Have been doing a lot of university and college gigs these days, and they have schooled me a little.
I forget sometimes that I am all grown up now, supposedly, and that your average first-year university student is literally born into a whole other generation than I belong to. They think that I am old, which I find hilarious, while at the same time I marvel that someone born in 1991 is somehow legally permitted to follow me into the pub.
I was in Philly last week for a gig at a kind of well-heeled college just outside of the gritty city. When my fresh-faced host waved me down outside the revolving airport doors, I found myself kind of amazed that she was old enough to drive, but off we went.
I cannot believe I am actually about to say this, but I truly enjoy the company of young queers. It makes me feel, well, as old as they think I am to even speak it, but it is true.
Many of them have come out in high school, into their school’s gay-straight alliance group, and they met their new girlfriend online, on their town’s queer Facebook page. This young woman and her friend seemed so confident and relaxed in their homodom, at ease and unapologetic in a way that I don’t remember being when I was… well, their age.
Kids these days. They are beautifully out.
After the reading, I found myself at a table with about 15 or 20 folks, literally, physically, sitting smack in the middle of the generation gap.
On my left, huddled around one end of our long, scarred, wooden sports bar table was a bunch of students from the college, and to my right was an outspoken triplet of high femmes from Philly, in all their lipsticked and pushup bra glory. I know, poor me, right?
Anyway, we got to talking. Politics, class, race, identity, labels, butch and femme stuff, you know, all the things I like. One young woman seated to my left confessed that she was attracted to women “on the masculine side of the spectrum” but that she then often felt like she had to sort of perform or put on a femme persona that she didn’t necessarily feel comfortable in, in order to attract the attention of the kind of folks she was hot for.
She also said she didn’t know if it was “okay” for her to flirt or come on to more feminine presenting queers, and that she felt unseen by the older butch/femme type crowd at the dyke bars in Philly.
Another young femme, a real sweetheart, seated snuggled up next to her awesome old-school butch lover, told us all that she felt like she had to come out twice, once as a lesbian, and then again, years later, as a femme.
She said that when she first came out, she felt pressured to adopt a kind of middle-of-the-road androgynous look that sapped her libido, basically, and left her feeling like she had to hide her dresses and heels away in order to find her community.
She said that she often felt frustrated and invisible, unsure of how or where she could find her femme sisters.
And then one of the older (and by this I mean not 23) femme women, from South America originally, informed us that until the white queer community could provide her with more than lip service about its race politics, she would continue to seek the company of other queer women of colour first.
The discussion was amazing; I felt after that I had been privileged, actually, to have been there for it. I learned a lot, and have not stopped thinking about it since.
Last night I performed in Toronto with my collaborators, Anna Camilleri and Lyndell Montgomery, in a show called Swell. When we first envisioned the show a couple of years ago, around a kitchen table, well lubricated with Scotch and home cooking, we talked about writing material that would be relevant to ourselves and still respect the older dykes and lesbians that came before us, yet somehow still resonate with the genderqueer generation.
We wanted to write a show that made people feel included in the stories. We wanted to talk about butch and femme and gender identities in a way that enveloped and drew people in, not excluded and drew invisible lines.
Last night when the house lights came up, I saw a young boi, swaggering in his or her skinny jeans, seated right next to an old school butch with her arm around her lover. Smack dab in the front row were two dear friends, both bearded transmen, looking a little dark under the eyes from caring for their newborn son.
I met a young queerling who brought up one of my books to sign. It was worn out and well beaten, falling apart and obviously long loved. It had been given to her when she was a teenager, by her mom, the bull dagger, who said to say hello.
It was then that I realized a remarkable thing. It is time for me to consciously, actively, be what I have somehow become old enough to take on. It is time to step up and be a mentor. I remember calling up Big Brothers, years ago, because I thought I would make a good one. I was basically laughed off the phone. Women were not allowed to be big brothers, he told me, and I explained that it was just a little more complicated than that, before he hung up, uninterested.
I know now I need to focus my big brother energy on a little brother more like me.
Who else but us will be there for the baby butches? Their fathers? In a way, I suppose, just like I learned from mine. The young femmes, too, will have learned many things from their mothers and the strong women in their lives, but still, they need a queer hand somewhere along the way. We can’t just send them off to the internet to learn to become themselves. We are after all, family.