I split this column into three parts because I didn’t know how to write this last installment. The Daily Arts generously allows for the involvement of personal narratives as long as they surround an event, moment in culture at large or a work of art. While wrapping the personal around something that can qualify as topical can mean the difference between a form of journalistic content that can be published in a school newspaper and creative non-fiction that must be made available for public consumption by other means, the core of what I’m getting at is deeply personal. I see no other way to move forward than to make that clear from the get go.
Things that are constructed so that they are diametrically opposed to one another, like God and the Devil, create a valley between two extremes that we all supposedly occupy. Their respective hierarchies serve as a degreed apparatus through which we can hold ourselves and others accountable. That becomes problematic, however, when normative functions create a “winning team” in that valley located closer to the desirable pole than others. Without even beginning to address how sin, laws and ailments are defined in such a way that favors the “normal” and quite literally damns those that fall outside of that window, simply existing outside of it in any capacity can foster a lot of negative feelings about oneself. And the thing about those normative functions, especially in an economic system that’s predicated on fear, is that they will continue to multiply (and generate revenue) until they can’t be supported anymore.
This isn’t meant to be an after-school special surrounding the thinning out of the ruling class and consolidation of power, nor is it about how none of us are perfect and we all have at least that in common. In fact, most of the time we aren’t interested in what we have in common, even if we have more in common than not. Human nature, probably out of some vestige of natural selection, is all about differentiation. What’s valued as “normal” is what’s valued as powerful in almost every ideological framework. “Normal” isn’t a station that encompasses the majority, it is a collection of paragons that constantly move along value lines that serve those in power.
The closer we are in proximity to that power, in our appearances, through our actions, choices and identities, chosen or otherwise, the more likely we are to support the systems that uphold how we currently define it. In working against it, the individual becomes increasingly aware of the things that give them power and the things that take it away, like a Machiavellian push and pull taking place between things that may or may not be within our control. As we are exposed to those dividing lines, what we do with our power and our agency to act in relation to it becomes an increasingly severe individual burden.
I remember looking out of my window one night and seeing a pair of red tail lights. The presence of a black, demi-luxury SUV next to a neon-lit sign was innocuous enough, but the emptiness of the Ann Arbor streets at 3 a.m. lent a paranoid air that infiltrated my thoughts like a cancer. Earlier that day while running an errand, I had hidden an orchid mesh bodysuit under an oversized blazer. What felt liberating in my apartment, what would have been a proud expression at the drag show I planned to attend later, was squandered while walking in public. Even as it was protected by the conservative, woolen barrier between signifier and signified that I clung to like all hell. I remember feeling my skin rub against it as I walked, an uncomfortable reminder that seeking medical help for my depression had resulted in a weight gain. So much of what I hope for revolves around being a light for others, not necessarily to follow but to be able to look at and smile.
Yet, the standards I hold myself to in order to be that liberatory force are the same ones that hold down so many. I can wear lip gloss and have a “walk” as long as I can also feel my ribs. I can engage with genuine interests of mine that are used to paint my community with a broad brush as long as my voice remains low. I can fight to the nail for my mental health and live to talk about it, but I won’t be able to do what I feel a call to do until I free myself of those chains. I may have internalized such bargains as a way of remaining safe, as a way of being able to move through the world, but the only person standing in the way at this point in my life is myself. Silly as it may sound, it’s taken a seismic cognitive shift to understand that there are no silent vehicles watching me in the dead of night, waiting to ensnare me with their malevolent aura. There are no devils or demons lurking around the corner. There’s only me, and the beliefs about myself that I have to undo in order to truly be free.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve felt that I carry a curse with me. I’m lucky to know where that feeling comes from now, but it took me a long time to get to this point. I’ve always reviewed each and every thing that I do with a fine-toothed comb, all with the hopes of wanting to be good, to use my privileges in a productive way and to wear my queerness with pride so as to inspire others. What I didn’t realize until recently is that I wasn’t bringing my happiness into the equation. The opportunity cost, for me, of reviewing myself in the way that I have been is my mental well-being. All of those little things I would look at, the sociopolitical ramifications of every word, every nonverbal gesture, every expression, every conscious and unconscious action, were not being used to productive ends. The relentless self-policing that I have undergone (and still face) is not something that helps me achieve this goal of leveraging my likeness for the common good.
It doesn’t help me bring light to others in the smallest of interactions. It is a hindrance. The internal manifestation of the evil I so desperately want to renounce, to work against, rears its devilish head through this censorship of self. I say this not in defense of the kind of blissful ignorance that only exists in contexts of privilege. I am fully for asking tough questions, for doing work to unpack whatever bag of bullshit one carries around with them as a result of exalting normalcy. What I will no longer tolerate is allowing self-criticism to take the reins entirely. I will no longer allow each and every breath to carry the weight of heaven and hell.