“How to Be Queer and from the South, Step Three, Beads”
“After, feed the cemetery swans dandelion greens
and think their beauty is not unlike the hissing/swan of Lake Bled, the tidal swan of Galway,
all water the same drowning, no matter how far you go.”
You can begin by saying queerness is like Mardi Gras.
You can begin by saying that my queerness is from the South.
Or, you can start it all by saying queerness is something you caught by virtue of standing exactly where you were — the “Throw me something, mista,” you cried when you came slimy, shiny out of the womb, the alarm you sounded to let everyone know something about you would be different.
I know many queer people at my top-tier-whatever university do not experience this marginalization, this “difference,” in the same way I do. I also know that I experience it much less viciously than others, on account of my whiteness, class privilege, and straight-passing appearance. By virtue of these advantages, I was a debutante back in the South, and now, from a distance, I perform a heteronormative aesthetic in a nationally-recognized sorority.
It is difficult to be frank about class at my school, in its strange erasing affluence, but it is harder to not hate everyone from California: the mysterious golden wonderland of presidential candidate Kamala Harris, the end of cash bail, and laws that require women to serve on corporate boards. It is a far-off paradise of tolerance for me, of girls who don’t have to “come out.” They just start dating women.
My L.A. roommate told me when she was in middle school, her mom would ask her, “Do you think anyone is cute?” — not, “Do you have a crush on any boys?” The idea that someone was even implicitly told it was okay to be queer beginning in middle school was so overwhelming I could not stand up. My knees sagged, turned into butter, popped in the microwave.
In my sixth grade P.E. class, my friend told me her mom had a special word for “lesbians.” “Tell me!” I squealed. Her scandalized breath on my ear, she leaned in and whispered, “taco-lickers!” She leapt away, rocked with laughter as the chaos of roll call and the piercing yellow gym lights exploded around us. I didn't laugh. I felt something like dismay, something like fear.
In high school my friends said, “I think girls are pretty, but I could never eat a girl out, like that’s so gross,” I said, “Yeah, I know.” I agreed, but I felt something like dismay, something like fear.
The first moment I allowed myself to think the word, “lesbian,” I was in high school, in the bathtub, tortured by infatuations with my best friends and English teachers, in a body that rejected the idea violently. I squeezed out angry hot tears and said to myself you can’t be gay, you can’t, crying and becoming harder, crouching queerness into a tight circle my peers would see but not notice, hiding in plain sight, a shiny, perfect string of Mardi Gras beads.
With homophobia, every day is its own sick Mardi Gras, every day a costume, every P.E class a violent and fluorescent-lit Halloween. I turned the girl-crushes into beads, made a necklace of all my friends I wanted to kiss, smashed them into circles I wore around my neck, under my shirt. Sometimes, I stuffed them in the attic. Sometimes, I tried to throw them away.
But, as anyone from the South knows, you’ll never be able to get rid of Mardi Gras beads. You’ll always find them in the glass vase under the sink, at the bottom of the pencil drawer at the desk you never use, hung on a bulletin board underneath glossy, CVS-delivered photos. It is the stuff you catch without trying or asking — the colored plastic hardness stinging your nose or eyes as it comes carelessly flying.
Being gay is like glitter and leftover Mardi Gras parade beads; it never goes away, mostly because I couldn’t help but attend the Parade of Me, of who I really am, even at night, even in secret, even just watching The L Word, telling myself it was what all the other straight girls did. My concept of straightness was from the beginning tangled up in these beads I could not throw away, and it somehow included romantic and sexual attraction to women.
The jewelry, the beads, the students from liberal, cosmopolitan metropolises — they seem to me not just people with queerness they take on and off with ease, but also people who have it all the time. They have eaten their Mardi Gras beads, somehow, which means their queerness must be made of something else, something edible.
For the last three years at my school, this is how I have lived my “gay life.” Un-edibly. Compartmentalized, performative, putting on the beads here and there but overall keeping them outside, far away from the person I have been for the last 18 years. I made these three years at school some sort of fugue queer state, a dreamed-up neverland where I could go to queer parties but not one where there was anything solid, reliable.
I couldn’t — I can’t still, sometimes — get it in my head that my new home is real because I can’t get it in my head that a place exists where I deserve to fully be who I am: no costumes, no attic-stuffing, and no performance. I can’t get it into my head there is somewhere I deserve to be different.
Back below the Mason-Dixon, we’re dragged down by our prejudice: both the people who perpetuate it and experience it. Who would I be if I too had grown up in one of those tolerant, liberal wonderlands? What would I have accomplished if I hadn’t spent so much time crying in the bathtub about wanting to kiss girls? If I had spent more time reading, living, and sleeping? Who would I be without all these costumes, all these beads twined around my legs and stuffed into my stomach?
I want to make my queerness permanent. I want it to be inside and out and a part of me, constitute me, not just a costume oscillating between an affected, external acceptance at school to a too-tight, itchy performed heterosexuality at home.
Coming out is not an option right now. But, coming into myself is. Internalizing who I am, is. Finding internal acceptance instead of wandering around the queer neighborhoods, looking to rainbow flags on the street to legitimate my identity, instead of dating LGBTQ people who I hope can house this queerness, who I hope will house it so I do not have to.
I want to figure out how to make this part of myself edible, stomachable. I don’t know how feeling queer tastes, but I’m going to find out.
The author is a student from the South. They can be reached indirectly at firstname.lastname@example.org, though it should be noted they are not necessarily associated with Northwestern.
Graphic by Lizzie Zhang.