A low-simmer column about queerness, identity, and growing the fuck up
By Jen Harris
Photos by Justina Kellner
When I was a child, there was no such thing as choice.
I know you don’t believe me. I know you want to argue with me right off the bat. Perfect. Hi. Hello. Welcome. I’m Jen. I’m queer. A nonbinary womxn. A lesbian. I’m 35AF, and I know saying that proves it. This is my first time here, so I figured a proper introduction would be… qualifying. It’s like when someone writes a letter to a celebrity (in this case, you are the celebrity) and they (I) start it with, “I have never written a letter like this before in my life.”
Often, that’s true.
It’s true for me, now. I’ve never been 35 before. I’ve never written a column about the queer experience. I don’t feel proficient for this task. For one thing, I bought a television a month ago, and it’s still leaning against the wall. I don’t know who’s popular or what matters to the masses. I don’t know any vacation hot spots, and I certainly don’t have the 411 on lesbian
engagement dating apps. I’m taking a break from s-e-x… sooooo……
Recently, one of my other 35AF friends called me, asking me if I knew BAE was an acronym, and I DIDN’T. They told me it stands for Before Anyone Else. I emulated vomiting and wondered how many fucking times I used that god-damn “word” on my social media posts presuming it was just a cute-ass way to shout out my love interest.
IT MEANS SOMETHING I DON’T EVEN BELIEVE IN.
What kind of shit world are we living in where the institutionalized shackles of marriage and monogamy ARE THRIVING in underground, insidious, seemingly innocuous ways?
WHAT IS HAPPENING TO FEMINISM!?
(I mean, yes, make your own happy choices, but like, don’t make them for others—that’s what pro-choice is all about, and certainly don’t HIDE THEM in cute iNtERNeT laNGuAge.)
I didn’t know bae was basically another problematic version of Hon. Honey. Boo. Babe. Chick. Broad. Toots. Sugar. And let’s be real, those are primarily problematic when someone other than your mutual interest is utilizing them in your direction, but I’d be ok if they were scrapped from the common vernacular and utilized primarily in the privacy of intimate relationships.
Anyway, I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that bae stood for “before anyone else,” and it made me feel old. It distracted me into devising retaliation against the linguist trickster for at least half an hour before I got a grip.
I sleepily fell into line with my lazy language, trying to pretend I’m just a tired 20-something when I’m not, you guys. I’m not. I’m 35. I respect the intentionality of language, and I would like to delegate alerting we elder Millennials of new microaggressions to someone young in technology. The patriarchy infests the general consciousness with very little resistance. We must always be vigilant, and I say that acknowledging I wasn’t paying attention for one second and look what fucking happened. I got tangled in a bae booby trap.
I was raised in an environment in which everything was decided for me.
There was no choice, only command.
School. Church. Work. Repeat.
I think the absence of choice made me a writer. There were no colorful characters when I dared raise my eyes and look around. Everyone was VERY busy blending, so I learned to discover beauty in what I was allotted. As an agnostic, I am still comforted by prayer and brought to tears by the hum of a gospel choir. I recycle cans with a nostalgic attachment to the crunching aluminum. I can’t wear a flannel without thinking about the softness of my mother’s hugs.
I grew up surrounded; immersed in heteronormativity. I was one of those high-spirited, problem-children well-meaning middle-aged Christian ladies wrote books about. I could not be tamed, despite manual after manual of
how to break a child’s spirit… religious parenting books.
No one exhibited behaviors that clued me in to how my own personal sexuality might manifest and express itself. I clung to any piece of clothing that lacked feminine features as prescribed by the majority culture. I locked myself in the bathroom and dyed my hair wicked colors. I wanted boxers, not bikini bottoms. Black, not pink. I wanted Doc Martens and Lucky Strikes and for everyone to back up a few feet and simmer all the racket about boyfriends, prom, babies, marriage, college, dances, clothes, UGH. WHAT ARE YOU ALL EVEN TALKING ABOUT? I would groan internally. Where do these thoughts come from? Did I miss a class on activating my heterosexuality the same way I missed learning how to divide when we moved states away on a school night?
I was a survivor overplaying the role of charismatic-new-girl, with a malnourished sense of self and a shamed and shriveled introverted nature. I was a chameleon, who ignored the sharp pain that ran from mid-shoulder, down my ribs, and into my lungs (social-anxiety), to put on a show for the people.
The absence of any healthy representation led me to over-identify with rebels, addicts, and villains who seemed to thrive in kingdoms of their own making. I understood that they could not live among the others, I just didn’t know why I related.
I am here because I have made the choice to be here. I have decided to believe in the inherent value of my personal experience. Like renewing a vow, I take thee, again and again, till death redefines. I have had a relatively violent and volatile experience as a queer person within a white, Christian, heteronormative world… and THAT, unfortunately, is many people’s queer experience.
I’m ready to let that go, a little bit. I’m ready to share it with you through the lens of a rapidly aging Millennial. I’m ready to open dialogue, an exchange, in hopes that we won’t lose our history and we will learn from each other. Where we can’t find agreement, I hope we can find humor. Where there is opposing conviction, I hope we can find respect. If you can’t figure out why you don’t like me, kindly fuck right off. Again, I am 35 and I don’t even attempt to do people’s work for them, anymore.
I am a witness in possession of significant insight on a pivotal time of rapid evolution in the queer experience, and I need to share it with you.
Hi. I’m Jen. I’ve never written a letter like this before in my life, but this is the first of many.
Poet Jen Harris (she/her) is a creative entrepreneur & performance artist. Her ongoing community projects include The Writing Workshop KC & Kansas City Poetry Slam. Featured on NPR, TEDx, Button Poetry, Write About Now Poetry & Netflix Queer Eye, Harris is the author of 3 books of poetry, confessional assortments of her queer life in America.
Justina Kellner is a Kansas City portrait and wedding photographer with a passion for creativity. You’ll find her hands in every possible medium of the arts including digital and film photography, painting, drawing, music, and even a touch of ballet. As a well grounded Capricorn, she also manages an online closet of upcycled trendy clothing, because everything should be recycled – change her mind.