Elders

In Torrey Peter’s debut novel Detransition, Baby, Ames says, transfolk are a “lost generation. We have no elders, no stable groups, no one to teach us to countenance pain.” I was reminded that the queer community and the trans community especially, are communities without many elders. We are a community of people who often have to parent ourselves when we’re most scared, or fragile, or needful. And we also often have to parent ourselves simply to figure out how to be who we really are in a world that wants to deny us our right to live and love freely.

I came out when I was nineteen years old. It was the summer of 1993 and while cultural attitudes toward the gay community were changing, it was a slow shift, especially for a Haitian American girl from Omaha, Nebraska. This was around the time of Brandon Teena’s murder but before Matthew Shepard’s murder. And that may be a macabre way of thinking about it, but their deaths were and remain a reminder of the precarity of being part of the LGBTQ community in certain circumstances. My family was not thrilled with the news that I was a lesbian but they never turned their back on me, either so all thing considered, I was one of the lucky ones. I was not very worldly when it came to women. I didn’t really have anyone I could turn to. As an avid reader, I initially tried to piece together my identity, a clearer sense of how to be, from books. I was obsessed with Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and Pat Califia’s Macho Sluts and the pulp fiction of Ann Bannon. Eventually, I would find my way to Audre Lorde. It was an awkward time.

My earliest queer years were spent in the Cornhusker State. There was a gay community, which always surprises people who have strange ideas about the Midwest and who actually lives in the “flyover” states. There were several gay bars in Omaha. One had like five bars and three floors. There was a bar called The Omaha Mining Company and there was a bar within a bar called The Mineshaft which, I think, is self-explanatory. I lived an hour away in Lincoln, the state capital. It was a much smaller town, which is saying something because Omaha isn’t all that big. And still, there was a gay bar, The Q, and Panic Bar, where the lesbians hung out.

The Panic was just a notch above a dive bar. It was dark and dank but there was a nice patio, and a pool table. A lot happened at that pool table. Butch women used it in really elaborate ways to express their butchness and demonstrate their swagger. They helped femmes hold pool cues while standing behind them, legs pressed together. I awkwardly imitated them while playing pool very, very badly. I really had no idea how to be. I did not know any queer people in Nebraska until I started going to the Panic. I was one of the lucky ones but I was also lost. Did I need to get my haircut? Where could I find a hairdresser who could give me that specific haircut? How was I supposed to ask a girl out? How could I tell if I should ask a girl out? When did I need to reserve the U-Haul—after the second date or a few weeks later? There were so many questions.

My car bumper was festooned with rainbow flags. I wore pride rings all the time, and a lot of vests and Doc Martens and jaunty hats. I smoked like a chimney because that felt like the most accessible way to be cool. I was very shy so I was not at all good at introducing myself to anyone to make friends or anything beyond that. I spent many hours hunched over the bar nursing a bitter gin and tonic, playing bar video games. One day I headed over to The Q, for country western night. I learned how to line dance and met Z, the only other black woman there. We became a couple almost instantly, and then I had an ambassador to all things lesbian in Lincoln because Z was outgoing, charming, and always down for an adventure. She took me to my first gay pride march in Omaha and she ended up being the first woman I brought home to meet my parents. They absolutely hated Z. I was convinced they hated her because she was a woman which only made me more committed to the relationship. Later, I realized my parents were able to see all the red flags love blinded me to but that’s a different story entirely.

There was a group of older women who hung out at The Panic—they were in their 40s and 50s. They seemed to know everything about everyone in Lincoln and beyond. They had all been involved with each other at one time or another so sometimes there was drama. But mostly, they took baby dykes under their wing and taught us what we needed to know about how to survive. I learned all kinds of important things, including how to play pool and how to wear a chain wallet and how to treat a lady right and how to be an active part of a community. They also taught us the importance of fighting for our rights, and the importance of recognizing that we deserved rights.

One day we were discussing gay marriage. Back then, it did not seem possible and there was so much opposition. I genuinely believed it was not something I would see in my lifetime, and that hurt but I resigned myself to trusting that a committed relationship didn’t need a piece of paper to make it legitimate. And so because marriage was something I never thought I could have, I decided I didn’t need it or want it. I was very young and very full of angry energy I did not know how to handle. I brashly declared that we did not need marriage, that it was a heteronormative institution that would never serve us, that to be queer was to be beyond wanting that sort of thing.

These incredible women quickly dismantled my ridiculous nonsense and articulated why the right to marry mattered—it wasn’t only about love, it was about equality. And they did this with a patience and a generosity I have never forgotten. Over the next few years, I came to understand that most of them were in committed relationships they had to work really hard to protect—all kinds of legal paperwork and maneuvers to approximate the benefits of marriage straight couples took for granted. I learned about how without power of attorney, they might not be able to make medical decisions for one another or even visit each other in the hospital. It was really difficult to adopt children and buy homes together. Most of them had to protect each other from their not-so-good Christian families. This, supposedly, was progress but it didn’t feel like it at all.

At the time, I remember thinking they were so old. I couldn’t imagine myself reaching that age and now I am their age. I have lived a lot of life between then and now. I am married. I have a career and a home and all kinds of things I didn’t dare think were possible. For the first time in my life, I know stability. Younger lesbians have told my wife Debbie and I, more than once, that they are grateful we are elders modeling a loving relationship. They have used that exact word—elders. The first time I heard this, I smiled, but inside, I bristled or, perhaps, collapsed dramatically, because it was uncomfortable to think of myself as an elder. I’m in my mid-40s, I’m getting older. I have a lot of gray hair but I am not yet an elder. That has to be at least twenty years away, I tell myself. And yet. In terms of the queer community, I am an elder now. Most of the generations before me lived rather closeted lives. They did not have the safety to live openly. Some of us still don’t. And here I am.

Debbie and I were recently on Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, talking about our relationship, how it began, where we are now. After the episode aired, a young woman wrote us a handwritten letter about how in seeing us talk about our relationship, she could imagine her own story. She could imagine that there would be someone with whom she could find love and joy and someone with whom to shoulder the burdens of life. She expressed real happiness that she could now see such a thing as a possibility for her. Sometimes you don’t know what is possible until you see it.

Her letter reminded me of why elders matter and that in the queer community we need an expansive definition of elders. We have come a long way, but we have not come nearly far enough. We still need people who will show us different ways we can be and what might be possible and what we should fight for. I don’t feel like an elder but to have gotten to this place in my life means that I survived and I did so because women who probably didn’t feel like elders when they met me, rose to the occasion. I hope I will always rise to that occasion, too.