Through the Gray: Depression and Anxiety in a Butch Body

Here’s to every sunken couch in every wood-paneled office

Where you sit staring at a face paid handsomely to care about you

Counting down 50 minutes in your head

50 minutes to fill with all the thoughts you avoid during the week’s other 10,080 minutes

50 minutes to force a smile and a nod and a “Yes, maybe this did all start with my parents”

Here’s to every morning you’ve found yourself staring at the subway tracks

Laid out stark as an exclamation point before a barreling train

And you think how easy it would be, it would be so easy

So easy

Here’s to every visit home when you’ve wanted to claw the faces off a family picture

Taken a lifetime ago, before you existed as yourself

Before the death of the “normal” daughter your parents always wanted, who never actually lived at all

Here’s to every waiter that mistakenly calls you “Sir”

As your own mother can’t stand to look at you over her filet mignon

Here’s to every time you hid in a women’s room stall

Waiting for the last person to leave

So you can slip out without scaring anyone today

Here’s to every late night you caught a stranger staring at you on the train

His eyes a boiling cauldron of hate, confusion, and disgust

And when he gets off at your stop, you wonder if this is when it finally happens

And if it is, do you even know how to really fight

And if you don’t, will your mother bury you in your favorite suit or her favorite dress

Here’s to every pill bottle clutched like a life preserver

And every pale orange oval that will take the edge off existence

And make you feel a little less of everything

A little less sad, a little less worried, a little less scared, a little less lonely

But also a little less excited, a little less hopeful, a little less joyful, a little less horny, a little less awake, a little less present, a little less real

Here’s to everyone living with just a little less color in the world

Let’s find each other’s hands through the gray

 

 

Gender Identity: Denied

If you have a Facebook profile and think about gender often enough to be reading this blog, then you’ve probably heard about the shiny new “custom” gender feature that Zuckerberg  ‘n Friends rolled out recently. Much like everything Facebook has ever done, this development is somewhat of a mixed bag. Let’s take a gander.

On one hand, it’s pretty fantastic that words like “cisgender,” “genderqueer,” and “trans*” have been introduced to the whole wide world via such an influential social network. It’s inspired important conversations about the gender spectrum, a whole lot of huffing and puffing on Fox News, and (I imagine) millions of Google searches. At its core, I think Facebook’s move is a good one for queer and trans* visibility. Unfortunately, on the other hand, the Powers that Be (Collecting Your Profile Data to Sell to Advertisers) don’t seem to believe that my gender identity – butch – exists.

Now, I’m not sure which edition of Webster’s Dictionary Facebook consulted for this project, but last time I checked, “custom” did not mean “choose from this pre-determined list of options.” In fact, I’m fairly certain that it means basically the opposite of that. So I was more than a little miffed when I tried to type “butch” into my little gender box and found that it wouldn’t save. I didn’t make the list, folks. And all you wonderful self-identified femmes? Got some bad news for ya: You also do not really exist. But hey, at least you have plenty of company here in Imaginary Gender Land.

Please note that there are at least 10 variations of “cisgender” on Facebook’s official gender list. Thank goodness, because cis folks have for so long suffered from a lack of representation!

Facebook has claimed that it developed its list of 50 gender identities by consulting with LGBT advocacy groups, and I do believe them. I can’t, however, help being disappointed in any such group that would neglect to include butch and femme – two identities with deep roots in queer history and civil rights battles – in that list. It makes me wonder if, as is often sighed across bar room tables and butch-femme message boards, we really are dying breeds. Is it just not hip to be us anymore? Or am I overthinking this whole thing?

(Warning for remainder of post: Here There Be Feels)

I feel like I must mention that my navel-gazing reaction to Facebook Genderpalooza 2014 may be a result of my ongoing funk (in the mood sense; I like to think that I smell rather nice). I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression since, well, before I really allowed myself to claim those words. With the support of some very dear people in my life, I entered therapy back in the fall and have been on anti-depressants since November; both have resulted in some improvements, but nothing close to miraculous. But Rome wasn’t psychoanalyzed in a day, right?

In addition to all that head stuff, my queer community – something that I leaned on perhaps a bit too heavily – has become a lot smaller. Most of the organizations I was once involved with have dispersed since last summer, including ButchBoi Life, the social and support group that I co-founded for masculine queer women. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but the loss of these networks has been really devastating. I feel increasingly isolated from my community and cut off from resources that I once took for granted. I rarely speak with, let alone hang out with, other butches now, and that makes me very lonely. In a way, I’ve returned to the level of desperation I was at before ButchBoi Life existed, when I was so very starved for interactions with people that walked in my same worn boots and reflected back to me my own reality as a butch dyke.

The combination of this queer social isolation and health problems both mental and physical have created the Perfect Storm of moping around, woe-is-me-ing. I’ve been neglecting things I was once passionate about (clearly, blogging being one of those things). And let’s be honest: the Northeast’s transformation into a Jack London-inspired frozen tundra for the past three months hasn’t exactly alleviated my desire to spend every day in bed, rolled up in a blanket burrito and staring at my ceiling.

(End of feels)

Well, that’s about enough head shrinking from me for now. Anywho, if you want to see “butch” and “femme” join Facebook’s list of Genders You Are Allowed to Be, you can let them know what’s up at the Facebook Diversity page. Tell ‘em Bren sent you. And if you like processing gender stuff and getting caught in the rain, leave your thoughts on this whole social media hullabaloo in the comments.

The Heaviest Door

I firmly believe that the weight of any given door is directly proportional to how much you’re dreading what’s on the other side. Perhaps it’s some evolutionary advance, where instincts kick in to tell us “Don’t open that; there’s something awful in there” and our bodies do their darndest to keep us out. Muscles weaken, arms become limp and powerless as overcooked spaghetti as we strain to pull or push against towering slabs of wood or metal. But even if our bodies do know best, we are, after all, humans, and far too arrogant to ever listen.

A person encounters many types of heavy doors throughout the course of their life. Classroom doors, courtroom doors, office doors, hospital doors, funeral home doors, the doors of vaguely creepy distant relatives or angry significant others (when you know you’re in the wrong). In my experience, the heaviest door of all often leads into a public restroom.

I know I’m not the only one who suddenly finds her upper body strength depleted when faced with the emotionless humanoid silhouettes plastered across these entrances. Anybody whose physical presentation doesn’t 100% mesh with the tiny, constraining, impossible-to-breath-within borders of Society’s Acceptable Gender Standards experiences this conundrum on a daily basis. “Should I choose Door Number One and maybe get yelled at?” we ask ourselves. “Should I choose Door Number Two and maybe get beat up? Or should I just start searching Etsy for a cute vintage chamber pot to carry around with me?”

It is, of course, completely ridiculous that one of the most basic needs of all living things should inspire within us such existential questions. I mean, we’ve all read “Everyone Poops.” This shouldn’t be so hard. And it wouldn’t have to be if not for the ceaseless patrols of people who I refer to as Sentinels of the Shitter. These tireless protectors of lavatories, powder rooms, and water closets everywhere have one sworn duty: Keeping gender fucking weirdos like me out at all costs. Until my dying day, I will never understand the deep investment so many people seem to have in whom precisely is pissing in the locked stall next to them.

During a recent business trip to Chicago, I had the misfortunate of encountering one of these self-important crusaders outside of a McCormick Place restroom. I was just ending my third day of covering a particularly exhausting trade show and after hours of sucking up to PR people, begging strangers for interviews, and navigating through a sea of slow-moving middle-aged men, all I wanted to do was make a quick pit stop and catch the shuttle back to my hotel. My trip up until that point had gone smoothly enough. I didn’t get pulled aside for a “random screening” at the airport; even when I inexplicably set off the metal detector, I was jovially groped by a friendly female TSA agent. My seatmate on the plane didn’t stare or even look uncomfortable.  And best of all, I hadn’t been yelled at in a bathroom once.

So perhaps I was feeling a bit too cocky when I strode up to the women’s room, mostly deserted by then except for one member of the janitorial staff standing in the doorway. I’m sorry, did I say standing? I meant blocking the doorway like a goddamn defensive linebacker in the 4th quarter. (Sidebar: I had to look up “offensive linebacker” to make sure I had the right term, as my interests are much more Puppy Bowl than Super Bowl.) I stopped abruptly in my tracks as she narrowed her eyes ever so slightly. Opening my mouth to say “Excuse me,” I was cut off when she pointed at the men’s room behind me and spat out, “Right there. Men’s room.” It was an order, not a suggestion. Her stance and words were so commanding that I half-expected her to suddenly sprout a Gandalf-esque beard and bellow, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should just hold it until I was back in my safe, gender-neutral hotel room. Finally, I stammered out, “I, uh, I need the women’s room.” For a moment she just stood there, staring at me as if I said I needed a one-way ticket to Mars. Then, without a word, she walked away, her eyes now locked on some space far off in the distance. I rushed myself in and out of the restroom as quickly as physically possible, as I had a sudden overwhelming need to be away from people, all people, and the only way to accomplish that was by getting back to the hotel.

As much as I should be used to incidents like that, whenever they happen they still completely throw me off. Maybe they just don’t happen often enough for the necessary numbness to set in. I still remember the first time I accidentally passed as a man and how shaken I was by it. Years later, I’ve been called “Sir” or “man” or “bro” so many times, had male pronouns forced onto me by so many strangers that I’m now actually more shocked when someone immediately knows that I’m female. Hell, even the cashiers at my Friendly Neighborhood Progressive Queer Café still think my name is “Brendan,” “Brian,” or, in a bizarre new twist, “Mack.”

I suppose that outside of restrooms – and the occasional, equally stressful changing room – I don’t make much of an effort to prove my femaleness. After all, it makes no difference to me what sex the cashier or bus driver or random person walking their dog thinks I am. But when it comes time to take care of business, I am suddenly the girliest girl to ever have girled. I stick my chest out like a rooster and my voice magically shoots up several octaves.

While most women commiserate about those infamously long bathroom lines, I am always relieved to see them, because that time waiting in line allows me to lessen any shock value my presence might otherwise inspire. It’s a chance to very deliberately place myself in a crowd of women  (“I’m definitely not some confused dude wandering into the wrong room, no ma’am!”), make some eye contact (“I see you standing there being a female, just like me, sister!”),  or, if I’m feeling really brave, small talk (“Gotta love these lines, am I right, ladies? Also, yogurt, tampons, chocolate, and household cleaning products!”).

The worst possible bathroom for me is a mostly – but not entirely – empty one. That’s when I’m most often assumed to be an idiot, a pervert, or a predator. That’s when I’m most often righteously informed by visibly frightened women that “THIS IS THE LADIES’ ROOM.” That’s when I feel that awful emotional cocktail of anger, shame, and guilt: Anger at people not minding their own business, shame at being publically humiliated, and guilt for scaring a stranger.

I know many gender outliers of my particular flavor whose solutions to this eternal dilemma are either “use the men’s room” or “become Bladder Ninjas, capable of holding it for lengths of time not previously observed in nature.” If those methods work for them, then more power to ‘em, but I can’t see either working for me. If women’s rooms make me nervous, men’s rooms give me full-blown panic attacks. I find the danger in there far greater, not to mention the amount of bodily fluids that missed their marks. As for never using a public bathroom at all, well, let’s just say that I’m probably still carrying some residual emotional scarring from a particularly bad day in First Grade when I attempted to hold it during a test and failed spectacularly.

I suppose I could try to paint my refusal to be bullied out of a public space as some sort of bold political statement, instead of just me being too stubborn to change my restroom routine. I could pretend it’s a middle finger to oppression and bigotry and the heteronormative cissexist powers that be. Maybe it is that, a little bit. Maybe simply existing in front of the whole wide world can be, for all of us, an act of civil disobedience. Maybe revolutions can be born on tile floors and inside graffiti-smeared stalls. Or maybe I’ve just been pushing against this one door for so long that it seems a shame to stop now.

“Sir” for the Holidays

There is nothing unique about what I’m about to say. I am not the first queer person to have an awkward relationship with her heterosexual parents. I am not the first masculine-of-center female person to be misgendered by strangers. And I am certainly not the first human person to dread going home for the holidays. I’ve heard stories much like the ones I’m sharing here time and time again, from community members near and far, in all the soul-bearing corners of the internet or painfully hip coffee shops or shabby Women’s Center living rooms where such conversations are born.

These stories are always delivered in that half-confessional, half-exaggerated eye roll sort of tone that serves well to turn painful things into good jokes. We queers are masters of that particular brand of humor. “My great aunt is going to ask me if I have a boyfriend yet. It’s a holiday tradition.” “I wish I could wear my new tie to Christmas dinner, but my mother would declare World War Three.” “The priest looks at me funny during Midnight Mass. Maybe I’ll give him a wink this year.” “Thank Gay Jesus for spiked eggnog.”

The mystery of the whole season is why we – or at least, I – keep going home for the holidays, despite the fact that “home” is now less “place where I grew up” and more “interrogation room decorated with tinsel.” Part of the reason is that, despite being a devout atheist, I love (secular) Christmas and will probably one day turn into a butch version of Clark Griswold, risking life and limb to staple 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights to my roof. I also love Thanksgiving because, I mean, food is my favorite.

The other part is that very famous and inaccurate “definition of insanity” – that is, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Maybe this year, there won’t be any fighting about my haircut. Maybe this year, my mother won’t start crying about never having grandkids. Maybe this year, I can finally wear that awesome tie. Somewhere deep in my brain, there is an unfinished Norman Rockwell painting of familial holiday bliss and I am, apparently, determined to get it framed.

Thankfully, I have over the years perfected my method for handling seasonal strife at my parents’ house (the key is to distract my mother right off the bat by asking about the latest drama in her workplace, thus ensuring that the conversation will have nothing to do with me for the remainder of that day; repeat for as many consecutive days as necessary). The real challenges are those in-public moments of awkwardness and, well, “Sir”-ing.

I’ve gotten so used to being mistakenly called Sir, Mr., Brother, Man, or any other testosterone-based honorific that I am actually more surprised when strangers get my gender right. Not that I enjoy being called “Ma’am” (which makes me feel like a spinster), or “Miss” (which makes me feel like school girl), but hey, at least those people are paying attention and are not completely unable to process the notion that one can be simultaneously masculine and female without rupturing the time-space continuum.

While my daily misgenderings are par for the course for me, they are a source of supreme humiliation for my mother. I’ll never forget one particularly torturous dinner out when the waiter, an older mustachioed man, referred to me as “Sir” for the duration of the two hour meal. This awkwardness was compounded by his compulsion to end every single sentence with either “Sir” or “Ma’am.” A solitary “Sir” could perhaps go unnoticed, but after the 20th one, neither my mother nor I could pretend we didn’t hear. My father, who is half-deaf, was blissfully unaware of this entire situation and enjoyed his meal while my mother’s face tried on every possible hue of red and I seriously considered escaping through the kitchen.

A few years ago, my parents decided that cooking a big meal was too much work for just the three of us, so we began having Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. There are a few advantages to that plan for me. One: blowout arguments are discouraged in public settings. Two: No clean up. And three: While my parents have a dry house, the restaurant has a full bar. (Hello, pumpkin martini.) There is one big disadvantage: See above horror story. And so for me, Thanksgiving quickly replaced Christmas as Most Stressful Holiday Involving Family.

I started this past Thanksgiving dinner with a panic attack appetizer after discovering the restaurant’s tradition of giving each female diner a rose after dinner. Besides being sexist, antiquated, and just plain weird, this policy put me on edge because I knew that the peace (or lack thereof) of our drive home would be determined by whether or not I got one – that is, whether or not my mother was publicly embarrassed by her giant butch dyke offspring. Thus, I sat there sweating and wondering desperately if I would receive a rose that evening, like the weirdest Bachelor episode ever.

I was calmed somewhat by our waitress, who in her infinite grace and wisdom did not use a single honorific during the meal. She was also quite cute and thought I was funny (or at least, was paid handsomely enough to pretend to think I was funny). Nothing soothes frazzled nerves quite like a pretty girl laughing at your jokes.

The meal went by smoothly and gluttonously enough, and soon it was time to face the flowers. I had cobbled together a plan between bites of pie, but I would have to time it just right. While my parents were putting on their coats and the hostess, giver of roses, had her back turned, I slipped past them all and triumphantly held the door open.

Success! I had foiled the hostess’ insidious, gender-normative plans while simultaneously appearing to be well-mannered. My mother was none the wiser, as she had also missed the opportunity to be flowered, despite her extremely obvious womanhood, and my father was just happy that the biggest debate on the way home involved what to do with the leftovers. And so there was peace on that Thanksgiving evening. A temporary peace, as Christmas dinner looms larger on the calendar, but peace nonetheless.

Let’s all just take it one holiday at a time.

Our Bodies, Our Binders: An Introduction to Chest Minimizing Magic

Hey, team! Remember how last week I promised I would keep you all posted about my Quest for the Holy Binder? Well, I think I’ve finally completed my mission – or, at the very least, I am satisfied enough with current results to rest on my laurels for a while.

Originally, I was just going to write about my own experiences with the magical “order, try on, get super frustrated, mail back/exchange, repeat” process known as binder shopping. In a fit of altruism, however, I decided that I should do what I can to help other butches/trans guys/gender-fuckers have a less stressful experience. As my version of “doing what I can” usually translates into “writing something for the internet,” I came up with a sort of Binding 101 post for my Diffuse 5 fashion column this week. Open your college ruled notebooks, kids, because class is in session:

Diffuse 5 Presents: Binding for Beginners

This Butch Reviews “Yes Or No”

Well hey there, Queerland! Happy Day After Obama Said He Supports Gay Marriage And The Internet Exploded Into Rainbows And Tumblrs! Yes siree Bob, I’m feeling pretty good ‘n proud of my Prez. Sure, he needs to do more to keep supporting us and sure, we still have a lot of work ahead of us, and sure, words don’t mean as much as actions, but HOLY UNICORN CRAP, you guys – a sitting president just endorsed gay marriage. IN AN ELECTION YEAR. That’s fanfreakintastic enough to keep me positive right now (and to make me want to pull out my old “Obama Said Knock You Out” T-shirt from the ’08 race).

Yup, yesterday was a Gay Old Time, and I celebrated by seeing a Gay Not-So-Old Film. It’s LGBT Film Fest season here in Boston or, as I like to call it, the delicious multicultural appetizer before the ginormous main course of Pride. Mmm. The fest is a perfect opportunity to learn more about queer experiences around the world, and last night’s film was a gem. Yes Or No is the first lesbian movie out of Thailand and has a butch-femme theme to boot!

White tank tops: the universal lesbian language.

WARNING: SPOILERS, STRAIGHT AHEAD!

The film tells the story of Pie, a rather tightly-wound college student, who is distressed to find that her new roommate, Kim, is a tomboy – the Thai word for butch lesbian. Now, Pie is no stranger to Sapphic sisters, as her previous roommate was “lipstick lesbian” (according to the subtitles) Jane, whose tendencies for melodrama and hurling inanimate objects in fits of passion were a wee bit too much for Pie to handle. But Kim is a whole other kettle of gay fish (this movie is heavy on the fish imagery, BTW, because ["lesbians and fish" joke goes here]). With her Bieber hair and hipster jeans and love of video games, ukulele, botany, soup, and other random things that seem to annoy Pie, Kim is the sort of girl Pie’s mom warned her about, quite literally. As in, her mom is all like, “Yo, Pie, you know those girls who look like boys? They mad freak me out, girl. Better stay away from ‘em.” (Note: Not a direct quote.) So Pie and Kim’s initial relationship is strained by the homophobe germs she caught from her mama and she does all kinds of crazy shit like make a red masking tape line down the middle of their room, because everybody knows that masking tape is impervious to gayness.

But not to suave butches wielding ukuleles next to IKEA furniture.

As time goes on, however, the two develop a working relationship, then a friendship, and then – well, here is where things get complicated. See, Pie doesn’t want to be crushing on a girl and also has a kinda-boyfriend named Van who has the exact personality of a slightly damp sack of flour. Kim is afraid to admit that she is a lesbian or a tomboy, even though she’s falling in love with Pie and everyone is like, “Come on, now – you’re wearing flannel and giving your handkerchiefs to pretty femmes in need.” Oh, right – the handkerchief. Kim has apparently been reading up on her Butch Is a Noun, because she offers her plaid hankie to Jane, who’s sobbing in class after a bad breakup. +10 butch points for Kim, but -10000 good idea points, because Jane immediately decides that Kim is the love of her life, despite not actually knowing her name. Thai lesbians: pretty much like lesbians everywhere else.

“Let’s adopt a family of orphaned cats and name them after the cast of Rent, and we can all move into a queer co-op in Jamaica Plain and raise organic arugula. I’m Jane, by the way.”

Oh, what tangled webs of Feelings we weave! Kim loves Pie, Van loves Pie, the fast forward button loves Van, Jane loves Kim, and Pie is shocked/terrified to find herself loving Kim. There’s all kind of grand romantic-if-extremely-cliché scenes involving running in the rain, kissing in the rain, meeting on park benches, candlelight serenades, adorably awkward picnics, and shopping for jellyfish (if I had a dime for every time a movie equated love and jellyfish, I would have a dime). There are also many lovable supporting characters, including Kim’s probably-a-dyke hippie aunt and the gruff butch dorm manager who observes Kim and Pie’s budding romance with an approving look. This movie is just really freaking cute, you guys. You may find yourself squealing with delight at some point, and that’s perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of.

“Wait, you got Melissa Ferrick lyrics tattooed here?

Yes Or No isn’t just a giant squeefest, though – there are some parts that are downright painful. When Kim overhears Pie’s mom telling Pie how disgusting she thinks tomboys are – “It’s a good thing you don’t look like that, or I would be dead” – I was reminded of my own mother and that wasn’t fun. And the heartbreak on screen when Pie couldn’t bring herself to admit her feelings out loud wasn’t fun either. But the movie is roughly 75% Adorable Babydyke Fun Times, so I promise I smiled far more than I cringed.

“I think I’ve finally perfected my fisting technique.”

All in all, I give Yes Or No two Buzz Cuts and Bustiers thumbs up. If this awesome movie comes to a film fest near you, see it – and if you can tell me where the heck I can buy this on DVD, please, help a brother out! Happy squeeing, dear readers.

Failures to Communicate: On Howl and My Big Fat Queer Identity

The following post is, without contest, the most difficult thing I’ve written thus far on Buzz Cuts and Bustiers. Besides the fact that it inexplicably took me four days to complete this, I’m not even sure now – after rewrite after rewrite after rewrite – that I’m satisfied with the result. Maybe I should just appreciate the meta-ness of struggling to express my struggles with expressing myself. A failure to communicate within a failure to communicate. I did love Inception, after all. Keeping that in mind, I hope you can excuse these weird, rambling thoughts that are the product of a weird, rambling couple of weeks. I promise my next post will be more a legitimate post and less a sleep-deprived stream of consciousness.

Lately, I don’t seem to know how to talk about myself. Well, I mean, not completely – I’m kinda talking about myself right now – but in a more existential way. What is my gender identity?  What does that encompass? Is it female, butch, masculine female, masculine-of-center, gender nonconforming, or all of the above? What is butch to me? How do I see butch in other people? Do I have the right to even look for or somehow determine butch in other people? Why do I feel comfortable using female pronouns, but bristle at being called “lady” or being regarded as “one of the girls?” How can I explain that though I am female and ID as female and not as a trans person, I don’t feel like “cis” is a completely accurate word for me? How do I say, “Please interact with me the way you would interact with a man, even though I am a woman” without sounding like a misogynistic prick? How can I express the gender dysmorphia I experience when I see the outline of my breasts under a freshly ironed button-up, but that those same breasts are welcome in bedroom situations? How can I say all this without offending women, without offending lesbians, without offending trans people, without offending myself? Lately, I can’t. Just can’t. And it’s wearing me down.

In the course of describing this ongoing dilemma to my GF, I came to an interesting realization. During the many times throughout my journey of queer self-discovery when I’ve struggled to express myself – or specifically, myself as a product of my butchness – the femmes in my life have been the ones who required of me the least amount of explanation. As a whole, they have always seemed to “get it” very quickly, or at least, to be able to make sense of my existential whining and frustrations. Since then, I’ve been trying to focus on positive, reliable truths like this – things I can explain, and therefore, find comforting. Patches of calm waters in an otherwise tempestuous sea.

Please note that this is not some transparent attempt to flatter or otherwise woo my femme readers (unless, of course, it’s working), nor is it meant to be a universal representation of butch-femme communication; it’s simply a factual observation of my experiences. Whether these femmes have all been experts in the field of Butch Studies (or Studying Butches), or whether they could just empathize with the importance I place on my self-applied label and physical presentation of gender identity, I can’t be sure. But it’s always been my belief that, in so many wonderful ways, butches and femmes are two sides of the same Gender Presentation and Identity Commemorative Collector’s Coin. To put it another way: if you take the overly simplistic gender expression scale and bend it into a perfect circle, those two opposite ends are bound to connect.

Besides leaning on the perfumed shoulder of a sympathetic femme, my other favorite Cheap Alternatives To Professional Therapy For Dealing With My Gender Issues include writing (shocker), Tweeting (‘nother shocker), buying things I don’t need (but are still cheaper than therapy), and re-reading my favorite poems. As utterly cliché as it may sound, poetry has been an emotional refuge for me since my teen years, back in those days when the first gleamings of queerness were flashing across my consciousness and I was scared shitless. Back then it was mostly T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sylvia Plath – a cheerful trio! – but recently, it’s been Allen Ginsberg. Specifically, my refuge is Ginsberg’s iconic and controversial “Howl.” It would break the hearts of my college journalism professors if they knew how deeply I just buried this lede, but “Howl” is really at the heart of what I want to wax poetic (heh) about today.

Ginsberg wasn’t just one of the founders of the Beat Generation and, in my professional opinion (translation: based on my college minor in English Literature), one of the greatest American poets – he was also a fellow queer person. He had the unfortunate disadvantage of coming of age – and coming out – in 1950s America, a time and place where homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. After being committed to a psychiatric facility (which he nicknames “Rockland” in his poetry), Ginsberg escaped a lobotomy and won his freedom by promising the doctors that he would be a good and proper heterosexual. Historical records, however, show no evidence that he pinky-swore to it, so I think we can all forgive his failure to uphold that promise.

Like so many of us who travel somewhere outside of the dotted lines of society, Ginsberg’s experiences — and the words he used to bring them to life — were subjected to mainstream America’s hair-trigger censorship attempts. When “Howl” was published in 1956, it set off a firestorm of controversy, starting with the arrest of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti on obscenity charges and culminating in the 1957 trial that helped make Ginsberg and his Beat buddies into household names. The debate focused around the often rough language of the poem and the frank, somewhat graphic depictions of sexuality of both the hetero and homo variety.

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may

After a parade of critics, scholars, and writers were trotted out to either defend or deny the poem’s literary merits, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that “Howl” had enough “redeeming social importance” to make up for all the curse words, drug references, and gay stuff it contained. If we can ignore for a moment the absolute weirdness of a serious legal ruling on something as profoundly interpretive and abstract as poetry, then we can celebrate this as a win for queers, outsiders, and lovers of what Ginsberg wryly called “sentimental bullshit” everywhere.

The redeemingly socially important imagery in “Howl” is a mixture of deeply personal experiences, such as the mental illness and eventual death of Ginsberg’s mother,

Holy my mother in the insane asylum!

inside jokes, like that one time when Ginsberg’s friend and fellow “Rockland” resident Carl Solomon (to whom “Howl” is dedicated) pulled a hilarious prank,

who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism

and more universal social commentary on the tortures, discoveries, loves, lives, and deaths of a generation of artists, thinkers, and rebels – commentary that in many ways echoes the experiences of generations to follow, including my own. I don’t think I’m the first queer person to see my own voice reverberating through the many Howls released in this text, and I certainly hope I’m not the last.

who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time

Sometimes the Howl that I feel rising from my core is one of joy and freedom, a celebration of victories both small and astronomical, both personal and political, of noting a point gained in the endless game of strategy and luck we call the Gay Rights Movement.

where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself   imaginary walls collapse   O skinny legions run outside   O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here   O victory forget your underwear we’re free

Other times, it’s a Howl of sexual ownership and liberation, of anticipation building to crescendo and blood coursing through veins like hot metal, or of the sudden acute awareness of my body or her body or your body or all the fine, queer bodies in this world. Admittedly, this is my favorite Howl.

who copulated ecstatic and insatiate and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness

With increasing frequency, the Howl is teeming with defiance, of wounds licked and teeth bared and muscles tensed for attack. It’s almost a dare, or a declaration to powers unnamed that yes, I am still alive, we are still alive – despite their best efforts – and ready to fight off whatever barrage of insults or injuries or injustices or cherry-picked Bible passages may be hurled our way.

who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication

But most often, if I’m being really truthful here, the Howl is one of pain, of anguish, or of raw, useless, impotent anger. It’s a guttural, animalistic release of human emotion too twisted, too jagged to ever take the form of intelligent speech – or poetry.

I’m with you in Rockland

where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of actual pingpong of the abyss

I’m with you in Rockland

where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse

I’m with you in Rockland

where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void

The thing about “Howl” and Howls and the expelling of bottled-up, hyper-intense emotion is this: you feel so much better afterwards. Or at least I do, but I bet you would, too, if you gave it a chance. Because while language can sometimes be a stumbling block in the way of adequately conveying personal identity, it can also be deeply therapeutic. Take it from me: when you finally find the right words, sound, and syntax – whether by your own creation or the work of a like-minded soul – to paint that clear picture of who you are in this world, the relief that follows is unreal. It’s a calm that whispers, “This is me. People recognize me. I’m safe. I’m home.”

I’m with you in Rockland

in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night