WANTING TO BE WHO WE'RE NOT
 

Creative Nonfiction by Queer Writers
Edited by Jim Tushinski and Jim Van Buskirk
Now available from Harrington Park Press

 
 
 

Introduction

     So there we were—having lunch one day in San Francisco. We talked about a lot of things, but somehow that day we ended up revealing to each other that though raised in Christian homes, we had each developed a desire to be Jewish. We laughed about the odd coincidence of it, but wondered: was this "identity envy" common?
     Of course, not every Christian-raised queer kid wanted to be Jewish, but surely other people had desires like this. Was it related to the universal childish fantasy that your parents weren't your real parents, that instead you were adopted royalty? If so, why did this feeling sometimes persist into adulthood? Surely it wasn't just some elaborate sexual fetish.
     We had no clear answers, but the idea intrigued us and we set about asking friends if they had experienced something similar. The affirmative reactions we got, the number of variations, and the eagerness with which people launched into their own "identity envy" stories convinced us that we were on to something.
     We cast our net, calling on queer writers to explore their own identity envies in personal essays, memoirs, and other works of creative nonfiction. We had no idea what to expect and what we got surprised and delighted us.
     Queers—including lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgendered, intersex and other sexual minorities—often feel marginalized by mainstream culture. Considered as "other," their sexual orientation and/or gender identification render them strangers in a strange land. Many times this feeling comes early to queer kids. In other cases, it shows up later and lingers into adulthood. Along with this feeling of not belonging to the culture at large comes an intense need to belong somewhere, to claim some group as one's own. This isn't particularly unique to queer folks. But certainly the two of us felt that somehow our desire to be "other" and our marginalization were inexorably intertwined. We wanted to find out if other queer people felt that way too and how it influenced their lives.
     So what is "identity envy"? What causes it? Who has it? This anthology offers no answers to these excellent questions; instead it seeks to provoke an exploration of the many possibilities. The approaches, as you will see, are myriad and multivalent, humorous and hard-hitting, poignant and provocative. In many of the pieces we chose, the identities envied are readily apparent; in others the issue is dealt with more conceptually. At the risk of abusing our prerogative as editors, it seemed only natural to include our own takes on the issue.
     Some of the pieces take popular culture as a point of departure. Max Pierce explains how his fantasy of being a "Child Star" helped him through a troubled family life, while Will McNamara references an unlikely media icon in "Tania, Sometimes." Gerard Wozek's Kung Fu-infused "Chasing the Grasshopper" and Jim Tushinski's ode to Lost in Space in "The Perfect Space Family" show the effects of mainstream television on not-so-mainstream identities.
     Other authors look at the interplay between class and geography.
Jeff Mann's "Plantation Fantasies" describes his rejection of and ultimate reconciliation with his Southern "hillbilly" roots. Frederic B. Tate travels to Ireland in his desperate attempt to "Escape from the Appalachians," while D. Travers Scott complicates his rejection of Texas and his embracing of Europe (and vice versa) to ultimately identify with the amalgamation: "EuroTex." Mike McGinty is able to see the humor in his city slickness as he is befriended by a "cattle folk" boy in "You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Helen."
     Sometimes, the "identity envy" crosses national borders. In "
Acting American," Robert Boulanger renounces his French-Canadian heritage as he admits his attraction for all things American. Al Cho, the son of Korean immigrants to Illinois, describes his unlikely identification with Laura Ingalls Wilder characters as he reinvents the metaphor of gardening in "Farmer Boy." Daniel M. Jaffe explores the "Connections" between hiding his relatives' Jewish identity in the Soviet Union and hiding his gayness in the United States.
     Race and ethnicity are explored in intriguing ways by several of the contributors. In "
Italian-American Boys," John Gilgun explores why he preferred the emotionally involved Italian-American families to his own cold Irish-American roots. In other cases, such as Jay Blotcher's "The Day My Past Came Calling," the romance of adoption and discovering one's true roots doesn't always provide the answers one expects. As a "gay black man with locks," JDGuilford revisits his childhood harassment to confront homophobia in "Pimp Juice."


Jim and Jim

     Perhaps not surprisingly, several of the writers wrestle with gender. In "Thieves, Pimps and Holy Prostitutes - My World," Renate Stendhal looks at the development of her sexual identity and how it was bound up with her intense identification with gay men. Margaret Cleaver confronts the question of "Who Am I?" by revisiting her childhood identification as Native American and male. In "When I was a Girl/1966," Deborah La Garbanza confesses that she "always wanted to grow up and be a guy with a white undershirt and large sweat stains under the armpits." Andrew Ramer's "Tales of a Male Lesbian" reveals his woman-identified involvement in literature and politics while living in Brooklyn's Park Slope.
     
Perry Brass, who grew up Jewish in the Deep South, envies both a different religion and gender in "A Serene Invisibility." Religion rears its head again as Lori Horvitz initially disavows her Judaism, preferring to identify with the unknown Aryan model in a framed photograph, the "Shiksa in my Living Room." Joan Annsfire similarly rejects her Jewish outsider identity in "The Promise of Redemption," chronicling her days as "Corinne O'Donnell," a tough Catholic girl. Goyisher Jim Van Buskirk goes the other direction, as he experiences a mysterious meltdown "At the Museum of Jewish Heritage."
     Sometimes the identities envied are multidimensional.
Rosebud Ben-Oni teases out the complexities of the linguistic genders of Hebrew and Arabic as she negotiates the Israeli/Palestinian and out/closeted divide in "Mishmumken: For Those Who Cannot Choose." Larry Connolly's series of "Primary Wishes" chronicles his education at the hands of Catholic nuns and the confusion that engendered, while Keguro Macharia offers multiple myths in an attempt to navigate the complicated art of "Living Mythically" as a same-sex-loving Nigerian in gay America. Robert Labelle's visits to "Nanna's Room" establish an early and profound connection to more than the elderly lady down the hall. Darin Beasley's dreamlike descriptions of two best friends and their complicated desires belies the power of "Treasure Chest." And in "Wanting," Cheryl Schoonmaker's account of her hospitalizations may provide haunting clues to her parents' problems.
     In the tradition of the best anthologies we have included familiar names, alongside newer voices. Some of the contributors are writers by trade and others are not, but each had an interesting story to tell and told it with energy, candor, and a unique, yet universal, voice. And lest we be criticized for giving more space to male voices, we should note that our first criteria was always quality over any quota system and that, coincidentally, the anthology reflects the same percentage of female to male authors that the submissions as a whole did.
     We think the resulting collection is adequately provocative to encourage readers to consider their relationship to identity-to their own identity and to those of others. It seems that as we make sense of our individual journeys, our similarities outweigh our differences. As we all seek to belong, we learn that in fact we do belong, to ourselves and to each other.

Jim Tushinski and
Jim Van Buskirk