How to productively grieve my heteronormative upbringing
May 26, 2019 11:56 AM   Subscribe

TLDR: how do I finish grieving for information that I didn’t have about myself or pop culture when I needed it most, and move on to more productive emotions? How do I re-contextualize queer pop culture that was hidden in plain sight, but that I experienced assuming that both myself and the artists were straight, now that I’m out?

I came out to myself as a lesbian in 2017, in my late 30s after having no idea for my whole. That was hard and a lot to take in. It changed my life in ways that were almost entirely positive, though not easy.

Now it feels like almost every day there is something I need to re-contextualize for myself. The latest thing is music. Every time I find out that an artist is queer, it seems like I’m expected to have already known. I’m a smart person, but I missed it. I never knew what it would feel like to be sung to by a woman who was singing about wanting a woman. Just to be seen and to be able to see. Until I came out, I never knew the spectrum of feelings and emotions I was missing.

I feel like I’m learning a lot, but it really hurts. I feel betrayed and sad and like I’ll never capture what I lost. How do I get past these feelings or channel them in more productive ways? What I’ve been doing so far is listening to music by queer artists, with a “queer ear”, and letting myself feel the emotions that I feel. It’s helping. And I plan to get myself back into therapy. But I’d like your ideas for other ways that I can cope and maybe turn this into something productive.
posted by flannel to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
It wasn't just you. I'm your age, and I was out in high school, and finding actual honest queer representation was hard.

Artists were closeted. Or they were very quietly out, but you had to have read one specific interview in one specific magazine where they very briefly hinted at it. Or they said one thing half the time, and another thing the other half.

Or they were actually quite vocally out, but there was no Wikipedia, so the way that information filtered down to us teenagers was by word of mouth — and usually that word of mouth took the form of nasty jokes, so that believing in them as positive queer representation meant trusting the word of a bunch of hateful assholes.

(And then, in retrospect, information got easier to find, and we were like "Wait, THE DUDE FROM R.E.M. WAS QUEER? WHY DID NOBODY TELL US?!")

So the thing you're describing is actually a very common, very relatable queer experience for people of our generation. I'm not trying to invalidate the stuff you're talking about. Coming out late sucks really hard (I know that first-hand; I figured out the queer thing early but it took me way longer to figure out I was trans), and feeling like you missed out on life is real. But that "I'm a lonely teenager and nobody on the radio is singing to me" feeling is one that we all had.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:36 PM on May 26, 2019 [16 favorites]

I hear you! It's hard how much amazing queer media there is, especially aimed at kids, and speculating about how our lives could have been different if we'd had access to that kind of things when we were young.... really really hurts.

If you are able to, I'd give yourself permission to "be", or feel like, a kid or a teenager again, in certain contexts: seek this stuff out, be a dork about it, enjoy it in an excited, wholehearted, earnest way. Let yourself feel grief or jealousy or anger about not having had this stuff, and also let yourself enjoy having it.
posted by ITheCosmos at 12:41 PM on May 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

Seconding nebulawindphone that this was a very common experience, if it helps to know you aren't alone. And I also only really figured out I was a lesbian in my mid 30s. What I feel is most productive is to do my part to keep this from happening to younger people now. I'm out, I talk with parents about my experience growing up with no lgbtq models, my wife and I play a role in our niece's life ... There are many other things I'd like to be doing to help provide the kind of model I was lacking growing up, and I'm working on that, but I think every little bit helps.
posted by DingoMutt at 12:46 PM on May 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

(I don’t know what the etiquette is here for replying. I think this is going to look like I’m answering my own question. Sorry.)

Thank you for your answer, @nebulawindphone. It’s exactly like what you say. And I wasn’t even paying attention to those jokes / slurs. I may have even been making them. I had no idea about myself and I grew up in a part of the US where it was definitely not ok to be out. I think my ignorance about myself was in large part self-protective, but it was pretty near complete. Looking back there were clues of course, but I emphatically didn’t pick up on them at the time. Remembering my own internalized homophobia is also painful. And realizing that the only way things would have been different is if someone external had clues me in. I think having one out queer person in my personal life growing up would have made a huge difference, whether it was an adult or a peer. Knowing that, I do try to be open and positive about my own sexuality now, in the hopes that it will help someone else like I could have used the help.

It’s still hard to realize that all of this stuff was hiding in plain sight and just out of my reach, during my teens when I was forming all these strong pop culture bonds and figuring out what things “meant” to me. It hurts.
posted by flannel at 12:47 PM on May 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

So the thing you're describing is actually a very common, very relatable queer experience for people of our generation.

This is SO, SO true--and I speak as a person who was in the enviable position of coming out early and having queer community starting in high school, which is definitely not a very common experience for people of our generation. It's also, though, despite the existence of wikipedia, the internet, etc, an experience that seems surprisingly common still. I teach queer studies to college students, and I'm often shocked by how little they know coming into my classes--like, they've read Mrs. Dalloway, but they don't know that Woolf was queer, or they're not sure they've ever met a queer adult. So mostly, I want to second DingoMutt's recommendation that you find ways to help queer youth have the experiences that we couldn't.

And, if you can, relish these new discoveries, including the process by which the exciting (and kind of secret) world of queer media is opening itself up to you. I find it really pleasurable to imagine that my mom's fondness for k. d. lang (on cassette, natch) somehow shaped my desires in ways that I can only understand retrospectively.
posted by dizziest at 1:57 PM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

All these answers are so good. Thank you all so much.
posted by flannel at 2:14 PM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

A useful perspective for me has been in the idea of taking the long view, and appreciating my experience as part of the evolution of gay culture.

I grew up in small English village in the 1980s in which I had no clue that gayness even existed until my middle teens, engaging with gay culture was so obscure I had to travel an hour into London to even glimpse it even in the mid 90s.

Meeting people involved personals in the back of gay times and furtive gay night discos once a month in pubs in the middle of nowhere.

When I moved away to Uni in a big city, you had to join a club before you’d be let into one, like something out of the 1940s.

It’s a different world now, and while I feel that life might have been so much easier to be born now, I don’t think I would change it.

It makes me feel very old, when I’m not even 40! But just to be aware of it, to live that span and witness the change is fascinating.
posted by Middlemarch at 3:05 PM on May 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

+1 that this is a common experience among queer people of our generation.

For me, a big part of the missing information/missing emotions grief was really about how I never fully experienced being a teenager or young adult: my female friends didn't make fun of me for crushing on a boy (because I crushed on my friends instead), I didn't giggle in the movie theater and pine over celebs of opposite sex (because I wished I was home watching Agent Scully do her thing), didn't doll up for prom (in the menswear I longed for). So, now in my mid-30s, I give myself permission to do these things, or whatever other stereotypical teenager/young adult thing I feel like I've missed out on. It sounds a little silly, but for me it really helps to finally have a movie night with a bunch of queer women and watch Gillian Anderson do her thing...possibly following a trip to the mall to buy menswear.
posted by redwaterman at 3:17 PM on May 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

middlemarch, you were an incredibly brave teen to even go to the city on your own. I can’t inagine that I would have dared!

redwaterman, you perfectly articulated some of my feelings about my teen years. I remember feeling a vague frustration when all the other girls were crushing on football players or posters of the Chippendales and I didn’t know why I didn’t find them hot. I didn’t have awareness of crushes on girls, I just experienced the pretty ones as beautiful and wanted to be like them, and I suppose my best friendships might have been more intense than some. I had what I thought were crushes on boys who I also saw as completely unattainable, for reasons that I now understand kept the idea of relationships in the purely hypothetical. I miss the sexual feelings I didn’t let myself have. Of course I felt arousal, but it was nebulous and not focused on anyone in particular. I never fantasized and I now realize that’s because I had no idea whom I really desired. It’s sad that I don’t have actual teen relationships or meaningful romantic experiences to remember.

On the flip side, I’m now an adult and I have so much more info, so many more tools to cope and learn about myself, a wonderful romance and sex life with a woman I adore and who loves me. I don’t know that I would change anything really, because I wouldn’t want to end up anywhere except where I am. And yet I still feel cheated. I am glad I’m letting myself feel this way and I hope I can keep channeling it into positive actions.

I’m so glad I posted here and really appreciate the lovely and thoughtful responses. This is such a nice corner of the internet.
posted by flannel at 3:49 PM on May 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

I call this fragmentation because we don’t have a complete social representation mirror to recognize our queer selves in, all we have are little fragments.

Eventually enough fragments add up to where we can “see” ourselves.

The rest of our lives is all about finding more fragments to make a more complete picture of what being queer means.

Hopefully enough of those fragments persevere to make it easier for future generations of queer folks to see themselves, but it’s hard because it’s so easy for us to be erased and wiped out.
posted by nikaspark at 7:48 PM on May 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

If you feel up to some academic analysis of what you're describing, you might love Jose Estaban Munoz' book Disidentifications. My jaw literally dropped when I read it in grad school-- a whole theory around piecing together a queer identity from a cultural landscape designed not for you. It was like self-help!
posted by athirstforsalt at 6:42 AM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the book recommendation! That’s my preferred way of learning. My girlfriend introduced me to the documentary The Celluloid Closet yesterday. I just pre-ordered a book about Stonewall. I know some of the stories in my brain but I don’t feel like I know them in my soul yet. I have my whole life to learn and integrate these stories and works of art into my worldview. Feeling a lot less alone today, though I still feel like I’m in mourning for the adolescence, 20s, and 30s I could maybe have had.
posted by flannel at 7:29 PM on May 27, 2019

« Older How can I neatly end wallpapering on an external...   |   name these kittens (radical revolutionary edition) Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.