Friday, July 27, 2012

Oh, To Be Queer in the Suburbs

I've lived in the suburbs for most of my life.  Often, people have asked me "Which do you like better--the East or West Coast?"  But between the suburban towns that I lived in on both coasts, the main difference is probably the climate.  Until a certain book made me question it, I took this view of suburbia, which is shared by many both inside and outside it:  That the suburbs are a tragic, boring, isolating place where creative people experience "aesthetic peril*".  At the same time, I accepted the view of cities as superior and unique.  I never thought about the fact that "great world cities" are grouped together based on many similarities.  And a lot of what makes cities "great" tends to be based on Eurocentric standards.

Enter the book Relocations.  It might actually make me feel slightly better about living in the suburbs, which is no small feat.  The author, Karen Tongson, writes that for too long, studies of queer life have privileged the city, even though many queer people (especially women and people of color) live in the suburbs.  The prevailing idea is that after coming out, queer people need to migrate to the city or risk the sad and irrelevant life described earlier.  That queer people might choose to stay in the suburbs, or actually migrate from cities to suburbs, is rarely examined.  

While there is no city with an asexual community on par with San Francisco or New York's gay communities, I accepted the same narrative of suburban to urban migration.  I always pictured myself living in a city, since it was what seemed "normal" for a young, single person from the suburbs.  It's true that the suburban demographics are changing.  They're no longer places that are solely composed of heterosexual couples with kids.  However, while there may be a certain number of people "like me" in the suburbs, the difference is that they're less visible than they might be in the city.  When I visit a vegan anarchist cafe (as I did in London), I can assume that many of the people present share some of my interests, whatever their age or appearance.  At a Starbucks in the suburbs, there is no way to guess about the interests of anyone present.  While in my personal experience it's harder to meet new people in the suburbs, its lack of niche activity might actually yield a more diverse group of friends for the suburban person, which is something that I value.

Tongson writes that there is something fundamentally queer about the suburbs' odd juxtapositions of time periods, architectures, forgotten histories, and groups of people.  While the suburbs are usually seen as boring, in many ways they're also very strange, surreal places.  One of my biggest problems with the suburbs is being seen as culturally irrelevant.  After all, cities are promoted as the site of alternative culture, and suburbs the place where people escape from it.  And this is why, according to Tongson, suburban queers of color love the Smiths (I could not believe that this was A Thing, but apparently it is).  While I am white, I could relate to this British pop admiration, although maybe for slightly different reasons than the ones Tongson posits.  We love bands from unlikely places, such as Manchester, because they show that you don't have to come from new York or LA to be relevant.  (I have always loved the fact that Yo La Tengo is from Hoboken, New Jersey.)  While some bands could be from anywhere, the Smiths are very grounded in what Tongson would call "the imaginary" of Manchester.  To suburban Americans, a place like Manchester is exotic, but at the same time, we can relate to it in a way that we can't relate to, say, London or Paris.  We do have suburban culture, although it is so overlooked and devalued (by residents and city folk alike), that it has a hard time thriving.  In some ways, the cultural wasteland of the suburbs is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Driving in your car through lonely stretches of Southern California or elsewhere.  Driving in your car with someone else, with significant others (not necessarily lovers--or are they?).  Rollin' deep with your homies, sisters or bros, real or conjured, desperately seeking excitement elsewhere, somewhere, but realizing that it might just be all about the ride, the inevitably aimless transport of accidental reverie--and all about who you're riding with."  --last page of Relocations

(*this term is from Relocations.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Traveling Alone: Tips for the anxious and socially awkward

Here it is at last!  My epic post about traveling alone, with tips from my experience.  These tips are directed towards people similar to myself, admittedly--folks who've had no experience traveling alone, who worry they might be lonely, bored, or anxious, and for whom meeting new people isn't really their "thing".  There are a million blog posts about traveling solo.  A lot of them include good safety tips that are relevant for everyone, so I'm not going to delve deeply into safety here.  And while there are traveling-alone tips out there for introverts, what I found wasn't very useful for me.  Yes, I'm introverted, but I'm not neurotypical.  There certainly aren't many travel tips written by us, so that's why I wanted to add my voice to the topic.  You know I love a numbered list, so let's get into it!

Yes.  I know.  It's long.
  1. Expect to feel self-conscious, especially as a newbie.  In relation to trips with others, alone I felt like I stood out much more--like I was wearing the wrong clothes, and everyone was noticing my accent.  In general, I was more attuned to the environment, which can be both positive (wow, a fox!) and negative (no one else is wearing a t-shirt!).  So, expect some level of discomfort.  I had moments of terror (like, uh, being locked inside the building where I was staying...Hellllp?!) and thinking "I can't do this!"  But don't expect this discomfort to make you have a terrible time or regret going.  
  2. Have a project (real or fake).  You can bring a creative project on your trip, or start an entirely new one.  Having that extra sense of purpose can be helpful.  Examples include photography, painting, sketching, reading a book you haven't had time for, or even a volunteer project.  While in the UK, one of my projects was writing this post.  It can be fun to get into character a little (no need to have acting experience).  Like, if you're new to eating in restaurants by yourself, you can become a restaurant critic taking notes, writing reviews, and posting them online.  Sometimes when I've been at shows alone, I pretend I'm a music journalist, even though I never actually write anything.  For some reason, it makes me feel less awkward.
  3. Keep a record.  Sort of related to the first one, but specifically, keep a journal, either on paper or online.  Traveling alone is a great opportunity to learn new things about yourself and the world, and so it can be valuable to record these observations.  It also gives you something to do while sitting in parks, cafes, trains, etc.  Oscar Wilde thought reading his own diary on the train was entertaining; maybe the same will hold true for you.
  4. Check in with those you left behind.  Not all day, every day, but set aside a little time to write some missives to your homies.  They'll want to know you're safe and having a good time.  And it's nice to hear from someone who loves you.
  5. Abandon perfection.  This applies to life in general, but when you're alone and far from home, it can be easier to get stuck inside your head.  What's in my head?  Extreme perfectionism, which is why I try to heed this advice.  Of course you want to have the perfect trip--you have limited time and you want every moment to count.  But you can still have an awesome, memorable trip even if there are some bad moments.  In addition, you won't become a different person just because you're traveling.  I sometimes get tired very easily, and I while I want to "go go go" and see everything, at times I need to give myself a break.  In short, don't put too much pressure on yourself.  If this is your first time traveling alone, try to view it as a learning, skill-building experience.
  6. Be a little consistent.  Travel is the time to try new things, but don't abandon all your usual habits (especially the self-care ones!).  For instance, I tended to feel more anxious when I was alone in my hotel room at the end of the day, and so I would read some of the blogs that I was used to reading back home.  There was comfort in those familiar voices.  Find a cafe/restaurant/pub/etc near your lodgings at which to be a "regular" and go there often.  (Cafes usually have bulletin boards with lots of local events as well.)
  7. Stay in one place.  Why did I decide to come to Manchester for only two days, again?  I don't regret it (I even met one of my Livejournal friends!), but such a short stay made it impossible to ever get my bearings.  If you avoid city-hopping, it's also easier to get involved with local social activities, and to actually attend the upcoming events that you hear about.
  8. Meet people in advance.  If you, like me, are not very outgoing, meet people (or join a group) from your destination online, before you get there.  Think about it:  Locals, especially urban people, won't have any real reason to befriend you unless you have shared interests (or are incredibly charming).  In London, I learned that while in theory, striking up conversations with strangers was a great idea, in practice it was less so.  A couple of strangers tried conversing with me, but I had too much trouble quickly transitioning into random conversation.  I need a few moments to mentally prepare myself and decide if I even want to talk.  By that time, though, the stranger is usually saying, "Sorry, I won't disturb you".  When I say, "No, really, you're not," they have probably already assumed that I'm quietly plotting their murder.  So yeah, I like meeting people in advance.  Just be honest with yourself about your level of social comfort, and start from there.
  9. Respect your body.  Don't be like me:  Hungry, dehydrated, sunburned, and extremely sore of foot.  If you think carrying a reusable water bottle is too unwieldy, Vapur.  Although the carabiner broke after a day (so you know they're not paying me to write this), the bottle itself is durable, and becomes very light and small when empty.  Carry snacks with you, and bring the most comfortable shoes possible (as long as they blend in with your locale).  I find that on trips, I do a ton of walking, and it wasn't until the last two days of my trip that I felt used to it.
  10. Master auto-timer on your camera.  I hate asking random people to take my picture, because not only am I paranoid that they'll steal my camera, I just feel goofy.  So if I'm in a place that's not too busy, I'll prop my camera on a wall and take a picture on auto-timer.  See, I can prove I was here!  (Okay, someone could also steal my camera this way, but paranoia isn't always logical.)
  11. Hey, you might enjoy being alone.  If you travel alone, and yet meet up with others at points along your journey, it really is the best of both worlds.  You get some social interaction, and yet you can still do what you want, on your own time.  If I wanted to do some odd or esoteric activities, I didn't need to "sell" them to a travel companion, I just went and did them.  Nor did I have to adhere to the schedule of another person.  It's totally different from the day-to-day life that most of us live, and it can be a really nice change.

[Image: Ily losing their umbrella at St. Cuthbert's Cemetery, Edinburgh]

Bonus item: Stuff to do at night, solo!  For shy and fatigued people.  My main concern about traveling alone was always "what to do at night".  I don't like going to bars or clubs (the "nightlife" standbys) alone.  So, here are some ideas for stuff to do by night:
    • Film festivals.  Seriously, most people's friends don't want to see strange indie films.  There will be many other people by themselves.
    • Theater.  Same, especially at smaller venues.  
    • Museums.  Many are open late at least one night a week.
    • Read a book and go to bed early.  No shame in that. 
    • Walking tours.  This actually felt like one of the more awkward things I did alone, but it's worth trying out.
    • Chores.  If you have to do laundry or something, doing it at night will free up time to do more things during the day.
I hate to end on "chores", but to paraphrase Belle and Sebastian, a list needs to end somewhere.  While I was quite worried about traveling alone, I'm glad I tried it.  If I don't travel far afield in the future, it will probably be for environmental reasons rather than lack of companionship.  That's definitely progress for me.  Also, it was probably a good idea that I made my maiden voyage to an English-speaking country where I'd already briefly lived.  Three weeks in Mongolia would have been much harder.  Maybe next time...

Friday, July 13, 2012

World Pride: Contaminating You With Asexiness

I feel like I should talk about World Pride (which took place in London last weekend), but it seems like words are failing me.  It was just awesome, simple as that.  The feel was pretty different from San Francisco Pride, although not necessarily in a good or bad way.  Due to budget issues, all floats had been cancelled, and so every group was on foot.  The asexuals n' friends got jumbled up with roller derby people on skates, as well as a transgender support group.  Someone behind me was yelling, "Trannies forever! Trannies for life!" for the entire parade (you go girl!).  But I like that smaller groups didn't get drowned out so easily by the huge floats (although we might have almost drowned in the sporadic bursts of rain).  It also seemed like fewer people came as spectators.  I was handing out flyers for the majority of the march, and got the feeling that most of the people were of the "Oh, I was shopping at H&M and just decided to come and look at this pride parade" type.  However this made the crowd remarkably more sober, and I saw many more people (compared to SF) actually reading and considering our literature.  Some people's faces had looks of confusion and even disgust.  I heard a few comments to "keep away from the asexuals!" as if our orientation was contagious (oh come on, it's pride, we're all recruiting!).  But as usual, others seemed genuinely interested and curious.

[Image: Aces gearing up to march in the parade.  You can see our lovely banner and placards.]

So, y'all, I just met a whole bunch of really nice, welcoming, and just plain awesome and asexy people.  It never fails to amaze me how with so many aces, I feel like I can tell them some hella personal shit (as we might say back here in NorCal), even if I don't know them very well at all.  I found myself sitting around a table with a couple of aces, telling them something I had never said to anyone before in my life, and feeling totally comfortable.  There was a moment when a bunch of us were attempting to "go out" on a Saturday night, and we ended up in front of a crowded club with loud music.  We were all tired after a long day, and started making numerous excuses about how we were hungry, sore, wanting to sit, etc.  It struck me as really funny because it was stereotypically asexual, but in that moment, I just felt so much affection for those people.  Because it's not a group where folks are trying to "be cool" or pressuring others to do so.  I've felt that with asexuals here in the US, and across the world, it didn't change.  

(Also, I've wondered why asexuals in the UK seem more interested and/or successful in "hooking up" romantically with each other than many in the US.  Well, they do have their meetups in a place that sells pints for 2 pounds.  And those bad boys are potent, let me tell you.  Now, maybe alcohol is not the only reason, and maybe my perceptions are off.  But I don't think I've ever been hugged by more people in a single night than I was in that pub!)

Maybe words didn't fail me after all.  There's more to tell, but for now, this will have to do.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

This one's for all you losers...

...and I address you as "losers" lovingly and with admiration, as Judith Halberstam does in the book The Art of Queer Failure.  I was skeptical at first, since the book and its references (Finding Nemo, Dude, Where's My Car? as well as academic sources) seemed weird, random, and unlikely.  However, I'm kind of weird and random myself, so Queer Failure and I ended up getting along well for the most part.  While I don't think the book necessarily forms a cohesive whole, the parts are valuable.  The general premise is potentially life-changing, and I don't say that lightly.  Halberstam writes that based on what we symbolize in society, queers fail.  In fact, we're so good at failing that we turn it into an art form and even a way of life.  Failure isn't something to run away from (says Halberstam), but to embrace, as can be seen in the phrase "good at failing".  Rather than a success/failure binary (another binary?  Will it ever end?), where success is good and failure bad, now I can better see that both have something to offer.  While success can provide comfort and social status, failure can open up new ways of learning and of knowing.

Failure also needs to be recognized, in some cases, as something that is imposed from outside.  For instance, Occupy is consistently portrayed as a failure in my local media--the term "moribund" in particular comes to mind.  However, I've found it very successful as a way for politically-minded people to find community.

"...There is something powerful in being wrong, in losing, in failing, and that all our failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winner" (127).

Our current mode of success/failure is closely tied to our economic system, as Queer Failure mentions.  For one person to succeed, others must fail.  In fact many of us are set up to fail, since while we all want to "win", this is impossible.  Halberstam quotes Guy Hocquenghem:  "Capitalism turns its homosexuals into failed normal people [exactly what I believed I was, pre-asexuality], just as it turns its working class into an imitation of the middle class" (103). In this social framework, I'm already so far behind that I may never win.  Either I acknowledge that, or I try to pretend that I'm someone who can navigate this world with more ease than I actually can.  Maybe if we deny failure, then we give it more power than it really deserves; it becomes too scary to ever risk.  For so long, I've been trying to figure out some philosophy of life under which I could succeed, or somehow alchemize my losses into wins.  It's been extremely exhausting.  Perhaps it's the labeling--"succeed", "fail", "win", "lose" that needs to go, in favor of more dynamic, personalized language.

"You don't learn from a situation where you do something well. You enjoy it and you give yourself credit, but you don't really learn from that. You learn from trial and error, trial and error, all the time."
--Suzanne Farrell.  Quote seen on the wall of a dance studio.  Failure central, amirite?