I had just walked past my first apartment — the fourth floor walk-up in the East Village, where I lived with my husband, before I got divorced and came out as gay — when I found the book that taught me the true meaning of the word “queer.” I was in the middle of consoling the ghost of my former self, when I saw it in a store window on St. Mark’s: a glitter unicorn braying up behind the pink, purple, and blue pastel of a paperback titled Feminism and Queer in Art Education.
I got a copy of the book, even though I didn’t totally understand the title. The authors are Finnish academics so I chalked it up to a cultural glitch, and the glitter unicorn compensated for the apparent grammatical error. Except their use of queer as a noun wasn’t a mistake. Throughout the text, “queer” appears as a noun, verb, and adjective. “In this text, I use the term queer to refer to LGBT people’s identities that incorporate a dimension of the indescribable,” one of the authors explains. In this shape-shifting linguistic form, “queer” emerges as an exquisitely expansive concept. Functioning as a thing and an action, rather than just a descriptor, it becomes an invitation to a dynamic realm of possibility, beyond the various binaries that imprison our minds, beyond that which is knowable.
This breathless sense of possibility is the biggest way coming out as gay has changed me. I am what once was unknowable. In this transformation, the impossible has been rendered null and void, replaced by the expanse of as-yet unimaginable potential. Or, in less abstract terms, when you used to be a caterpillar, it is endlessly miraculous to have finally gotten through with the business of becoming a butterfly.
See, it just never really occurred to me that I might be gay. I used to think I may be bi, though I didn’t feel I had any claim to the label. I made out with a few women in college, but according to punchlines sprinkled throughout various sitcoms, that’s just a thing some women do in college. Growing up, I was convinced that being closeted meant hiding in shame, and I had a massive Pride flag hanging in my bedroom during the fight for marriage equality. As it turns out, Roman-Catholic-authorianian programming rendered me hopelessly repressed. I had no idea that I had no idea what love and sex really were.
It was junior year when I met the man who would become my ex-husband. He was handsome and kind. That was part of the problem. By the time I graduated and we moved to the East Village, I was convinced I had assembled my personalized Barbie dream house. I was living in New York City, like I’d always hoped, and working as an entertainment reporter at the Huffington Post, so it seemed like the whole “writer” thing would be more than aspirational. I allegedly had the perfect job, the perfect apartment, and the perfect husband, and I wanted to fucking die.
Whenever I walk through my old apartment in the East Village, I’m overwhelmed with compassion for the scared little girl I used to be. It’s hard to describe the visceral horror of my former state of being. My blood was made of worms. My brain felt like a garbage disposal. This was especially true when my perfect life was going perfectly.
Anxiety is often worst when the parasite has nothing to attach itself to. Anxiety about anxiety equals black hole, and such were the excruciating physics of the void roaring inside of me. I could quiet it by pouring myself into my work or drinking more than half of a 1.5 liter bottle of red wine. When sleep came, on its own sporadic schedule, it was often wracked with gruesome nightmares. I was alternately sprinting on the hamster wheel of a toxic need to succeed or sedating that drive with merlot and/or Benadryl. The only explanation was that I was rotten.
That thought occurred to me explicitly one fall weekend, when my husband and I drove to upstate New York to visit friends hosting a Shakespeare dinner. Our hosts prepared a traditional Roman meal, served in between acts, as we read the play Coriolanus aloud. I couldn’t have asked for a sweeter weekend together, and yet in the car on the way home, I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I started breaking down, unable to shake the feeling that I would never be happy, even in this moment, when reality couldn’t have appeared more pleasant. “I feel like I have this black hole inside of me,” I said to my husband. He turned away from the road, and looked at me, eyes filled with sadness. And then he said, “I know.”
A lot of life happened after that. My journey of self-exploration began with a political awakening, which was followed by a spiritual awakening, and finally a queer one. It started when I developed a crush on an unavailable woman. She was beautiful and brilliant, and she knew it. I was overwhelmed with what I would later call “romantic respect.” At the time, all I knew for sure was that I was feeling feelings I had never felt before, and I needed to explore them. I told my husband, and after a few months of discussion, we decided to open up our marriage. I still thought I might be bi, and I dated men and women. The first time I slept with a woman, it was more of a sexy sleepover than anything else. The experimentation turned earth-shattering when I finally fell in love.
I’m humbled by the fact that the most magnificent epiphany of my life began with a message on a dating app. She was smart, funny, and willing to be mutually vulnerable in a way I thought must be limited to slumber parties. After a handful of dates, I was telling anyone who would listen that I found my future wife. “I’m sure she’s amazing,” one of my friends said, “but, um, it kind of sounds like you might just be gay.”
I have since been able to find, and lose, that kind of connection several times. Lesbian dating occurs in hyperspeed and often includes emotional telepathy. I will never forget my first experience of that intensity. I found physical and romantic intimacy after my husband and I opened up our marriage, but never both at once. When I seriously dated a woman for the first time, those two experiences merged into something else entirely. My first gay hookup was fun, but my first night with a woman I was in love with was intergalactic. My head exploded into galaxy-brain glory, as I forgot about erotic logistics, and found my body knew exactly what to do, as if it always had always known, as if it had been waiting for the right moment to tell me.
Labels are an exercise in limitation, so I choose to identify as a “pothead dyke.” I think of myself as gay but will sometimes specify that I am queer and a lesbian, because I date women and nonbinary people. No one is more fascinated than me by the fact that I used to be attracted to cis men. It occurs to me, in the clarity of hindsight, that was I going through stage directions in a play I never thought to direct. I’m normatively hot, so it seemed as if there was always a guy in the picture and then you know the rest: fumble around until he finishes and maybe get off being eaten out, if you’re lucky. The way I feel about cis men now is the same way I feel about Triscuits. If I was starving on an airplane, I suppose I could eat some Triscuits, but do you have freshly baked bread? Is there butter?
I came out to myself, and later publicly, this past January. I was on a date with a woman who had also been married to a man. We’re both pretty femme and immediately bonded over the way our gender performance had been used to discount our sexuality. She suggested I do something about it. I had been keeping my awakening to myself, feeling a sense of imposter syndrome over my lesbianism. She snapped me out of it. I reached for my phone and tweeted to over 400,000 followers, “Not that it’s anyone’s fucking business, but I’m getting divorced and I’m queer. Update my Wikipedia.” Then I looked up, and said, “Oh my God, I just came out.” She gave me a hug and ordered us two glasses of champagne. (Lesbian culture is going on a Tinder date and then ending up with a lifelong friend who you text every single day.)
Being a queer baby makes for an endless series of mind-blowing moments, in which I am regularly experiencing that which was once beyond my wildest dreams. New mental pathways spring up all the time. At the Dyke March, the day before Pride in June, I was surrounded by so many thrilling possibilities, I felt like I was rolling. In the sea of meticulous undercuts and ineffably erotic carabiners, I developed countless crushes and aesthetic aspirations, just barely distinguishing between the sort of person I wanted to be and the sort of person I wanted to sleep with. If only our brains could swim in queer energy all of the time.
That’s more than a glimpse of what the American academic José Esteban Muñoz calls “queer futurity.” “The future is queerness’s domain,” he writes in Cruising Utopia. “Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. … We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” I believe this is what we must strive for in chartering our mental pathways as a collective: We must trust that we are working toward a future beyond our wildest dreams.
I suppose I should mention that much of my process of self-discovery was the result of writing a book about the future of American politics. When I work on shorter pieces, I am compelled to clean my kitchen and my bathroom before I can start to write. In the case of a years-long project, it became necessary to sort out the various rooms of my soul. These processes are not unrelated. I started researching how the post-Trump political awakening inspires self-determination all while finding my own sense of agency in every sense of the word.
In my book, How to Start a Revolution, I study young people and the future of politics, looking at the way the post-Trump political awakening has moved us from passively navigating a broken system to actively seeking to change it. We are questioning “who makes the rules,” demanding a seat at the table, and no longer accepting widespread inequality and a lack of policy solutions as “just the way things are.” This was inspired, in no small way, by the negative inverse of considering what is possible.
All of our political and media gatekeepers told us that Donald Trump’s win was not going to happen. This administration was impossible until the moment it wasn’t, and worse than we could have ever imagined. In order to break free from the system of oppression this presidency has exposed, we must fight for a future beyond the possibilities we can currently think up. In this caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation, we are in that excruciating part before the then and there. Trapped in the cocoon phase of our shared glow up, we have no choice but to keep pumping the things that will become our wings toward a system that expands beyond what we can even imagine to be possible.
Before I came out, I thought about killing myself all the time because I could not conceive of a future in which things could be different. Now life often feels like pure magic. I’m glad I stuck around and survived long enough to get to this place where I'm thrilled to be alive. The concept of the unknowable has shown me that we can shoot for transformative possibility as a collective. We are trapped in the old patterns of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, and we must insist on writing the script for ourselves. I’m not sure what our then and there will look like yet, but I could not be more certain that the future is queer.