Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Coming “Out”

Keeping It Queer
By Erica Chu

Coming “Out”

October 11th was National Coming Out Day. Most people I meet know I’m not straight, but here’s my confession: I haven’t told anyone I’m genderqueer.

Well, there you go. Maybe you don’t even know what that is, and for now, I’ll just say it’s a kind of transgender identity. My heart’s racing even as I write this—I’m new to saying it to myself let alone others, and I also hesitate to commit to a label. It makes me nervous to come out in public, but I’m putting myself through this exercise because lately it’s become all too apparent that LGBTQAIs need to know they’re not alone.

In the past several weeks, seven young people have committed suicide, and all seven were being harassed because they were gay. Reading what little is available about their lives and deaths is heartbreaking and has left me wondering what I can do. Many have participated in vigils, suicide prevention events, and have promoted organizations like the Trevor Project. Others, like Dan Savage, have turned to internet forums like YouTube to share stories about how we can make it through the hard times.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are sensitive areas for many children, teens, and adults, but there are as many sites of conflict as there are kinds of people and types of personal expression. People are discriminated against and sometimes taunted everyday on the basis of things like economic status, clothes, body size, accent, language, ethnicity, disability, hobbies, interests, and so much more.

I can attest to the fact that it’s been hard. I was told repeatedly that I was not feminine enough. I was mocked, called names, and spit on because I was too quiet, not white enough, and not “American” enough. I was made to feel ashamed because I didn’t weigh the same and dress the same as everybody else. As an adult I often face derogatory comments, unfair treatment, and judgmental attitudes from strangers, peers, and even family. I’ve been depressed. I’ve considered suicide.

Though mine is a common story, it shouldn’t be; children should not expect to go through this and worse. The adage “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” fails to account for the many who die despite their strength. In the past few weeks, seven people died because the world treated them like they weren’t wanted. Whether it’s because people think they’re too fat, too brown, too loud, or too gay, this is unacceptable.

We tend think of ourselves as underdogs because as LGBTQAIs we’re a minority class. We watch Glee and think that because we root for the unpopular kids we’re safe people, but bullying doesn’t end when we’re not in school anymore. Office gossip, email, Facebook, texting, and blogs like People of Walmart give people of all ages the opportunity to judge, belittle, and devalue individuals and types of people. The sad thing is we’re rewarded when we log in, giggle, and pass it on: we assert our membership in the “in” crowd.

Being a part of the “in” crowd isn’t worth it. We’re not in high school anymore, and it wasn’t even cool then.

Gloria AnzaldĂșa writes about el mundo zurdo—the left-handed world—which is home to all the queers, misfits, and outsiders the “in” crowd rejects. Being a part of this kind of outsider community is difficult because everyone is so different, but what can hold it together is the knowledge that the “in” crowd isn’t always right. It’s an easy thing to forget—especially when it seems so natural to make fun, to laugh, or to say nothing when someone reveals their judgmental attitudes.

Being LGBTQAI is one thing, but to come out as an ally to all kinds of misfits and rejects is about practicing justice and doing good more than claiming a label. Being a member of the “out” group means being a safe person and making every environment you’re in a safe space.

So let’s go ahead and come out, tell our stories, and remind others that they’re not alone. Things will get better, and life does get more manageable. The world can even get more welcoming…one person at a time.

Erica Chu is a student at Loyola University Chicago and is seeking a PhD in English with a concentration in Women Studies and Gender Studies. She manages the blog and can be reached at

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My “Dorky” Identity

Keeping It Queer
By Erica Chu

My “Dorky” Identity

Little known fact: I’m a huge dork. Actually, that’s been a fairly consistent aspect of my being for as long as anyone has known me. For Halloween one year, I dressed up as a super-hero version of myself named Super Chu. I made a chest logo with puff paint, an elaborate utility belt equipped with a banana gun, and even attached a cape that the night before had served as my bed sheet. Then I insisted on wearing it all to school. Did I mention I was 16 at the time?

Of course these dorky tendencies had begun much earlier in life. At seven, I could not stop telling (and laughing about) unfunny knock-knock jokes; at ten, I sang Christmas carols to my dogs. One day when I was eleven, I was told to fold the laundry. My mother, a well-endowed and curvy lady, was quite surprised when twenty minutes later I came into the living room modeling her underwear and bra, both of which were stuffed with an assortment of clean (but unfolded) whites. A chic pair of violet suspenders brought some unity to the whole ensemble.

I could describe a large array of past dorky behavior, but there is an actual point in all of this reminiscing: my identity was not self-evident. I did not come out of the womb and into the world with the letters “D-O-R-K” tattooed on my skin and its Webster’s definition applied to my life. When I walked into school on October 31, 1997, I was labeled “dork” not because my appearance and behavior were inherently dorky. I was given that label by classmates who recognized some aspect of how I appeared and connected it with a pattern they had come to associate with words like “dork” or maybe “nerd” and “weirdo.”

What does “dork” even mean? It’s just a string of letters, some vibrations in your throat that sound a certain way. This and every word has a certain etymological history which shapes its use, but language is a living, vibrant, and changeable structure. Words come to mean different things over time and across contexts. What is dorky today may mean something entirely different ten years from now.

In this case, the word is “dork,” but in other cases the words may be “woman,” “gay,” “trans,” “Asian,” “disabled,” “queer,” or any other variety of identity categories. Every word is relational—the person being called “dork” or “gay” may claim that identity or refuse it or be indifferent about how others think of them.

The point I want to make is that identities come in a lot of different forms, and everyone probably claims multiple identities on the basis of things like race, gender, sexual orientation, maybe even occupation, sports affiliation, or hobbies. And just as every person is different, so does each person experience identities in different ways. Some people are born being called male and claim maleness and socially defined masculinity as an identity and a value. Other male-assigned people may decide to adopt traditionally feminine interests and attributes but still claim and assert masculinity in those settings. Still other people assigned male at birth may refuse to accept that identity and permanently claim a female identity or some other very personal mixture of what we commonly associate with masculinity and femininity.

The same may be true for other identities. Words are just words, and the meaning changes constantly. We may be forced to confront the words and meanings others like to assign to us, but it’s important that we as individuals name ourselves and make choices about how we want to live and be in this world.

I may have been called a dork from a young age, but I do not need to accept the whole identity. Today I claim a bit of that dorkiness, but tomorrow I may refuse to be called one.

I sent a text to T today that ended in “(smmoooch!).” When she reads it, she will probably think “Wow, I’m partnered to such a dork,” but if she doesn’t also smile and feel loved, she probably doesn’t know me very well.

I can change. I can stay the same. I can attempt to control how those close to me perceive me and maybe work to make society see me in a certain way too. Yet even when no one understands, I name myself, and I negotiate my own identities.

There are some who say “I was born this way” and feel it very strongly. I tend to think yes, you were born a certain way, but the words that people use—whether good or bad—shape how we understand ourselves.

Is there a binary or spectrum for dork to cool, gay to straight, or female to male? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. You be you or some version of yourself. Let those around you be their version of themselves. All the rest is just words.

Erica Chu is a student at Loyola University Chicago and is seeking a PhD in English with a concentration in Women Studies and Gender Studies. She manages the blog and can be reached at

Little Things

Keeping It Queer
By Erica Chu

Little Things

It’s the Sunday night before Labor Day. My partner and I walk down the stairs of the el station after enjoying a dinner out. Inwardly, I groan when I see how crowded the platform is; I had thought the crowds would have thinned by ten. At the bottom of the stairs, my eyes are immediately assaulted by the sight of a young straight couple locked in slobbery embrace despite the dozens of people standing in very close proximity. I look to my left, and another couple is standing close by, kissing every few seconds, the man’s hands resting inside the woman’s back pocket. I mutter a bit too loudly, “What the fuck.”

I’m disgusted by their blatant heterosexual privilege. I’m probably jealous too because when T and I hold hands, or give a peck on the cheek, we’re stared at, judged, spoken of like freaks, called out to, or worse. Mostly, I’m angry at the crowd because no one is batting an eye. If I did something similar, all hell would break loose, but this scene on the platform is normal?

T gives me mean looks. She gets annoyed when I let myself get upset over little things.

Two trains later, we finally get enough nerve to squeeze ourselves into a car, and after several stops, there’s a little room to breathe. Eventually we find seats. All the passengers seem exhausted after being packed sardine-style for so long, and everyone is quiet. Everyone but one guy, who breaks the silence to very loudly hit on a girl. The girl is being more than polite, but she’s not interested. T seems embarrassed for them both. I roll my eyes.

As the train car moves further and further north, a murmur of chatter begins again. Suddenly a loud voice says in ultra-stereotyped feminine ditziness, “Show me, I want to see everything!” A young woman is carrying on wildly with a guy who I had noted earlier was alone and looking very drunk. I am beyond annoyed. Is this what it means to have a “normal” sexual orientation and gender identity? If so, I’m thanking the Lord I’m as queer as they come.

Still, what if some guy tried hitting on another guy? The whole car would be staring and whispering disapprovingly. Some jerk might even start something.

As T and I breathe fresh air on the sidewalk leading home, I grumble about “damn breeders,” and T tells me how one of her students asked about whether gay people can oppress straight people. The student had been called a breeder and been made to feel unwelcome. T told her class that in order to oppress, one has to have power, and though this student had obviously been treated rudely, it takes the misuse of power to produce oppression.

Had we really been oppressed that night? Well, we’d certainly avoided a lot out of a desire to prevent problems. T and I held hands on the street, but not on the platform. We kissed briefly in the restaurant, but not when very many people were around. I had thought of wearing a tie but decided I’d rather not deal with any unwanted attention. Maybe we were being overly cautious, but most of these decisions were made unconsciously. The bottom line is that the anticipation of negative attention should not be as commonplace as it is.

So, yes, we had been oppressed in a way. Still, I had not really felt oppressed, just upset and annoyed by the little things. The people I got annoyed with didn’t realize they made me feel like an outsider. Everyone was just doing their thing, and for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with that. My anger was a little misplaced. The problem is not straight couples but a social system that encourages everyone to accept some behaviors as “normal” and others as not.

Am I powerless? No. In many ways, I have more power than a lot of the people on that train, and that means I have the responsibility to try to keep myself from making others feel like freaks. But how often have I judged a person based on their appearance? How many times have I thought I knew better when I didn’t even fully understand the situation? How often have I made assumptions about someone based on a stereotype?

Yes, we as a community face oppression, but we are often in a position to misuse what power we have and thereby oppress others. We may not even know we’re making anyone feel like an outsider, so let’s be tireless in learning about our own privilege and fighting against social tendencies that mark some folks as “normal” and others not. It’s little things that need to change, but it will take more than a little effort. I think we’re up for the task.

Erica Chu is a student at Loyola University Chicago and is seeking a PhD in English with a concentration in Women Studies and Gender Studies. She manages the blog and can be reached at