In season two of House of Cards, Frank Underwood comes home to find his wife, Claire, drinking and flirting with one of his security agents.
I am sitting with my girlfriend on the couch, watching on my laptop. The music is ominous. We have already seen Frank kill two people close to him. The scene is dark, and I can see my fingerprints on the screen. The security agent apologizes for his unprofessional conduct and makes a move to leave, but Claire stops him and pulls him in for a kiss. I gape. Frank smiles. Then, the security agent turns to Frank, and they start to make out. I yell at my computer, “What! Did they just—” And then it fades to black.
Frank, played by Kevin Spacey, is a rare portrayal of male bisexuality. I collect them like agates. Here’s another: in Skyfall, Javier Bardem runs his hands over James Bond’s body while he is tied to a chair. “First time for everything,” Bardem says.
Bond says, “What makes you think this is my first time?”
That counts. I count that. It takes so little to keep me fed.
Soon after being hired as an intern, I agree with my boss about a male celebrity being attractive. She jokes, “Are you sure you’re not gay?” I do not know how to respond, how to tell her that I am somehow both and neither, sometimes welcome, sometimes ushered out, sometimes standing with my hand pressed up against the glass. I stall with a fake laugh. “Well,” I say, and let it hang.
Around Christmas, I tweet, “Just when you thought the straights couldn’t get any more ruinous, Michael Bublé changes the lyrics of ‘Santa Baby’ to ‘Santa Buddy.’”
“smh u straight,” replies a friend from high school. He and I have had sex three times.
When I begin to doubt the existence of my own sexuality, I search my collection for someone to identify with. Here’s another agate: Wolverine’s supervillain son, Daken, whose name means “mongrel”—a mixed breed, a neither-one-nor-the-other. He uses pheromones to seduce both men and women, usually to some nefarious end. He kisses a man and then kills him in the same issue. While he is a member of the Dark Avengers, he is asked to join the Dark X-Men. “I always did like playing for both teams,” he says.
That’s how it feels: like there are two teams. You can only wear one jersey at a time. To play for both teams is a contradiction; you must be a double agent, your loyalties firm to one side.
At a company pizza outing, my boss asks whether the table believes that bisexual men exist. She makes it clear that she doesn’t. I have just been hired part-time as the company’s fourth employee. I am afraid I could be sloughed off if they find me too disagreeable and I don’t want to field follow-up questions on the specifics of my sex life. So I keep quiet while my heterosexual coworkers hypothesize, offering up what scant evidence they have to be dissected. One unwittingly comes to my defense, saying she once knew a Real Life Bisexual Man. My boss wonders aloud whether he might have just been gay. The conversation ends, and nobody’s mind is changed.
She spoke as if bisexual men were mythical creatures, but that can’t be right; mythical creatures appear in popular media all the time. Unicorns and mermaids are not real but are easy to comprehend. Bisexual men are the opposite.
A year later, I am a full-time employee and still not out to my boss. We are talking about House of Cards, and I am recounting my shock at the threesome scene. Maybe I am trying to hint at something. In my apartment, I have practiced coming out to her—taking a nonchalant, “oh, didn’t you know?” approach—and have promised myself I would never lie if directly asked. But I have learned from Frank that there can be equilibrium in sleeping with whomever and letting people assume what they will. “I don’t think he is bisexual,” my boss says. “I think he is gay and is just using women for a political end.”
But he has sex with Claire, I point out. And Kate Mara, before he pushes her in front of that subway car! I fight for Frank’s bisexuality, and in this I fight for myself, for my own possibility and existence. I don’t know what she is fighting for. Maybe so she and her team can keep playing their game, whatever it is.
Another year later, it is fall of 2017 and our office does not go a week without someone exclaiming that another celebrity has been accused of sexual misconduct. When the dam breaks for Kevin Spacey, I think back to the first scene of House of Cards, where a dog runs into traffic and is hit by a car. Frank kneels and strangles the dog—a coup de grâce. And I know that Frank Underwood can never appear on the screen again.
Spacey was accused of sexual assault by over a dozen men. In one account, he fondles a man at a club. In another, a man passes out at Spacey’s apartment and wakes up to find Spacey performing a sexual act on him. Other men have done these exact things to me. When I read about these experiences, I don’t see Spacey and a young boy; I imagine Frank, his syrupy approximation of a Southern accent, and myself. I had once identified with Frank but now find myself across from him, his hand reaching between my legs. I could always see on his face that he was capable of something like this, but I had always imagined that Spacey was just acting.
Maybe I should have been more critical. The security guard was clearly intoxicated, and Frank was his boss. In the first season, Frank repeats a quote most often attributed to Oscar Wilde—a man who, like Frank and me, had relationships with men and women; a man who, like Spacey, pursued men decades younger than him— “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Daken, Frank, Bond, these men with body counts—maybe all they ever wanted was leverage. That is the nature of bisexual male representation: a liminal space, a “maybe” that never resolves to no or yes. It can be hinted at, even shown, as long as there’s plausible deniability.
It is another year later now, and after a workplace happy hour, my boss pulls me aside. “I have to apologize for something that’s been bugging me forever,” she says. I steel myself. “When you started here, I made a joke about you being gay,” she says. “And I’ve felt bad about it ever since.”
I still don’t know how to respond to this. But until there are better bisexual men to point to—men who don’t commit horrendous acts of violence, men who are unambiguous and proud—I have to believe that the simple, damnable existence of Frank was a step forward. It takes so little to keep me fed.
Shortly after the Trump Administration announced it was ending Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans, the New York Times ran an article with reading suggestions for understanding the country those immigrants are expected to return to in 2019.
Of the three books suggested, only one is by a Salvadoran author. Readers are led to assume that Salvadoran storytellers simply don’t exist—a dangerous lie I myself believed for the majority of my life.
Growing up, I devoured many, many books about white people. Stories about white people turned me onto reading. Though prep school and the glamourous New York City were completely foreign to me, J.D. Salinger managed to make Holden Caulfield feel like a familiar friend, a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Ray Bradbury’s short stories introduced me to the place where nostalgia meets science fiction, an intersection I now write from often. Stories about, and by, white people gave me a voice by which to pen my own stories.
But the stories I’d begun to formulate in the margins of a high school notebook full of biology notes were hollow. The dialogue and monologues that I gifted my characters with were all mine, imbued with my teenage confusion and angst. But the characters were not like me. They were not Latinx, they were not the children of immigrants, and they knew nothing of growing up Salvadoran in Los Angeles. My first full-length draft ended up being an eighty-page young adult novel where two of the main characters were white teenagers from the suburbs of Colorado.
At another juncture in my development as a reader, with a college acceptance that relocated me across the country, the handful of non-white professors at my predominantly white institution gifted me stories that were (finally!) not about white people.
In a contemporary African American literature course, Claudia Rankine, Toni Morrison, George C. Wolfe, and Paul Beatty stunned and haunted me. Lisa Ko, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Amy Tan wrote stories about immigrants that struck a chord deep inside.
Perhaps most life-altering were the Latinx authors I hadn’t realized were so desperately missing from my own personal canon. I flipped through Drown by Junot Díaz, as if to catch up for every day I hadn’t spent reading his work. Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera gave me the words to explain the feelings I knew too well, of being American but hyphenated. Achy Obejas, Luis Valdez, Julia Alvarez, Hector Tobar, and other Latinx authors unhinged my timid tongue. They offered well-crafted stories about Latinx families and enemies and lovers. Their work gave me permission to write stories as I lived them, in English and Spanglish and slang.
But El Salvador, the country of my parents’ birth, wasn’t in those stories. The conjugation of voseo, refugees labeled economic immigrants, a U.S.-funded civil war and its aftermath: it was all missing from the literature I was reading. I convinced myself that those stories simply didn’t exist and anything I wrote about El Salvador and Salvadorans was a whisper into a cultural abyss.
It wasn’t until months later that I’d come to realize that these stories existed, but that they’d been hidden away from me. According to Arturo Arias, “the Central American population remains nearly invisible within the imaginary conﬁnes of what constitutes the multicultural landscape of the United States.” Sociologist Leisy Abrego has argued that the U.S. government’s failure to acknowledge individuals fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War as refugees created “the silence that is the large void in generations of children of Salvadoran immigrants growing up in the US being denied access to our own histories.”
The stories I so desperately needed were out there.
But because of the value placed on Salvadoran lives and xenophobic assumptions of what El Salvador offers the world culturally, they were not on my radar. The journey I’m on now is one that involves recovering Salvadoran stories, mining them out with the help of friends and colleagues who offer a title here, a poem there.
It wasn’t until my sophomore spring of college, two decades into my life, that I finally discovered literature that represented El Salvador as fully as I’d come to know it on every international trip back to San Salvador. A professor asked me if I’d ever read Roque Dalton. I hadn’t, and I told him so.
Looking back, I feel an irrational sense of shame in the fact that, as an intense lover of books, I hadn’t heard about the most famous Salvadoran writer. But the stories had been hidden from me, and it wasn’t until I picked up Dalton’s poetry that I began to see the artistic landscape that’s existed in El Salvador for decades.
Though Roque Dalton’s extensive body of work comes from the years leading up to his assassination in 1975, he understood El Salvador and its diaspora the way I’ve come to, decades after his death. In “Poema de Amor” he refers to Salvadorans as,
los guanacos hijos de la gran puta,
los que apenitas pudieron regresar,
los que tuvieron un poco más de suerte,
los eternos indocumentados,
los hacelotodo, los vendelotodo, los comelotodo
Salvadorans, particularly those “eternally undocumented,” are those that do it all: as cooks, housekeepers, landscapers, farmers, and all the jobs in between. They sell it all as street vendors in Los Angeles where they’re criminalized for their attempts to make a living. Roque Dalton’s poetry has reflected what I know about the people who’ve left El Salvador for their new homes up north. Versions of my friends and families live in the poems I spent far too long assuming didn’t exist.
But Dalton was a poet, a damn good one, not an all-knowing oracle. A twelve-year-long civil war left 75,000 Salvadorans dead, 50,000 missing, and hundreds of thousands more displaced all over the world. A scissure of that degree inevitably changed the literature produced about El Salvador, especially when a three-million-person diaspora begins to pick up their pens to write stories Dalton could have never imagined.
In a stroke of luck, I was at Harvard at the same time as a Salvadoran graduate student and poet who led me to a generation of Salvadoran writers who were like me: straddling that space between El Salvador and the United States. One of her first recommendations was a Javier Zamora, whose debut collection was forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press a few months from the day of our conversation.
When it was released, Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied felt like the book I’d been searching for from the moment I’d realized that writing about El Salvador was not a hopeless endeavor. My complicated relationship with another country that is mine, though more in my nostalgia than anything else, has never been an easy thing to articulate. Yet Zamora writes tactfully, “Tonight, how I wish / you made it easier to love you, Salvador. Make it easier / to never have to risk our lives.” The poems were written in the distinctly Salvadoran Spanglish I’ve learned to speak but had yet to see in print. Reading a line like “to say sobreviviste bicho, sobreviviste carnal. Yes, we over-lived” felt like knowing a secret language, coded just for me.
Roque Dalton died in 1975 and Javier Zamora’s collection was published last year. Their writing spans more than four decades. But initially, those were the only two Salvadoran storytellers I had to cling to. Only in the last few months have I begun building up my own personal canon of Salvadoran writers telling their stories, and indirectly mine, those of my parents, tíos, and tías.
William Archila conciliates the tension between American and Salvadoran by presenting them as one in the same, writing Duke Ellington into Santa Ana in his poetry.
Señor Ellington claps his hands along,
dancing in a two-step blues, stomping
in the center of everyone like a traffic cop
conducting a busy city street.
Leticia Hernández-Linares write musical poems about women who challenge the machismo of the culture they belong to, including one about a woman who shares my own mother’s name.
Sitting with Estella, Dolores conjures
cumbias with sugar on top, about women
who aren’t gonna take it anymore
Yesika Salgado guided me through heartbreak, hunger, and the presumed unknowability of our Salvadoran identity, writing:
every man I have loved does not know my country / has
not been awakened by the rooster’s crow / does not know
the swell of grass and dirt beneath June thunderstorms /
does not smell burning wood and think of home
My canon, writers from both here and there, grew little by little, like a Santa Tecla sprinkle turned tropical storm: Quique Avilés, Claribel Alegría, Cynthia Guardado, Elena Salamanca, Lorena Duarte, Karina Oliva Alvarado, Susana Reyes, harold terezón, Alejandro Córdova, Willy Palomo, Janel Pineda, Claudia Castro Luna, Roberto Lovato, Raquel Gutiérrez, Alexandra Lytton-Regalado, Gabriela Poma.
These writers, whose work has entered my life in its most recent era, give El Salvador and its diaspora shape, complexity, and dignity. Finding faithful representations of Salvadorans in literature has been a difficult process, access to texts being one of the central struggles. Personal recommendations and anthologies like “The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States,” have made the process easier.
But it’s also required hours of sifting through footnotes and hoping that the cited texts are still in circulation. Two bilingual anthologies published by Kalina Editorial, “Teatro Bajo Mi Piel/Theater Under My Skin” and “Puntos de Fuga/Vanishing Points,” have been wildly helpful for identifying contemporary Salvadoran authors. Yet, I wasn’t able to buy copies until I was physically in San Salvador last summer.
These questions of access, of who comes across our stories and why, offers me, as a reader and writer, a challenge. For the sake of a rich but overlooked literary tradition, there’s a need to archive and connect others to our stories with the hope that people will begin to acknowledge that El Salvador is more than just its social ills.
In perhaps my favorite Roque Dalton poem ever, “El Gran Despecho,” he writes:
País mío no existes
sólo eres una mala silueta mía
una palabra que le creí al enemigo
That country of mine, nestled between two Americas, is the vibrant homeland of poetry and prose. Read its literature, lest you believe the lie that it simply doesn’t exist.
The problem is that the form of a sonnet is clear and exact.
Fourteen lines, plus a strict rhyme scheme, plus iambic pentameter, equals sonnet. Life doesn’t tell you the form. Life says figure it out.
I’d run up the stairs to my room, take the box off the bookshelf and put the cassette in the stereo. Sigh in frustration. I needed to rewind if I wanted to listen to the chapter from the beginning. I’d pour out my Legos while the cassette whirred and clicked. “Hello, I’m Madeleine L’Engle and I’m going to be reading A Wrinkle in Time to you.” I’d lay on my scratchy green carpet and build castles for my Harry Potter Legos while the author read to me. Mrs. Whatsit tells Meg, “Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: you’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”
The problem is that the form of a sonnet is clear and exact. Fourteen lines, plus a strict rhyme scheme, plus iambic pentameter, equals sonnet. Life doesn’t tell you the form. Life says figure it out.
Auntie Susan has The Gift. I think my family calls it that because saying “witchcraft” would be too risqué. Mom called her sister every time she lost something. I’d be sitting at the kitchen table. The phone was bright orange with an extra-long cord. She’d say, “I can’t find the book I was reading.” She’d listen to the answer and then go pick up the book from wherever my aunt said it was. Auntie Susan could make things happen. When I was little she told me that I have a witch’s toe. I told her mom says I have monkey toes. They’re long and thin and the second toe is longer than the first. Auntie Susan said that long second toe was the mark of a witch. She showed me her foot was the same.
My parents have the most romantic love story. My grandfathers were both in the Navy and both families settled on the same beach. Gamma looked at Grandma Terry one day as my parents were playing in the sand and said, “My son’s going to marry your little girl someday.” To which Grandma Terry said, “Over my dead body.” Or so the story goes. They grew up together and got married when they were twenty-three. I’m twenty-two.
Grandpa Johnnie had the gift too, in a way. He was really good at finding glasses. He once found the glasses Grandpa Curt lost when he tipped the sunfish. Three tides later. He yelled from the beach as Grandpa Curt walked out into the water. “A little to the left. No further out. Bend down.” Sunglasses found.
I nearly lost my glasses jumping off a dock last week. They were on my face when I jumped and gone when my head came up out of the water. I assumed they were gone forever but a minute later I felt them on my foot and got them back. My mom says it was Grandpa Johnnie looking out for me.
The second time I ever cried at a movie I was fourteen. The Gay Straight Alliance at my high school was doing a movie marathon. My friends had mostly left to do homework, but I was engrossed in But I’m a Cheerleader. It’s the story of two teenage girls who fall in love at straight camp. As I watched the cheerleader stand on the front porch of the camp, pom-poms in one hand, suitcase in the other, I felt the form of the sonnet crashing down around me. I was wrapped up in a blue blanket my mom knit for me. When the movie finally came to its happy ending I felt fat tears rolling down my cheeks.
When I was seventeen I read two books about mental hospitals the week before my best friend was committed to McLean. I read another one when I was twenty-one in the days before driving my girlfriend to Grinnell Regional. Both nights, when laying in my dorm room bed in the blue blanket, and when sitting in the hallway of the hospital while my girlfriend told the nurse her plan, I felt the same. The same specific guilt. I had read the future and failed to act. I twirled my hair. I stared at the wall. I promised myself I would listen to my friends and to my own small voice. I would write down my bad dreams. I looked at my toes.
I was eleven when I reached the peak of my Greek mythology phase. I made an altar in my closet. I filled it with rocks, ribbons, shells, and potions of soapy water and glitter. It was dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of maidens and the moon. I would go to my altar to write in my leather-bound journal. It was there I decided I had a crush on a boy. I felt Artemis’ disappointment that day. Or maybe it was my own.
My mom has the gift. When she sets a timer on her phone she moves to turn it off a second before it dings. She’d say it’s just practice.
I’ve tried to keep listening. To keep practicing.
In a poet’s apartment we’re on the bed next to each other, them turning the pages, reading silently together. My heart leaps and I listen.
On the terrace an artist complains about a negative tarot reading. I look at my own cards and listen.
Sitting in a restaurant that only serves dishes containing avocado an old song says, “Call your girlfriend, it’s time you had the talk,” and I listen.
The first time a writing professor told me poets could break the form of the sonnet I was offended. I’m a rule follower, and I was offended for Mrs. Whatsit and Madeleine L’Engle. But I’ve figured something out. A sonnet doesn’t have to follow even its own rules. Life doesn’t either.
Throughout my life various songs, books, and films have been crucial in teaching me how to name myself.
At ten years old, in the last singing competition I ever lost, Whitney’s “Greatest Love Of All” challenged me to find my voice, to cultivate range, and to love myself through the early hardships of childhood abuse and primary school bullying. Through reading Maya’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and watching the live action blockbuster adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple I was able to identify my traumas, to know that I have never been alone, and to seek out my kin who would facilitate my—and our collective—healing. Between Tracy Chapman’s rich timbre and searing vulnerability in “Be Careful Of My Heart” and the vibrant and flagrant descriptions of Jamaica in Fiona Zedde’s Bliss I learned that my experiences of black queer love were too pure and delicious to ever be prayed away. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues taught me the name of my gender and Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater has compelled me to learn what it is called in my mother tongue.
I was ten years old when I lost my first singing competition. I befriended the girl who won by singing a song I hadn’t heard until then. Because of how beautiful the song was, and because I was keen on learning how to win, I learned the song. I was both terrified and impressed by the song and the enormity of Whitney Houston’s voice. I listened to it repeatedly, overcome by the visceral shifts I experienced with each listen.
“I believe the children are our future
teach them well
and let them lead the way
show them all the beauty they possess inside.”
— Whitney Houston, “Greatest Love of All”
Whitney’s declarations about believing the children are the future made me believe there was a safer world out there for children like me. A world in which adults treated—and taught—us well and showed us all the beauty we possess inside. “Greatest Love of All” initiated the first instance in which I considered that I may be beautiful. I was ten years old and that was the first time a song made me cry. I learned to sing that song well. And when other people heard me sing it, they cried too. I learned that my voice was an instrument I could utilize to make people see my beauty, and thus treat me with even momentary kindness.
“Learning to love yourself
it is the greatest love of all.”
— Whitney Houston, “Greatest Love of All”
No one at that stage in my life had taught me that loving myself was something I could—let alone should—do. Many people who were meant to love me hurt me. Despite the many instances of abuse and pervasive bullying at school I was subjected to, Whitney taught me that I was beautiful and worthy of love, not just the love of the people around me, but also my own.
At the age of nineteen I realized that I had endured near-constant violence for the entirety of my life and that my body didn’t feel like it wholly belonged to me. I was in a relationship with a girl who hated me but sometimes bought me thoughtful gifts. During one of our anniversaries and following one of many stormy fights she bought me a copy of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. At that point in my life,I developed the language to understand some of the things that were done to me as a child. I knew that I was a rape and molestation survivor and I recognized that that girlfriend and my first had crossed consent boundaries with me, but I struggled to name their harm as what it was.
“He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn’t ever let me go. I felt at home.”
— Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Through this sentence, in which Maya describes how her violator made her feel, I came to understand a crucial lesson about surviving intimate violence. Violators sometimes came in the form of people you trusted. This is a part of their violence: giving you a false sense of safety so that the harm they perpetuate against you feels less severe. And so that you—and not them—carry the residual shame. Maya’s vulnerability in writing about this particular element of surviving intimate violence helped me learn to start shedding my shame.
I internalized the value in Maya’s vulnerability and started telling my story and naming the various kinds of harm I had survived. This not only helped me release my shame but also resulted in me cultivating a makeshift virtual community of fellow survivors.
There is a scene in the blockbuster adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple that introduced me to reflections of myself which shifted my relationship with my survivorship. The long-suffering Celie—portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg—watches in awe as her new and eccentric friend, Shug Avery—played by the legendary Margaret Avery—enchants a crowded underground bar with a sultry blues performance.
In each woman I see parts of myself: Celie, the trauma-afflicted, perpetually dissociating survivor-victim who didn’t know that sex was meant to be consensual and mutually satisfying until she met her new ally. And the mostly triumphant survivor, Shug who—while bearing her own scars from intimate violence—has reclaimed enough of her power and sense of sacredness to facilitate the healing and ultimate freedom of her friend. Although I was—and in many ways still am—far from the almost hedonistic and decadent free-ness embodied by Shug, she was a powerful possibility model for what a healed me could look like. And in addition to showing me who I could be, Shug’s relationship with Celie reinforced the importance and possibility of collective empathy and healing.
Years before my first queer relationship I prayed that my mother’s God would rid me of my sinful attraction to women. When I was twenty, after—and during—at least three mostly disastrous queer relationships and dozens of casual encounters I found myself truly in love for the first time. Friends had introduced me to the African American, Cleveland-born folk singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman. The rich timbre of her voice and the simplicity and searing vulnerability in her music opened me up in ways I hadn’t imagined possible.
“You and your sweet smile,
You and all, your tantalizing ways.
You and your honey lips,
You and all; the sweet things that they say.”
— Tracy Chapman, “Be Careful of My Heart”
It took me a very short amount of time to collect almost her entire discography and watch damn near every YouTube video there was of her performances. She occupied my mind and senses in ways no one else had before—or since.
When I read Fiona Zedde’s Bliss that same year, I was smitten—not only with the gorgeously depicted Jamaican backdrop or the beauty of the first black lesbian love story I’d ever read, but with one of the protagonists, Hunter. Fiona described her in a way that—in my mind—conjured a very vivid picture of my sweet Tracy. I was so convinced of this likeness that I contacted the author about it.
“Dear Fiona,” I wrote excitedly, “I can’t get this out of my head, but Hunter in Bliss looks just like Tracy Chapman to me, and that’s made this beautiful book that much more enjoyable for me.” She graciously wrote back to say she totally saw Hunter as a “young, late 90s Tracy” and we talked wistfully about the book being adapted into a film some day.
From then on, Fiona’s Hunter was my Tracy and my Tracy was Fiona’s Hunter. I kept the book for much longer than the two-week period stipulated by the queer library I volunteered at. And I read it so many times with my love’s voice as the soundtrack that it is impossible for me to listen to Be Careful of My Heart without visions of Bliss Sinclair leaving America after a torrid affair ends in mild heartbreak only to wind up in a delicious but complicated love affair in her birth country.
The fullness of my heart from marrying that story and song in my mind forever convinced me that black queer loving and desire were things too pure to ever be prayed away.
I’d been alive twenty-one years before I learned the name of my gender. I picked up a copy of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, excited to indulge in a story about stone butch lesbian women and the pre-Stonewall bar scene. And while that brilliant book delivered on its promise of giving in depth insight into the emerging LGBT(QIA+) rights movement—it also served an immensely special and pivotal purpose.
“I felt my whole life coming full circle. Growing up so different, coming out as a butch, passing as a man, and then back to the same question that had shaped my life: woman or man?”
— Leslie Feinberg (Jess Goldberg), Stone Butch Blues
It taught me—through a stunning depiction of Jess Goldberg’s painful journey towards embracing queerness, finding community, and being forced to pass as a man to secure employment and the simultaneously isolating and liberating experience of determining their gender beyond the binary—that I too, was non-binary.
While Leslie never uses this term to describe Jess’s gender journey, that book—and subsequent internet research into who Leslie was—was the catalyst in me understanding who I was. And while the language I eventually acquired—pronouns that fit snugly and gender names (agender, genderqueer) that felt like cozy favorite jackets—brought me a bigger sense of self than anything else pertaining to my identity, there was a niggling discomfort in the back of my mind.
Everything about this identity seemed firmly rooted in a Western context. And while I couldn’t deny my distinctly Western outlook on the world, despite being a black person who had only ever lived in South Africa, I felt a quiet yearning to know who I was within the context of my ethnicities.
It’s Akwaeke Emezi’s breathtaking debut novel Freshwater that almost grants me permission to seek the context of who I am in accordance to my ethnicity and lineage. Emezi daringly carries their queerness, trans-ness, non-binary-ness, and neuro-divergence and places them firmly at the center of Igbo Ontology and themself in the holy yet precarious position of straddling two worlds.
“The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.”
— Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater
Emezi’s work teaches me that my names—the ones I have learned, and those which I have yet to discover—have always been sacred. That the stories that introduced me and led me back to myself did so to reinforce my innate worthiness of an affirmed and hallowed existence.
I think about the passage of time a lot, and the difference time can make on our perspectives. There are moments when time doesn’t seem to make a difference at all, and there are moments when time changes our perspective completely.
In May 2012, I graduated Sarah Lawrence College on my dad’s fifty-fourth birthday. In 2012, I was bright-eyed, hopeful, and ready to attempt to make my way in a world I was unprepared for. I moved back home to Connecticut after graduation and took a job babysitting, followed by tutoring, two jobs writing, and finally another job babysitting. My goal: pay off my student loans as fast as possible.
Somehow, I managed to cobble all of these jobs together into a cohesive schedule. I was focused on work. I babysat three mornings a week, wrote in the afternoons, tutored twice weekly, and still wrote when I came home.
To decompress, I would lose myself in boxed sets of my favorite TV shows. I liked science fiction at the time. I’d been a big fan of 2003’s Battlestar Galactica and 2009’s Dollhouse; I was disappointed when Syfy cancelled Caprica, and reluctantly gave Warehouse 13 a shot.
I loved the imagination in these shows. I loved the questions they posed, and I liked thinking about where the story was going. It was also a genre that is the epitome of shows cancelled before their time and so, in the spring of 2013, I reluctantly left my comfort zone for a new show called Defiance.
Defiance premiered on the Syfy Channel in April 2013.
Its premise was that in 2013 a group of different alien races known as the Votanus Collective arrived on Earth. The worlds that each race inhabited were dying, so they built arks that carried their people across the stars.
But this was all backstory. The series picked up thirty years later with Joshua Nolan hunting for “ark tech” with his daughter, an alien girl named Irisa, whom he saved from a cult. They run into trouble and are brought to the former city of St. Louis, which has been renamed Defiance.
As a 2013 viewer, I was drawn into the show by the complex narratives presented. Defiance was a place where both humans and Votans could live in peace, and where the different cultures were respected, but it still had its own social ecosystem which made for good stories.
I found myself coming back to Defiance each week for the complex characters with their own motivations and fallacies. No character in Defiance was just there, they all had a role to play that drove the story forward. Most importantly there was an array of women who weren’t only strong, but complex in their own right.
There was Amanda Rosewater, the newly minted mayor who always had a plan and yet was insecure in times of stress. Then there was her sister Kenya, who ran the bar and brothel called the Need/Want. Irisa, Nolan’s daughter, was just starting to come into her own and push back against her father. Doc Yewll was a serious scientist who let nothing stand in the way of her doing her job, and still had a shady past. Christy McCawley was a young woman in love with an alien boy against her father’s wishes, and while her story was arguably the most like a teen movie, it still sucked me in.
Yet, the character that really drew me in was Stahma Tarr. Stahma’s a Castithan woman who was married to the town loan shark, Datak Tarr. Over Defiance’s three seasons the couple and their son Alak presented a story not unlike many immigrant narratives as Stahma struggled to break the bonds of their old world, while Datak held tight to them.
Looking back, it isn’t surprising that she was one of the first characters I gravitated towards. Stahma and Datak carried themselves in a way that reminded me of the Purebloods in Harry Potter. In 2012, I’d written an op-ed about Bellatrix Lestrange and how her manic tendencies were something I admired because she was unapologetic for who she was. The Black family quickly became my favorite Harry Potter characters because of their history and complexity. Stahma reminded me of Bellatrix’s sister, Narcissa Malfoy, who I was also drawn to because she walked the line of self-preservation. She wasn’t setting out to do the right thing, just to take care of her family.
Stahma had similar motivations. Throughout the first season, Stahma pulled strings and manipulated situations to serve her interests. It was selfish, but it was all for the good of her family, and she wasn’t afraid to do what was needed.
In season two of Defiance, with Datak in prison and her son running the family business, Stahma had to find a way to ensure her survival without breaking the edicts of the Castithan homeworld. On Casti, their home planet, women weren’t allowed to run businesses and they weren’t supposed to have opinions, but Stahma believed in the new world that Earth promised, and she wanted to break the cycle.
Her feminist narrative was one of the strongest of season two and one of the reasons that I kept watching the show. Yet, Stahma’s narrative always felt like she was in danger of being found out.
Defiance was cancelled in 2015 shortly after the Season 3 finale aired, but I hadn’t seen it.
I was neck deep in a redesign work project and cultivating a friendship with my brother’s girlfriend. Since moving back home in 2012, I had put up my own stasis nets. I had lived with a presumption that I could, and possibly would, move at any time, but that hadn’t happened.
While I was living at home, Sunday dinners had become a ritual, with my brother and his girlfriend coming over every week—sometimes on short notice—and that meant I was often cooking dinner. Over the course of a year and a half I got to know his girlfriend and we became friends. I taught her to knit and we went to trunk shows in New York City and knitting circles together. I showed my mom and brother the sometimes-complicated world of buying yarn from independent dyers online for Christmas and her birthday, and often served as a fit guide for when my mom decided to buy her clothes.
I wanted to do it, I was happy to do it. I liked my brother’s girlfriend, but a nagging part of me thought to myself: “She’s currently my only friend. What happens if this doesn’t work out?”
Before Christmas 2015, they broke up. She disappeared from my life like a shadow in the corner of my eye. That’s when my mother looked at me and said, “She was your friend. I didn’t even think about that.”
“I did,” I replied.
Since then, the stasis nets went back up. This time, not because I was planning to move, but because I didn’t want to lose another friend that way.
When 2016 rolled around I vowed that I would start doing things for myself again. A big project at work had recently come to an end and suddenly I had free time and didn’t know what to do with myself.
I started writing television reviews for Tell-Tale TV, and threw myself full-tilt into a blog. I got back into reading and went to a book group at my local independent bookstore, and I kept doing things like the weekly grocery run. Yet, I also felt lonely, in the way that someone describes being alone in a crowd of people.
It’s strange seeing a mirror of yourself when you don’t expect it.
In July 2018, I was working on an article for Tell-Tale TV. I’d been contributing to them regularly for over two years and I often credit the site with giving me an outlet to save my sanity. I had written an essay about the TV show Timeless and its place in the time travel genre, and was working on a list of shows with similarly rich narratives.
I was talking to a friend about the idea, and asking her if she knew about any other shows, when she said, “Defiance.”
I thought about it for a moment. Defiance had slipped away from me so slowly that it hadn’t even occurred to me when I made my list. I thought about it some more and searched for the show online. It had been five years since the premiere but the three seasons were on Amazon Prime.
I began to re-watch the pilot, and I came to the scene where Joshua Nolan walks into Defiance for the first time and sees Amanda Rosewater give a speech at a town celebration. Later, walking through town with the former mayor, Amanda says how she’s “genetically incapable of inspiring people.” Later, when the town is under attack, she’s struggling with how to address the citizens. She’s looking for the right words that will inspire them to take up arms against the Volge.
She compares herself to Mayor Nicky, and when she ultimately takes to the podium in front of a scared and confused town, she ditches her script and says plainly, “We’re all going do die!”
In those two scenes I started to realize that it wasn’t Stahma Tarr I should have been looking at, but Amanda. She was a newly minted mayor who was fighting for a town that she loved. In each season, the writers gave Amanda new challenges and she always approached it rationally. She didn’t have all the answers, but she always attempted to find the best way out of her situation.
My world is nothing like Amanda Rosewater’s. Her history and mine don’t mirror each other, but as the pilot progressed, I saw more of myself in Amanda. When Amanda is injured during the fight with the Volge she attempts to get up and keep fighting before Doc Yewll pushes her back down and tells her she’s on bed rest.
Around the time I fell behind on Defiance, I was working on an important project for work. The project was taking longer than expected and one day, I suddenly realized I hadn’t showered in three days or changed my clothes, because I was so focused on the task. Had I been Amanda, in her exact same situation, I would have tried to get up too. I would have pressed on and kept working.
Watching Amanda tend to Defiance also brought up a connection I never expected.
I moved back to Connecticut in the summer of 2012, and I was there when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred. I was home and ready to pursue the next stage of my life, but on December 14, 2012, it was like the town halted. There were memorials and services, and I was concerned about two of the kids I babysat.
“Ms. Lauren,” the older one asked me. “Do I have to talk about what happened?”
I was at the stove making macaroni and cheese. I turned and stooped down to his level. “I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “I know a lot of people are asking you questions. So, when I am here, if you want to talk about it, we can. If you don’t, that’s fine too.”
He smiled and went back to his snack. Going on six years, I remember how internally, I had promised myself that I would be there for these boys and my community. And I was, until the family ultimately moved, but I never did; I stayed in my town and watched the anniversaries pass.
Looking back, in the spring of 2013, Stahma gave me what I needed to survive. She gave me calculated exterior and the hope that I could affect change in some small way. But, in my actions, I was really Amanda. She put her own feelings and ambitions aside for the good of the town. She loved Defiance and the people in it.
In an interview, Julie Benz who played the role of Amanda broke down one of her final scenes in the season three finale, “Upon the March We Fittest Die.”
“For me, Amanda represents the heart of Defiance. She’s the only character who consistently puts aside her own feelings for the good of the town. She sacrificed her whole life for the survival of the town.”
A few weeks ago, I was conducting a phone interview with Jennifer Bartels from American Woman. We were discussing how the characters were each developed differently. Bartels, who plays Diana, said:
“I know, as a viewer and as a woman, I really look to align with different characteristics of different women. I have a little Bonnie in me, and I have a little Kathleen in me, and of course, I have quite a bit of Diana in me, so it’s nice that people can relate to different aspects of the characters.”
This quote stayed with me as I transcribed it, and finished Defiance all the way through for the first time. I’ve been thinking about both Stahma Tarr and Amanda Rosewater, and the different things I’ve liked about each of them, and I realized that I have aspects of both of them. Stahma gave me the armor I needed at a time when the community around me was raw and healing, but Amanda was who I was. I just had to take care not to lose myself in the service of others, and protect myself a little bit, like Stahma Tarr would.
For all her backstabbing, which made her a compelling character, Stahma always looked out for herself, and she valued those closest to her. Stahma might not be the best role model, but she definitely had a few personality traits that I can benefit from.
In today’s media, there’s often a push for children’s stories to be more energized than those aimed at adults, especially when it comes to film.
This usually manifests itself through aspects like faster pacing, quicker movements and/or animation, and more physical or juvenile jokes. This type of story is not inherently bad, and I do enjoy more frenetic tales at times. Occasionally, though, I just want a calmer story that doesn’t have more modern comedy, nor a high-concept setting, nor a menacing villain. Sometimes, all you really need out of a children’s story is a pleasant set of characters and some charming conversations. And for me, the absolute best example of this is Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, a movie that has greatly affected my life, and one that resonates with me even more now that I’m older.
The film, released in 1977, is composed of three previous featurettes, plus a bit of segueing animation. It’s usually viewed in a positive light by both fans and critics, but it rarely receives outright acclaim. I believe that’s because it’s less flashy and high-stakes than other children’s movies. What people so often overlook, though, is that childhood isn’t always action-packed and intense. There isn’t always bitter conflict, and when you’re young, actual evil is far less common than kids’ stories claim. A lot of the time, life is just…simple. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a very simple movie, and that’s why it’s so important to me, and why it’s managed to stick with me all these years.
I should mention that I also love the original Pooh Bear short stories by A. A. Milne. However, I’m going to focus on the first Disney adaptation for a few reasons. Firstly, the film does a great job translating the tone and characters of the books, so there’s no real need to contrast the two media. Additionally, a few things that make the stories so special are exclusive to the Disney version. Overall, while the Disney animated movie is of course indebted to Milne’s children’s classics, the movie has had the most influence on me, and I want to distill why this version is such a wonderful embodiment of what a calming, happy story for children should be like.
Before I delve into everything that makes the movie great, I’ll summarize the plot and setting. Christopher Robin is a young boy who occasionally ventures into the magical Hundred Acre Wood, where he has several friends, all stuffed animals, who live there and love him dearly. Among them are the anxious, bashful Piglet; the controlling, authoritative Rabbit; the motherly Kanga and her enthusiastic son Roo; the hardworking Gopher (a character new to the film); the bouncy, rambunctious Tigger; the gloomy, depressed Eeyore; the thought-to-be-intelligent Owl; and, of course, the pure-hearted, surprisingly wise, “silly old bear,” Winnie the Pooh, or Pooh for short. In addition, there is the Narrator, a person in his own right who breaks the fourth wall and actually interacts with the other characters. The film details the characters’ “adventures” and interactions with each other in a calming, pleasant fashion.
To begin with, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has a highly laidback, tranquil plot, especially when compared to other kid’s films. The pacing is especially barebones: there isn’t one overarching narrative, but rather, several stories intertwined by the same cast of characters. As such, there is no villain, nor a central conflict that the characters must overcome through action or hijinks. Instead, it’s just these charming characters working off each other, having fun, and getting into low-stakes scrapes like being stuck in a hole or getting lost in the woods. The closest thing to an antagonist is just a nightmare Pooh has of “Heffalumps and Woozles,” which are creatures that don’t even exist; they’re just figments of the imagination.
That’s as good a place as any to further delve into the intricacies of the storytelling here. To reiterate, THERE IS NO VILLAIN. The stuffed animals are never given ages, but they’re all dear friends of Christopher Robin and seem to be bonded to him (not to mention the popular theory that the animals are all creations of Christopher’s imagination, and that the boy is only going inside his own mind to play with them, a conjecture I’ll deal with at a later point). Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that they all have child mentalities, as well. That tells us that Pooh is very similar to a child, meaning that his dreams of Heffalumps and Woozles (clearly misnomers of “elephants and weasels,” a fact the movie spells out to the audience) are the embodiments of the fears that a child would have. In other words, the biggest threat the characters must face is their fear of the unknown and their overactive imaginations. Many other kids’ stories feature children as the protagonists, but rarely do you see such a straightforward, action-less conflict. It’s wholly unique in that the childlike protagonists must face issues that childhood viewers must face in the real world, as well.
Additionally, the style of artwork is much calmer and subtler than what modern-day children are used to in movies, especially animated ones. Without getting too much into animation history, Walt Disney Animation Studios lowered their budget and used cost-cutting techniques in their animated movies during the time The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was made, resulting in a sketchier type of artwork that utilized more visuality of pencil drawings. Although partially by necessity, the choice to simplify the animation ended up working in favor of the movie in several ways. The animation now closely resembles the book illustrations of E. H. Shepard, helping to establish a mood that’s heartily in line with the original stories’. Connected to that, the movie subsequently has a warm, wholesomely enjoyable vibe to it rarely found in kinetic, energy-infused stories for kids that overpopulate today’s entertainment. It’s peaceful and calming, but never in a dull way. It’s just…satisfying, and nice. In other words, what childhood often is. Many kids love to pretend to have swordfights and space battles and epic quests of glory, but that pretty much never happens, and that’s okay. Winnie the Pooh shows that the normal, everyday “adventures” you have are wonderful in their own right.
Another brilliant thing about the film is the varied roster of characters, as well as the pitch-perfect casting choices. The fact that all of the many protagonists are so very different means that children can identify with many of them easily. One might find themselves in line with the stubbornness of Rabbit, or the gloominess of Eeyore, or the inflated pride of Owl. The best way for me to convey the effectiveness of the characters is this: I like to say that Tigger is who I wanted to be like when I was little, Pooh Bear is who I want to be like now, and Piglet is who I’m most like in real life. You can connect with many of them, because they’re all so uniquely realistic, albeit in exaggerated ways. The most important thing, though, is that they’re all KIND. None of these creatures are unlikeable or mean-spirited; even when they mess up or get on one another’s nerves, they apologize and quickly become friends again. Going back to antagonism, sometimes children like to have an obviously evil villain to root against, but every once in a while, it’s worth remembering that, if you’re surrounded by friends and good people (or animals), there isn’t really anything worth hating or fearing.
That utterly pure sentimentality is showcased to perfection by the voice actors. Over the years, I have become invested in the art of voice acting, and that’s largely thanks to the fact that Walt Disney Animation Studios reused many actors and actresses in their animated movies. Nearly every actor in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh appears in another Disney movie, and the fun of hearing a voice in this film, then cropping up in another fills me with glee whenever I watch classic Disney movies now. Furthermore, these characters are largely so successful because the people portraying them hone in on precisely what makes them all so uniquely delightful. Ralph Wright nails the gloominess of Eeyore, John Fiedler is the only possible choice for the perpetually nervous and stuttering Piglet, and Paul Winchell is spot-on as the bouncy Tigger. And of course, there’s the absolutely marvelous Sterling Holloway as Winnie the Pooh. Holloway is my favorite voice actor of all time, and one of my favorite actors ever, period. He had numerous other roles in Disney features, but this is his most famous for a reason. He’s just so sweet, innocent, and kind as the Bear of Very Little Brain, and it makes my heart melt whenever I hear his voice. Casting is a factor of film that sometimes gets overlooked, but this movie shows why it’s so integral.
Finally, there’s the quality of timelessness that this story has. A lot of the time, a story is aimed exclusively at one age group, and it’s therefore constrained. Too often, a children’s story is too juvenile; it’s not something you can take in at one time, then come back to years later and enjoy as much as you did before. Either the pop culture references are poorly dated, or the effects and style haven’t held up, or it’s just not as well-written as you remembered. Every so often, though, there’s a story like this one that’s different when you experience it again years later, but in a good way. You appreciate the more nuanced moments and messages even more because you’re old enough to understand the depth of what they mean. It’s like a magic trick: you sit back and wait a bit, and suddenly, all sorts of things that you couldn’t see before come out to delight you. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of those stories. The animation isn’t as flashy or ambitious as other children’s animated movies, but I love that even more now for its calming presence and warm tone. The jokes that involve subtle wordplay aren’t laugh-out-loud, but nowadays I appreciate that softer style of humor; in contrast, jokes involving the Narrator breaking the fourth wall and talking to the characters are much funnier to me as an adult, since I appreciate their cleverness. The songs by the always-brilliant Sherman Brothers are clever and catchy, and they just fill me with warmness and giggles. The story is excessively simple, but hey—when you’ve grown up, and everything seems like it moves at breakneck speed, simple is all you want from a story, and this movie delivers that. It’s a movie that only gets better with each passing year.
It sounds cliché, but The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh really is my childhood. In all honesty, I can’t even say it’s my favorite movie, or even my favorite Disney animated movie. But there isn’t another film, or even another story, that has done more to shape what I appreciate, how I want to act, and who I want to be like. It’s a story that often seems to be liked, but not loved, and I can’t help but think that it’s a little underappreciated simply because…well, because it’s so simple. However, it’s largely thanks to this story that I try to be kind to whoever I can, and attempt to keep a childlike, innocent perspective whenever I do something, and just strive to have a pleasant time in life. I genuinely think if everyone took the time to sit down and enjoy it, they’d remember the basic goodness of what it was like to be a kid, and the joys to be found in the little things. Things like bouncing, and going for walks, and just sitting and doing nothing. Everyone wants to just do nothing every so often, and Winnie the Pooh shows that that isn’t a bad thought. If the last scene of the movie is anything to go by, then it’s clear that childhood is something you should cherish. I certainly do, and I think we all should.