Two things happened in the last month. The first is that I came out to my students – gender-wise, and my unconformity. The second is that I wrote a thing for my department’s newsletter about social media and how I use it. I didn’t realize those how connected those things were until about ten minutes ago.
There’s a third thing that I think might be behind most of that connection, which is that I will not be receiving funding next year. That in itself isn’t necessarily something to be angry about – I got more than a lot of grad students get, nationwide – but how it happened was, without going into detail, less than satisfactory, and I’ve been doing some major reevaluating about my place here and my relationship with this institution and what it all means to me personally. And what started as real anger has turned into a kind of freedom I didn’t expect.
I don’t care anymore.
Which, ironically, might mean that I can actually care about the right things for the first time in my entire graduate school career.
So I came out to my students. I explained what “genderqueer” meant, and then I put myself up there as an example. I did it mostly in passing – an “and I’m that, so you know what that is already” – but it felt big.
It’s not the first time I’ve come out to a class, and it wasn’t the first time this semester where I used myself as an example. I’m a weird confluence of identity categories, exactly like most people: white, middle/upper middle class in many respects but growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood on a lower middle class income, born with a female body but not identifying that way in terms of my gender, sexually sort of all over the place, able-bodied but possessing a wacky constellation of mental illnesses, disorders, and cognitive disabilities. Whatever, nobody’s normal, we all agreed. There’s no such thing.
I had not yet been informed that I wouldn’t be funded. Maybe some part of me knew already that this semester was different.
It’s always an interesting question, how much of yourself you reveal to a class. How much of yourself you reveal to yourself. Coming out to someone about anything strange or uncomfortable makes that person into kind of a mirror; see yourself through their eyes and suddenly you might see something different. It might not be true, but it’s there. In my mid-twenties I came to an understanding of myself as genderqueer, but I’ve never been comfortable with gender, and I’ve never been comfortable with my body, and I’ve always felt like my mind was actively trying to hurt me. I’m not comfortable with anything. At all. Ever. But life has become a process of getting to be Okay with that, and talking about it to other people is part of how I’ve been getting there.
So then I wasn’t funded, and while I’ve been decoupling from Giving A Shit since my comprehensive exams, this finally kicked me away completely.
Abruptly I was saying everything. I was just talking. I told them a lot, in private and in the classroom itself. My final class, I sat on a table in front of my students and I told them the story of the last few weeks. I told them I wouldn’t be teaching again in the fall and how sad that made me. I told them how angry I was. I told them about how diseased higher education is, and about how increasingly their own institutions are cheating them. And I told them what I had realized, after many conversations with wise people: We don’t have to stay here. We don’t have to chain ourselves to failing institutions. We can make space elsewhere for the work we want to do. For some of us it’s easy and for some of us it’s so much harder, but we have to try. Those of us with power have to step back and empower others. It’s painful, this kind of self-confrontation.
But it was more painful to keep lying to them, and lying by omission is still a lie.
I’ve made 2014 the year I started writing my rage, and now I’m making it the year I stopped lying and started talking. I’m making this space aggressively, with my fists and my fingernails and my feet, with my tongue and my teeth. I’m learning how to live in my body. I’m working on not being afraid anymore.
I wrote this for the newsletter, among other things:
We’re taught that we’re not supposed to do that, to be vulnerable. Life teaches us this, but I think academia teaches it especially hard. When you’re in graduate school you’re highly susceptible to fear—What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to find a job? What do all these faculty think of me? How am I coming off? Does so and so hate me? Am I letting people down? Oh God. That kind of fear can break you, but keeping it inside for even greater fear of looking weak makes it even worse, and at some point I decided I couldn’t do that anymore.
It’s more terrifying for me, now, to continue to pretend I’m not terrified. So I’m going to stop. I’m going to dare to be a human being in the most public of ways. We’ll see what happens.
Sometimes, when I’m in a certain place in my head, I imagine slicing my chest open with a boxcutter. Somehow it’s sharp enough to pierce the sternum, and I pull my ribcage apart with my bare hands. A flock of crows explodes into the air. There’s never any blood. Inside I’m smooth and clean and full of whispering birds.