We Know How to Do This
by Sassafras Lowrey
I cut my teeth on a survival based activism. Grew up on campaign losses, learned organizing from small town queers who ran from skinheads and protested by making love in the back yards of klansmen. I was raised up by queers who made family without hospital visitation, who found children without adoption, and built homes without leases in our chosen names.
Now in my 30s I came of age at the tail end of a generation of LGBTQ people who had no legal recognition or protection, who couldn’t come out to our neighbors, or on TV. We didn’t have google or tumblr at our fingertips, or cell phones linking us together. I grew up in semi-rural America, amongst the kind of people who elected Donald Trump. These are the kind of people who also kicked me out of their homes and out of our community and who left me homeless in high school. I survived and grew up to work with queer youth around the country – youth who I now feel even greater responsibility to, because I’m afraid I haven’t done my part to prepare them for this political moment. I was raised up by Reagan era queer activists who taught me how to survive the Bush years. I keep hearing stories of queer youth who are suicidal because they can’t imagine a tomorrow without the social/cultural/political process we have made. These are youth who have never known a world without marriage equality (in some states). Never experienced a world without out and proud celebrities, and GSAs in their schools. Their lives are often not easy, but they haven’t experienced living under a government that believes they are sinners, unworthy of equal protection under the law.
In elementary school my mother made me take figure skating lessons to try to feminize me. I hated skating but I loved my coach. Even though the adults in my family whispered about him-the way he walked, and talked and skated and particularly, the glittering earring he wore in his right ear. “Left is right, and right is wrong.” My mother’s hateful nursery rhyme, her way of figuring out if someone was a “homosexual” was repeated often. One day he didn’t show up for my lesson, later that night I overheard my mom on the phone with the skating rink manager: My coach had been in Portland, the big city, he had been at a bar, the kind of bars that good (aka straight ) people don’t go to. After he left the bar some men followed him, he was beaten with a baseball bat. He lived but couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk. He would never skate again. If he got out of the hospital, he would spend the rest of his life in a nursing home. I asked if I could visit him. My mother said no. The only gay people I heard about got killed.
When I got to high school I knew I was queer, and I knew I was alone. The only gay people I knew about were the bodies I saw on TV, dead of hate crimes. With an effeminate boy I met in the hallway I started our rural/semi-rural county’s first Gay Straight Alliance. Last year I got the chance to have a Skype visit with the current GSA students at my old high school after they had read one of my books. I couldn’t believe how different their world is from what I remembered. To them, mine seemed like ancient history even though not even twenty years has passed since my graduation. After I hung up from our Skype call I remember thinking perhaps this meant that my high school friends and I had been successful, that we had been part of starting that community on the path that would lead to queer kids being in disbelief that we were ever afraid of our school, our classmates. But now, I worry that I haven’t done enough to prepare the youth of today for how to live within a world that hates you.
When I was in high school queer kids who dared to come out were beaten up in the hallways. The GSA wasn’t supposed to be in the yearbook -but we advocated with the principal who finally agreed seniors who were already 18 could sign liability releases and have our photo printed. There were four of us. Parents called to complain about us, saying that we were “leading kids down a path to hell.” There was one gay teacher in my school. One. She lived in fear that she would be fired if she ever came out, if she ever slipped and called her partner anything other than her roommate. Even while closeted she was my sanctuary. She risked her job to let me cry in her classroom, she showed me queer press, news articles , ballot measures, hate crimes, legal rulings. As a closeted butch woman she wanted me to understand the world I was coming into wouldn’t be safe. She did all this without actually coming out to me, but I knew.
When I became homeless my senior year in high school, kicked out because my journal had been read and I was outed by my own words my gay teacher couldn’t help me. The school forbid it. Her job was threatened. The school said they had never had to “deal with a kid like me before.” I spent my senior year couch surfing with sympathetic friends. The school guidance counselor never bothered to meet with me. When I turned 18, and after I graduated, that gay teacher gave me her phone number, the number that rang in the house she shared with her partner, not a roommate. She and her partner had me over for dinner and let me sleep on their couch. They adopted me, and I learned about what it meant to build queer family, to build our own worlds.
I grew up and was raised in semi-rural Oregon so organizing ment spreading information about our meetings by word of mouth and paper flyers that could be shoved into the bottom of backpacks or throw away in the cafeteria before someone’s mom had a chance to find it when doing laundry. It meant meeting at the only coffee shop near the county bus transit hub, because it was the place the most of us could get to. Anyone with a car picking up other kids at the end of long gravel drives and speed off before neighbors got suspicious. It meant commandeering that coffee shop table for hours, steaming cups of chai, glue sticks, sharpies, tears, and stories – our stories, and the myths we had heard from the few queer elders who had as we wrote our own new queer worlds into existence. It also meant being chased out of the coffee shop by skinheads, our backpacks thumping as we jumped down the stairs and piled into a car without enough seat belts to escape.
At 17, the day after I became homeless I went to my county library because books had never failed me before. I searched the card catalogue and couldn’t find anything there that spoke to my experience. I promised myself that if I survived I would write books so that no other queer kid would feel as alone as I felt. That dream kept me company during lonely nights and guided me to find other queers who were committed to making the world a better and safer place for us all.
Two months before I graduated high school I couldn’t take that county anymore and I went to the city, to Portland. I found other queer kids, runaways, throwaways, kids like me, who built their own families, their own community spaces and who schooled me on activism and organizing. I learned how to phone bank and canvas. I learned about ballot initiatives, the Bush administration. None of us were even thinking of marriage equality, that was a fairy tale not a political strategy. The youth who took me in had founded a queer youth drop-in center. It, and the punk houses we slept in were our collective sanctuaries. They were our sites of protest gatherings, open mic readings, and publishing houses where we turned out zine after zine and mailed to queers across the country who sent us concealed dollar bills through the mail. They were also the places where we built family. None of us had a relationship with the people that raised us. We revolved against the homophobic, transphobic, racist, abusive, violent communities that bore us and renamed ourselves, rebirthed ourselves into a gritty queer world
The summer after I graduated from high school I met a butch at a queer conference and fell deeply and quickly in lust. Within a month I left the pacific northwest to move to the deep south. In Jacksonville I learned about intersectional politics, about systemic racism and how to work in solidarity with queers of color. I learned about the klan, how they had land behind where my boifriend’ s sister boarded her horse. I saw confederate flags. I was refused service at drive throughs. I learned how to pray the car our queer asses drove around in wouldn’t break down in a klan neighborhood. I learned the stories of those who had been murdered the year before, and held their memory as we planned the first pride festival to take place on the beach. We met all night about safety plans, what to do if someone with a gun opened fire from the boardwalk, and what to do if the police didn’t come. LGBTQ identified parents amongst us who had concealed their own identities to get children in a state that barred queers from fostering or adopting discussed how to hide their faces from news cameras and still march.
Everything felt urgent and vital. Silence = Death was our motto. AIDS wasn’t necessarily the death sentence it had been to the queer adults we knew, but it felt like every young gay man, every young trans woman was positive, and sick. Their drag mothers made sure they had hormones from Mexico, and drove them to the county clinic for antiviral meds doled out by southern baptist doctors who urged them to repent their sins. I feel grateful that as a homeless queer teen, I came of age at the tail end of a generation of American queer folks who had no expectation our government would respect us, understand us, or even see as humans. Growing up with this understanding of queerness made me seek safety and community amongst other queers and it influenced the decisions I continue to make as a queer adult, from how I build home and chosen family, to the books that I write.
The night Hillary lost the presidency I stayed up until 4am crying in disbelief. I sat and watched the news come in with my partner of 12 years in our Brooklyn apartment. I wanted to hide. I wanted to disappear. I was terrified about what it meant to be a queer author in this new world, and what it would mean for my entire community of queers, especially for queers of color, and immigrants. I cried for a whole next day. Overwhelmed and afraid, I thought of never writing again, of going underground. I locked down my social media, I contemplated canceling an upcoming book release. Nothing felt safe anymore, I regretted being so public, I regretted not writing under a pen name. Then, 72 hours after the election, sitting on the subway, tearfully looking into the eyes of other shell shocked commuters the scattered pieces of myself clicked together. I remembered the punk houses, and the zines, and the organizing. I remembered the tears and the hugs and the bumper stickers and buttons. I remembered, we know how to do this. We didn’t want to have to do this again, but we know how to.
I unlocked my social media profiles and posted this message as my mantra for the next 4 years “we know how to do this” and then, my commitment to the queer youth of today: “If you don’t remember a time when your government hated you, those of us who do will help you learn how to survive it.”