Emily Birnbaum is a graduating senior at Kenyon College, majoring in Sociology. After graduation, she'll be interning at a D.C. news publication and applying to journalism schools for fall 2018.
I went to Cubbyhole, one of the only queer bars in New York City that is heavier on the “lesbian” than the “gay,” with my ex-girlfriend in December 2017. All queer women reading this will likely recognize the complicated grey area that ensues when two women break up — but, to any confused onlookers, I promise the space between our romance and our friendship was fluid enough to withstand the tensions inherent to this situation.
I experienced many emotions as I sat with her at the bar, but the one I remember most vividly was the sensation that I did not belong there. I watched the adult queers around me mingle and smile; they held themselves with a self-conscious maturity that verged on adult without succumbing to it. This queerness, which seemed both friendly and sexual, was unrecognizable to me. Outside my campus bubble, I no longer knew the scripts to follow.
I had a fantasy of myself approaching a woman in this space. Considering my college’s core queer community consists of roughly 30-40 people, I typically know the life story of every queer person I interact with. They know mine. We have seen each other at our very worst. There is a deep sexlessness to being queer on an insular college campus due to the ugliness of proximity.
In my fantasy, I introduced myself to this faceless and nameless woman sitting at the Cubbyhole bar. We marveled at its bright decorations dangling from the ceiling, which Jiayang Fan called “a phantasmagoria of tchotchkes” in a 2016 New Yorker article. This woman didn’t know how much I had struggled to define myself and my experiences. She didn’t know my exes. We were free to enact any kind of desire or experience we wanted to. But I was all alone. That’s where the fantasy ended — I realized, in the fantasy, I was uprooted from the queer community that has both nurtured and stifled me into who I am today.
I came out my first year of college by attending the Queer Women’s Collective (Q-Dubs), a weekly meeting for “everyone but cis men.” I learned the scripts of queerness entirely within the liberal bubble of my college campus. My college’s particular queer community often presents queerness as a binary: I can either practice cutesy queerness or political queerness, with little in-between. And I dabbled in both as an undergrad.
Cutesy queerness offers a refuge from the seemingly over-sexualized nature of lesbians and bisexuals in the “outside world.” While I watched the supremely sexed-up L Word with my two best friends, conversations in Q-Dubs revolved around questions and proclamations like “How do I know if a girl likes meeeeee?” and “You are valid!” We giggled at the concept of flirting; we nursed each other's mental health and wellness. It was infantilizing, but it was better than enacting a hyper-sexuality that none of us were ready for.
Political queerness is an intellectual and academic pursuit that I revel in, but has little to say about being queer during the mundanities of everyday life. Political queerness offers me a language to describe the various struggles that my community faces: It teaches me to acknowledge the spectrum of gender identity and expression, the power of compulsory heterosexuality, and the way queers themselves can internalize homophobia and reinscribe it onto the world around them. Political queerness allows me to see the power in naming one’s individual experience as part of a collective experience.
So for the entirety of my four-year queer life, my queerness has either been babied (“being queer is fuzzy rainbows and kittens”) or politicized (“being queer is radical”).
But it seems like there's no room for either of these scripts at Cubbyhole — and in the larger “real world.” Adult queerness seems neither cutesy nor political. That night at Cubbyhole in December, I became concerned that I didn’t know what it meant to be queer outside of campus political advocacy and queer support groups. I wondered, “What is my queerness without the mirror of the 30 or so people I have come to know, love, and understand within Kenyon’s core queer community?”
To some extent, I anticipate that being queer in the real world will offer a respite from the scrutiny and emphasis on queerness within my college’s bubble. I am being offered a blank slate. I can go to queer bars and meet women I haven’t known for four years. I can be as political or apolitical as I want. I can learn new perspectives about queerness from people whose lives look nothing like my own. I can make my identity important in my life or I can bring it up only when I find it necessary. I can have infinitely more ownership over how the new people in my life perceive me and my sexuality.
But I love my safe bubble. I love the way it protects me from pain. I love the way it has asked me to see my fellow queer people as more than potential partners. My friends and I sometimes joke that we haven’t “seen a straight person for days.” I can’t say that when I’m living in Washington, D.C. for a summer internship and then New York City for graduate school. I love my community so much, and I love the way it loves me back.
I recently finished watching Queer as Folk, my favorite representation of post-grad queerness. The adults in Queer as Folk own, articulate, and fight for their varying interpretations of queerness: There is a “club boy,” a lesbian couple with two children, a gay couple with an HIV-positive adopted son, and a former porn star trying to seek love where he can find it. They are united by a sincere love for each other and respect for queerness that resembles the community I found in college. The show is essentially five seasons of dialogue about “chosen families": the queer people we surround ourselves with that take on the role of “families we construct by hand and heart,” in the words of Kyle Casey Chu of VICE News.
I have realized that queer communities in college are a funny mixture of chosen and compulsory queer family. On one hand, the queer relationships I’ve formed are intense and nurturing in a way that is familial. On the other hand, we are all stuck here together, constantly in each other's business and stuck together in a way that is not a choice.
Maybe that’s what so-called adult queerness really has to offer me: the opportunity to form my own queer chosen family.
When I picture my queer life post-grad now, I see the vague outlines of a chosen family behind me. I approach the girl at Cubbyhole, but in this fantasy, there are queer friends by the bar rooting for me in the same way the Queer as Folk family roots for one another, the same way my college queer community rooted for me. Maybe this family will be hard to find. Maybe it’s waiting for me already.
Five weeks away from graduation, with a whole queer life sprawled out before me in all its complexities and terrors and joys, I choose to imagine that I won’t ever really be alone. In the fall, I’ll go to Cubbyhole. Maybe I’ll talk to some girl. I probably won’t. I won’t know the scripts to follow, either. But at least I’ll know I’m capable of taking it on, underneath the bright decorations dangling from the ceiling.