My dad has a limited but solid repertoire of stories. They split neatly into two categories: Humor and Triumph. Humor stories are supposed to make you laugh. Triumph stories are supposed to remind you that good always wins out over evil; they tend to center around the miraculous healings and demon exorcisms he witnessed 20 years ago as a young missionary in Mexico.
The one he is telling tonight, as we sit at the counter peeling peaches, is an oldie but goodie, a refreshing twist on the Triumph genre even though I’ve heard it many times before.
The setting: an unfinished yogurt store in the heart of our urbane and wicked capitol city, Minneapolis.
The hero: my dad, a naive young carpenter, come down from the north to get this yogurt store framed with the honest toil of his hands.
The villain: an effeminate queer who minces by, oozing down the street with an obscene sway. (Here, my dad gets up and prances, slinky-hipped, across the floor to illustrate.)
The action: The queer pauses on the sidewalk and meets my dad’s gaze with a lecherous smile. My dad, hackles raised, squares his body and looks the queer straight in the eye. Then he raises his hammer to chest height and lets it swing back and forth meaningfully in his hand.
“And then,” says my dad (I know the rhythm of these sentences like I know old hymns), “he turned pale as a ghost. He turned right around on his heel and he took off down the street. And I never saw him again.”
The denouement is sweet like water or rescue, an immense relief of tension after the near-touch of evil, the implication of abomination in that queer’s gaze. Hands plastered with peach skins, mouth filled with fruit, I stare adoringly at my dad. So good and so fierce a protector. With him, I know I am safe.
My parents buy a book called Bringing Up Boys, a manual for raising successfully masculine men by James Dobson. I am obsessed with it and deeply ashamed of my interest in a book not meant for girl children. I sneak-read it, wolfing down chapters when my parents are outside or in the bathroom.
The only part that I don’t finish reading is the chapter on homosexuality, where Dobson dispenses advice to anonymous nascent homosexuals desperate enough to contact him. I am deeply afraid of this chapter. I avoid it as though ignoring the words on the page will be enough to keep me pure. But somehow I can’t look away.
“I am afraid I have a little sodomy in me,” writes one miserable 13-year-old. My throat tightens as I try to ignore the creeping suspicion that I, too, have a little sodomy in me. I can’t remember how I knew. I just remember the fear.
I’m 15. I hug my beautiful best friend goodbye and every nerve combusts when our bodies meet. Shame roars through me like wildfire, like a tsunami, like anything violent that leaves death behind it.
I follow my parents out to our car, praying PLEASE DON’T LET ME BE GAY PLEASE DON’T LET ME BE GAY PLEASE DON’T LET ME BE GAY with every step. I pray it buckling my seat belt, I pray it with every rotation of the wheels on the way home. PLEASE NO PLEASE NO.
I spend the next nine years in the closet, not letting my female friends touch me, hating my desire-ridden body so deeply that I won’t even look at photos of myself. I pray for straightness to a god who never answers.
My family and friends elect Trump, and, after nine wasted years (108 months, 3,285 days, 78,000 hours), I finally conclude there’s nothing about the Christian fundamentalism I grew up with that’s worth saving.
I have sex with one man, just to see what all the fuss is about. I do not see what all the fuss is about.
I undress my first girlfriend, Ash, on our fourth date. My pupils dilate like plates when I see her breasts. (She tells me this after.) I’m surprised by how familiar the curves of her hips are, overwhelmed by the way her body folds softly into mine. I don’t believe in soulmates but something about her matches something about me. I don’t know what it is, just that it is.
Later, kneading her sore shoulders as she falls asleep in my bed, I think, “She’ll marry me or break my heart.” I already know there are no alternative outcomes.
Standing in a parking garage, arms wrapped around myself, I tell my parents I’m dating a woman.
My mom starts crying, my dad’s face goes slack. But they don’t yell, they don’t disown me. “We still love you,” they say, and I believe them. I also believe I can make them love Ash.
Because how could anyone could not love her? How could anyone not love this woman who dances naked to “Stayin’ Alive” as she prepares for work, who sings angry punk songs in the softest alto while she’s making us breakfast? This woman who acts so tough but sometimes, if I play my cards just right, spills open and chatters about Dragon Ball Z like a little girl describing her favorite Disney princess? How could anyone not love this woman who built layers of strength out of a hard life, who is still so surprised by kindness?
I want to hurt anyone who ever hurt her, I want her to own me like property, I want her to teach our kids vulgar jokes, I want to know her past like I know my own, I want to be the foundation of her future.
I want to bring her home. I want to eat gritty strawberries from my family’s garden with her, I want my mom to feed her too much Lebanese food, I want her and my dad to go to the range together and trap shoot like the redneck gun nuts they both are. I want her to love my family.
Because how could she not love them? How could anyone not love my mom, who spent whole afternoons reading to me and my brother, even after her voice went ragged? How could anyone not love my dad, who told me my eyes were the color of robins’ eggs and bragged about my grades to anyone who would listen? How could she not love family dinners where everyone stayed around the table after the food was gone?
I want Ash to think my dad’s terrible jokes are actually funny, I want her to learn how to keep chickens from my mom. I want her to sit on my parents’ patio with me and drink fresh-squeezed lemonade.
I drive up to my parents’ house for the first time since I told them about Ash. At first, everything seemed normal. We hug, we joke around, I tell them about work. I tell them about a coworker who clips her nails at her cubicle. I say something about her not being very normal.
“Well,” says my mom, “you shouldn’t be judging people.” My stomach turns over.
Twenty minutes later, I sit them down at the kitchen table. I explain that I’m willing to answer their questions, that I think being queer is okay, that I have been in the closet for a long time and am happy to be out.
“Homosexuality is disgusting,” my mom says suddenly, her voice hard. “They prey on young kids.”
“Mom,” I say. “Homosexuals aren’t pedophiles.”
She snorts, turns one fist over and stares silently at her fingernails.
“Can’t you just…ungay yourself?” asks my dad.
I start crying.
I’m still crying when I get to Ash’s apartment an hour later. She holds me and tells me going to be okay. Her voice is as soft as her hands; I feel better. My coming out was a shock, I tell her. They’ll come around. She doesn’t say anything.
This happens once a month for the next 12 months. Every time, my mom says meaner and crazier things as my dad looks on. They both mostly stop calling me. I keep going back, thinking that if I can just explain a better way, if I can just show up one more time, they might accept me. I leave in rags every time, but I can’t stop going home.
Ash’s comforting grows more and more perfunctory.
Ash’s hands are between my thighs, and I’m trying to pay attention. She stops. “What are you thinking about?” she asks. “It’s not me.”
I hedge. I’m tired, work was stressful, it’s too hot. She watches my face. I’m a bad liar.
“It’s your family, isn’t it?”
We’re both silent for a moment. “I’m sorry, baby,” I say, reaching for her. “Let’s try again.”
“No.” she says, pushing me away. “Your fucking family. They ruin everything.”
Ash and I are half-asleep, doing nothing on a hot Saturday afternoon. I’m thinking about home. Curious, I ask where home is for her. She asks for clarification.
“You know,” I say. “The place where you feel most at ease. Your safe place.”
Without hesitating, she lays a hand between my breasts and says, “here.”
A little wave of shock runs through me, followed by a surge of panic. My answer would still be “my parents’ house.”
I go home to make peppernuts with my family. They’re a cookie from my dad’s side, little anise-flavored lumps you can crack a tooth on. People outside my family politely call them an acquired taste. I love them.
I’ve been with Ash for 10 months. My mom has never said her name or asked a question about her. My dad has asked a) what her name is and b) if she is bisexual like me.
I’m sitting at the counter, watching my mom roll out peppernut dough. This used to be our thing when I came home, her making food, me telling her everything about my life. It’s been good so far, this time. I’m not crying, she’s not livid.
It’s been so good that I actually think I’ll get the answer I want to the question I came to ask. (I’m so fucking stupid.)
“Can Ash come to Christmas?”
My mom has begun slicing dough, and she doesn’t look up from her work or hesitate. “No.” she says. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my dad silently get up and leave the room.
“Okay,” I say, very calmly. “Then I’m not coming either.”
“Okay.” says my mom.
I get up to leave and start sobbing uncontrollably.
My parents follow me down the stairs and they both hug me goodbye. I don’t ever want them to touch me again.
I drive back to the apartment Ash and I just moved into. She asks me how it went, I say it went bad. I don’t say much more because she hates hearing about my family like they hate hearing about her. It goes better when I keep it to myself.
Ash and I come home from church. We made garlic steak the night before, and the air is pungent.
“We need to open a window,” I say, taking off my coat.
“It smells like home,” she says, and joy races through me like blood rushing back into frostbitten fingers.
I don’t say anything because I don’t want it to be a big deal, I want it to be the most matter-of-fact thing in the world that the place we live together smells like home to her. But I breathe deep and memorize everything (garlic, our dog, her department store cologne, my bevy of hair products) and label it “home” in my own mind.
We have a fight, the worst fight I’ve ever had with anyone. First we fight in the bedroom, then we move to the living room and we’re both crying and yelling, and I know it’s bad because she never cries and I never yell.
We’re not falling apart solely because of my family — or maybe we are. We’re fighting about shame they gave me, about ignorance they carefully fostered, about things she needs that someone who didn’t grow up like me would already know how to give. I’m so angry (at them, at me, at her) that I feel like my heart will implode.
Eventually, she goes in the bathroom and turns on the shower. I go back in the bedroom and sit on the bed. I want to leave, I want to go anywhere else to get away from the dread, the growing instinct that we can’t fix this. But there’s nowhere else to go.
We break up while she’s in Mississippi for military training. Well, I break up with her, preempting the inevitable. I already know I can’t give her what she needs to be happy; I can’t bear the thought of her saying it to my face.
I pack her stuff. The llama print over the kitchen table, the succulents, the persimmon-colored table runner, the tiny Kodoma figurines we scattered everywhere for good luck. Once all her things are in boxes, there’s not much left except furniture.
I haven’t redecorated yet.
The thing about being in pain for a long time is that you start hunting joy like a starving animal hunts food. I take happiness anywhere I can find it.
During Pride month, a local museum hosts a drag show, and I go with a friend named Jade. It’s a small stage, but a big crowd. People start gathering about 15 minutes before the show starts, shimmying and mouthing the words to the music playing over the speakers.
There are so many beautiful people here. Amazonian femmes in pixies and exuberant maxi skirts. Willowy enbies in floral jean jackets with “Abolish Gender” emblazoned on the back. Gorgeous, swaggering studs in immaculate Nikes and flowing dreads. We’re all waiting impatiently.
Finally, the first queen strides onto the stage and everyone hoots and howls and whistles their applause. She’s beautiful, thick brown thighs in torn fishnets, layers of rhinestones, glitter everywhere glitter can be worn.
She moves through the crowd like a queen or a pope, mouthing “Bodak Yellow” with menacing calm. The spotlight follows her. People’s heads swivel to follow her. We’re all entranced, and she earns her dollars, but we know the best is yet to come.
Then, that best: that best is Vincent von Dick, a drag king with a wicked grin and perfect ass. This crowd knows him, and when his name is announced, they let out a shout like they just saw a home run.
There’s a swell of organ. A roll of drums. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” echoes out over the speakers, and everyone goes nuts. Vincent von Dick steps out on the stage then races up the stairs to a second-floor gallery, dollar bills popping around him like popcorn. Everyone’s dancing, everyone’s singing, everyone’s eyes are on him.
He arches backward over the gallery railing, shredding on air. “Put your hands up!” he screams, and 400 hands go up, reaching toward him, reaching up, outspread. This is church tonight and the thing we’re worshiping is our ourselves, our defiance and survival. All of us, embodied in this drag king with his mustache penciled on and his pants falling down and his body that’s a caricature of everything they told us masculinity was supposed to be and the most beautiful “fuck you” to everything they told us femaleness was supposed to be.
I don’t want to cry at a drag show, but how can I keep from tearing up? We’re so alive tonight, 200 queers baying after joy under the warm yellow museum lights. My family. My beautiful, fierce, hurt, angry, surviving family.
Even after the show ends, Jade and I can’t leave. Most of the crowd has gone, but they’re still playing “Dancing on My Own” over the loudspeakers. We stay, dancing, as they dim the lights one by one.
A few other queers have stayed and an impromptu dance party forms. None of us know each other and we don’t talk, we just smile at each other as we dance. Planets with overlapping orbits, pausing for a moment to spin in each other’s gravity.
I’m so happy it hurts. I feel it in my teeth, in the base of my skull, in every bone. I don’t want this to end; I know it will. In about 10 minutes, I’ll be out in the world again, trying not to want the people I’ve lost.
But for now, I’m safe. I’ve made shelter with these stranger-siblings and for now, our happiness is its own protection. I look around, memorizing everything so I can carry it with me when I leave. This moment isn’t a home I can return to but right now, right here, it’s mine, and I live in it like I’ll never have to leave.