That afternoon, I learned again something I had known before: that I wasn’t completely straight.
It was the summer of 2015, and I was in small-town Pennsylvania at a retreat run by an organization for Black poets. It was also the twentieth anniversary of the org, which meant that every day, there was some kind of programming, and many fellows had been asked to prepare short speeches about the founders or to introduce famous authors who gave readings. One of the fellows who’d been invited to speak was a woman who sat next to me in workshop, a woman so beautiful I was afraid to speak to her. She wrote poems about another woman with whom she was in love and had stiletto nails the soft color of eggshells. She sometimes tapped the table with them while making a point during workshop critiques. In the dorm rooms, she donned a silky dressing gown and, without her lipstick, her mouth was champagne pink.
On the day of the program, she walked casually to the podium wearing a seafoam-colored blazer and matching shorts that came only a few inches below the blazer’s hem, with blush-colored high-heeled sandals. Her legs were out, her hair up, and as she crossed the room, we all took a collective gasp.
Though my gasp was as effortless as everyone else’s (didn’t I tell you she was beautiful?), I was particularly surprised by the tidal wave of another feeling, one I had repressed for years. It wasn’t the self-deprecating envy of her style and talent that I often struggled with at the workshop table. It was something else. I wanted to slip an arm around her waist or run my hand along her thighs. I wanted to kiss her. And I wanted her to kiss me back. I wanted her nails to rake my skin; I wanted those lips on my neck. I thought all of this to myself as everyone applauded before she spoke a single word.
That afternoon, I learned again something I had known before: that I wasn’t completely straight.
Two days after her speech, the woman and I sat in a circle at a morning breakout session, where the facilitator asked each of us to answer a question based on the Lucille Clifton poem “won’t you celebrate with me”: What has tried to kill you and has failed? One by one, each of us set down and unpacked the loads we’d carried into that space: We shared about secrets and traumas and the general exhaustion of being Black in spaces never designed to nurture or even hold us.
When it was my turn, I looked down at my lap and cleared my throat. Four months earlier, I’d been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and I hadn’t even told most of the members of my family, let alone complete strangers. When I looked up, my sight was blurry from the tears that were already coming. I could barely see the woman, who was sitting across the circle, her high bun tied in a floral scarf, her shoulders erect. But she, like everyone else in the room, was waiting for me to speak. I took a breath.
“Earlier this year—” I began, but the rest of the sentence dissolved into sobs.
Eventually, I would tell the story of my diagnosis and how I felt even more unlovable than I already had. To have albinism is an “othering” that sometimes ostracizes me from the very communities I was born into: Black, poor, Christian. Some people see my skin as an unfortunate God-given affliction; others see it as a feature that makes me think I’m better than others—and it doesn’t matter that no one ever asks me to confirm or deny. An additional illness, and a frightening one at that, made me feel like I’d been downgraded from tolerable (if not desirable) to untouchable. I was wrong, of course, but it didn’t stop me from sobbing about both things in a room full of people I didn’t know but who would comfort me nonetheless. Their back pats, hand-holding, and soothing words made me feel, if not better, at least less alone.
To have albinism is an “othering” that sometimes ostracizes me from the very communities I was born into: Black, poor, Christian.
Later that day, as we approached our adjacent chairs at the workshop table, weary from the session and rattled by our own admissions, the woman asked me for a hug. I was shocked, but grateful, and when I opened my arms, so did she. We held each other for a long time, so long that I could smell the almond oil in her hair, feel the coolness of her necklace against my chest and the fullness of each of her breasts as they pressed against mine.
Of course there is, at times, an erotic nature to shared grief. We’ve seen it with 9/11 firefighters who left their spouses for the widows of fallen company members, or in the stories of friends who bond over unfaithful spouses and soon find themselves wanting more from each other than mere comfort. When many of us see others suffering in ways we ourselves have suffered, our first impulse is to reach out, to let the other person know that they are neither alone nor unprecedented in their mourning. And that can easily slide into something else. There’s no doubt I was experiencing at least a little of that that day, but what I was also encountering was a kind of embrace that was both physical and metaphorical, and more complex than just touching a woman I thought was hot. It was an opening for me, a foray into a deeper understanding of the kind of love that could exist between me and people who are not men. A kind of love that could be erotic, but also reciprocal and fulfilling.
Before that moment, my family’s strict religious beliefs and the general distrust with which women in my family treated other women had made this impossible. You weren’t even supposed to let some women past your front door, let alone into your bed. God wouldn’t be pleased, and, after a while, neither would you because at some point, you’d want something more, wouldn’t you? And who would live willingly without men? Every single woman in my family (including my mother) seemed to be enduring it under duress. Men made families. Without them, I was told, there could be no real family. And without them, I was told that touching wasn’t supposed to be pleasurable. This foreclosed on a number of possibilities for me, and I walked into adulthood holding fast to the fictions of a heterosexuality that was never meant for me.
But that embrace with the woman at the workshop table was a turning point. Until then, I hadn’t realized that I needed to be touched, and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t preoccupied with its being a man or even with its being exclusively sexual. Illness, trauma, and loneliness had made my needs more complex, and had created wounds that the Band-Aid of heteronormative Christianity couldn’t even cover, let alone heal. Though my family and friends had been supportive during those terrible past few months, they also lived in other parts of the country. I’d been battling the daily tasks of Crohn’s—doctor’s appointments and bloodwork and transformed grocery lists—alone. The last relationship I’d been in ended in my assault more than a year before. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been held. Barring doctors and phlebotomists, I couldn’t remember the last time someone had put their hands on me solely because they wanted to. I’d been alone in my body from the moment I was diagnosed until I touched the woman who’d sat quietly next to me for three days. That afternoon, we hugged until our instructor walked in, and we knew it was time to take our seats.
It would be reductive (and untrue) to say that I finally came to queerness because I was assaulted or because I got sick. I do, however, believe that there are battles, particularly ones for my own healing, that have stripped me of my armor, especially the armor I never asked to wear. My journeys have also taught me to be selective about what I carry. I cannot change what has happened to me, and I only have so much control over my health, but I do have the right to choose whom I love and how I am loved. “[W]hen we touch / we enter touch entirely,” writes Anne Sexton in “The Truth the Dead Know.” I think of this often when I think of my queerness. It means that I can desire but also offer care. I can lust but also give. I can need to be loved, but not at the expense of my own autonomy. And I don’t have to work for anyone’s arrival or approval to save me from my life. This can be true in the bedroom (as it must), but also in the chat, or in the professional relationships I share with my writer friends. And with all of my families—the one I was born into as well as the ones I have and will make.
A few years after we met, I told the woman from the retreat about a secret crush I had on a mutual friend, someone I’d met while attending a conference in her hometown. Both they and I had crashed on her couches to save money, and late at night we’d whisper across the living room, getting to know each other.
I do have the right to choose whom I love and how I am loved.
“I can see that. You’d be cute together. You’re both beautiful,” said the woman from the retreat matter-of-factly. I smiled. It was a moment of both gratitude and relief. I was floored that she considered me good enough for her friend, someone who, at first glance, I wanted to sleep with. But even more important was that what I wanted wasn’t a big deal.
I’d only recently begun to understand myself as someone who loved not only men and women, but across the gender spectrum, and as shocked as I was about the discovery, she wasn’t. That acceptance sits at the heart of my journey of understanding myself. And let me be clear: Queer people aren’t here to do work for folks who are trying to figure out what they are. But the ways my friends show up in their own lives and their willingness to let me be a part of those lives models for me what sexual freedom can look like. They give me new paradigms, new ways of calling myself.
In this way, I’ve come to understand my queerness not as an exclusively sexual proclivity, but as a way the people I love and I exist with each other, the ways we love and show up. That concept isn’t new, but it often astounds me because one of the great ironies of my life is that the kind of love I was raised to believe was exclusively Christian, the love Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13—the love of patience, kindness, and loyalty—is a kind I have most often experienced in relationships with other queer people. It is a love that takes me as I am and, in so doing, makes it possible to love other people better, including some of the folks I was raised with and who raised me—people who are sometimes slow to kindness and compassion for others who are not like them. I can love them as they are even if I cannot always interact with them. I can love them in ways that make room for us all.
My queerness actually helps me live a life that feels truer to the God I believe in, but it also makes me more tender and more easily adaptable to change, less embarrassed by my own body, and more comfortable thinking about, talking about, and giving it what it loves. Recently, I started taking nudes of myself, and sometimes I share them with a friend. One night, he responded,“I’m not sure what I’ve done to get these sexy pics!”
“Ah, you’re cute and I like you,” I replied, but I think the answer is a bit more complicated than that. It feels liberating to give freely without being demanded to give or being fetishized for my difference. I take these pics because they bring me joy, because I am only just now understanding my body as a robust site of desire, as something I relish living in. As something beautiful. None of that would be possible without the people who model that for me, practice it with me, and let me be it. For years after my assault, I only felt comfortable—and safe—experiencing sexual gratification alone. Past heterosexual friends often saw that behavior as a problem to solve. “Let me fix you up with someone,” they’d offer.
The woman from the retreat had a very different reaction. One night, she asked what I planned to do once we hung up.
“Probably spend some quality time with myself,” I responded, my euphemism for jacking off.
“Gang gang,” she said in her trademark matter-of-fact way.
“I stay throwing my sets up,” I quipped, and we laughed.
The last year has been a difficult one for me in terms of friendship. I lost one of my closest, but my circle has strengthened in the aftermath and has become one wherein I feel my freest—no more qualifying my professions of love with vows that they aren’t romantic. No more disguising my desire and talking in circles around my sexuality. Every one of my current close friends gives me a safe space where I can be open about my still-evolving queerness; they make it easier for me to express my sexuality in any relationship, even with men. The transparency about what I want tracks there too, and it makes me feel capacious, endless, adjacent to the Divine.
This is the first time I’ve written the words “I am queer,” but I’m not sure this is a “coming out” in the traditional sense. Most of the people who are important to me know, and the truth is that I have the privilege of being “in” because I also date men. I’m also not sure what saying this will mean for people in my family who don’t know, but I’m also not sure I care. It’s too much work to care about what they think of me now while I am still figuring out the full scope of my sexuality and who I am becoming.
The truth is that I may always be arriving at new levels of being, finding new expansiveness to my love and a deeper sense of who I am, both in my body and in my relationships. And just like I was held by the woman at the workshop table, I’ll be held during this process by people who are like me and who are willing to live their lives with me. What a gift.
Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has either appeared or is forthcoming in Poets & Writers, The Paris Review Daily, Boston Review, African American Review, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published by Tin House Books in October 2020, and was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection. Her debut novel, Nobody's Magic, is forthcoming from Grand Central in February 2022. She earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University.