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In Our Own Time: Queer Temporality, Pride, and Diana Goetsch’s “This Body I Wore”

A few years ago, back when I was still on Facebook in any real way, I posted something on National Coming Out Day. I’d been out for years to my closest friends, but there were some things I’d never said aloud to other people in my life. I don’t remember what the post said, exactly, but I know I mentioned being queer, a word that for me encompasses both sexuality and gender identity. I crafted the post carefully (what I mean is I probably spent hours drafting and redrafting, wondering if I could even shore up the courage to publish it), still terrified by the implications of writing those few words down. I’d grown up in a small Christian town in the Midwest, having for years belonged to an evangelical youth group that, among other things, believed homosexuality was a sin. Although I was long gone from that life, I was still nervous. Some things that grow inside us have very deep roots.

It was the first time I’d come out publicly. I was 36 years old.

Immediately after publishing the post, a cascade of support unfurled in real time. Emoji hearts and words like “Welcome” and “I love you” and “I’m so happy you’re here” dotted my feed. I took a breath. I felt relief.

And then a new message popped up. It was from an older man, a gay poet I knew only professionally.

“What took you so long????” he wrote.

My stomach lurched into my throat. What had just seconds before felt like celebration turned to stupidity and shame. I felt, as I had many times before, like I was way behind everyone else. I’d watched so many friends come out, come into themselves, and I was ever stuck in the dust, filled with self-doubt, a late-bloomer who still hadn’t quite bloomed.

I don’t remember if I responded to his comment. What I know now, years later, is that at some point not long after publishing the post, I deleted it.

***
Diana Goetsch came out as a trans woman when she was fifty. In her moving new memoir, This Body I Wore, just out from FSG, Goetsch traverses those first five decades of her life — living in the body of a man, knowing she was different, but not understanding how. She spent those years writing and publishing poetry, teaching English and writing in high schools and prisons throughout New York City and beyond. She also spent those years going by the name she was born with, dressing in a shirt and tie, being called “Mister” in her classrooms. She longed to be something else.

“Gender,” she writes, “may be the only category of human experience where what you long to be is what you are.”

But it wasn’t just fear that kept her in the closet. So often it’s assumed that queer folks know the truth of ourselves at an early age and we’re too afraid to come out. And for some people that’s true. But for others, the question is murkier. The answer can take a long time to see.

“There is simply no knowing a thing if it is self-secret,” Goetsch writes, “perhaps because that thing refuses to know itself in your presence. It is like a valley, spread out before you, hiding in plain sight.”

As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s — roughly twenty years after Diana Goetsch, in the small-town Midwest to her small-town Long Island — I didn’t even suspect I was queer until I was in my mid-twenties. Even then, I didn’t have the language for it. In an introductory note to her memoir, Goetsch writes of the importance of language — of both having it for ourselves and our bodies, and understanding that it changes over time. That it’s fluid and indefinite, bending and shifting along with us, never a static thing.

“Language was part of what shaped our reality,” she writes.

For so many of us, it takes a while to find the words.

***
Lately I’ve been thinking about the concept of “straight time” — the way a life unfolds, or is expected to unfold, within heteronormative frameworks: you grow up, go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire, have grandkids, die. The concept was coined by late Cuban queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz in his 2009 book Cruising Utopia — an iconic work of queer theory I only recently encountered. Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t study queer theory in college. As a first-generation graduate, I didn’t even know what “queer theory” meant. These days, I teach undergraduates far more versed in both queerness and theory than I was then, than I am even now. They also have better language than I did then. They openly use the words queer and trans while embracing the question of their own identities, and they write to figure it out. It’s invigorating and enviable. This past year, I worked in the office of a professor on sabbatical who has an impressive library of queer and gender studies. One day I pulled a copy of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues off the shelf and read it in two sittings. I saw myself in those pages, imagining what it might have been like to read that book when I was my students’ age.

What took you so long? I waited for someone to ask, saddled with the kind of shame I’ve felt before, not having read an important book sooner. The answer is that I didn’t know it existed. I didn’t have people in my life to press it into my hands. So I press books into my students’ hands instead, help them make sense of their lives through reading and writing. In so many ways, I’m making up for lost time.

Queer people are constantly resisting straight time. We often live in direct opposition to it, refusing or unable to buy in, forging our own, often nonlinear, paths. We don’t get married, or we don’t have kids, or we don’t buy houses — those markers that, to the straight world, make us more adult. We exist, instead, in queer time.

Even if we do want some of those things — like marriage (assuming queer folks can still do that in the future), a house, a family — it can take a lot longer to get there, not least because we often spend more time figuring out who we are, interrogating those structures and exploring what we want. But even in queer spaces, there’s pressure to do things a certain way. To come out, for instance, as soon as possible. The problem is that, for a lot of people, it’s not possible. For some people, it’s not safe. For others, we don’t have the models that reflect us, the language that fits. We define and redefine ourselves as we go.

Diana Goetsch was born in 1963. Her childhood was one marked by bullying and sexual abuse — often at the hands of those closest to her, including her mother and a trusted teacher. The first time she said these words aloud — “I’ve always wanted to be a girl” — it was to the teacher who abused her.

It was also a childhood, like that of so many queer people, marked by silence and estrangement.

“It wasn’t just that they were strangers,” Goetsch writes of her family, “even with strangers, you could begin to get acquainted. We were actively estranged by some invisible force, like magnets reversed.”

The way homophobia and transphobia are internalized in our bodies, the way they live in our bones, is true regardless of how or where we grow up. Even in the most supportive family, even in a generation that understands the fluidity of identity, one is still faced with a society that wants, at the very least, to debate our rights to bodily autonomy, and at worst wants us to die. We learn these stories early — from our families, from the kids who call us faggot and dyke on the playground, from the politicians who insist on banning gender-affirming care — and they live inside our skin. It can take a long time to be rid of them, if they ever fully leave us.

“Even a family you resist can define you,” Goetsch writes. The same is true of a nation.

In 1987, at age 24, Goetsch was living and working in New York City. Desperately lonely and severely depressed, she reached a point so many of us do.

“Maybe it would be better if I were dead,” she thought.

And then: “If you’re going to die, you might as well step out once as a woman.”

She walked into a women’s shoe store in Brooklyn and bought a pair of cream-colored pumps. She went home, shaved her legs, and stood on a curb waiting for a cab, dressed in a gold lamé skirt and blouse, the cream-colored pumps to match.

That night, she walked out into the world for the first time as a woman. “I might have just saved my own life,” she writes.

Goetsch spent much of the late-80s and 90s going out to underground clubs in New York, slipping into the anonymity of night as what she thought of herself then as a crossdresser. In some ways, This Body I Wore is a book about New York, an homage to the city queer people across generations have gone to find themselves and the communities that will hold them. But more than that, it’s a book about language: long before words like transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer were a common part of the vernacular, Goetsch found herself caught in an indefinite space of gender, between the perceived stability of masculinity and the freedom she found in the feminine, without a community, without the words that felt right. So she tried to make sense of her life the best way she knew how — by writing.

Near the end of the book, she gives a reading from Nameless Boy, the last poetry collection she published under her dead name. She has just come out, and realizes as she reads she’d been writing about living in the closet long before she knew it. After the reading, signing books for the audience, she crosses out that old name and writes Diana.

***
In queer spaces, we spend so much time urging people to come out. And don’t get me wrong; I believe that coming out, extracting ourselves from the shame that people and institutions place upon us and living our lives as authentically as possible is important — not least in this era of “Don’t say gay” bills and constant threats to queer and trans lives. Speaking our truth can in fact save us. But that pressure can also undermine an individual’s sense of time and space and safety, the acknowledgement that some things take a while.

Diana Goetsch came out when she was fifty. Nearly a decade later, her memoir comes into the world — vulnerable, honest, and unabashed, so fully itself; beautiful and poetic and painful, and often very funny—a story of transition, a document of a life. Not an indictment or self-flagellating question of what took so long, but an honest admission — maybe even an honoring — that queer people live their lives on their own timeline. That we come out if and when we’re able, when it’s safe and right, when we have the space, the language, and the models to know who we are, and what we might be.

It’s Pride Month, and soon the small Ohio town I recently moved to from New York City will hold its second annual Pride parade. Last year, when it held its first, many people and businesses protested it. In this place, I feel much more visible than I ever have. In New York, where far more bodies looked like mine, it was easy to roll my eyes at the corporate Pride parade, to attend the Dyke March or Queer Liberation March instead. Here, I’ll take what I can get. I don’t feel as safe as I did in Brooklyn, and sometimes I wish I could pass through this place a little less seen.

But then I remember that other bodies are far more vulnerable than mine. Just yesterday, on the first day of Pride, the Ohio House passed a bill banning trans youth from participating in sports. Another bill on the table would ban all gender-affirming healthcare for minors. And I remember what it means to live openly, visibly, in a queer body, especially in a place like this — that the very fact of it is a protest. That some queer kid might see me walking down the street, or marching in a parade, and see a way forward.

We could mourn the time Diana Goetsch, or any of us, spent wearing another body, or living another life. Or we could celebrate the fact that she — that we — were able to come out at all. That we are here now, alive in the bodies that fit, that finally feel like home. And that, maybe, the next generation will be able to come home to themselves even sooner.


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Melissa Faliveno

Melissa Faliveno is the author of the essay collection TOMBOYLAND, which was named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, New York Public Library, Vogue, Oprah Magazine, and Electric Literature, and received a 2021 award for outstanding literary achievement from the Wisconsin Library Association. Her work has appeared in Esquire, Paris Review, Bitch, Lit Hub, Brooklyn Rail, and Prairie Schooner, among others, and in the anthology Sex and the Single Woman: 24 Writers Reimagine Helen Gurley Brown’s Cult Classic. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College. www.melissafaliveno.com

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6 Comments

  1. “There is simply no knowing a thing if it is self-secret, perhaps because that thing refuses to know itself in your presence. It is like a valley, spread out before you, hiding in plain sight.” hmm mm mm. that is beautiful. just requested this from the library- thanks.

  2. Thanks so much for a beautifully written essay – & I’m going to have to read this book now!
    I totally understand the feeling of not yet having either the language for, or the realization of queerness in my younger days. There was simply no frame of reference then. Time definitely unfolded differently for me (& continues to do so). I came out as non binary & queer five years ago, at the age of 44. All the time before that seems to have had an entirely different texture & shape…it never felt right, & even though I was (mostly) unaware of who I really was, I still lived outside “straight time”. I “failed” all the expected milestones, never made the grade, floated against the tide.
    Straight time still baffles me. I’m glad that despite my years of personal inertia, that I didn’t succumb to its strident expectations, despite feeling pangs of shame at times for not fitting in. I’m still figuring things out, still feeling “outside”, but I’m comfortable with who I am at last. This is my time, my life…

  3. This was stunning, M. Gorgeous writing.

    And I’m excited to read this book! Thank you, as ever, Autostraddle, for highlighting the books that even queer lit twitter misses. 🙃 Ordered this IMMEDIATELY.

  4. A gorgeous personal essay and book review in one.

    As someone who came out multiple times as different things finally settling (?) on bi at 30, I really identified with this passage:

    “So often it’s assumed that queer folks know the truth of ourselves at an early age and we’re too afraid to come out. And for some people that’s true. But for others, the question is murkier. The answer can take a long time to see.”

    Thank you for writing!

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