As promised, here is the final installment of my conversation with Aurora Rey about the intersection of cultural roots and queerness. In part our discussion was a result of this essay at Autostraddle, which I can’t believe you haven’t read yet. If you would like some context, here are parts 1 and 2 of our conversation.
AURORA REY: I’ve been thinking a lot about how our role models growing up shape who we become, as well as what we’re attracted to. I’ve not sorted my own out completely, but I’m coming to accept there’s more underpinning it than I’ve wanted to admit. Again, it comes back to identity versus attraction, how and where those lines intersect.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: That makes sense. Regardless of how toxic the society we grow up in is, we still absorb it.
AURORA REY: And there are parts of even the worst environment that are magical. My daddy was pretty much a bastard, but there are parts of what he wanted to be that are things I want in a partner now. That was a fucking insane revelation to have.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: But it takes the distance of adulthood to acknowledge that, to be able to tell the difference between pieces of a person, pieces of an identity.
AURORA REY: Absolutely. And to tease out the toxic. For the first ten or so years after I left, I felt this need to see myself as completely apart. It’s only as I’ve settled into myself that I feel safe enough to unpack the boxes, pull the good pieces out of the rubbish. Trust that I won’t get swallowed up whole.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: And are you able to enjoy that nostalgia now? Or are you still learning how?
AURORA REY: It’s getting easier. It’s still so fraught. It feels dangerous in these political times to let one’s guard down entirely, to embrace the pieces that are connected to people who’d vote away my right to exist tomorrow.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to celebrate where I came from simply because it is so bland. It’s been a long time since I made the decision that certain people are not part of my life. Uncles and aunts and cousins who I don’t need to include. But I’m just now coming to the realization that my decision wasn’t a temper tantrum or a reaction to toxicity, but permission to live.
AURORA REY: Finding those pieces of family in the queer community feels inherently safer.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: Yes, I’m realizing how healthy the queer community is. Not just safe or comforting, but healthy.
AURORA REY: The butch woman who swaggers and worships a woman in heels is less likely to also want to regulate her uterus. And it’s less work, honestly. I have enough that I want to accomplish with my life that I don’t need to try to win over closed-minded uncles.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: There’s also the comfort in being known.
AURORA REY: So much comfort.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: That butch woman also probably has a uterus. Or understands what it means to have a uterus.
AURORA REY: And if I cook for her or wait on her, she knows it’s something I want to do, not her right because that’s the social order.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: And she appreciates the thought behind it more because it’s not a demand. It’s a choice.
Most of the people in my life know that I don’t like to be touched. I’m not a hugger. I don’t like people in my personal space. But I realized something the last time I was in Provincetown. I’m fine with queer people in my space. I actually like hugs.
AURORA REY: Aww, I feel terrible that I may have thrust hugs upon you.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: You didn’t! I mean, Kris did because she felt you got a better hug, but…
AURORA REY: Well, Kris is always jealous of me. As she should be.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I’m tagging her in this.
AURORA REY: I can’t believe the sibling rivalry we seem to have. It’s hilarious.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: It’s not exhausting for me. Don’t worry.
AURORA REY: But I like that you’ve had that revelation. Having choice and agency and feeling safe—they change everything.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: It’s a complex realization, though. The enjoyment, that is. I also don’t generally like people who are taller than me. Which is difficult because I’m very small.
AURORA REY: I struggle with small people. I’ve spent so much of my life feeling giant. But you don’t make me feel that way.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: And you don’t make me feel tiny. I’ve realized it’s about power and trust. I don’t trust most humans not to hurt me in some way. Queers don’t hold that threat.
AURORA REY: It’s a sad realization to feel like so much of the world holds danger. That’s what I meant about my straight friends. Trying to find a non-toxic straight man feels virtually impossible.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: Straight people kind of suck at running things.
AURORA REY: I keep coming back to this idea of finding home. And that I often feel it when I see/am seen by someone queer more than when I’m literally home, the place where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. I’ve not really managed to feel queer-home and childhood-home at the same time. I’m not sure it would be possible. But I’d like to find someone that might give me that feeling.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I’m the same way. It seems that when we are “home” we are still constantly explaining things. Who and what we are. Why it’s not okay to use certain language. How we exist. Even with the most open, loving people, there’s always something they can never understand.
AURORA REY: Yes. That is so true. The femme friend I sent that Autostraddle essay to had more questions about how I identify as Southern than my straight friend did about how I identify as queer.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy my job. The kids I work with grew up in the same place I did, with the same teachers, similar parents. They are fifteen years behind me so they have queerer pop culture and politics, but they understand what made me.
AURORA REY: That’s really cool. You get them in ways probably no one else could. I hope you never underestimate how powerful that is.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: I don’t. Because it helps me too.
AURORA REY: There’s a tiny piece of me who feels a responsibility to go back. To help kids know that they’re fine and going to be fine and that there’s a whole community of people who will get them. I’m not strong or selfless enough to do it, though.
ASHLEY BARTLETT: But as Lorde argued, “the personal is political.” Just by existing, you are changing the world. By sending that essay to a femme who doesn’t understand the South and a straight person who doesn’t understand queerness, you are expanding both of their worlds.
AURORA REY: True. Our very existence—being happy and living life—is still more than a little radical.