I like to ride my bike without handlebars and lip-sync to my iPod. Sometimes I also vogue to the song I’m listening to… while I’m riding without handlebars and lip-syncing. I’m not kidding.
My bike has rusty gears, worn down brake pads and a seat that shifts ever so slightly when I mount it. I’ve worn down a number of pairs of shoes from constantly beating them against the ground trying to stop. Basically, lip-syncing and voguing while riding a barely functional bike is probably the most unsafe (and stupidest, though that’s beside the point) thing that I do.
At least I thought that until very recently. The start of fall semester brought about a number of important realizations about myself: my own queerness; what makes me happy; the challenges that come with the former and the latter. Coming into school a terribly ignorant, privileged, white gay boy obsessed with homomasculinity, I have only to look around my apartment to see what twenty-four months can do to a person’s identity and self-conception. Since coming to Michigan in 2012, I decided to explore my interest in visual art—primarily sketching, painting, and some photography. Becoming a self-taught artist has also been probably the most therapeutic and introspective experience of my life. My apartment is essentially a gallery of my best work, the walls painted with three strategically chosen shades of teal. A massive black and white mural of Marlon Brando as he was in A Streetcar Named Desire (swoon), rendered with fierce eyebrows and eyeliner, floats on the attic ceiling above my bed. My sketches, colorful box-frame craft projects, shelves of makeup—they’re all crushing and wonderful reflections of the femme queer identity that I have embraced since coming to Michigan.
Since embracing this identity, I no longer feel at my most unsafe, at my most anxious, whilst I ride my bike. Though, believe me, I know I probably should. Now, I feel most unsafe when I hold my wrist limply in public—a habit that, frankly, is becoming a natural impulse. I feel most unsafe in those five or ten minutes I spend waiting for a cab outside, dressed in drag. I feel most unsafe when I drop my normative, “straight” accent at work. Feeling my vocal inflections rise in pitch, the ends of my vowels trailing off in a slight whine, my “real” voice returning in front of people, can be almost mortifying. The strangest thing is that I just don’t know how warranted my fear is. How much are people really judging me, if at all? Should I be so anxious?
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from V for Vendetta: “You wear a mask for so long you forget who you were beneath it.” I’m so glad I didn’t forget the four year old boy who played with Barbie’s instead of baseballs. The amount of time I spent as a teenager desperately trying to feel at home with straight people exhausted me into submission. I’m truly glad I didn’t forget, and through all this, I’ve come to realize that the constant anxiety I now feel in embracing who I am is perhaps one of the greatest tools of queer oppression. Looking back at my teenage years as an out gay kid, my macho game was played simultaneously for safety’s sake and for opportunity’s sake. I doubt I would have achieved half of what I did to get to U of M if I wasn’t so “respectable,” but doing so was not without its emotional costs. There is a double-bind: one of embracing queerness, to feel a sense of tension and heavy ostracization from the world around us, and one of withholding our sincerest selves in exchange for respectability and safety. This comes with the price of forever sacrificing what lies beneath the mask. And yes, this bind is a balancing act; we must shift in order to survive. However, the pain of putting on the normative mask for work, class, family, or whatever situation, can be enormous.
And when I do decide to take off that mask, my wreck of a bike doesn’t seem dangerous at all in comparison to the threat posed by living outside the norm.