t really. She would have to make the effort to hang out with me at mine, or I’d just see her at school. But in truth, she totally checked out of the friendship after that. She put her head down and concentrated on getting good grades in school like she was serving a sentence in jail. I knew she had always wanted to make costumes, but after that time, she suddenly needed to get better grades as her father wanted her to become a lawyer or something related. (Eventually, she ended up making costumes after all)

In April of 1999, right before I graduated from 8th grade, something happened that would change my life - and the country - forever: the Columbine school shooting. At the time, the only story we were told was that the shooters were goths, and they shot up the school because they were being bullied by jocks. (We now know that it was the other way around, the shooters were also the bullies.) And here I was, a baby goth and a genderqueer “lesbian” in a school full of rich, preppy jocks. The media perpetuated the “us vs them” situation, magnifying the underlying misconceptions and misjudgment.

To be honest, I probably would not have gone to Westlake high school in any case, but Columbine sealed the deal. My mom and I loved watching Heathers, and I knew a similar environment awaited me at Westlake. Fortunately, it was around this time that I became acquainted with another Cuernavaca kid who was in the grade above me, Maria Russo. She was out as a lesbian or bisexual (I don’t remember which exactly as they were essentially the same thing in that environment) and was the only other goth girl in school. She wore ripped fishnets and dog collars and was obsessed with both Rocky Horror Picture Show and mermaids. She told me she wasn't going to Westlake either and that I should join her at this cool, hippie high school she found, The Griffin School.

So even though I was only 14, I told my parents I was not going to go to arguably the best public school in the city, and that instead they were going to work together to send me to this weird, small private school for artsy kids. I was always a good student, except for middle school and I blame that on everyone being more concerned about social status than actually learning anything. That’s the irony of privilege, nobody appreciated the educational resources they had they just cared whether or not my clothes were from the Gap. I sold my parents on sending me to Griffin because of my grades suffering, the fact that my best friend and I had drifted apart, and then Columbine making the world more dangerous for goth kids really sealed the deal... The backlash meant that my safety was more severely threatened by the clothes I put on everyday, which I had been wearing for years already.

I attended Griffin for all four years of high school and had one of the rarest experiences for a teen - I thoroughly enjoyed every year of high school. And it wasn’t because I was popular and peaked in high school either. I felt my sense of self was respected, my sexuality or gender identity wasn’t a concern to the staff or to the other parents. Also, I made excellent grades.

I have since reconnected with several of my middle school friends that attended different high schools. But I never saw or spoke to Jane again.

Adulthood

As an adult, I identify as Bisexual. There is a myth that bisexuality excludes being attracted to people of non-binary orientation because you are attracted to "males OR females." The way I see it, the "bi" in bisexual refers to both ends of sexuality as a spectrum between heterosexual relationships and homosexual relationships. The stuff in between is undefined but included.

Many of the people who would have been considered Bisexual in the '90s identify as Pansexual today. That’s fine, but I’m not going to do that. I’ve considered myself bisexual since puberty; I don’t see the point in rebranding my sexuality now when I know what I mean by it, and that’s all that matters.

But I think the reason Bisexuality split off into Pansexuality is that Bisexual is still a four letter word in the gay community. It’s better than it used to be, but there’s still this feeling that we’re not gay enough.

I once talked to a Pansexual who said she has been attracted to all kinds of things, including trees. And I thought, first, "that’s very interesting," and second, "I definitely don’t identify as that."

This makes it hard to be a loud and proud bisexual; I don’t hide it, but I’ve kept it private for a reason. In the past, when a lesbian I had just met (at a party) asked me about my sexuality and I said I was bi. She then interrogated me about my gay experiences in a way that made me very uncomfortable. I finally interrupted her by shouting - “I don’t have to tell you anything!” - I didn’t know her, and it was none of her business. I got defensive because it took me by surprise, both, I suppose, because I expected more from another member of the queer community, and because it triggered memories of those uncomfortable dinners with Jane’s father.

But the great thing about being an adult is that peer pressure isn’t real. No one can actually force you do anything you don’t want to do or tell them anything you don’t want to share simply by “putting pressure” on you to do their will.

So I stick to the Bisexual label, partially out of resentment. I had to fight so hard to find this identity; I changed schools and lost one of my closest friends over it. I’m not going to stop being bisexual just because there are some mean girls in the gay community.

And, in the end, I will always defend use of the term Bisexual: it was good enough for David Bowie, and he was a fucking Genderqueer alien. If the King/Queen of Genderqueer aliens Hermself feels included by this term, why wouldn’t I?

Weirdness is a part of me right down to my sexuality and gender identity. I will always be attracted to the “others” of the world. In the end, I don’t belong in the gay clubs because I don’t like dancing to Beyonce, not because I’m not gay enough.

This is correct.

This is correct.

Although we’ve come a long way, people are still surprised if I mention that I’m not straight. Not every member of the queer community is an effeminate boy or a butch girl. Just because I look comfortable as a cisgender female doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle with my gender identity my entire childhood.

I went to see Eddie Izzard do his standup act the other night, the first time since I’d seen him live in 2003. Towards the end he got heckled with something simultaneously misogynist and homophobic - “SHOW US YOUR TITS!” - and audible cringe swept over the audience as we began to boo. I thought, “WOW, He’s been out since the '80s, he’s so established and respected and famous now, and he still can’t get away from this stuff.” You never get away from it, there will always be a problem for someone. All you can hope for is a bigger, better group of people around you to boo on your behalf.

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “wait this is your coming out story, when do you come out to your parents?” The truth is I didn’t. This blog entry, coming out to the general public, is the most coming out I’ve ever done. I didn’t have real relationships when I was in school, and I got married to a bisexual boy when I was 19, so it never came up. At the time, we were openly bisexual to each other but neither of us really had “the conversation” with our parents. He didn’t because they were British and, although I have no doubt they would have accepted him, Brits just didn’t talk about that stuff out loud. I used to think of him as choosing to be repressed, choosing to remain in the closet, but it’s only recently that I’ve realized that would mean I chose the same thing. I didn’t have “the conversation” with my parents because A) I wasn’t having relations under their roof either way; B) my “woke” mom had already assumed wrong, and I wasn’t close to my dad; and C) I felt it was none of their business. By the time I confirmed my sexuality, I was an adult, and they had no say in the matter anyway.

That’s the million dollar question - if you know your parents accept and love you either way, do you need to have a conversation about it? Are you still in the closet even if you make no attempts to hide your sexuality or gender identity?

Many of my clients are various degrees of queer and trans, going through their own complex struggles with all the emotional dust that Pride month kicks up. For example, those we have lost. ... I am again reminded of the recent void left behind by an older gay friend, the closest I had to a brother; we lost him in December to suicide shortly after he was diagnosed with advanced HIV. He was in his 40s and there appeared to be some form of denial coming from his family. Even though he was a fully grown adult, it seemed like he chose suicide over living as a “sick” person and having to address the facts with his family. Pride isn’t just about rainbow outfits and drag shows. Pride in the queer community is essential to survival. Lots of statistics prove this out in different ways; here’s just two of them: “LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth." And "LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.” [source: The Trevor Project]

If is that common as a teenager, do you think that changes when you grow up into a gay adult? Not necessarily.

But I’m not going to end on a sad note. I have a lot of happy memories associated with Pride, too.

My favorite part of living in Chicago in my early 20s was being a block away from Boystown, the gayberhood. The parade would come down our street, Broadway, off Belmont. For a few glorious hours the street was absolutely covered in rainbow confetti and glitter. Then as everyone moved indoors to drink and party, because Chicago is a proper city, the street sweepers would drive by and clean up all the litter like nothing ever happened. Below are some pictures from Chicago Pride 2005. That year was the first and only time I’ve ever seen RuPaul perform, way before Drag Race, when Supermodel was still his top hit. The Grand Marshal was Wilson Cruz, and, as a '90s latchkey kid who watched reruns of My So-Called Life with some of TV's first out gay teens, that was very exciting!

(CW: this picture of the proud gay WWII vets makes me cry every time)

In the process of writing this blog, a client who came out to me as non-binary. It’s always exciting for my shop to be considered a safe space for people to come out before they deal with the complications of telling family, if they even tell their family. We related on a lot of the same levels. Being outright gay is difficult, being outright trans is difficult. ... But being nonbinary/bisexual can be difficult in a different way; it’s like flying under the radar, sometimes even to yourself. You’re not denying that part of you is 'other', but you know you’re not 'other enough' to be Grand Marshal of the Pride Parade. Especially for folks of my generation who grew up with the fashionable androgyny of the '80s/'90s. Then when you hit puberty and struggle with having a very feminine or masculine skewing body, it’s easy enough to fall back into binary fashion since those are the only clothes that are made to fit your body. This is one of the reasons there’s so many older people discovering this stuff about themselves now. Now we finally have language for the nuances of gender identity, so we’re all able to talk about it together.

Strangely enough, these concepts are as old as mankind, the language is only new to the western culture. One of my favorite things to read about is the five gender system of Native American cultures: men, women, trans men, trans women, and nonbinary are all mentioned. {see this super-rad article here}

In the end, though, when people ask me about my pronouns, I still don’t know what to say. I'll get that feeling like I'm taking a test I haven’t studied for. I’m still wired to be unconcerned with what people think of me, what they call me, but I’ll try to answer to the best of my understanding. I don’t feel entirely comfortable being a female or dressing femme. But I damn well love costumes, and I got comfortable with makeup early on in my childhood. So when people compliment my feminine aesthetics, I see it as being good at drag. Like high femme feels more like drag than when when I dress in androgynous or boyish looks. High femme is a lot of work but simultaneously (relatively) easy because I understand the programming I’ve been receiving since I was a little girl. Androgyny is easier and more comfortable for my brain but also more difficult to execute given the body I have and the way they make clothes for it. (I’m getting better though, I just got a binder by gc2b which I’m eagerly awaiting in the mail any day now!) Anyway, I’m comfortable with “she” as my pronoun - in the same way RuPaul is called “she” when in drag, even though he’s “he” when he’s just Charles, right? It’s like the same way I don’t care when someone gets my name wrong the first time they try to pronounce it. ... I don’t care what you call me, just as long as you see me.

20 years later and I’m still friends with Maria, who many of you will know as the mermaid Co-Owner of Cute Nail Studio - otherwise known as the Gayest Nail Studio in the city, state, possibly the country. I hope she knows how proud I am of her and how eternally grateful I will forever be for getting me out of Westlake. It was like she tossed me a big gay lifesaver when I needed it most.

In the end I think the key is not being afraid, especially now, to talk about those things. Especially during Pride when so many different flavors of queer (and non-) come together to celebrate. Don't be afraid to talk about your own pathway, the unsureness you still might have, and the childhood experiences that made you realize you were born just a little weird. Stick together so that you don't feel isolated and don't settle for feeling like a group of one. REACH OUT to you brothers and sisters and siblings of no discernible gender and tell them you love them. Love people as an act of defiance. Walk tall with your strong sense of self.

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Why your Fantasy Hair costs so much

Why your Fantasy Hair costs so much