MARIAH

Boston, MA

What are your pronouns?

I like “she/her” or “they/them.”

Where do you work?

I will be working for AmeriCorps. I’m an educator.

Do you have any hobbies or special interests?

I like yoga. Gender studies, feminist theory, race theory. I like reading, is what I’m saying. I’m really big into Maggie Nelson and Alison Bechdel lately. Queer nonfiction is my sweet spot. I also like writing. I write poetry, nonfiction – I like writing anything. I really like making zines, and I contribute to zines sometimes. They have some poetry, and some photography, and some visual arts stuff. I used to be a dancer, I’m not anymore. I appreciate the arts in general. I’m very interested in feminist theory and the way it relates to art in particular.

What do you do for fun?

I make art, and I read. I really enjoy traveling, but that’s not something I really have the money to pursue. In college I got to do a fair amount of traveling.

What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?

I think words are so loaded in ways that you don’t necessarily intend them to be. But I think my favorite word for myself is queer, because it’s a political stance as well as an identity that’s more personal. Which is the same thing. But I definitely identify as genderqueer, and queer, but I also identify as a woman. So I identify as genderqueer and as a woman at the same time. I tried to explain that to a friend, because they identify as non-binary [but not also as a man or woman], which is how I feel a lot of non-binary people identify, but for me it feels like… If womanhood was a gender planet, and manhood was a gender planet, and there were thousands of other gender planets there too, it’s like I don’t need to choose one planet only to call home. I feel like I live on the woman planet and another planet that’s not the man planet and not a neutral planet, and not in between that spectrum but completely outside of it altogether. It’s its own planet. Also, feminist is a main part of my identity.

Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?

Yeah. I’m also white, which is relevant always, because of my privilege. But there are definitely ways that I dress or act to tell other people. I think everybody does that. I think particularly within the queer community that there are tokens of identity that you only know about if you’re part of that community. So that’s something that I’m always aware of. If I’m walking down the street and I see somebody else who has visible tattoos and piercings, or is playing with hegemonic gender assignment in their clothing, or Doc Martins. [laughs] They’re becoming more mainstream and hipster now so it’s a little confusing, but I feel like if you put all of those together, you know about that person in terms of at least their politics around queerness, not necessarily if they themselves are queer. I definitely am conscious of that when I’m getting dressed. If I’m feeling safe and in a place that I want to be, then I’m going to dress totally differently than if I’m going to work in a particular place or having to interact with people I’m not totally comfortable with, or my partners’ extended family or something, for example. I might dress a little more normatively. But I also think that I’m always trying to get a sense of who’s in the space, and how they feel about these various issues. And I definitely don’t come out to everybody as genderqueer, because it’s so confusing for people in a way that queerness otherwise isn’t for some reason.

In college, for example, I would be more likely to identify myself explicitly in a space as genderqueer than in other spaces. This past year, for example, when I was working in some schools in upstate New York, I never came out as genderqueer because I didn’t feel like I had the capacity to be supported to the degree that I needed to be in that identity. Basically, that often when you come out as something specific you end up educating everyone around you on it – which isn’t fair and it’s not the way it should be – but also I’m an educator, so I can’t just say no. if I’m going to be educating, it seems so arbitrary to them as students or even co-workers who are also educators to draw the line there. It seems sort of unfair, but the personal aspect of that is something that isn’t clear unless you have an identity that feels sort of tender in that way.

How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?

I was deeply closeted about every aspect of my identity until like a year into college. I identified as feminist, and so I was consciously and consistently questioning things like the binary and, intellectually speaking, knew that was not something that I stood for or believed in. But I think I really wanted to hold a “normal” identity, and something about being a perfect person, that draw to be that, was really overwhelming for me. So I very much identified as straight, and very much identified as a woman. I still identify as a woman, but identifying anywhere outside of that binary for me was a horrifying idea that had nothing to do with me. Any part of my authentic self was off-limits, and desires or needs or natural tendencies, my whole humanity, was horrifying. So I definitely didn’t have any clue that that was anything I would lean towards, because I was so out of touch with any part of myself until a year into college when I started coming out as…not heterosexual.

Then I started to identify as a lesbian, and through queer studies and gender studies and feminist theory, felt like the words and ideas that I used around my identity were so political and so potent that I had to keep questioning. I still feel that way. I have to keep questioning what the words I use around those are. I think that I at first felt that it was a betrayal to womanhood, and femaleness, which has been marginalized in every society and every part of the world pretty much, and as a lesbian and a feminist obviously that’s not something I wanted. I feel so loyal to “woman,” but then I realized that I didn’t have to stop identifying with womanhood. There are no rules around queerness. That’s a silly thing, to try and make queerness about rules doesn’t make any sense in the first place. I think it’s all the more subversive to have multiple identities within your identities.

Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?

Yeah. I was much more aware of my racial identity. I grew up in Dorchester, a community that was mostly people of color, so I was aware of my racial identity in particular because it was not as normative as it is for most white people. I also was really aware of my religious identity because I went to Catholic school for a while – many conclusions can be drawn about that – but I knew I was not Catholic and that I was never going to be Catholic, and I was the only kid that wasn’t Catholic in the school. That was something that I was very aware of, so it was like, I don’t really fit in there, I don’t really fit in here. Nothing was really working for me. I also skipped a grade in elementary school, so my identity was otherness regardless of what my identity was at that point. I ended up switching to this hippie-dippie private school in downtown Boston, which I love. There I felt much less problematic in my existence.

I think the culture at large more played into my aggressive closeted-ness than my family or my immediate environment, because my family is extremely liberal and exposed me to feminism and the arts. My mother is an educator. So you know, the things that you’re supposed to be exposed to [in order] to be supported as a little person, I was exposed to.

I think also that as a little girl, you’re taught explicitly and implicitly that the way you have power is vis-à-vis men. It’s not ever something that you’re just going to have, unless you’re very thin and very beautiful in a hegemonic manner, which I very much tried to be, and is still such a problematic, difficult thing for me. But I think just growing up as a girl was horrifying. To think that you wouldn’t have that power of association or power through your sexuality, or power through your body, which is the only thing that little girls are taught in our culture gives them power, to think that you wouldn’t have that, is horrifying. And I think now that it’s sort of gone, it’s not something that I have because I don’t have heterosexual or even bi or pan [privilege], that that power is not something that’s accessible to me, but there’s so many other authentic desires that I have besides power.

Yes and no, to sum it up.

Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?

I think a misconception that I had for a long time was just that you have to “look the part” – like, you have to look like something else. It’s funny, because I already spoke about visibility within the queer community and that being a thing that I’m definitely cognizant of and participate in, and at the same time the identities within that are so complex because this community’s had to think about it. They’re denser than straightness. And so something I’m aware of is that I definitely have passing privilege, and so I don’t really ever face issues around my genderqueer-ness. But it’s certainly a misconception that I’ve had in the past that you have to look a certain way.  And it’s pretty clear to me that most people have that, because they assume that I’m a cisgender person.

Sometimes I wonder also if the reasons that I play into femininity or particular beauty standards have to do with the way our society treats people who don’t do that. I’m certainly not consciously saying to myself every morning when I wake up, “Make sure that you fit with society’s standards.” That’s not what’s happening. It’s not that explicit, my aspiration to look a particular way. At the same time, I still try to remain aware of that, and if that’s happening in a less conscientious space in myself that I’m trying to aspire to something that I’ve been taught I have to. At the same time, I don’t want to abandon femininity and womanhood and femaleness out of inhibition towards the power associated with masculinity. And so I think that’s why for me, what feels truest and best is that I exist within my womanhood and also something that’s not related to those societally created identities. My own little “planet” situation.

I think a misconception is that you have to look androgynous, which in many ways is also misconstrued for meaning masculine. Certainly the more dominant culture has many misconceptions about what any queer identity means, and in particular when it comes to gender, is just so confused. But I think due to my own privilege I haven’t had to face that as explicitly. However, it does mean I have this undercover agent thing going on. If I’m in a room full of cis people assuming I’m cis – it doesn’t happen often, because I don’t really associate with people who are not educated around this issue or are not pursuing an education for themselves around this issue, but it does happen – and in those instances I’ve had people say something that’s just completely horrific regarding trans identities or non-binary identities or non-cis identities. And it’s emotionally taxing, intellectually taxing, and in that moment I have to decide not only what I’m going to do but if I’m going to out myself or not, and if I have the emotional energy to do that. I almost always do when it comes to my sexuality, but I don’t always when it comes to my gender. And I think it feels more targeted. I think that also has to do with the fact that there are trans-exclusive radical feminists, for example. There are people within this community that I’m supposed to be a part of that don’t even accept other members of that community, and you’re like, what? How? So I feel less supported in that aspect of myself. It proves interesting to have an identity that’s not so visible. Tiring, but interesting.

In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?

Gender and sex are not the same thing. An identity that has to do with one of them doesn’t necessarily have to do with another. Sexual orientation is who you’re attracted to and what your romantic or erotic desires may be, and gender identity is something that encompasses the way that you see yourself in terms of your own relation to a socially constructed set of labels that have to do with a more internal emotional aspect of identity. But your gender identity is not in any way erotic or romantic necessarily, it’s not sexual, so it’s not really related to sexual orientation. And gender identity also has to do with gender expression, which is the external physicality choices that you make in relation to gender identity. And those two things aren’t necessarily the same either.

I like the Genderbread Person* for explaining this issue a lot. I think it simplifies it a little bit, but it’s effective for somebody who’s really confused. I’ve done a lot of diversity training, and I usually use that graphic. It’s not as comprehensive as I would like it to be, but I think it does a good job of clearly showing that those things are totally separate.

How do you feel represented in media and society at large?

I feel represented…not really in any way. I mean we could talk about Orange is the New Black, but there are already so many articles about the problematic nature of that show – though I still love it, won’t lie. I think certain aspects of my identity are represented in media at large, but that my identity makeup as a whole isn’t. Oh, there is Ruby Rose. But I mean, would you even know who Ruby Rose was if you weren’t queer? Would a non-queer person know who Ruby Rose was? I don’t know. Maybe [you would know them] as a person who was on Orange is the New Black for a hot second. Obviously there are white people all over the media, there are women all over the media – not that I have particular feelings of joy about how women are represented in general in the media, or how the female body is represented generally in the media. I don’t feel great about the media. But I do think it’s an incredibly potent and useful tool, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this. But in terms of mainstream media, I don’t have anything good to say.

 

What improvements would you like to see happen inside your communities and in society at large?

I would like to see the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. I think that queerness has been commodified in a lot of ways that are damaging, likewise with feminism. However, I also appreciate and am excited by the increased access to those ideologies and identities. I think that within the queer community, race is still a huge issue that needs to be addressed more explicitly and continuously. I think also within the feminist community, this whole trans-exclusionary and gender-critical [idea] – I don’t understand how that could mean what it means. The idea that excluding trans people from your ideologies around feminism is somehow intellectually thoughtful and critical is a joke. I wish there was some way to do some education around that.

I try to make communities intentionally. The people I associate with are going to be feminist, body-positive, anti-racist, activists. Critical of hegemony broadly. So I think that because I create that space so intentionally for myself, there aren’t that many critiques that I would have for that particular community. I think queer people in general and body image is something that I would like to see more discussion around. I think that a lot of times when there’s queer representation, even if you go on Tumblr looking at queer blogs, it’s so many thin, white, able-bodied people that are idealized; which is in no way surprising, considering the rest of the world. But it’s still not great, to say the least. I think coming out as queer, in terms of gender, in terms of my sexual orientation, has been a huge part of reclaiming my physical body in general. But also I think that’s an explicit issue that needs to be talked about.

I don’t want this to be taken in a way that distracts from the violence that cis white men in particular enact upon women and queer people and genderqueer people of all kinds, and intra-queer romantic violence is something that is so under-discussed within our community. I don’t think that’s something that people outside of this community should necessarily be talking about, unless they’re a domestic violence or rape crisis center or something like that. But inter-partner violence in the queer community is something that obviously has to end. And the idea that queer people or genderqueer people or women or people who are all of those things couldn’t enact violence on each other, the idea that you couldn’t be a perpetrator if you hold those identities, has to go away. Not to impede on the idea of safe spaces, because that’s so real, and I intentionally seek out people who have particular identities, assuming safety. But that doesn’t always work out. Just because you’re queer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a loving, kind person.

Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

I’m so grateful to have gone to the high school that I went to, and learned about anti-racism and feminism and art theory in really genuine and intellectual ways; and had teachers that cared about me as an individual, and also cared about empowering me to be a change-maker and not just a test-taker. I think that is one of the biggest gifts that I’ve been given in my life, and shapes me fundamentally as a person. I also think my personal feminist awakening is something that literally saved my life. Teaching myself to eat and nourish myself, find value in myself, and just generally allow myself to be a person is something that I don’t know that I would have felt was so important if not for the socio-political ways that that is connected to the reality of living in a female body. Or living as a queer person, or living as a genderqueer person, or living as a woman. So I guess generally studying gender and feminism has been incredibly impactful.

Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

Therapy is how I deal with the things.

Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?

My partner. My family. My friends. My therapist. Lots of people. I think I have a pretty good support system, which is nice. It’s so hard because it’s both something that you have to build for yourself, but then you also have to have access to that, and you have to maintain it. If you just start hiding things from your support system, it’s not going to work. It’s no longer a support system. If you build a house, and then you start chipping away at the walls and putting things in there, the structure of the house is not going to work the way that you intended it to. So I think that at this point in my life, now, being in recovery and being out is when I’m the most genuinely supported.

How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?

I think that I’ve noticed a trend of people that I become friends with eventually coming out in some way. [laughs] I don’t know if this is me being egotistical, and maybe it is, but I think that in some ways my comfort around my own identity ends up allowing people that I become close with or am close with to be more comfortable in their own identity, which is great. I think identities are present in any relationship of any sort at any time. They’re always there. I’m sure there are thousands of ways that various parts of my identity have worked in any and every kind of relationship that I’ve ever partaken in. But I think ultimately I’m a very defensive person about my identity. I’m not going to allow somebody anywhere near me who even remotely isn’t okay with the idea that any part of me is what it is. I think it more acts like a screening system. I’m not talking just romantic partners, but friends and acquaintances. I never allow that to become a problem in the relationships. And I’m obviously saying that from a privileged point of view, because my family accepts me, which is as it should be, but also, that’s not something that everybody has.

Are you able to find adequate medical care?

Actually, this is something that has been difficult for me as a queer person in recovery. Every time I go to a hospital – anywhere but Fenway Health – there’s the assumption that I’m heterosexual, and I’m always having to have that conversation. But aside from all of that bullshit, there’s also this crazy weight stigma where you go into the office: the first thing that they do is weigh you. You don’t have to do that. I said that to a coworker a few weeks ago, and she was shocked. She has been avoiding going to the doctor because of that. I know so many people who that’s true for. For me, it was just like a pool of anxiety.

But at Fenway, Fenway’s the first place I’ve been able to be like, “These are all the things that are happening, these are all the problems,” and somebody isn’t trying to use their own agenda to do what they want. They’re actually listening to me. I feel like, not just in terms of my gender identity and sexual orientation do I feel much more affirmed there than anywhere else that I’ve ever been, but also in terms of my place that I am in my recovery, which is very much related to those things. I feel like that’s really the only place that I know of that I’ve personally experienced in the city of Boston or surrounding area that’s been effective in that way.

I had a little relapse last year and was in treatment for the eating disorder that I had, and it was really difficult to receive effective treatment for that because of my queer identity and having to constantly be educating people, or telling therapists to stop saying things that are infuriating. Just getting access to treatment that wasn’t deeply sexist and not necessarily explicitly homophobic, but not feeling like I could talk about particular things in a treatment facility or a medical facility where you literally have to talk about those things in order to move out of that facility. That’s a problem. So I think, yes, I’ve had problems with that, but more that I need a particular medical treatment or access to a particular medical group/specialist that doesn’t have enough knowledge about my existence as a queer person to do a decent job.

How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?

Well, I used to hate myself and now I don’t, so there’s that. [laughs] I think that, again, educating myself around queerness and feminism has been the most empowering. And also body politics, more broadly, and the beauty myth and all that jazz, has been the most empowering thing in the world for me. I think in some ways that I’m still kind of afraid of myself. When I was younger, just the idea of my humanity was so horrifying. Now, although it’s still something that I grapple with, I’m not grappling with it in a way that’s so self-flagellating. As I stated before, I thought that I was all of these many things that I am not. I don’t want to perpetuate misconceptions about bisexuality, but I totally clung to that idea that I might be bisexual when I was coming out as…not bisexual…for a long time, and it was never even remotely true. So I guess I’ve gotten a lot clearer about what words I like to use for myself as well, and labels that I feel akin to.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I think I would tell her that she’s okay. It’s okay to be her. Even if she feels totally horrified by the idea of it, that she might not be this impenetrable, emotionless stronghold of a person, it’s okay. She’s okay. She can mess up and be messy. That’s what it is. You can be messy. Take it as you will. Also, fat is not scary and bad. It’s just a thing. Just a normal thing.

What are your concerns for the future?

I am concerned with the miseducation around these issues – these issues being issues of identity, in particular in the public school system, but also for adults. As somebody who’s led those seminars that are supposed to teach you not to be racist and homophobic and sexist at work, the misinformation that particularly people over the age of 50 have around these issues is wild. You will hear the most confusing statements or questions, which is totally fair. I’m glad that they’re asking them, and I’m glad that they’re saying them in a space where I can be like, “No!”

But I think that there’s a very distinct group of people with power in the world who have so much misinformation that it’s just baffling. How did that happen? How does Donald Trump exist? How many people interacted with this person? It’s like a collision of horror. He had teachers, he had parents… Do you know what I mean? He’s a human being, other human beings interacted with him, and let him become this. And so I think one of my general concerns, and obviously why I’m interested in education and education that has to do with gender and identity politics in general, is: we need to tell other people things. We need to tell each other what’s okay and what’s not okay.

That’s not to say that it’s the responsibility of marginalized people to educate non-marginalized people, but at the same time I think one of my concerns is there are all of these people that don’t know how much damage they’re doing to other people and to the world. What do we do about that? And my answer is not to be like, “Queer people, go out and tell people who are homophobic about yourself,” or something like that. I don’t think that’s the solution, and likewise I don’t think people of color should have to have a double burden of educating white people. I feel that way about any marginalized or oppressed group of people; that shouldn’t be their additional duty.

What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?

My body has been the most important frustration of my life. And just bodies in general. I remember being a little kid, and being so pissed off by the limitations of having a body. That I couldn’t have a mind that wasn’t attached to a human form in the first place – which is a little existential for a toddler, I guess, but maybe we don’t give them enough credit in the first place, maybe they’re all thinking that. I think just that frustration in general has fueled a lot of my self-education and my passions and my pursuit of feminism, my pursuit of gender theory and queer theory. I think all of my actions and all of my intellectual leanings are all so explicitly rooted in my embodiment. So yeah, I guess having a body is the biggest and most important frustration that I’ve faced. Which is something that everyone has, so I don’t know, I guess each person deals with it differently. Or maybe not.

But it’s been a huge issue for me. it’s also been very productive in its causing discomfort. I don’t know that I would call that a success but I think ultimately it’s been the most important – I feel like I’m having this realization as I’m saying it, so it’s coming out a little awkward – but I feel like it’s one of the most important aspects of my life. Which is ironic and also makes a lot of sense considering the intention was the opposite. I don’t know that “success” is necessarily the word that I would use, but I think it’s a continual frustration that leads to a continual learning and growth. I don’t feel like you can have continual learning and growth without frustration.

Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?

Read. Read! Ask for help. Listen to yourself.