Slow to Queer

U.W. Gender & Women’s Studies Professor Dr. Sami Schalk on the many twists and turns in her life as a bisexual, polyamorous, black woman, and creating the queer life her younger self didn’t know was possible.

I often (semi-jokingly) refer to myself as a unicorn: I’m a black, queer, polyamorous, femme with a PhD, a tenure-track job, and a book published by a major academic press. I am an anomaly, an exception, a rarity, in so many ways. So when I tell people about my background, there’s often an assumption that my childhood and young adult life had to be fairly traumatic and terrible given who I am now.

I grew up in a small town in Kentucky where I was often the only person of color in classes and at events. I was an only child raised by my white single parent mother who sent me to Catholic school for 12 years and where we learned things like birth control causes breast cancer and gay people can recover from homosexuality. 

I didn’t know LBGTQ+ people or adults of color growing up at all, unless you count those I saw on TV. Most people I knew in real life were straight, white, and desired normalcy. They finished high school, went to a local community college or university, got married, had kids, and replicated the quiet middle class life their parents had. I never knew that the life I would eventually create for myself was even possible.

That said, growing up I was loved and supported in many ways—my mom bought me so many books and enrolled me in dozens of programs and camps to encourage me to be smart, creative, outgoing, and driven. I never doubted I was loved, and yet, I also felt like I didn’t quite belong. I often felt I was too smart, too fat, too dark, too mature, and just too much for the little slice of world I was born into. 

Eventually I realized I had to get out of my small, conservative, Christian hometown to see what else was out there. Finding the life I wanted to live, a life where I felt I belonged, meant leaving Kentucky and having some distance from my biological family, but I have gained so much more than I’ve lost in the process.

More than sexuality  

Queerness has been a slow journey for me. There was no clear turning point or transitional moment, no big coming out, no traumatic tale of familial rejection—though no celebratory narrative of full familial acceptance either. At 13, I knew I was attracted to women and I started personally, privately identifying as bisexual. While recognizing my attraction to multiple genders would perhaps be the starting point of many queer narratives, sexual attraction is such a small slice of what queerness means to me. I think of queer as an expansive and shifting term. It is sex and desire, yes, but queerness for me is also a form of community, an ethic, a way of being in the world, and a mode of relationality. When I think about my childhood and adolescence, there are so many things besides my attraction to women that feel queer about it, things that shaped me into the kind of queer person I am today. 

Of course, it’s easy to look back from the distance of 20 plus years and create a linear story, to craft a progressive narrative about my move from oppression to freedom, so I want to make clear that’s not what I’m doing here. My path to queerness has never been linear or predetermined and this slow journey is, I hope, far from over. What I write here is just one version of my story. I could also tell it a hundred other ways, for different audiences, in different moods, at different stages of my life. 

Recognizing and forging queer relationships  

I grew up in a house of women: me, my mom (who never dated until I was in my mid-20s), and my single aunt who lived with us for several years to help out. I knew married couples, of course, but I figured out as a kid that marriage and even a partner wasn’t necessary for family or love or happiness. I was also part of a big extended family. My mom was one of 10 kids, and I am the oldest of 10 grandchildren. My aunts, uncles, and grandparents helped raise me and I helped raise my cousins. Through these experiences I understood what it meant to have a big support network of people who loved and cared about each other, even when they didn’t always like everything about one another. I learned that family mattered and that family included people tied to me by blood, by marriage, and by choice. 

In high school, I had a close intimate relationship with two guy friends—what I would now consider a mildly sexual triad relationship. The boys were best friends, both on the basketball team, and we were all in classes together. At parties, I would make out with them both and they would take turns cuddling me on my bed when I had friends over to watch TV. One time we went to see a movie in the theater and I held both of their hands as I sat between them. But I never officially dated either one of them. Instead, I supported them in finding other girls to date or take to school dances—sometimes literally talking to them on behalf of female friends. I loved them both and felt that the relationship the three of us had was distinct and unique. 

Of course, I also experienced bouts of jealousy and fears that they didn’t care for me the way I cared for them—all the tumultuous emotions of any teenage relationship. Looking back now I can recognize that I was experiencing and grasping at something I had no language or framework for at the time: polyamory, non-monogamy, and intimate friendships. Again, each of these young men identified as straight, and now as far as I know are each happily and monogamously married, but the relationship I had with them was non-normative and a little queer.

For me, these childhood and young adult experiences with chosen family and non-monogamy are just as much a part of my slow journey to queerness—at least, queerness as I understand and define it for myself—as my first crush on my best friend in middle school and my attempts to impress her by learning to play the video games she liked. Even in small town Kentucky, even in Catholic school, I slowly discovered and learned more about myself, what I wanted and didn’t want, through experimenting with different kinds of family, friend, intimate, and romantic relationships—queering the world I was born into until I had a reason and a way to go somewhere else.

An expanded world away from home  

Once I left home for college, my slow journey to queerness picked up some speed. Away from the place where I was raised and the people in it, I was allowed to expand and explore even more. I quickly realized that a lot of the things I thought I was supposed to do, the things everyone around me was doing, didn’t actually have to happen for me to be a good or happy person. I learned from my new peers and professors that there were so many more ways to be in the world than I had been shown in Kentucky or on TV. I began to learn a new language for the things I wanted to have and to become. 

Over the course of my undergraduate career I went from making out with a lot of girls in bars in order to get guys to pay attention (and buy us shots) and holding secret crushes on people in my women’s studies courses to wondering if marriage and kids were really for me and exploring BDSM/kink scenes and open relationships. Eventually, I came out as bisexual to close friends, but more publicly I was simply sex-positive. I worked at the campus Women’s Center and regularly encouraged people to get free condoms from us—often carrying some with me to give out at bars or parties to folks who might need them. I even hosted a Pure Romance party for my twenty-first birthday—one of those Tupperware-style events where a local consultant comes and sells sex toys on commission—in order to encourage my friends to buy vibrators and other things to improve their orgasms and sex life overall. As I embraced what improved sex could offer, same-sex desire was just one component of what I wanted to explore.

Eventually, when I was working toward my PhD and reading a lot of queer theory, queer became my preferred term of identification because it marked my resistant position to the norms of relationships. Discovering queer as an expansive term to describe non-normative relationships and sexuality was hugely helpful in my more public “outness,” if you will. For much of my early twenties, I struggled with internalized biphobia, particularly my concern that I hadn’t had “enough” sex with women (note: I will never have had enough sex with women) and my fear that “real” queers would not accept or read me as part of their community if I was in a relationship with a man.

Embracing my own sense of queer  

I also often felt like, as my partner often jokingly puts it, “the wrong kind of gay.” I presented as femme, with long hair and skirts; most of my friends at the time were straight; I didn’t know half of the queer/lesbian bands and singers my lesbian friends adored. In other words, I wasn’t yet a part of any queer culture or community, and I feared not fitting in. 

During my PhD program in Gender Studies, though, I was surrounded by lesbians, gay men, queers, trans folks, bisexuals, pansexuals, asexuals, polyamorous people, furry-identified people, and a number of other identities and sexualities I was encountering for the first time ever or for the first time in such quantity (seriously, straight folks were a real minority). This community of fellow students and professors, through readings, discussions, parties, drag shows, and karaoke nights at the gay bar, helped me see the diversity of queerness and queer communities so that I came to see I had to define my queer for myself. 

I chose to identify as queer because queerness signaled my commitment to living differently; to defining my romantic, sexual, intimate, friend, and familial relationships on my own terms. For me this now includes prioritizing my career, choosing to never get married or have children, being polyamorous, living alone, engaging in BDSM and a sex positive life, and committing myself to building a community of outsiders and weirdos who don’t quite fit into the worlds they were born into, either.

I wish my younger self had known that such a queer life was possible, and yet the journey here, the experimentation and questioning, the conscious choices and difficult conversations, are all so essential to who I am now: a proudly black, queer, polyamorous, femme woman; a professor of Gender & Women’s Studies who spends her days researching social justice issues in the contemporary U.S. and teaching college students about race, gender, disability, and sexuality. 

In many ways, the seeds for this life were planted long ago in small ways I could have never understood: from being raised by a single parent with a big extended family, to my secret intimacy with my two best guy friends in high school. Queerness has been a slow journey, but it began earlier than my first crush on a girl or the first time I told someone I was bisexual. In writing this article, I want to honor the ways that people and experiences shape us, the way they point us in the right directions, even when we eventually want or need to leave those people or experiences behind. Leaving them, growing up or apart from them, does not negate their value or their impact on who we are. 

A different kind of story  

This isn’t a story of triumph or overcoming. It’s a story of growth, of slowly learning what I wanted, often through trial and error, and of figuring out how to work and live outside of the standard frameworks for adult life we’re given in this capitalist white supremacist hetero-patriarchal world.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the “it gets better” platitude directed at LGBTQ+ youth today. I understand its practical value in trying to give hope to young folks who may be considering suicide due to bullying, harassment, and abuse from peers, family members, and society. The value of that hope is undeniable. 

I also know that for certain LGBTQ+ people, especially those multiply-marginalized by not only homophobia, but also sexism, cis-sexism, racism, ableism, classism, and xenophobia, it doesn’t necessarily get better, and definitely not permanently so. The current political climate should make that more clear than ever. So many trans women of color are being murdered. So many disabled queer people are being denied access to sexual expression and queer community spaces.

Locally, Wisconsin state employees have lost domestic partner benefits because of the legalization of gay marriage. This is a particularly strange way that things getting better for some folks (here mostly white and middle- to upper-class gays and lesbians) can mean things getting worse for others—such as LBGTQ+ people for whom marriage is not an option because it would disrupt custody arrangements, spousal support agreements, or social security disability payments—not to mention those who simply just don’t want to get married. It doesn’t always get better, sometimes it gets worse or just different, but sometimes, hopefully more often than not, we learn to handle it better.

My slow journey to queerness has meant learning to be in the world differently, to have different values, and different coping mechanisms than many of the people I grew up with in Kentucky. I am better at owning and loving who I am. I am better at supporting myself and finding support without needing blood/legal relatives (although I am privileged to be able to choose to involve some of them if I want). These skills I have developed rely on certain degrees of privilege, especially economic privilege.

In this moment, with the incredible conservative backlash against advancements in LBGTQ+ rights along with the rights of immigrants, women, people of color, and disabled people, I am even more hesitant to insist “it gets better.” But my experience with queer communities tells me that we are incredibly adaptable and resilient: we survive. Not all of us, but many of us—enough of us to carry on.

My past-self’s wildest dream  

I’d like to close with another brief story: At my high school, senior superlatives were granted to one “boy” and one “girl” for each category. I was voted most likely to succeed. Last year, I found out that the other person voted most likely to succeed, who was my friend from honors classes and musical theater (I know, I know, so gay), is now a bisexual, polyamorous, queer, trans woman and an engineering professor named Mara. I never wanted to go to high school reunions before, but now I want nothing more than to go back with her and show folks just how much we have truly succeeded, not just in our careers but in creating the beautifully queer lives we could have never imagined possible as high school seniors. 

In fact, when I asked Mara if she knew she was trans in high school, but just didn’t come out (which was the case with me in terms of my then-bisexual identity), she told me she didn’t know, that growing up as the oldest child in one of the most conservative families in our Catholic school, she didn’t even know what transgender was/meant or that trans people existed until college. As queer people, we often come from spaces and people that cannot accept who we are, so we fashion ourselves and our lives from our own imaginations, creating new worlds where perhaps young queer people might have to work a little less hard and wait a little less long to create the lives they might not think are possible now.

There’s a phrase I’ve seen shared by many black folks on social media and I’m not sure who first said it. Some Googling suggests it was maybe Ava DuVernay, but no matter who said it first, there are plenty of mugs and t-shirts for sale online that read “I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams.” I think the very black nature of this sentiment can’t be understated: we, African Americans, are descended from enslaved people, people who, even when freed, started with literally nothing and were regularly subjected to intimidation, discrimination, exclusion, and violence of all sorts. As a black person I often think about how far we have come in a few generations and how impossible my life would seem to a slave or someone living under Jim Crow. 

From a perspective of queerness, though, I think that rather than my ancestor’s wildest dreams, I am my own girl-self’s, my past-self’s wildest dreams. Growing up I did not know adults like me existed or that relationships like the kind I have were allowed. I am living a life I could not have even imagined, but one that, in many ways, I desired and worked toward in indirect, non-linear ways throughout my life. I got here learning about queer ways of being from non-queer-identified people doing slightly queer things and with the help of many queer-identified mentors who showed me that stepping outside of the norm, no matter how scary or unsafe at times, would have rewards beyond my wildest imagination. 

I hope that in five years I will tell this story differently. I hope in 10 years I look back at this writing and realize how much more I have grown and moved in new directions in my queer life journey. I hope whatever comes next is something I have not yet imagined for myself.

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