BY DAVID M. DANIEL
Every queer person is born an orphan. These are the first words I will say to my students in my upcoming Pride Month creative writing class. They are not so much true(in the black and white binary sense of the word), as they are a perspective from which to approach understanding queer characters, queer themes, and perhaps even queer people.
When I say that every queer person is born an orphan, what I mean by this is that ALMOST without exception, queer people are born to families where their primary relationships with parents and other significant relatives, will not reflect a major part of their internal identity. Gay kids are not often born to gay parents. Trans kids are not often born to trans parents or even into families with other trans members.
I am very happy to say that, at least from my own limited perspective, queer children seem more and more to be born to accepting and loving families, to parents who WANT to understand and make their families safe for their queer members. But being born to a family that loves you (which is still sadly not always the case), is still different than being born to your kind. And especially in the tumultuous years of adolescence, when we are all developmentally SUPPOSED to be learning what makes us unique and finding our tribes, this is often an invisible disadvantage that queer people experience.
Think about a situation where another minority family might exist in an isolated community. An African American family, or Korean American family that might be the only family of their given ethnicity in a neighborhood or even an entire town. That isolated family would STILL give the children of that family some grounding in a tradition of stories, accomplishments, and history through that family’s legacy. Parents would be connected to grandparents, and to the parent’s siblings. These connections to the inherent dignity and even IDENTITY of others “like them” become a lifeline for children to reach for and see that people who share their inherent qualities have a place, a purpose, and an impact in the broader world of society. (And boy do we still have work to do on ALL minority issues…but this article is focused on queer stories).
Now imagine a family blessed with a queer child. Even if born to ideal circumstances, with educated allies as parents, in a supporting environment, there will come a point where that child seeks to know others who share their same characteristics, to understand their history, and to see what sort of PLACE someone “just like them” has in society. Now, ideally, moving through adolescence, that foundation in an understanding of queer culture will serve as just one part of a robust identity, but it is a critical piece of identity.
Sadly, it is also a piece of queer identity that even well meaning parents can find difficult to understand or grapple with, especially because there is an entire section of our society that has for years engaged in bad faith arguments using buzz words like “grooming” and “pedophile” to describe a phantom process of “indoctrination” to queer identity. They are correct in only one regard on these issues: queer kids who are allowed to form significant bonds with others like them, and to develop a deep understanding of the stories and histories of others like them, tend to be quite secure in their identities. And that outcome is the worst case scenario for those who try to weaponize the queer experience as a voting issue. Because the truth is, decades of data simply don’t support the fantasy that queer adults harm queer kids. However, the sudden intimacy that an adolescent discovering their identity might feel for an adult they encounter that shares that identity can seem upsetting to even the most affirming of parents.
But the foundation for understanding and accepting this part of the queer journey begins by understanding that even if you have loved and cherished your queer child all of their lives, they will still one day have to find others of their kind to understand and incorporate the queer piece of their identity and that doesn’t mean a parent has failed. That is normal, and it is good, and the best way to protect them on that journey is to share in it with them, because it very rarely waits for adulthood to begin. Learn the stories yourself, learn the history of sacrifice and triumph that define the queer experience. And realize that this process is only just now beginning to be understood, because for almost all of our history being queer has also been dangerous(and it still often is). We are only now emerging from a history of darkness regarding queer people, during which even the words used to describe our feelings have been erased. You see a new letter in the “alphabet mafia” emerging every week it seems, but this is NOT because these individuals are “new” but rather are only just now permitted to even whisper their names, to discover that others have felt as they felt inside sometimes all of their lives.
And if you are reading this and thinking to yourself that this sounds pretty similar to what it is like for kids who grow up sports fanatics in academic homes, or kids who love science fiction in a home with parents who only love historical dramas, then you are ahead of the class. Because the truth is, the queer experience of seeking to find your kind is actually a universal human experience. The stakes are different, and the urgency is lower, but the truth is that queer journeys help all of us to understand the importance of self discovery, self determination, and self acceptance. The human family IS the queer family, and the lessons your queer members have to teach you are important not just for them, but for all of us.
There are members of this community in Los Alamos who have questioned why a class such as the one I am teaching this Pride month, focused on the exploration of authentically queer stories, and more truly on empowering queer people to tell their stories, is necessary and appropriate to teach to adolescents. Now, these people are far from asking these questions in good faith. They are the sorts of people who either intentionally use issues of queer identity to drive wedges into our political discourse, or who are too gullible to realize they are spouting viral nonsense. And I am quite happy to say that they have been rather incredibly shouted down in their fear mongering by the people of our community and I am grateful for that. Either way, no statement I could make will convince those individuals otherwise. And in some cases, they really do ignorantly believe that the only thing that makes up a person’s queer identity is the physical act of their sexual expression. And I suppose, in the case that you have such a gross misunderstanding of both queer AND sexual identity, you might imagine a “class” for teens focused on queer issues would also be focused on those issues. And that is why a class such as this is necessary. Because being queer is about so much more than that. And while some will never listen, there is an entire generation of queer people emerging into the sun for the first time in perhaps all of human history, who need to know that their identity, that the profound place it occupies in their psyche, nay, in their very souls, is appropriate, wondrous, and worth expressing. And whether they know it or not, the non-queer people in our world need queer stories too, even if they can’t imagine why just yet.
This process is messy. We haven’t even found words for all the shades of human experience we are acknowledging yet, much less figured out how they all fit together. And as a queer person, or as a person who loves queer people, that messiness can be frightening. The fear that we might be making mistakes, with ourselves, or with those we care for is almost paralyzing. But if we continue to use the power of language, of story, of history, and of self to guide one another, we can emerge into a new future where everyone, even the born orphans, finds others of their kind and finally know their unique place and purpose in the human story. Being a contribution to that journey is why this Pride month I am teaching other queer people how to tell their stories, and I hope that when they are ready to be told, we will all listen and learn together.