For as long as I can remember, I have been aware that there is something different about me. As a small child, I was uninterested in the world of boys–with their roughhousing, competitive sports, and dirty clothes–and instead gravitated towards my sisters. Girls, it seemed, always got to have all the fun. From a very young age, my older sister and I would spend hours playing dress-up and choreographing dance routines. Serving as a sort of life-size doll she could mold into something more fabulous, I was always more than willing to participate in impromptu performances before an audience of our siblings and pets.
One time after submitting to one of my sister’s more inventive makeovers when I was about four years old, I came out of the bedroom ready to leave the house in full drag–complete with makeup, pigtails, and a cheerleading uniform (and I’m not talking about the kind with pants). When my dad saw me gleefully prancing around the living room, he flipped out and made me go back to my room and change immediately. I have never been more afraid of my father as I was in that moment, and I have never been more acutely aware of the serious consequences of gender transgression. Why can’t I just be left alone to have fun with my sister? my four-year-old-self wondered indignantly. That was probably when my parents decided to sign me up for Little League baseball and Boy Scouts, both of which I failed at miserably.
Then around seventh grade, something beyond my control happened to my body seemingly overnight. Out of nowhere, I started having vivid dreams in which I would kiss other boys from church or school and would wake up in a complete panic. Growing up in an Evangelical Christian household, I knew the attraction I felt towards other boys was something that needed to be concealed and dealt with on my own. The weekly sermons coming from our pastor’s pulpit used words laden with shame to describe the “sin of homosexuality.” Does anyone know about me? I worried. God, can you please just make this go away? I desperately prayed.
As I grew older and started to learn what being gay meant and what possibilities it offered beyond the borders of my hometown in Kentucky, I encountered new, unexpected forms of social regulation. Instead of being forced into sports and out of girls’ clothing by my parents, in college, I learned that my sexual orientation was the most important thing about me–a “master status” as they called it in sociology class–and came with a whole set of rules. First, I needed to be fashionable, but not too fashionable lest I be considered feminine, and no one wants a guy who’s femme. Next, I learned to be unsatisfied with my body. All the gay guys around me were members of expensive gyms and obsessively worked out in order to attain some impossibly elusive and perfect physique. If I want to have any sort of status within this community, I thought, I better get on board with the program!
Most unsettling to me, however, was the requirement to come out. I began to feel this immense pressure from friends, colleagues, and mentors, all of whom I considered to be well-meaning, to make some public announcement to the world. I didn’t know if I was ready to take that step. I didn’t even know I was in a closet to begin with, but all the sudden it was very important to everyone else around me that I step out of it.
Being gay, I was told, was an essential part of my identity, one that required public disclosure in order to be considered “normal”–as opposed to some backward, self-hating, closet case. Never feeling safe enough to come out to my own family, and remaining suspicious that such a revelation would be at all liberating, I continued to feel like an outsider to mainstream gay culture throughout my twenties.
For this reason, I remember how excited I felt when I first heard the word “queer” on campus. I only knew the word from the derisive remarks I would sometimes get from bullies in the hallways of my high school. But now I heard people using the word differently, like something to reclaim and be proud of, as in, “Yeah, I’m queer. And?” I discovered queer theory was its own subfield field of interdisciplinary study, and, much to my delight, it was offered as a course by a new professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at my university. I eagerly enrolled for the fall semester of my sophomore year, and as soon as the professor handed out the syllabus on the first day I dove into the assigned readings like a starving animal.
Finally, the breath of fresh air I’ve been searching for all my life! There are other weirdos and misfits out there like me after all–I thought to myself with a sigh of relief. Writers such as Michel Foucault, Adrienne Rich, and Michael Warner gave me a new language to put my experience into words and to understand myself in relation to larger social structures. Queer theory stuck a middle finger to the compulsory world of straightness I had been faced with at every turn in my life; its adherents resisted everything considered “normal” and insisted instead on a radical recognition of difference. What does it mean to be queer? I started to ask myself. Am I queer?
Halfway through the semester, we read Judith Butler’s essay, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” and I was struck by a quote that has stayed with me over the years.
Conventionally, one comes out of the closet (and yet, how often is it the case that we are ‘outted’ when we are young and without resources?); so we are out of the closet and into what? what new unbounded spatiality? the room, the den, the attic, the basement, the house, the bar, the university, some new enclosure whose door, like Kafka’s door, produces the expectation of a fresh air and a light of illumination that never arrives? ((Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. edited by Abelove, Henry, et al. Routlege, 1993, pp. 307-320. Emphasis mine.))
Confused by the reference to Kafka’s door, I did a quick Google search and found an excerpt to a parable that appears in The Trial. In the story, a villager travels from the country to seek access to the Law, carefully guarded behind a gate. However, when the villager arrives the gatekeeper denies him entry, and so the villager waits for the rest of his life trying to convince the gatekeeper to let him through the door. In the final moments before the villager’s death, still waiting for access to the Law beyond his reach, the gatekeeper shuts the door.
In my interpretation, Butler uses this metaphor to underscore the impossibility of coming out as any stable identity. Coming out is a societal obligation demanded of anyone who falls outside of normative heterosexuality, and at the same time, it’s a never-ending process of perpetual disclosure, a process of becoming that is necessarily incomplete. Each new person I meet, each new job I start, each encounter with a stranger in a public space, requires a new confession in order to be understood as normal, well-adjusted, and authentic to those around me; in other words, to be recognized as what Butler might call a “culturally intelligible subject.” Yet each time I come out and say, “I’m gay,” the sense of belonging, freedom, and fulfillment I was hoping such a disclosure would offer seems to elude me. Out of the closet and into what?
Although I’m resistant to claiming an identity imposed on me by the straight world, I ultimately understand its utility. Coming out has many advantages and is in many ways a political necessity, especially in these trying times when conservative lawmakers are actively working to enshrine anti-LGBT policies into law at both the state and federal levels. Without an identity, we have neither a claim for civil rights nor a cohesive political movement. For better or worse, choosing one of the letters in the ever-expanding acronym provides the basis for contesting our social and political marginalization.
This continual struggle to gain acceptance, to fight for legal protections and demand equal rights, and to destabilize the foundations of heteronormativity resting precariously on the shoulders of binary identity categories, is what Kafka’s door symbolizes for me. My hope is that in some small way this blog will contribute to the ongoing trouble caused by queerness; that it will create a site of resistance that rests somewhere between the competing discourses of inclusion and difference; that it will challenge forms of oppression, in both thought and action. Kafka’s door is my journey towards representation. Out of the closet and into the blog.
© 2018 ZACH SHULTZ ALL RIGHTS RESERVED