A queer addendum

I was at a party recently and got to talking to one woman about elite vs. non-elite (in my parlance, “fancy” vs. “not fancy”) educational institutions, and whether it mattered how elite the school was that one attended for various career paths. We digressed to talk about one institution, let’s call it College X, of which we both knew a number of graduates. College X is pretty elite — selective admissions, very high tuition — but I’ve never been impressed with the overall intelligence or wisdom of the graduates I’ve known, despite their high opinions of their own educations. This state of affairs is a bit surprising to me, since I generally have been impressed with graduates of other elite colleges, and I have something of an inferiority complex about the whole issue because I’ve never attended an elite institution myself. (This is going to change, as I mentioned in my last post.)

Anyway, that conversation wound down and the woman I was speaking with excused herself to go home. I was about to go get another drink when a young blond woman turned around to face me. “I’m sorry, did I just hear you talking about College X?”

“Yes, we were, um, talking about elite versus non-elite colleges.”

“Oh, I went to College X, too, and I just overheard you saying its name. What were you guys saying about it?”

Now of course I didn’t want to insult this young woman’s alma mater, so I just said, “Oh, nothing, really, just that we’d both known people who went there. Nice place, I hear.”

This conversation went on a bit, with me skillfully (I thought) refraining from dissing College X. And then I mentioned my inferiority complex about never having attended an elite school. The woman asked me where I’d gone. I told her Brigham Young University for undergrad.

“Well that’s an elite school.”

“Not really.”

“Oh, no, really. It’s very good. Very selective.”

So we talked about that for a minute, and why I don’t think of it as an elite school although I acknowledge I got a pretty good education there. And then she asked:

“So are you Mormon?”

This is why I hate talking about where I went to school. Because there’s no quick way to answer this question, and while in some cases I don’t mind talking about it (at length, even, depending on the audience and how much I’ve had to drink), this was not one of those situations. I wanted to shut down the topic as quickly as possible.

“Not anymore,” I replied.

“Oh. Why not?” my interlocutor asked perkily.

Oh Lord. Too many available answers, all true, and something about this woman makes me wary of getting into it. I’ll go for the quick kill.

“I’m a gay atheist,” I said.

“Huh,” she said. “That must be hard, to be a gay Mormon. I mean, how did you figure out that you were gay?”

And with that, I added this woman to my list of graduates of College X who aren’t terribly intellectually impressive. A perfectly acceptable response on my part would have been, “How did you figure out that you were straight?” And then I could have gone to get that drink I’d been wanting. I was feeling kind, though, so I figured I’d answer the more sophisticated version of her question — “Did growing up Mormon present any special difficulties to discovering and coming to terms with your gay sexuality?” — and ignore the presumptuousness of that question coming from someone I’d met just five minutes ago.

Everybody has to discover their sexuality, whether they’re gay or straight, I told her, getting her to nod her head in agreement. And it’s a gradual process, from the vaguer pre-pubescent feelings to the hormonal storms of puberty. And the sexuality you discover is not just personal — there are massive social aspects to it, whole scripts of who you’ll like and what you’ll say and do about liking them. The real trick about growing up gay, I think, is that your culture is giving you one set of scripts about your sexuality while your body and mind are telling you other things. And this is true whether you grow up Mormon or Evangelical or even in a more average, more secular environment — it’s still heteronormative. So the process of figuring out your sexuality, if you’re gay, is the process of figuring out that the expectations you’ve been given about sexuality mostly don’t apply to you.

The young woman nodded along and proceeded to ask several more too-personal-for-a-party questions that I dodged before finding a way to move on to another conversation. But it occurred to me later that the way I’d talked about the structure of sexual self-discovery was a nice explanation of the concept of queerness. Being queer just means, basically, that your sexuality didn’t and doesn’t follow the scripts you were given growing up. So “queer” isn’t just a convenient political term to replace L, G, B, and T; it’s a helpful analytic category. Queer people have lived the disconnect between the dominant narrative of sexuality and their own experience.

Anyway, I thought the idea was an interesting thing to add to the discussion of two weeks ago.

3 responses to “A queer addendum”

  1. On a small sub-topic: I understand the “you’ve just revealed something personal so now I can ask you ANYTHING” phenom is even worse when you’re trans. I mean, intelligent people* don’t go there anyway, but the ones who do apparently will ask questions like “did you have your surgery or are you just on hormones?” And you know, I think this comes from a good place. It’s a clumsy way of showing an interest.

    I have long liked “queer” though. It lets people be on my team even if we don’t have the exact same libidinal habits and, petty though it may be, it sets me apart from people who have approximately the same libidinal habits but want citizenship in the dominant narrative more than anything.

    “культурные люди” I think you’d say in Russian, with the broader connotation of having the right sensibilities about many matters.

  2. Josh K-sky says:

    I read “libidinal habits” as “Biblical habits.” What dirty, dirty glasses I have.

  3. ben w says:

    I read “libidinal habits” as “Biblical habits.”

    One is reminded of parts of Joe Frank’s “Bible Salesman“.