This whole story isn’t really about being queer. My life isn’t supposed to be about being queer the same way yours isn’t meant to be about your romantic and sexual relationships. That’s not who you are in your core. You don’t “identify” as straight. You don’t describe yourself that way. I don’t want to describe myself by my relationships, either. But I have to. Time and again. Why? Because it matters to cis-gender straight people for some strange reason.
I moved to Houston sometime in late summer of 1998 after I graduated high school. Why Houston? Because my girlfriend, an educated, polite, and successful Texan happened to be from there. (The story of how we met is detailed in the coming out anthology if you want to read it some time. It’s romantic as hell and even includes writing letters and making mixtapes featuring The Cure, Depeche Mode, and George Strait.) I had plans of softball scholarships and Mizzou, but I secretly applied to the University of Houston and made my escape.
The shock of going from a quiet town along a river to a huge, stinky city near the gulf was immense. I could read a map, but I’d never driven anywhere larger than Columbia. I didn’t really know how to cook or wash my clothes. I didn’t know what raves were. Until I did. I hated cilantro and avocado and I’d never had Indian food. I went to class and came home to the house we shared with my girlfriend’s best friend. I was a terrible roommate. I don’t think I cleaned once. I’m sorry to both of you. After a few months I felt myself slip away; I realized I’d never been where no one knew me. Around my part of the world it was always, “Aren’t you that Holzhauser girl?” The anonymity of the city helped teach me I wasn’t as special as my parents had led me to believe. It was a tough lesson to learn, but it was also a huge relief. I had to remind myself constantly that was a big reason I had to leave.
Being queer isn’t a lifestyle. It’s not like subsistence fishing. It’s not deciding to live in a van and travel the U.S. like Steinbeck. I did a lot of queer things in Houston, though. I had a friend who sneaked me into “the gay bar.” (It was called “Chances” or “The Barn”) There were plenty of gay bars, but only one I ever really went to. It was divided into three areas: The front was a classic American diner where the trans ladies and drag queens hung out. The middle was what we called, “prom.” That was the area for dancing to Madonna or whatever was new. Then, in the back, that was where you could two-step. I went other places, too. Rich’s was a men’s bar that looked like something from all of those films I watched about cities. There were almost-naked men everywhere. Some wore make-up. Some wore mesh shirts. Some danced in cages. All of them smiled at me in a way that told me I could belong and not belong at the same time.
No one tells you how uncomfortable it is to watch so many same sex couples and other queers dance and kiss like straight people. When you’ve never seen it, even if you’re one of them, it’s disorienting. And I’m not talking about gross stuff. I’m just talking about people acting like people do when they’re out on a Saturday. I was embarrassed that I had to get used to it. In my world, there were no queer people in movies or in tv shows. I wasn’t used to seeing myself anywhere other than my own mirror.
I was taken to a pride parade without understanding the concept. I mean, when you’re queer, no one teaches you history or anything, they just expect you to know or figure it out. So, there I was, walking down the sidewalk taking in the parade, when some dudes are walking backwards, holding signs and chanting, “God hates fags!” They accidentally bump into me. One dude turns around, you know, instinctively, and apologizes sincerely. I look at him for a moment as he looks at me in a white tank top, baggy men’s jeans, and Birkenstocks, my chain wallet glistening in the sunlight. I say nothing as I wait for him to see the irony of what’s just transpired.
I shaved my head and dressed more masculine. Then, I grew out my hair and tried out leather pants and no bra. I learned to drink Shiner Bock and Lonestar while I danced with older women who’d bought them for me. I learned to play rugby, what an arthouse theatre was, where to go around the city, how to drive anywhere, how to shut up with my former judgmental shit and learn about new people. I learned how to live in a city. I got so good that no one who met me would guess where I came from. By looking at me, you’d think I was some sort of rave kid or alternative street kid.
I lived in the queer part of town. Westheimer. People were very weird there, so I was nothing. I didn’t stick out. No one gave me the looks. I blended in and found my people at the job I worked which was an outdoor/camping supply store in the area. This is where I unlearned all of the prejudices I’d amassed growing up and where I became cultured. I was schooled in music: Tito Puente, Bob Marley, and Shakira. I learned what vegans and vegetarians were. Oh, the food I learned and learned to eat! I learned that abortion isn’t the murdering of babies. That not all brown people are from Mexico. That not everyone grows up eating squirrel. And, I was shocked to find out that not everyone was Christian. I learned that people can be bad. That people can be very, very wonderful and accepting. I learned there that I was not alone. That we are all different and the same. I grew and grew into myself.
More and more frequently I found myself in spaces where my whiteness was the minority, and sometimes unwelcome. Some huge and very bright light bulbs started flashing above my head.
In that growth and that swarming mass of beautiful and strange people, I started to see my hometown as an awful, backward place. Only white Christians lived there. Only straight people lived there. I had to consider all of the racist shit I’d heard growing up. Did I remember correctly that my relatives said these things? There was a whirlpool of bigotry that my younger self felt but couldn’t name. Most people there had never really left. Had they tried to? Were they stuck there? I felt like I was the only one who knew I had the choice to leave.
Not many people from my family reached out to me the four years I lived in Houston. I mean, of course my parents did, and I even made trips home for holiday gatherings. At the time, my relationship with my parents was still very strained, but they were getting better. The distance helped, of course. Only one aunt sent me a letter. I can’t remember what it said, exactly, but it was something along the lines of “I don’t understand your lifestyle, but I still love you.” As a 19 year old, it pissed me off. Now I see it was an attempt at reaching out, maybe apologizing. I still carry the guilt of not responding to that letter.
At that time, I was ashamed of where I’d grown up. I was embarrassed to be so ignorant. I felt deprived of a life I could’ve had if only I’d been raised in an urban place.
The first panic attack I ever had was at an Indian restaurant after I bit into a samosa. The flavor was too much, too unfamiliar. There were so many people in the restaurant and so many cars whizzing by. And my new girlfriend who couldn’t figure out why I’d freak out over such a delicious place to eat. I had to leave. I wanted to be by myself. But in a city that large, it was impossible. I tried to think of a place to go. I pictured parks with trees-full of people. Museums-full of people. There was no where. So, I sat and cried in my basement efficiency apartment.
Each night when I tried to sleep, with all of the sirens blaring, and cars with their vibrating trunks and Tejano music, the occasional screams, the upstairs neighbors stomping about, I put a pillow over my head and tried to think of home. I just needed one night of peace, of an open window and cool breeze. Of frogs and cicadas. Just one day in the woods alone to quiet my thoughts.
My only options for an existence seemed to be to stay in the city that was wonderfully ambivalent toward me but was constantly noisy and busy, or go home to the peace of my river where people stared through me and talked about me behind my back. Back to the country where people had opinions about groups of people they’d never even met. Back to a place that no one could seem to leave.
Portland, my hometown, was suffocating though I could get lost in the woods. Houston taught me how to feel alone without ever letting me be alone.
I was 22 when I felt like I knew too much and not enough. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.
For the first time in my life, I felt like an orphan.