Author’s Note: I originally wrote this piece for a theater show back in Middletown, CT which featured one act plays by local playwrights. I have updated its content for today. It was originally called “To Be Me.” After the show, the playwrights stayed for a Q&A, and when it was time for me to speak about my show, I said that getting called sir was a common occurrence for me. “In fact,” I said, “it happened tonight in the restroom before the show started.” The audience laughed, getting the not-so-subtle irony. A man who dressed in female drag stood up and, through tears, thanked me for writing this piece, saying how necessary it was to get this message out. After the Q&A, I gave him a hug and thanked him for what he said, and we stayed in contact for many years after. That was one of the most positive experiences that has stuck with me through all the years.
Without further ado. . .
“Just Be You”
by Tara McMillen
Once upon a time, I hated to be called ma’am. “I’m not old enough to be a ma’am! I’m a miss!” Back then, getting called sir or mister was part of everyday life, and did not upset me. Now I’m happy if they say ‘ma’am’ because it means they know I’m a woman, or at least have guessed right. When did this start to become a problem?
That is not a question I can answer right now, but it is connected to the issue I face as I (for real this time) pursue a fiction writing career. To be me or not to be me, that is the real question. Turn your back on your true identity, and what happens to your soul? To your self-esteem? That’s like saying “I hate myself.” But I love myself! I want to stand up to the world and say, “I’m a queer dyke and it has nothing to do with me being a writer.” However, if it were that easy, it wouldn’t be so hard for LGBTQ writers and actors to get recognition. We can’t all be Ellen DeGeneres and globally accepted as the leader of all lesbians!
I assume you, wonderful reader, are familiar with the term “anti-gay activist”. I guess in a world of Ying and Yang, if we have gay activists we must have anti-gay activists or risk a paradox and the world blowing up. This tug of war is not a new issue. Anti-gay activists have always fought to take our rights away. And sometimes they win. And it hurts. It’s hard to watch people who don’t know you fighting so hard to make sure you feel like a second-class citizen. But I don’t need to watch the news or keep up minute-to-minute monitoring of social media for the latest assault on my human rights. I know that as a queer lesbian and aspiring novelist, I have a choice straight people don’t have to think about. Do I start my career on the outside of the closet or hide inside it?
The problem is that if I start out loud and proud, I run the risk of getting pigeonholed. I want to be taken serious; to write whatever I want to write and be recognized on the merit of my writing … Not “Oh, it was good for a gay play,” as, in the past, I’ve heard people say. I know there are books, TV, and films that have LGBTQ characters. I’m even reading a book that broaches the subject of gender non-conforming, using they/them pronouns in a simple, inclusive way. We are definitely in a new hopeful era, however, there’s a man in the White House who not only encourages but rewards hate speech and hate crimes, which hastens the rolling back of our civil and human rights. For this reason, I still fear writing outside of that closet.
To give context to my fears, I’d like to share a few experiences. Getting called sir has been something I’ve had to deal with as far back as I can remember. Once when I was 8 years old, I had short hair. I was walking home from school along the same road I always took, when a man, working on the roof of his house, called out to me: “Hey little boy!” I think he wanted me to help him with something, but I don’t remember; all I heard was him mistaking me for a boy. I called back: “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl!” And kept walking. Probably a good thing too, because looking back on that, he could easily have been a pedophile looking for his next victim.
Later, in my twenties, I had hair down to my ass. One night, I went to the store before going out clubbing. I was decked out in femme form fitting jeans, spaghetti strap top, and femme boots. The young male clerk noticed me from the corner of his eye and called me sir. I said, “Really?” He looked me full in the face. His eyes opened wide and he stammered, “I mean ma’am.”
Then one day, about 11 years ago, after dreaming of it for years, I cut all that hair off to a “boy” short length. It was the most freeing experience. I’m so used to the short hair now, but back then, I wasn’t prepared to be cruised by gay boys—not for nothing, but I could do pretty damn good as a gay boy. I get mistaken as a man by others too. I remember a time when I was walking toward the exit of the women’s bathroom and an elderly woman came in, saw me, backed up, and looked at the symbol on the door to make sure she was in the right bathroom.
I’ve definitely forgotten more stories than I can remember, but each experience has imprinted itself in me, whether I remember it or not. I understand that getting called sir is not inherently life-threatening, but when you look like a sir but are not, there are those who won’t let their homophobia go. One night, many years ago, a friend was leaving a popular gay bar when several young men surrounded her. My friend was a large butch woman. You took one look at her and knew she was a dyke. These men started to harass her . . . she may have fought back. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. These men brutally beat her and left her with severe injuries. She was terrified to leave her home for months after the attack. All I could think was, “Where was I? Where were her other friends? How can this happen outside of a busy bar and no one intervenes?” The last time I saw her, she was a shell of the person she’d once been. This particular gay bashing took place over ten years ago, but this same type of gay bashing still happens today.
For these reasons (and many more), I have been scared of outing myself. But this isn’t a rant about ma’am vs. miss, or long hair vs. short. It’s not a rant about hate crimes, getting called sir, or being challenged in the ladies room. My point is that people take one look at me, and they know I’m gay. So am I fooling myself that people won’t stereotype me? I’ll simplify it for you; if you want to tear me down, do it if my writing sucks, but don’t deny me success because I date women. I want the same chance at success that everyone else gets. I want that chance for all gay, bi, lez, trans, binary/nonbinary, non-gender conforming/gender conforming, genderqueer, and anyone else who falls outside the accepted “norm”!
To be you or not to be you? With all the dangers of being yourself when you are different from the supposed majority, it can be easy to justify hiding; it’s called self-preservation. But, despite the dangers, there are excellent reasons to being out, loud, and proud.
It pisses off anti-gay activists
Just being you fosters acceptance.
It shows people who are suffering from the same/similar problems that they are not alone.
People sense you are hiding something and since they can’t read minds, they don’t know WHAT you are hiding, and make up their own minds about what you are hiding, without ever asking you what you are hiding. This fosters suspicion, bad feelings, resentment, etc.
And it’s worth repeating, it fosters acceptance, as well as one’s self-esteem.
So, I say, just be you.