How Not To Be Seen: Unlearning Invisibility | Haute Macabre

How Not To Be Seen: Unlearning Invisibility

A few months ago Sam invited the staff writers to pen some personal pieces for Haute Macabre. I’ve since considered writing about a variety of subjects that interest me, but there’s something else, something much more personal that’s been on my mind for a very long time and this suddenly seemed like a singular opportunity to put it out into the world. So thank you, Sam, for inviting me to do some serious gut-spilling and intention-outing with this essay. And thank you, whoever takes the time to read this all the way through. (tw: sexual assault and abuse)

“In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor who “knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.” But the butterfly is so fit an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is psyche, the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.”      —Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

In a few moments it’ll officially be my birthday. I’m home alone, sipping bourbon, and re-watching Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s both Pride month and the month in which I turn 40, but I don’t feel like celebrating. That’s because it’s Pride month and I’m about to turn 40 and I feel as though, with the exception of a few precious people and despite what it says in my bio at the bottom of this page, my everyday life is more or less lived in the closet. It’s a closet built of my own silence and other people’s assumptions, but closets of convenience are no less suffocating. So how did I get here?

Like many queer kids, I was a late bloomer. I knew from very early on that I wasn’t straight and that it felt like the most natural thing in the world, but I had no vocabulary for it. When I look back on my childhood and adolescence, there were an abundance of wonderful queer influences in my life – writers, actors, artists, musicians – that I didn’t appreciate specifically for their queerness at the time, but I believe had an impact all the same. Speaking of Only Lovers Left Alive, I’m by no means the first person to declare a profound crush on beguiling, inspiring, gender-fluid Tilda Swinton, who’s had me in her thrall since I first saw Orlando in my teens, which was also how I discovered Virginia Woolf. I’m doubly glad about these queer presences because I didn’t have any queer personal contacts until I was nearly out of high school. If any of my friends at the time were somehow queer, they weren’t out (not that I’m blaming anyone for that). I had no gay relatives or gay family friends (again, not that I knew of). I was also introverted, melancholy, and often lost in my own head, which probably didn’t help matters.

I don’t recall hearing overtly homophobic rhetoric from anyone close to me as a child. But I remember lots of little things, like kids in school making homophobic jokes, laughing and reciting sing-song chants on the playground like “Lez be friends so we can walk homo together.” I doubt they really understood what they were saying, not at that age. They just thought it was funny. But these sorts of things made it clear to me that certain people were considered “other”, that girls crushed on boys and boys crushed on girls and eventually they’d all grow up and get married and have kids and it was all very, very heteronormative.

Come adolescence I knew I was queer, but still lacked a vocabulary for it. I knew what turned my head and captivated me, but hadn’t the first idea what to do about it or have anyone in whom I felt I could confide about such things. Everyone else seemed to be getting along as well or poorly as can be expected in their teenage years, because let’s not forget that adolescence is rough for everyone. I developed crushes on girls and boys my age (in retrospect, the boys tended to be pretty and delicate of feature), but I didn’t date anyone until college. The internet was a nascent thing during my teens. Life was pre-Facebook, pre-Instagram, pre-Tumblr, etc. I appreciate and sometimes actively envy the access adolescents now have to information, support resources, and potential friends, both near and far. It’s a pointless exercise, but I can’t help wondering if I would’ve figured myself out much earlier if I’d had the access to such things when I was a teen.

College finally introduced me to all sorts of openly queer people. I made new friends and met people I fancied and sometimes they fancied me back, fancy that! Unfortunately, college also brought an abusive relationship with a man and later I was raped by another. I told no one about either of these things at the time and eventually dropped out of college and got a job. I dated women and men and, a couple years later, I was assaulted again, this time by a woman. The world closed a little more each time I experienced this sort of harm, perhaps even more so because I didn’t reach out to others for help. Instead I did what I’d always done and tried to keep going in spite of things, but life became increasingly tricky to navigate. Self-loathing increased, self-esteem shrank, and who I was became less important than simply keeping my head above water.

Over time life gradually calmed down and stabilized. I moved out to Seattle in my mid-twenties, having wanted to live in the PNW since I was a teen. There I formed a deep, healthy, loving relationship with a warm and kind-hearted cis man with whom I’d been friends since college and who is now my husband (I’ll call him B). I also landed a great job for a singular company which grew into the position I love today.

So much of my 20s were varying degrees of difficult and personally unstable. By the time I reached 30 it was clear to me that I needed outside help to deal with various things I’d never actually addressed. Counseling was a life-saving source of support and guidance, helping me face and work through events and issues from my past, letting go of destructive coping mechanisms I’d developed over the intervening years, and learning how to accept, rebuild, and love myself.

But what never came up (nor did I bring up) in therapy or in conversations with my closest friends or even with B, perhaps because it was simply still higher up yet on my personal hierarchy of needs, were my sexual identity and relationship needs. This isn’t meant to imply that B wasn’t aware of my sexual history. We’d discussed it years ago and I’d described myself as what felt accurate at the time: as someone whose attractions to people didn’t concern gender, but individuals. I think that was genuinely was true for a period and remains true with regards to B, but I also can’t help but look back and consider the pressures of heteronormativity and relationship conventions, and how it was easier for me, especially while I was broken and unstable, to default to social norms. Regardless, sexuality is a spectrum, everyone has different relationship needs, and people also grow and change throughout their lives, myself included.

It was only once I finally began to feel okay with myself that I became increasingly aware of both a growing absence in my life and and sense of invisibility. Somewhere along the way of struggling to keep from completely falling apart I’d lost my sense of queerness, and the prospect of facing this felt like the scariest thing yet. Now I found myself married (albeit happily) to a man and thus presenting for all intents and purposes as a heterosexual woman. I’m in my 30s and have a loving partner who is also my best friend. I love my job. I love where I live. Life should be great. I repeatedly told myself it was too late and felt too selfish to even be considering such things. I was lucky to have as much as I did. I should’ve realized and said something to B years ago. I’d missed my window. And at the time, in the midst of all these worries and rationalizations, I didn’t even stop to consider the heteronormative privilege I experience passing as straight. Instead I’d swallow my concerns and longings, shove it all down and ignore it in hopes of forgetting about it, because thinking about it, let alone talking about it, felt pointless.

But as time passes it becomes impossible to ignore that it’s not pointless, that it’s not okay to feel like this, increasingly not okay on many levels. It affects my general well-being, my day-to-day life. It affects the quality of my relationship with B. I lose interest in my hobbies. The idea of spending time with friends feels exhausting because it means keeping up the appearance that I feel fine. Exchanging everyday pleasantries makes me scream and sob inside. I feel hollow interacting with a world that assumes I’m straight, that I’m not a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but an ally. I lose sleep at night wondering if I’ll ever even kiss another woman again and preoccupied by the profound despair such thoughts bring. I silently seethe while sitting through conversations with friends or family that disturb or offend me and feel mute because, before I can address an offending topic, I’d have to start potentially awkward conversations about myself in order to discuss said topic without seeming like someone getting offended on behalf of someone else. It all feels so complicated and messy. So much of this is my fault. I know this. I’m a natural introvert with an intense dislike of confrontation. I don’t want to make people I care about feel uncomfortable and I’m scared of alienating people in my life by sharing information I’ve been sitting on for so long it now feels like an old, increasingly dangerous bomb that only I know about, that only I can see.

On the verge of a tangible internal breaking point, I did finally confide in a couple close friends and, from there, worked up the courage to talk with B. It was terrifying and very emotional for both of us and didn’t get easier from there. There was relief at first, yes, but then began the long, steep learning curve as we set about navigating an entirely new phase of our relationship, one of ethical non-monogamy. For anyone considering such a thing themselves – coming out to your partner and opening your relationship – it’s a lot of hard work that requires constant open communication. But it’s completely worthwhile, I think, especially if you know your life is on the line. But, yes, it means lots of challenging conversations with your partner and working through all sorts of worries, insecurities, and other issues as they arise. For me it also means making sure B understands that, even though I’m a lot gayer now than when we began dating, I don’t love him any less or feel less romantically connected to him because he and our connection are just that special to me.

While this was tremendous personal progress and progress as a couple, aside from B and I each confiding in a couple close friends, the change in our relationship was kept a secret. There was to be no outward evidence so as not to invite potentially awkward questions, not because of shame, but because of convenience.

During this period I met a woman who she initially seemed wonderful in all sorts of ways and I felt swept off my feet, but ultimately it didn’t work out for us. I try to remind myself that most relationships don’t, regardless of things like sexuality or relationship philosophy. Perhaps, because things with B were then so delicate, and fraught, that new relationship was doomed from the start. I think that’s part of it. Sharply differing life circumstances were another. It turned out to be an impossible situation in myriad ways. I’m abbreviating and oversimplifying the entire thing for the sake of everyone’s privacy and the ache in my heart, but (also oversimplifying) I am forever grateful that it happened at all, because for so long I didn’t think anything even remotely of the sort would ever be possible for me.

I’d also like to add – not that this is news in the history of queer love – that one of the worst things ever is experiencing profound heartbreak and grieving the end of a relationship without being able to tell anyone about it because, once again, that means first having a host of other awkward conversations and you’re too sad and fragile to even begin to consider wanting to bother. So you go about the rest of your life as you’ve so often done, behaving as though everything is fine, when all you’re doing when you’re alone is crying. The. Worst.

What do you do when you finally come to fully appreciate who you are in your late 30s but your life is otherwise pretty much set? As as result of my relationship with B and because I present as very femme, there’s little outward evidence of who I know I am: a lesbian. Some might want classify me as bisexual or homoflexible because of my committed, romantic relationship with a cis man, but those labels don’t feel right to me. B and I love each other, he’s a vital part of my life, but he’s also something of an exception in my otherwise gay existence. I’ve gone through periods of fretting I’ll be told I’m somehow not queer enough to identify as I do, but I know down to my core that I’m a lesbian and I don’t care what anyone else thinks about this or that label or how my intimate relationships might be used to argue otherwise.

That being said, I don’t know what to do with these levels of invisibility. Both my straight and queer friends take it for granted that I’m straight, so when do I just…tell them I’m not? And to what end? Just so they know? So that I’m seen? Am I over-thinking this? It still feels selfish and self-important. Shouldn’t it be good enough that I finally know who I am? I’ve tried to tell myself as much time and again, but it never lasts long. I’ve also never found a good moment for such conversations. And it’s not that I’m worried my friends might be unsupportive either, at least not regarding my sexual identity. I know the concept of ethical non-monogamy is still quite a challenging concept for some, but my need to live a complete, honest, and open life is now so great, the idea of convenient discretion feels like a burden. But it simply doesn’t come up, nor do I bring it up. I stay quiet and grow increasingly sad and uncomfortable in my own life. And on those occasional really low, dark days, where I feel like my very being exists unexpressed, I begin to understand how some people reach a point where they’d simply rather not be at all, which is a horrible state of mind.

Then there’s the curious plight of the invisible femme. Not recognized as who you are. Unsure if you’re recognizing other queer women. Assuming you’re probably mistaken about them. Afraid to offend or upset anyone, because that makes rejection feel even scarier. I also worry about being rejected, seen as unavailable or outright undesirable simply because of my relationship status. Closed off and invisible like this, I don’t know how to meet new potential partners.

All of this is how I come to find myself writing such a rambling, emotional essay on my birthday, because at this point I just need to get it all out, like an owl pellet. Because I realize there are different sorts of invisible closets in life and I’m tired, starved, and heartsick from being inside any of them. Because perhaps there’s even one person out there in a similar situation who might read this and decide it’s not too late for them to be true to themselves so they won’t wait as long as I did. Because I want to be told it’s not too late for me either. Because I don’t want to feel mournful envy when I see women together. Because I don’t want to feel like a vital part of my identity is a secret I need to discretely tend to, unbeknownst to friends and family, because that’s not actually tending to anything. Because I know I have so much more love to give. Because I want to be seen and I want to be part of the community I’ve felt largely divorced from for much too long. Where are you, my queer, dark, witchy peers? We need to support each other.

Maika Keuben Empty StagePhoto by Maika Keuben

12 Comment

  1. Pardon the necropost- I only just discovered this post through your 2017 wrap up. I feel compelled to comment because so much of what you share here describes my own life: late bloomer, anxious introvert, even the Tilta Swinton crush 😛 I’m a queer woman married to cis het man, who can’t figure out how to come out either. I’m always honest when the subject comes up but after 20 years of marriage the assumption that I’m straight is so strong that The Conversation is a non-sequitir in any exchange I can imagine with my friends.

    From one queer, dark (if not witchy) sort to another, I just wanted to say “Hi. I hear you. I see you.”

  2. So much of what you say parallels the struggles in my own life of staying invisible despite my insides screaming to be visible for all the world to see. Now, in my mid thirties and married to a cisgender woman I have opened up about my gender and sexuality and it feels so liberating, but so much of my public life is still spent in invisibility and social camouflage to avoid being hurt. It is an awful situation. Thank you for sharing your story. It is good to know we’re not alone out there.

  3. Wow. A lot of this hits home for me. I’m in my mid-30s, married, and lived most of my life hiding or repressing myself. It was only within the last few years that I acknowledged my bisexuality and gender (demi-femme). My close friends know, my sister knows, and my partner is supportive even if he doesn’t completely get it. There are people in my life whom I haven’t come out to and would feel weird telling them for various reasons. Still sucks to feel feel invisible when people mis-read you as straight.

    It’s nice to know I am not the only one going through this.

    1. Thank you for sharing! Feeling invisible and being mid-identified sucks in a way that’s difficult to convey to anyone who hasn’t personally experienced it. Well done acknowledging those parts of yourself that were hidden for so long. I’m so happy to hear that my essay helped you feel less alone and very glad to know that there are at least some people in your life who know and support you, including your partner. That’s so important. I can tell you that some days my partner gets it better than others. It’s still very much a work in progress, such is life. <3

  4. this is so beautifully expressed! <3
    i recently came out as nonbinary transfemme and i'm trying to learn what that expression means to me.
    for the longest time i've kept this to myself and just male'd as hard as i could to fit in, which led me down so many dark paths that I had to fight to return from.
    I waited 45 years through so much unnecessary suffering, but here i am!
    and honestly… it wasn't until i got dark and witchy that i finally saw her, ~ me.
    Now i am allowing myself to be me and it's new, and difficult, and odd, and amazing, and dark, ~and glittery!!
    Just when i thought there was so very little in other people i could relate to; a whole world of "omg me too!" is popping up all around me.
    Thank you so much for your sharing your heartfelt journey!
    i write this as the picture of Segovia Amil stares at me encouragingly from the bottom of the page. <3

    1. Thank you and thank you so much for sharing your own journey to find your true self. It brought tears to my eyes. It’s an extraordinary thing to find yourself AND where you belong. Clearly it takes some of us longer, sometimes much longer, than others, and perhaps that’s okay because we’re still getting there and can appreciate it all the more for the years of struggle. Keep going! <3

    1. Thank you! <3 I've been overwhelmed by how people both known to me and completely new have reached out to share their own stories as they relate to my essay. Realizing I may actually help other people find the courage to be themselves is an incredible feeling. It's devastating to feel lost and alone, so I hope this continues.

    1. I see you. I know all to well what it’s like to not bee seen. I recently lost one of the three people I loved the most, in one of the worst ways possible. I support you, I’ve always enjoyed every contribution you’ve made. Thank you for being so open, I wish there were more people like you.

      1. Thank you. I’m so very sorry for the loss you’ve experienced. I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support I’m receiving today as well as messages I’ve received from people in somehow similar situations. Today I feel seen and less alone and I hope in turn to help others feel the same. ?

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