Contributors: Scott Esposito, Rooze Garcia, Gabriel Garcia Ochoa, Melissa Febos, Jill McDonough, H. Sharif “Herukhuti” Williams, Mary Meriam, Annie Won, and Hannah Baker-Siroty.
We at The Critical Flame shared the heartbreak, anger, and confusion at the recent mass shooting of members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community in Orlando, where a lone gunman killed more than fifty LGBTQ-identified and Latinx people at Pulse nightclub.
The shooter likely intended to silence and marginalize the LGBTQ/Latinx community. It has been heartening to see many writers responding with such expansive humanity. Justin Torres writes about the particular joy found in Latinx spaces in a full-throated piece in The Washington Post, for instance, and Rigoberto González writes about finding a home in similar spaces for BuzzFeed. These are only a few examples, but their reflections seeded the idea for our feature.
It has been a year too full of tragedy, mourning, and anger. Over just the past week, we’ve witnessed the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of law enforcement officers, as well as the nation’s 228th mass shooting since the beginning of the year—this time of police officers and Black Lives Matter protesters in Dallas. Creating a more peaceful, more just society will require all our righteous anger, activism, ballots, and safe spaces. It will also require an articulation of what that society will look like. Every person should be able to make a home in this life, to be at home in their own identity. To remake the world so that’s not only possible but presumed and universal, we’ll need to articulate that future in policy, in practice, and in word.
This is literary journal. Language is our medium. So, in an effort to create more space for healing and solidarity, to help articulate a more peaceful and just world, CF has invited a number of LGBTQ-identified writers to respond to this question:
Can you tell us about a time that you felt at home in your identity?
Home is a complicated notion, as several of our contributors note, and it’s ultimately inadequate to the task of realizing justice—but it is a powerful idea. A person can find home in a community, in a relationship, at a nightclub, in writing, etc.
I’m so grateful to our contributors for their generosity, careful reflection, and honesty. I am also deeply indebted to both Alison Lanier, CF Conversations Editor, and Ricco Siasoco, CF Contributing Editor, for their guidance in the formulation and curation of this feature.
In peace and solidarity,
Daniel Evans Pritchard
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system has long been a strangely charged environment for me. For several years now I have ridden it three times per week as I commute into and out of San Francisco for my work at Two Lines Press. For reasons I do not entirely understand, I have experienced panic attacks while on BART, and I also once saw a woman (perhaps experiencing her own attack) faint right next to me (she had been riding there by my side for at least 20 minutes). Such sudden medical emergencies are not uncommon on BART (I know because they stop the trains and tell us every time one occurs). Even when my experiences do not reach such extremes BART is often a contentious place, with rush hour commuters regularly jockeying for position, the occasional eruption of a sudden argument, the constant negotiation of right and privilege in a confined space, and even the infrequent but very noticeable psychotic passenger.
When I first began to express my gender identity more openly, BART became a place of regular humiliation and anxiety. There is little else to do than stand there, head stuffed into a book that you are not actually reading because you can only think about all of the eyeballs that must be staring at your bizarre appearance. For roughly 42 minutes per day I would endure this shame, feeling the blush on my cheeks and frightened to imagine what the normal people were thinking about this man who wanted to be feminine.
So it was an accomplishment of some measure when I began to feel “at home” on BART. The fact is, I have long known that 99.9% of the disapproval I felt on BART was entirely in my head, even the double-takes that I notice from time to time based more in curiosity and envy than any sort of negative emotion. I have long known this, so coming to feel at home on public transit was a measure of how my own deeply rooted disapproval of myself was coming unknotted.
There are places and people who have made me feel much more understood and much more welcomed than BART, and they have played their own essential roles in the development of my identity. I deeply, profoundly value their affirmations. It is BART that I appreciate for its indifference, its utter inscrutability, which has ultimately forced me not to think about how others have regarded me but how I have regarded myself. I cannot discount the immense import that the ideas of others hold for our identities, but it is in our own self-approval, our own self-regard, our own self-respect that our identities must be founded.
Scott Esposito is the author of The Surrender (Anomalous Press, 2016) a book-length essay on his exploration of gender.
I was seven and she was cute in her baseball outfit. Her bookshelves filled with Black Beauty books, I hid my fear of horses. I wanted her close, wanted her to feel my galloping heart when we kissed. Like a switch turning on, I knew. I did not yet know “queer” or “dyke” or “lesbian” but I knew.
Seeking a sense of home—both in the world and within my skin—is a thread continually pulling me towards something not yet completely woven. Something that unravels every time I think I’ve figured out the pattern.
A complete tomboy in a culture where girls had their ears pierced as infants and always wore dresses, my identity has always disrupted any sense of being at home. Like rocks hitting a windshield, my differences would chip away at my place in the family.
Unlike the families of some of my friends, the glass would at least hold. But the spider-line cracks of “other” would continue to spread. I left home at 18 and returned only for brief visits, loving my parents the way that they loved me: deeply but with complications.
Even more than two decades after moving to Portland, where queers are almost as common as raindrops, I’ve never forgotten being escorted to my car because some skinheads at my Orlando high school threatened me. Or the tension at my first political rally, protesting the firing of a sheriff because he was gay, where we were circled by guys in sheets waving KKK signs out the windows of the air-conditioned cars they drove around us. Or the everyday micro-aggressions of glares and loud whispered insults.
Dyke bars, Pride marches, ActUp protests: through the years, they have each been grounding points. None has ever felt safe enough to be home. While being alone in a straight space is uncomfortable, being in a large group of queers has always felt like standing in the center of a bullseye.
In a culture where hatred is preached from the podium and the pulpit, is it even possible to be queer and feel safe? Is it possible to weave a world where we are home?
I keep beginning again. What else is there to do?
Rooze Garcia’s poetry and photography have been published in American Tanka, Anatomy and Etymology, World Haiku, Raven Chronicles, (em), and on the cover of Carve Magazine. Her ongoing exploration of liminal poetics can be found at genrequeer.org. Information on her work and other projects can be found at roozecentral.com.
I feel at home between languages.
When I was growing up in Mexico City, there wasn’t a single positive word in Spanish for homosexuality. That was hard. I didn’t know how to think about myself in a way that wasn’t negative.
English was the language of the classroom, spoken by my teachers who were mostly British, and perfectly polite. It was the language I smuggled out of the library, in poems, and atlases and novels. A language my parents (my father in particular) struggled with. I could hide and breathe in English. In other words (both literally and figuratively) English gave me the space to be myself. One word at a time, one sentence at a time, one book at a time, I started cobbling together a perception of who I was that made me proud. In English I found the freedom, and perhaps the courage too, to be me.
Bigotry is surprisingly tolerant. Anyone can be a bigot. Ignorance and hatred can take root in any human heart. In English too there was bigotry, of course, homophobia, but I hadn’t experienced it. Perhaps I didn’t want to see it. In any case, by the time I did see it, it didn’t matter. I was in love. I loved English so deeply I could forgive it anything.
When my infatuation with English began to give way to a more mature, sedate love, I also rediscovered Spanish. I had to leave Mexico and live on the other side of the world, in Australia, for almost a decade, to understand the beauty of the Spanish language. During my teens I read Dickens, Chesterton, J.K Rowling, Shakespeare, Terry Pratchett, but in my late twenties I met Borges, García Márquez, Fuentes, Carpentier and Cortázar. Spanish is in my bones but English is in my heart, and denying either would be denying myself.
Home for me is a strange place for others. I live in-between. A figurative shore, a figurative midnight, a figurative translation. Is there a more beautiful in-between than language? That bridge connecting the world inside us with the world of touch, gravity, and perception, the world where we shiver in the presence of the beloved. To grow past bigotry we need love, of course, fraternity, but we also need imagination. Bigotry is poverty of imagination. Empathy is emotional imagination. Generosity is hopeful imagination. To imagine there are ways of being other than one’s own, and to understand such difference is fine, is the basis for respect. For me, languages are the places where imagination happens. I have the privilege of living between two.
Author and translator Gabriel Garcia Ochoa is at work on his first novel. He is a faculty member at Monash University.
It was Somerville, late nineties. Boston summer hot as fuck, winter so cold I’d corral all the cats into the pantry, where my twin mattress took up most of the floor, and wake up smelling like their pee. I was still a gold star at 17, in overalls and wife-beaters, no bra, no tattoos, no idea how bad it would get after I graduated from crystal meth to coke to heroin to New York. But before that. Before Ariel went crazy, before she ODed and never woke up, before I ever slept with a man, but after I’d already fallen in love with three girls.
It was Monie—the beautiful half-Lebanese raver queen—and me and Kareem and Caroline and Celine and whatever queers were crashing on our couches and floors. Whoever had run away or been kicked out or broke up or broke down. Monie did hair from our kitchen or the salon in Porter Square, and was so mad when I shaved my head that he didn’t speak to me for two days. I scooped cones at Toscanini’s all day and partied all night, woke up with my forearms sticky and sweet, glued to the sheets with old ice cream. If Monie didn’t have a boy over, he and I slept half naked, back to back in his bed, or sometimes three or four or five of us piled like puppies, like dirty spoons curled in a drawer.
It was Jacque’s Cabaret, Club Cafe, The Pit in Harvard Square, Hubba Hubba, and Charlie’s, but mostly it was our place on Jackson Road, where one night I dressed up in Monie’s platforms and vinyl mini and let Ariel put makeup on me. Where one Valentine’s Day we stayed up all night playing Cyndi Lauper’s cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” on vinyl and dancing with the fury of the young and finally free. When daybreak glowed our slick faces, we tacked blankets over the windows, turned on Oldies 103, and kept dancing. The radio DJ said they were having a contest for the most romantic call-in, so Monie called in and put on a thick Somerville accent and proposed to me. Girl, he said, you’re kinda sorta my best friend. We all rocked with silent laughter and then I called in and said Yes, a thousand times yes. And we won.
And now, 18 years later, after Ariel and Jay and so many of us are dead by their own hands, after I have loved a dozen more girls, after a stranger has shot up a whole room full of us, I am still here, still dancing, still singing, I love you more than I did when you were mine.
Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press, 2010) and the forthcoming essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury, 2017).
“Lucky Ladies Sestina”
—for Josey, on her 50th birthday
I wake up with you, warm in the dark blankets, safe
our whole lives but still sort of surprised. Lucky ladies,
living together, up in our own damn house. No sick babies,
no hunger, getting yelled at, getting hit. We get to be alive now,
rescued by here, by us. Some equity, our plenty of time. Back then
my grandma’s mom got given away, parents too poor
to keep her. My grandfather lived in a Masonic Home for Poor
Widows and Orphans, dropped off by his dad when an unsafe
abortion killed their mom. They never knew. Back then
button hooks, bleeding out in bathtubs: the family’s ladies
knew all about it, but nobody told the men. Now
nobody dies. Here. Because of that. But plenty of babies
go unwanted, and whole families leave Syria, bring babies
we seem to think are proto-terrorists. Humans! Poor
humans, so sure we deserve everything we have now.
Plus more. Sure everything’s earned, nothing sacrified to be safe
as houses here. I like to think of the ships and tenements, loony bins, ladies
hating staying home but doing it, saddled with proto-us. And then
think of our problems: the oil bill, AAA, overdraft charges, UPS. Back then
we’d probably be whores, or witches, all our rape-babies
born to die young. We read about corpse meditation, meet ladies
for lunch in museums, choose new wines. I meditate on prison, the poor
prisoners, flourescent quiver of those classrooms, their chill. Safe
to say I’m spoiled. A car! A dishwasher! A dryer! We hustled. Now
we hunker down. You know every decent bartender in town now;
most of them you trained your sweet self, your swole knees. Back then
I taught seven classes, you pulled shifts through pneumonia, only safe
with that money coming in. I teach deeds dancing in a green bay, bees
being buccaneers of buzz, make Sestina Worksheets for my poor
students: hungry grad students, undergrads working four jobs, ladies
on probation in the Southie Court House, cafeterias full of ladies
still in jail. Even they, alive today, can’t understand me now,
how I was confused when a guard yelled at me, explained to the poor
ladies Nobody tells me what to do. They were stunned, said Dag, then
we got back to work. Their essays on Desdemona, Lady MacBeth’s babies.
You and I decide what we want for dinner: someplace new or something safe,
a Caesar salad, roast chicken. Ladies love chicken, a glass of red wine. Then
we nestle down with our books, silken sleep. Now we sleep like babies,
safe as houses, for all those poor babies before us, who never got to be safe.
Three-time Pushcart prize winner Jill McDonough teaches in UMass-Boston’s MFA program and directs 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online. Her books include Habeas Corpus and Where You Live; Alice James will publish Reaper in 2017.
“Home Is Where You Make It”
A Play in One Act
THE CRITICAL FLAME
As a writer who identifies as LGBTQ, can you tell us about a time that you felt at home in your identity?
THE BLACK BISEXUAL MALE-BODIED QUEER GENDERED WRITER
THE CRITICAL FLAME
Uh, your LGBTQ identity. (pause) Wait, let us be more inclusive. Which ever identity feels more relevant to the question given that we want to include your answer in a dedicated space to LGBTQ writers in the forthcoming July/August issue of our journal in response to the recent mass shooting of members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community in Orlando.
THE BLACK BISEXUAL MALE-BODIED QUEER GENDERED WRITER
Ok. What do you mean by home?
THE CRITICAL FLAME
We want you to define home.
THE BLACK BISEXUAL MALE-BODIED QUEER GENDERED WRITER
THE CRITICAL FLAME
Yeah, we thought so too. So can you tell us in 300-400 words. (pause) Keep in mind you’ve already used up about 160 words already.
THE BLACK BISEXUAL MALE-BODIED QUEER GENDERED WRITER
Being queer is costly, even on the page. (looks around to see if anyone caught the multiple meanings) I’ve never sought home in any of my identities. So it feels like a strange question. As a kid, I found home in my mother’s arms until she decided that it would be better for me if she stopped hugging me, loving me with those arms. Even though I had uncles, a grandfather, and stepdads around who provided me with male nourishment and I never complained about getting too much mother love, she, a single-parent raising a Black male child, decided it was in the best interest of my masculinity for her to withdraw her physical affection. Home was very different thereafter. I’ve created home wherever I’ve set down roots.
When I was in college and the crushing weight of whiteness, wealth, and privilege threatened to mash me to pieces, I founded an organization of people of African descent and made home there. I became a stepfather at 22. My girlfriend had two kids age 3 and 6 when we met. Home was the four of us, the cat and the dog. She and I would go to Sound Factory Bar on W 21 Street to dance, sweat, grind and revel to deep house music.
In 2002, I opened up a sex party for Black and brown men on the first floor of a building she purchased for us to live. I held, loved on, and fucked men in that space while Tweet, D’Angelo and Maxwell boomed along past our moans.
(checks the word count) Sorry, home takes up more space for me than you provided. I just got started.
H. Sharif “Herukhuti” Williams aka Dr. Herukhuti is a playwright, poet, performance artist, sexologist, and educator who works at the intersections of culture, art, sexuality, and spirituality. He’s the founder and chief erotics officer of the Center for Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality as well as the center’s webjournal, sacredsexualities.org.
When I was a lesbian child and teenager, “home” was unthinkable for lesbians. We were exiles, outcasts, freaks. There was a dead silence around the word “lesbian.” I only heard the word as a dirty slur or joke, never mentioned in school or books or movies or songs. I didn’t know or couldn’t accept that I was a lesbian. I tried to force myself to feel at home in the world, and shoved my identity underground.
Little by little in my teens as girls kissed me, I was teased awake. Then one night, I had a “fast, hot, cloudy, strong” dream about Elaine Scott Banks, and I told her those exact words about it. She asked for more description, but I only had those words. I was deep in the rural outskirts of everything and hadn’t heard of Stonewall. But I was brave enough to tell Scotty my dream about her, just as I was graduating from high school, where she was the choir conductor and music teacher.
I went away to college for a year, but hated its glorification of booze, boys, and football, so I went back home and sang in Scotty’s choir. One night after choir practice, she took me to the Swan Hotel for a drink. I still wasn’t at home. I didn’t know yet that New Hope, Pennsylvania, was a new gay hotbed. Scotty took me dancing, and showed me the beginning of the world, and it was our world, though I still didn’t know for sure I belonged, or still couldn’t accept it. Was my world limited to drinking and dancing in bars? We didn’t talk about it, but I loved dancing with Scotty on a disco dance floor crowded with these adorable people.
At some point, I stumbled on an issue of The Village Voice with Jill Johnston talking about LESBIAN NATION. I was floored that this hateful slur was important and cool enough for the Voice, and that there could be a whole nation of us. Scotty drove me home one night in her green Fiat. Along the winding road next to the Delaware River, I put my hand on her hand on the gearshift. I was emerging from my shell, coming out. Then on the flowered couch in the dark, I stretched out with Scotty and kissed her, and kissed her again and again, and I was home at last.
Mary Meriam contributes to The Gay & Lesbian Review. Her first collection, Conjuring My Leafy Muse, was nominated for the 2015 Poets’ Prize and her second collection, Girlie Calendar, was selected for the 2016 American Library Association Over the Rainbow List.
What is it about bodies?
It is July 4 and there are fireworks. We like to watch the violence of airborne bodies. As a friend remarked today, we Americans celebrate the outcome of war, which is independence, with the violence of explosive matter into the sky. Do I feel more independent today. I did not attend the fireworks. I huddled in the company of queer POC-inclusive artist space, exchanging the currency of homemade pies and related foods because it is the Fourth of Jupie. We focused on food with containers that can be eaten.
I often feel like food without a container. Liquid. What space do I fill? What dimension of body defines my gender? Measuring tape my body, around and around. I think of Orlando, of Pulse, of the media’s fixation on Isis or not Isis and the largely media-enforced momentary, largely erased flipbook of faces of people who no longer share living space with us. And what were their names. And who were they. These are our people. Do they feel more independent today, liberated from the violence of this earth.
With every colored explosion, we remember. We LGBTQI POC-inclusive ally-inclusive community, create a kind of church, as we acknowledge and transcend societal containers of consciousness. We refrain here.
The boundary of gender, amen.
The boundary of race, amen.
The boundary of immigrant, amen.
The boundary of minority status, amen.
The boundary of legality, amen.
The boundary of safety, amen.
The boundary of seeing, amen.
The boundary of being seen, amen.
The boundary of being real, amen.
The boundary of physical presentation, on the street, in the club, at home, with one’s partner, with oneself, amen.
The boundary of life, amen.
Amen to the right to remain silent.
Amen to the right to speak.
Amen to the right to remain queer.
Amen to the daily existence of my LGBTQI brothers and sisters and gender queer allies and
Amen to my fellow POC brothers and sisters and gender queer compatriots who struggle with eye level existence with our fellow American citizens who sometimes forget that
We are all citizens in our own bodies.
Our basic human right is to remember that we are all human and we can all exist in this shared space, that we can be brave bodies in shared space, even beyond the violence we do to our own bodies and the violence that others do to us.
Amen to that. Amen.
Annie Won is a poet / chemist / yoga teacher who lives in Medford, MA, and writes with text and images at the intersections of body, mind, spirit, and page. Her work has appeared in venues such as New Delta Review, Apogee Journal, decomp, Entropy, TheThePoetry, TENDE RLION, and others; her critical reviews can be seen at American Microreviews and Interviews.
When I was a junior in college I studied abroad in Dublin, Ireland. There were many significant things about this time in my life, but the most significant was that this was the first time I was out to every single person I encountered. I had spent the previous year slowly coming out to everyone in my life, and it was amazing and refreshing to not have this enormously intense interchange anymore. I landed in Dublin and I was out of the closet.
I was not the only queer person in my program, and I was with a lot of actors, so nobody really gave my sexuality much thought. This is, I think, how it should be. I recently read about a petition to make Queen Elsa have a female love interest in the new Frozen movie, and while I think it’s an awesome idea—it even gave me pause, made me think twice. I cannot imagine a Disney character being gay, and yet, maybe this is exactly what our society needs to normalize queer identity. I realize that not all Disney princesses need to be finding their prince—I certainly wasn’t looking for a prince. I should also say that I am perfectly fine with Elsa having no love interest, and I’m not really even sure why there is a need for coupling.
These are stories for children, and not all children grow into the kind of adults that find princes. What would be refreshing is any alternative to what we usually see, because it shows our kids (and us) that there are so many different shades of normal.
One of the hardest parts of growing up queer (even if you grow up in a place that is welcoming, as I did) is that feeling of something being “wrong with you.” It was not until I accepted myself that I really truly began to feel at home—at home in my skin and at home in the world. The incredibly freeing feeling of being who you are, and not feeling as though you are locking parts of yourself away is something I hope people never have to struggle with. The reality is that we live in a place that tells us there are particular ways to be, and if we are not each and every one of those ways, there are parts of us that we hide. When I landed in Dublin I stopped hiding a part of myself and because of it a whole world opened up for me.
A world of people like me and not like me, and I began to feel more alive than ever.
Hannah Baker-Siroty is the Director of the writing program at Pine Manor College and is working in a series of poems about Vice Presidents. She lives with her wife and children outside of Boston.