The Hye-Phen

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Learning How to be Queer from White People

by | Nov 2, 2014 | Essay

The Hye-Phen

The thing that no one warns immigrant kids in the U.S. is that if you veer off the beaten path your parents have laid out for you, they say you are betraying your heritage. The thing that no one warned me, as an immigrant taken from my place of birth as a baby, raised in a bubble as if the Soviet Union never fell, was that my family had the power to cut me off from my own culture. What no one warned me was that the way I would learn to be queer and trans would inevitably align me with white people over the Middle Eastern people and Slavs that I once called my community.

I learned how to be queer from white people.

I learned early on that in order to be queer I had to come out. That inevitably I would have to have the conversation with my parents where I revealed their misunderstanding of an essential and fundamental aspect of my identity. I learned that anyone who didn’t love queers was backwards, uncivilized, and that I needed to hate them. I learned that in order to be queer I must abandon my family. I learned for a decade and I prepared.

Naturally, no one was surprised, expect perhaps my own 19 year-old naiveté, when my mother screamed and tried to step into New York traffic in grief and my father informed me that I would never be able to go back to Armenia again. My father sent me long emails, the only emails I have ever deleted in my life, explaining to me in meticulous detail, trying desperately to get me to understand, that my choices were fundamentally the antithesis of society and that I was threatening to destabilize the very fabric of culture. (It’s fine. I strive for that these days.) I cried. I ran away. I bounced from couch to couch. I wore the same shoes every day until they were falling off my feet. I ate a bagel every day, for 89 centers, with butter because the squares of butter were free, and nothing else. I rushed into the arms of men who were thrilled to find someone as easily exploitable as I was. I tried to die.

This story has haunted me for years. It has been my queer origin story, the story that I cite as the source of my trauma. The story of how my family rejected me. I have carried it like a stone in my heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It really was awful. It was crushing and horrible. But there’s something else about this story. It’s cliché. It’s pre-written. You’ve heard this story before and you’ll hear it again. I barely even need to tell it for you to know how it goes. When I first began to try to explain what had happened to me, I already knew exactly how it should be told. It gave me my queer cred. Now I was real.

But this is also the story of how I became white. This is the story of how the day I became “a queer person” or “a trans person” was also the day I stopped existing for my family, for all the people back in Armenia and Russia both alive and dead, for the cultures that had structured me since birth. Because Being Gay, as supposed having non-heterosexual sex is a western invention. It’s not about sex, it’s about identity. Foucault has said it better than me, but even that’s not good enough because when I try to explain to my mother what I’m talking about, she just says “Fu-who?” and that’s a betrayal too because even the way I have learned to understand what happened with my family is via another dead white guy they don’t understand.

When I told my aunt I was trans, she just said I was so American. When I told my father, he said that I had spent too long in the U.S. and this would have never happened if we had stayed in Moscow.  They said that these things don’t exist back home. The truth is that they right. There isn’t a place on earth where someone at some point didn’t want to do something queer. But there’s only one place on earth that invented being gay. And the truth is that, without them, I did become so American. Without my father, my long-lapsed Armenian isn’t enough to get me around in Armenia anymore. Without my mother, I don’t even know where our old apartment is. I went to groups where queers felt angry about the LGBT Situation in Russia. I felt that every nation that wasn’t throwing pride parades was the Enemy. I was so angry. I complained constantly about how bigoted Armenians and Russians are. How inevitable it was that my parents would reject me.

Again, I have to clarify. I don’t think that not wanting to be a woman who fucks men means I can’t be Armenian. The question becomes not “how do I become straight enough to be Armenian?” The question is “What does it look like to be a queer Armenian”?

Over and over again, my mother and father have insisted that I cannot ask them to change. That to change something so foundational to their world view as to accept the identities I had claimed would be to ask them to be different people entirely. The conflict begins to crystalize. It is perhaps less about whom I fuck or how I dress, but rather about how I have demanded that they change, stop being the people that they are from the time and places that they come from. And in demanding that they change is where I have divided myself from them, where I have bleached myself lily-white. This isn’t that different, as far as I can tell, from what is happening inside Armenia itself. Armenia, if you google it, is not exactly a champion of gay rights. The first and only bar resembling a gay-bar got fire-bombed. But the trouble is less about queers and more about a demand that Armenia change to a profoundly western model of queerness where identity is the ultimate arbiter of sexual practice.

Maybe being queer and Armenian at the same time starts with not insisting that my parents acknowledge me as essentially defined by who I fuck. Why is this something that I need from my parents, or at all? Can’t I still love and fuck without their formal, written acceptance? Does it start with not hanging up the phone because my parents Don’t Love Me when they call me “she” or “daughter”? (I stopped doing that years ago, my own shame prompts me to tell you.) Do I even want my parents to acknowledge me as a fundamentally different person, let alone do I need them to in order to say fuck you to the stultifying womanhood that’s been pushed onto me.

It’s different, probably, living in Armenia or even Russia. But I don’t. I live in the U.S. For better or for worse I am Armenian-Russian-American. A weird mixed kid living in an entirely third culture and for us diasporans we find our cultures in our communities. The lines back to our family’s places of origin—Armenia, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Russia, Turkey— are drawn through our diasporan communities.  And I need my community. I need them to survive the orientalism, the fetishism, the ignorance, and the shitty-ass white people food. (Except for hamburgers. I didn’t have one until I was 18 and that was a huge mistake.)

I’m so tired of the old story that in order to be queer everyone needs to know. I’m so exhausted by everyone insisting that the only way I can exist is if I articulate myself through a white paradigm. I’m, honestly, so infuriated, by the way that Born This Way taught me to hate Armenia. I’m taking back being a hairy, loud, brown Armenian. I’m saying no to feeling like my loving and fucking are incompatible with being Armenian. I love the mountains there. I love the peeling buildings. I love the tut. I love the huge dinners and the huge weddings and the huge butts. (Even if I didn’t get one.) I’m taking who and how I’m loving and fucking and who and how I am when I love and fuck them back from the colonial juggernaut.
The Hye-Phen