Another Way: When I Chose to Be Queer
Instructor’s Comment: Mo’s essay, “Another Way: When I Chose to be Queer,” was originally written for a special Chicana/o Studies course on the testimonio and cultural studies in the Americas in the spring of 2009. After spending the quarter reading and discussing a wide range of (mostly women’s) testimonios from Central America, Mexico, and the United States, the students wrote their own personal mini-testimonios as their final projects. Mo’s essay immediately stood out to me as a profoundly critical and exceptionally creative piece of writing. “Another Way” reflects Mo’s serious engagement with the political project of testimonio production, particularly in the ways that he presents a personal narrative with broad collective implications and poses an epistemological challenge to the conventions of history, theory, and narrative writing. Mo’s testimonio is at once deeply moving and sharply political, and his eloquent and elegant prose enables the reader to connect personally with the urgent questions he poses about the need to destabilize patriarchal and colonial constructions of subjectivity.
—Magalí Rabasa, Chicana/o Studies and Cultural Studies
they’re looking for the gay gene again.
tax payers that don’t need better schools,
paved streets or paid doctor visits,
an all-invasive tour into my sex life —
– how do you have sex?
– are you the top or the bottom?
– did anyone touch you when you were a baby?
so the researchers probe,
they turned our DNA into a google map
yet they’ll never find the directions
to explain my queerness
and as i cash another check,
see the govt hand my earnings over to
more tax breaks
for me to be queer, it has nothing to do with my genes, or your
it isn’t about your maleness or
it’s about two brown,
( or three )
with passion, and love, or without love, and
i don’t care what the dna mapping says
when i say to my mom,
“soy… i’m… mom… i’m not gonna be with a woman, mom”
i’m not saying to her “i’m gay”
“ i can’t do it ”
to a society that
wants me to reproduce, and if not that, then
at least pretend
i’m saying “ fuck you ”
to male-dominated society, to imposed gender norms, to the violence we commit against womyn and trans folks, to government agencies that make you check the box, to health care providers that turn people away for wanting different sex organs or for not having papers to prove their residency.
because for me,
queerness was a coming of consciousness,
a decision unconscious to me, but
a choice nonetheless.
the govt might use my money to lock people up for marijuana,
but my queerness is mine, and no, it wasn’t a disease i was born with.
Nobody really understands what queerness is or where it came from. We can only say for sure that human sexuality has been as varied and diverse as history itself. Different cultures have held different notions of gender and sexuality, some with upwards of five different gender identities, some outlawing all forms of sexual expression altogether. In our current historical moment, when heterosexuality is either assumed or expected for all people, a growing queer community has formed, posing a direct challenge to the heteronormative structure under which we operate. The formation of this community has begged the question: what exactly leads to queerness?
If you were to ask the American Psychological Association just a few decades ago, the answer would have been simple: homosexuality is a mental disorder easily treated with proper medical attention. The same organization today, while no longer identifying homosexuality as a psychological illness, still claims that transgender people can attribute their transgender identity to gender confusion, and, as was the case with their earlier definition of homosexuality, describe this confusion as a mental disorder.
Stepping away from the negative implications of this psychological diagnosis, the queer community has united with many medical and scientific circles in proclaiming the true explanation for queerness: queer people are simply born that way. Researchers have done their part in promoting the “born gay” theory through their hunt for the gay gene. The gay gene, if discovered, would link queerness to genetics. Public and private monies alike have been pumped into this research, with oftentimes disappointing results. Though no evidence has been found that links queerness to genetic attributes, the queer community has remained steadfast in its proclamation that queer individuals are born queer. Their primary reasoning is simple enough: because queer people are born into a homophobic society and are therefore subjected to discrimination on all levels, who in their right mind would ever choose to be anything but heterosexual?
For my seventh through twelfth grade years, I attended a small performing arts school in Sacramento, just outside the neighborhood in which I lived the first seventeen years of my life. Rather than attend my neighborhood schools during this time—easily some of the worst in Sacramento—my mom looked to other school districts, worrying that college might be out of reach for me if she didn’t. For me, the choice was an easy one: a charter school specializing in the performing and fine arts, where students were required to take classes in visual art, music, drama—all of the subjects I was interested in. But my mom had her reservations about sending her only son into this environment. The school’s culture was too removed from my own—white and upper-middle class, it seemed like an odd choice for a kid like me. The school would take me away from my community, from the people I grew up with. I would be one of the only men in my family who didn’t play sports in high school; instead, I’d spend my days painting and practicing scales on the saxophone.
To survive in the new environment, I picked friends who were college-bound, and I stopped spending time with elementary school friends. Like Vanessa. Vanessa had been one of my mom’s students—my mom taught her English, and through the process, became a close friend to her family. By extension, Vanessa and I became friends. She was in the grade below mine, so when she started seventh grade at the same small performing arts school, I already had a year of experience in the white school district under my belt. Rather than welcome her with open arms, I kept my distance.
A few years later, I remember talking to my first boyfriend, Omar, on the phone. He and Vanessa had become best friends and went out dancing for Vanessa’s birthday, but I stayed home because I was too shy to dance. Omar told me that Vanessa had felt sick before going to the club. That they had taken her to the hospital. That it didn’t look good for her. I told my mom, and she spent the rest of the night scrambling for all the information she could find. She was the supportive mother I would always have expected her to be in that situation.
Omar tried to contact me on the phone a few days later. My mom had decided I was not quite old enough, at 16, for my own cell phone, so he had no choice but to call me on my home phone. I was out with friends after a show, so when I didn’t answer, he called again—and again. When I got home, my mom called me into her room. Sensing the tone in her voice, I realized Omar had probably tried calling me while I was away. I learned later he had left more than one message on the answering machine, never thinking about who would hear them, or what was appropriate or inappropriate for a home phone answering machine. I told my mom I didn’t want to talk to her. Ya me voy a dormir mamá, ¿no lo puedes dejar para mañana? But she insisted.
She asked me who Omar was. Then if Omar were gay. Then if I were gay.
Omar’s my boyfriend, mom. Then a pause—Yes, he’s gay. Then a longer one—Yes, I’m gay.
That was the last conversation my mom and I would have for almost two months. It was during these two months that Vanessa passed away. That my first boyfriend broke up with me. That I almost dropped out of high school. Not a word from my mom. We were the only two people in the household, yet the only dialogue under our roof was me trying to convince her that she needed to talk me through everything, and the noise from the television responding that she wouldn’t be talking to me anytime soon.
Days after Vanessa’s funeral, my mom listed all the things she did wrong in raising me: She was a single mother. She never re-married. She never provided me with an adequate father figure. The only examples of relationships she provided me with were those of my family—most of whom were either divorced or dysfunctional. When she took me to McDonalds, she would let me order the girl toy instead of the boy toy. When I wanted to quit Cub Scouts, she didn’t try stopping me. She let me go to a school for the performing arts.
She blamed herself for making me queer, and I resented her for that. Reading directly from the talking points from the mainstream queer community, I told her: I was born this way, mom. You can’t choose your sexuality. Why would I choose to be this way? Why would I choose to be different from everyone else? Do you really think I would want to be treated this way by my own mother?
Even though I went to a performing arts school, where queerness seemed like the norm rather than the exception, it was not until college that I began making queer friends. I joined an organization called La Familia, a social group, support group, political group for queer Chicanit@s. This organization provided me a space for identity exploration that I had never realized could exist. I once asked a friend I made through the group why he thought some people were queer and others weren’t. Expecting the usual well, of course, people are just born that way, I was surprised when he said there could be a lot of reasons. Maybe it’s because some people only grew up with one parent. Maybe some people don’t trust other sexes. Maybe some people were abused when they were younger. It was the final answer that really shocked me. Struggling with the homophobia that is omnipresent in our society, if I were to accept that sexual abuse could turn someone queer, wouldn’t that just add fuel to the fire of homophobia? Wouldn’t that mean that queerness was something undesirable, something that should be avoided?
Maybe. But when I turn to my own experiences, queerness seems more like a natural act of resistance than a negative consequence of a bad childhood.
I was raised by a single mother who divorced her husband to escape domestic violence. By court order, I had to visit my dad every so often, only to see his new wife wake up at four every morning to make sure that breakfast was made, the clothes were clean, and the house ready for the day. She was not allowed to go to bed until every floor had been swept, mopped, or vacuumed. I grew up seeing the men in my family yell at their wives, sit back watching football while the women cooked and cleaned and slaved away taking care of their children. When I cried, I was told to stop acting like a girl; when I played with dolls or board games, I was told I needed to do “boy things” and go outside with my cousins. I didn’t want to play sports or sit back while all the women were working in the kitchen or yell at my future wife.
Can you really blame a kid, then, for envisioning a different future?
A future where he wouldn’t be tied down to rigid gender roles, where his relationships didn’t have to look like the ones he grew up seeing? Where he could determine for himself what a man’s role should be, how he should love, what kind of relationships he would create one day?
Gloria Anzaldúa acknowledges the problems inherent in the socialization of men, noting, “I abhor how my culture makes macho caricatures of its men.” She speaks as a Chicana lesbiana, yet from my perspective as a Chicano male, I agree completely. When I reflect on my childhood, I see deliberate challenges to the machista attitude desde que era bien chiquito. Those deliberate attempts would come to be an integral part of my identity. Eventually, I would proudly proclaim to be queer.
Queerness, then, was an exercise in my own agency. It was an act of confronting head-on the homophobic, heterosexist structure under which we all operate. When the mainstream queer community says “we were born this way,” or “never in a million years would I choose such a life of pain and suffering,” they disempower those who see their queerness as a form of resistance to machismo, to patriarchy, to our social norms that every day commit violence against us. The American Psychological Association proudly promoted the idea that queer individuals suffered from a mental disorder, and today, we understand that was wrong. But when the queer community claims that queer folk suffer from genetic disposition to queerness, they do no less disservice to queer individuals. What queer folks suffer from, as Anzaldúa points out, is “an absolute despot duality that says we are able to be only one or the other . . . that human nature is limited and cannot evolve into something better.”
To claim that queerness is a choice is a political action that automatically puts the individual at odds with the dominant structure. For queer people of color, for poor queer folks, for disenfranchised queer womyn, for trans folks, for people with nothing to lose, this is just another act of resistance against the dominant society. But for the mainstream queer community which privileges gay white males above all else, and that makes invisible all the aforementioned groups, to make such a loaded claim is dangerous. Cherríe Moraga writes about the privileged position held by gay white males in queer circles in her essay “La Güera.” She argues that in order to hold this position, gay white men have to “forget” what it is like to be oppressed. By forgetting, they are able to oppress others, because their privileges go unchecked. By proudly proclaiming that queerness is genetic or inherited, they are able to be both queer and not queer. Queer, by challenging heterosexism through their sexual relationships and gender behaviors; and not queer, by minimizing the political impact of queerness through claims that they are “just like everyone else” and “would of course never choose queerness if offered the chance.”
Looking back, I think maybe my mom was right. Maybe it was all those things that she “did wrong” that helped me become queer. Not because queerness was an unfortunate consequence of an imperfect childhood, but because through my observations of the realities of a homophobic and heterosexist society, I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Another way. If I wanted life to be better than what I grew up seeing around me, I had to do things a little differently.
so when i say to you, “ i’m queer ”
i’m not trying to explain my
sexual preference, psychological disorder, or a natural fact.
that’s just my way of saying,
“ i can live this life better ”