This Inspirational, Out and Proud Spotlight brought to you by Matthew Clark Davison, Writer and Educator.
The G and/or the Q.
Gender Identity and Pronouns:
Depends on when/where/with whom, but I’ve answered to most pronouns, usually he/him.
When did you know?
A simple question but complicated to answer for someone (like me) born in 1970. Know what? In the pre-internet days, it was nearly impossible to know a single fact about the variety of expressions of human sexuality, especially in the suburbs where my parents moved when I was ten (a place that was mostly Caucasian and middle class and Christian). I recognized my attraction to the same gender at some point before adolescence, but my aesthetic (what I thought was beautiful/compelling/interesting about the world) and my gaze (the lens through which I experienced it) I’d later learn was very queer and gender-non-conforming from as early as I remember. 3? 4? Teachers and classmates, family, neighbors, the Catholic Church (my parents made me a member) spoke about sexuality and attraction to the same gender as something negative, and I did not think of myself negatively. I knew I expressed myself and experienced the world differently than my brothers and father seemed to, but I had no basis for comparison and no models to know whether or not I was queer or trans. I played Wonder Woman by repurposing my bathrobe as long hair and its belt as the golden lasso. I also widened the necks in my soccer sweatshirts so they’d hang off the shoulder and cut the toes off my tube socks so I’d have leg warmers. I kept a lip gloss and mascara I’d swiped from a babysitter’s purse in my room and applied both in a locked bathroom to encourage glamor and to fight loneliness and suburban boredom. I didn’t associate this with being queer. I felt compelled to be myself and knew I needed to hide it because people didn’t like feminine boys.
When did you come out?
I started using the word “gay” to describe myself to others at 16 or so, but I was out in many other ways (in how I presented myself to the world through appearance and speech and behavior) much, much younger. Again: 3? 4? I never had an Ellen moment. For me, it wasn’t like up until one day I hid my gayness and then later cleared the air. I was never “in” so I never came “out.” People called me gay and queer (in negative terms) and critiqued the manner in which my voice sounded, my body moved, the activities I was drawn to, and choices I made in clothing from the time I was four years old. Before I could come out using those terms I had to learn them.
To whom did you come out first?
I think I used the word “gay” to describe myself to a guy I call my “practice boyfriend” over coffee and cigarettes at a Howard Johnson in 1986. I was 16. I’d convinced him I was 18. He was 24. We met at the community college where I was taking classes after passing my GED tests.
How did your closest friends and family react?
I don’t think of coming out as a fixed moment or others’ reactions as singular or easily defined. There have been a variety of responses over the days and years from the same people. Back in 1985, I preempted what I feared would be negative reactions by dropping out of high school and running away from home—but the people I was running from had already been calling me names like faggot years—so I was more avoiding bodily harm rather than negative attitudes. By seventeen, I was living 3000 miles away from the schoolmates, family, and church whose views about queerness were hurtful. I entered the restaurant business and the university, and in those places, I found the safety to be myself and surrounded myself with a chosen family who understood that the categories we use to describe sexual attraction aren’t intrinsically accurate or compelling. My chosen family eventually all knew I dated guys, but they were more interested in my views and opinions—who I was as a person—than they were in using my attraction to guys to stage a reaction. As for family and people I left behind in that small town, I waited until I didn’t need a single thing from them before I paid them any mind. My mom had a variety of compelling responses. She loved me, so even when her reactions weren’t a made-for-tv-movie-loving, she was engaged in a conversation, listening as much as talking, interested in understanding more than changing me. Everything became even more complicated when people started connecting gayness to AIDS as if being one meant you had the other. My first real boyfriend was HIV-positive, and that quickly shifted my parents’ concern away from the conceptual worries about how others would perceive me (or them) to worry about what might happen to my body. Back to square one. When you’re worried about safety, it’s hard to worry about emotional acceptance. Fortunately for me, my mom became a member of my community by flying out to California and getting to know my friends and me on our terms and turf. My father and brothers were cool, but I don’t think I gave them much choice. By the time I told them, I was less interested in their reactions and more interested in my ability to define myself and to show off the life I’d created. For a long time, I used coming out as a kind of test or even a weapon. I wasn’t a request or a question. It was a protest and demand. Of course, I wanted their acceptance, but I didn’t go to them in that way you sometimes see portrayed. I remember being afraid to tell this one of my cousins, probably because I’d grown up being compared to him and because I admired him so much. He’d been on a trip to California and after I told him he had to tell me three times that he was gay, too, before I registered it.
How has your life been enriched by the LGBTQ Community?
During the late 80s and early 90s, what I consider the worst of the AIDS years, I was around and among the strongest and most heroic individuals. People who were constantly being told they were worth less (worthless)/that they deserved to die/that they were abominations in the eyes of god (yadda yadda yadda). Yet we organized, fought back, and lobbied for treatments for the autoimmune disorder that we knew affected everyone, not just queers. We bounced from the town hall to Washington DC; from the dance floor to the AIDS ward. We changed outfits and diapers. We invented drag and lip-sync and piano bars. Those people taught me that Michelangelo was queer. Audre Lorde. Leonardo di Vinci. Walt Whitman. Virginia Woolf. Herman Melville. Langston Hughes. Museums are filled with visual art made by queer artists. Much of music (Beethoven!) has been written and performed by queer people. The finest clothing has been designed by queer people. It’s easier to answer what part of your life has NOT been enriched by the LGBTQ community. That answer: no part.
What are the common misconceptions about being LGBTQ?
I’m impatient about the hetero-normative conception that it’s a heroic act when a non-queer person is “accepting” of a queer person. It’s a misconception that queer people are sitting around waiting for non-queer people to accept them. Maybe some are. Maybe that’s a phase some go through. But often, mainstream acceptance is the least of our desires. Mainstream rejection (or lack of acceptance) can be liberating, even desirable. I think it’s a heroic act when a queer person is accepting of someone with a tired, unexamined worldview and/or someone who uses religion to express moral superiority.
Describe the first time someone else read you (for better or worse) as LGBTQ.
The doctor that delivered me out of my mother’s body? I have no memory that does not coincide with being clocked, whether positively or negatively, as queer.
Who was your first LGBTQ role model or elder, and how did they impact you?
My mom. She may or may not call herself queer. She was married to my dad for 30 years but later had a 7-year relationship with a woman. Way before that, she was my role model. I observed her carefully. She didn’t conform to the many of the gender expectations thrust upon women in the contexts in which she came of age. Seeing her unlocked my own rebellious spirit. She taught me to live my own life and to revise it as frequently as I choose. She also taught me the value of being of service to others. She taught me that anything hoarded and unshared has no meaning or lasting power, that my own freedom and privilege is worthless unless I use it to fight for others’ liberation.
What is the biggest external issue or challenge facing the LGBTQ community today?
I actually struggle with the use of the word “community” because it implies something that doesn’t always exist and doesn’t necessarily encompass the complexity and variety of queer experience. There are many queer folks who don’t feel part of a “community.” A queer kid in San Francisco being raised by two dads will struggle, but that kid’s struggle will likely be much different from a queer kid being raised in Somalia. Somalia is one of several countries worldwide where people can lawfully be killed for being perceived queer. To answer the question, I’d say hate. So much of that hatred comes from people who perceive themselves as straight and believe in the lie/fantasy of hetero-normativity as ideal or desirable. In this country, there is still so much violence. It may not be lawful, but it is still a very real threat, and I’d guess that the statistics around violence are similar in all countries. People who perceive themselves as part of “the norm” are always afraid of those who don’t play by the made-up rules. Many gender-non-conforming folks and trans folks face violence and public humiliation every single day. Poor queer folks, too. I see heteronormativity as a fantasy invented to control people. It’s not exactly the same but shares things in common with this country’s concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness” as described by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his famous Atlantic article. He wrote elegantly about race being invented by racists. He says, “Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”
I believe that people who perceive themselves as “straight” often go to violence when they see an unapologetic expression their own denied desire. “Straightness” like “queerness” are just words, concepts invented to create an opportunity for dominance over the “other.” Because they’re the unfortunate byproduct of white supremacy and patriarchy, the words used to describe sexuality often fall short. Is my friend Dana any less of a “lesbian” because she ended up married to a guy and now has two kids? To me, she’s still exactly the same person as she was before when she’d only dated women. She’d say she’s not less of a lesbian, but society absolutely says yes in the privileges she’s offered now. Her life is safer. Her chances of being harmed have decreased.
The biggest internal issue or challenge?
Addiction and other forms of self-destruction. Certainly racism, transphobia, and misogyny. The saddest thong to me is how seemingly-assimilating gay folks, people who aspire (consciously or unconsciously) to the hetero-normative illusion exclude LGBTQ folks who don’t. Rich LGBTQ folks could do better supporting poor. Caucasian gay men could do more to be aware of the lives and concerns of people of color and women. We have a lot of work to do in order to learn not to oppress each other. Many of us have received excellent training in oppression and sadly use it on each other.
Are there any LGBTQ nonprofits whose work you especially admire?
I love QUAV and LYRIC.
Who is your personal Queer Hero? I have too many!
My husband, for sure. He’s so intelligent and engaging and fun and funny and determined. He has reasons to be bitter, and he’s not. He’s a joy. I love James Baldwin for his vision, his mind, and his ability to articulate the context of social identity as influenced by white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. RuPaul for his wit. June Jordan for her vision. Larry Kramer for making art that engages rage. I love Justin Torres for writing We, The Animals. Dorothy Allison for writing about class and the south. The artist Lyle Ashton Harris’s work engages queerness and race and gender in ways that feel as deep and compelling as the topics. This list could go on forever. I have many heroes, most of whom are just regular folks whose names wouldn’t be familiar. They’re my heroes because of their citizenry, their humanity, more than their sexual expression or identity labels.
Do you have any advice for young queer folks who may still be defining their identity, coming out, or learning how to be their authentic selves in the world?
1) AIDS is still real. Addiction is real. Protect your body. Do not destroy yourself because “they” can’t love you. What they do is on them. What you do is on you. 2) Read! Google Queer History and read as many books written by as many writers from as many backgrounds as you can. Look for described experience that does and does not, on the surface, resemble yours. Find the similarities and learn from their mistakes. 3) Focus your energy on creating your own community versus trying to get those who don’t accept you to do so. It’s so hard, but it’s possible. You can build buildings and write books and paint pictures and cure diseases with the energy you’d otherwise use trying to convince stupid or ignorant people to not to be stupid or ignorant.
How are you involved in or how do you give back to the LGBTQ community?
Being an openly queer person everywhere I go, including the classroom, I hope is some sort of service/involvement. I try to be mindful of where I spend my money and make my donations. I live fully and unapologetically as a citizen of the world.
(Gay March on Washington, 1993)