Over the past few weeks, Aurora Rey and I have been discussing our cultural roots and our queerness and the ways they intersect. In part our discussion was a result of this essay at Autostraddle, which you should absolutely read. We have found (okay, we knew this before) that there are a number of commonalities in our experience, despite having different backgrounds, gender presentations, locations, and legging preferences (she likes them. I do not). This was intended to be a single blog, but Aurora and I enjoy pontificating (she calls this being “overzealous.” I call it “rambling.” Let’s go with her word). Look for Parts 2 and 3 in the near future.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: We recently had a discussion about queerness and nostalgia and the ways both evolve as we become adults.
AURORA REY: We did. And the interesting ways those things intersect. I’ve tried to convince myself that my queerness and my roots exist in parallel. Or maybe a Venn diagram. Some overlap, but distinct.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: Where did you grow up? I know New Orleans-ish, but you were outside, yeah?
AURORA REY: Louisiana, a small town called Gonzales. It was about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I assume the area was conservative. And I know you went to Catholic school.
AURORA REY: Very. Catholic boarding school even. Nuns and manicured grounds and everything.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: So it was Southern, but the unique brand that only exists in Louisiana.
AURORA REY: Yes, it’s a different animal from what we think of as the deep south. But small town values—good and bad. And people don’t leave. My mom is one of nine and seven of them still live within thirty miles of where they grew up.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I was raised in Northern California in suburbia. So the state is blue, but my neighborhood was red. I went to UCLA for college, then moved back home. I’m currently living in a city about thirty miles away from where I grew up, but I work at my old high school so I’m still going home regularly. You, however, left and only go home when your mother asks real nice.
AURORA REY: I did. I went to college in New York having never set foot farther north than Kentucky. I didn’t know what I was running to, but I knew what I was running from.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I can imagine, but I’ve been told that maybe my conception of the South is skewed (by you. You were the one who told me that).
AURORA REY: Did you experience your childhood neighborhood or town as having a specific culture or identity? For a girl like me, California was kind of a monolith. Even now, I think LA and Northern CA, but too much about cultural trappings.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: It was about as suburban as you can imagine. The houses were all built in the same decade or two. The schools were all high performing. We were the area people left the Bay Area for, but with a thread of capitalism. Wealth was the point. They left the Bay because they didn’t have enough of it and wanted to keep what they had rather than pour it into equity. There was little culture. Except for the Gold Rush. Every field trip was gold panning and hiking through decimated hills to places where gold was worth more than land or people.
AURORA REY: It’s so interesting that you reference field trips. We always went to a plantation, complete with ladies in period costumes giving tours.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: HOLY FUCK. THEY TOOK YOU TO PLANTATIONS?
AURORA REY: Yes, it’s still a thing. And there’s a nod to the problem of slavery, but life in the big house was glamorized.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: Do you love my California whiteness? We went to Sutter’s Fort and dressed up like settlers. The Sutter family made their money by kidnapping Native American children and selling them as domestic workers. They didn’t teach us that at the fort.
AURORA REY: Who would have guessed that our white childhoods would have had such parallels? I wonder now, in a way I never did then, what the black kids in my class thought about going to the plantations.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: We didn’t have any children of color. Straight up. Zero students of color in my elementary school classes.
AURORA REY: My town had only one elementary school, so we were all thrown in together. It’s complicated, which I guess is true of everywhere. There’s the politics and the food, achingly beautiful swamplands on the verge of collapsing because of the petrochemical industry. But I always come back to—and never quite wrap my head around—the way gender and sexuality manifest.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: Were your gender and sexuality regulated as a child? Or, how were they regulated?
AURORA REY: I was raised to believe I could do and be whatever I wanted. I think it had to do with being a smart kid as much as anything. But there was always this underlying reality—careers and aspirations were nice, but of course I’d settle down with a nice man and raise a family.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: At what point did you realize that wasn’t your path? Did you know you were queer or did you want to escape for other reasons?
AURORA REY: My queerness was deeply buried. I had no inkling of it. I just knew I wanted different, more. I didn’t want to go to a nice liberal arts college and graduate with my Mrs. degree. A lot of the girls I went to school with did just that.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: When you left, what was that culture shock like? And how were your ideas about sexuality and gender received in upstate NY?
AURORA REY: At first, it was little things. I’d never met any Jewish people; I’d never had Indian food. I held on to most of the big stuff for my freshman year—I told my friends I wanted five kids, I had a crush on a guy I met at the Catholic community pancake breakfast. I was going to be a biochemist but also raise the big family. I was going to have it all.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I assume you presented as a femme as much then as now?
AURORA REY: Well, then it was just straight girl.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: Fair point. I suppose I mean you didn’t question your gender presentation. Now, you celebrate being femme because you are aware of the spectrum. There’s a consciousness to it.
AURORA REY: One of the big things I struggled with was wanting to embrace all things feminine, but also to be smart and successful and strong and able to fix stuff.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: So you were a proper Southern girl. Just feminist enough, but with all those markers of womanhood.
AURORA REY: Yes. I think fitting the gender mold so well was one of the reasons I (or anyone around me) never questioned my sexuality. Everyone expected me to be a career girl (yes, some people actually used that phrase), but it never occurred to anyone I might not settle down when the time came. I’m guessing your experience was different. No pastel dresses and pearls for you?
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I was visibly queer from a young age. I tried to be a girl because I knew I was supposed to be, but I failed pretty spectacularly.
AURORA REY: Did it cause a lot of strife for you? Fights with the parents and such?
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I was too rambunctious, too smart, too outspoken, too rough, too violent. And aside from the gendered issues, I was also too small, had few social skills. It was difficult to exist as anything aside from other.
AURORA REY: I feel like I was stealth queer. In retrospect, my obsession with KD Lang and the girl from the volleyball team should have been clues. But since I was sincerely attracted to masculinity, it all flew under the radar.
As promised, Parts 2 and 3 will be posted soon. In Part 2, I assign Aurora a sexuality (which is a dick move) and we discuss the power of language (spoiler alert, we’re kinda into it).