Astonishment and Recovery

Tell me this is the future,
I won’t believe you.
Tell me I’m living,
I won’t believe you.

– “October,” by Louise Gluck

What does it mean to be a queer college student?  It’s certainly different from being a queer with a job and an apartment and no degrees to complete, though I can only extrapolate that from the grown-up queers I know.  I do know, though, in a particularly immediate way how different being a queer in college is from being a queer in high school.  What differentiates us from other queers who are not students?  What differentiates us from other students who are not queers?

For me, the crux lies in how close we are to the trauma of queer adolescence.  Not all queers are tortured in high school, but all of us do grow up in a world that assumes we are not what we are, and all of us are confronted with a new and less friendly version of that world when we disclose our identities.  And many of us are tortured.  In fact, I’d say most.

The kernel of queer college kid life is in astonishment and recovery.  Most of us are still blinking and rubbing our eyes, trying to figure out how we got here from high schools where we couldn’t bring a date to prom, where were required to wear clothes and use bathrooms that violated our genders, where teachers took us outside and talked to us specifically about how we needed to tone it down.  How we were making people uncomfortable.  How their discomfort was our fault.  How their discomfort naturally meant they would hurt us.  How it would be better, easier, less difficult for everyone, if we agreed to make ourselves invisible.

After that world, in which invisibility is a virtue, Sarah Lawrence is a shock.

It’s like walking through a thick forest for four years–or more–where branches keep slamming against your face.  They hurt, so you try to get them away.  Your arms get strong.  You believe that if you beat back enough of these branches, which are very sharp, they will stop whipping out at you.  Finally, you consign yourself to life as a walk through this wood, sharp furious branches and all.

Eventually, your arms get strong.  Strong and huge.  They can fight off any branch.  The muscle mass becomes heavy, but for some reason the rest of your body doesn’t grow along with it, so your arms hang off of your body like weights.  When you aren’t using these enormous muscles, they hurt you with their heaviness, and the branches hurt you by smashing into your face, and so you use them all the time.  So they grow larger.  You realize that you are done even thinking about anything but this forest.  Besides, you have the arms you need.

This is when you reach the field.

There are no more trees pressing against you.  You’ve never learned to walk without being restrained.  There’s nothing to push your heavy arms against.  So you fall over.  When you finally figure out to stand, it hurts.  You start to make a life in the field, but it is difficult, because when you lay down to sleep–your head resting on your huge arms–you dream about the branches, how they used to cut you.  When you try to talk to people, it’s equally difficult because the trees are so huge inside your head.  And your arms don’t work for anything but fighting.  They don’t work to shake hands, or make food, or dance.  Sometimes you still need them to defend yourself, but that isn’t what your life is about anymore.

You can’t find another set of arms.  All you can do is find another body.  But you’ve learned to be proud of this body.  You’d be proud of anything you’d defended for this long.

I still have those big scary arms, but now I’m a little like Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man.  I have another pair too, for dancing and holding people and cooking.

I don’t think it’s just me.  I think a lot of us are surviving, astonished, for the first time having our relationships, our pronouns, and our presentations respected.  Thank god we got out!  But before we celebrate, we have a lot of stunned blinking to do.

Stephen Ira is a queer activist whose poetry and fiction have been published in 365 Tomorrows and Spot Literary Magazine. He co-chairs Sarah Lawrence's trans identity group, Trans Action, and keeps a blog as the Super-Mattachine, queer anti-oppression avenger, at As David Foster Wallace would say, he does things like get into a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it!" He believes there is nothing more radical than kindness.

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