Queer Belonging: Finding Community Alone

Mason Neil
13 min readJun 19, 2018

I do not remember when I first understood that I was gay. I had no access to the words that described what I knew of myself, yet I understood a barrier existed between me and the people I lived with. I felt at odds with the gender roles I observed, and I was naturally inclined towards the feminine. My family was deeply conservative, and the discomfort I felt around them and our church came from an intense feeling of difference, so I worked to adapt myself to their religious culture—becoming fluent in the language that would hide my differences even while I searched for escapes from the culture I worked to imitate. In my search for a community, I found myself turning away from the people around me and instead finding belonging in spaces where I appeared to be alone.

The church’s own isolated culture provided me with an advantage I used to protect myself. I was isolated by difference, but the church was isolated by choice — a seclusion meant to safeguard. I mimicked the language and cultural capital of Christianity to hide my differences. If I moved within the right circles, prayed the appropriate prayers, and presented the persona of a devout worshiper, I could count on my own safety. Because of its isolation from the secular world, the church was the easiest place to hide a divergent identity; the people within the church were just as eager to ignore my differences as I was to hide them. But the protective barrier I used to my advantage also hid from my view any others who were like me. I grew up not knowing the word gay, not knowing that my experience was common, and not knowing that there was a community who looked and felt like I did.

My childhood home in Hampden, Maine, was bordered by the Penobscot River, the Souadabscook Stream, and a young forest of planted rows of pine trees where I spent a lot of my time. Each space provided opportunities for me to escape the expectations and religious ideals I knew I couldn’t fit in. The stream was full of fish, eels, turtles, and otters that I admired for their freedom from the rules I wished to escape. No clergy or parent could tell the river bound eel not to follow its instincts as it swam toward the open water. I desired my own open water, and I found freedom when the tide went out and I examined what the latest movement of mud and silt had unearthed. It was here I found remnants of other people’s secrets — a rusty bayonet, spoons and worn out china — while I looked for a way to understand my own.

I spent a lot of time in my local library. My teacher, a woman named Susan Strickland, had been an English major and worked tirelessly to instill in my classmates and me a love for the written word. She read to us after recess, gave us time to read on our own, and made us all learn the Dewey Decimal System while volunteering at the Bangor Public Library. Every third Thursday our school’s six students would pile in her van and drive to the library to shelve books for a few hours. I eventually began to appreciate the shelves of books so much that I volunteered my time during the summer as well.

At the library, I was able to read books I could not bring home. As Seventh-day Adventists loyal to Ellen White, my parents tried to dissuade my sister and me from reading fiction, so I found time between my shifts at the library to read what I knew they’d disapprove of. My favorites were The Chronicles of Narnia and the Greek legend of Medusa. The characters in Lewis’s novels rebelled against assimilating forces like the White Witch, and I felt a camaraderie with their juvenile rebellion against tyranny. Medusa’s forbidden beauty enticed me, and I understood the fear her body invoked in others and in herself. Just a glance at her was fatal — and in my own transgressive body I felt the same power.

The books and outdoor spaces I loved as a kid continued to be places of solace for me when I left my home to attend Fountainview Academy, a conservative Christian high school in British Columbia. The campus was self-contained, squished between two large mountains, and bordered on the middle of nowhere. Restricted internet access, a ban on fictional books, and constant staff supervision made it difficult for me to find a space where I could be at ease, so I turned to the places I had known as a kid. The campus ran along the dangerous Fraser river that students were forbidden to go near. Any student who went to the river alone was promised an immediate expulsion, but I found myself often sneaking to its edge to think freely.

During my junior year of high school, I downloaded a gay novel onto my Kindle. My loneliness felt unbearable and I was desperate to know more about the world beyond the small campus I couldn’t leave. The book was mostly porn, and within minutes of downloading it I was overcome with waves of guilt and nausea so strong that I immediately deleted the book. Those moments, however, were long enough to send a notification to the school regarding my internet activity.

That night my dean confronted me about the book and my sexuality, and I agreed to begin conversion therapy. His idea of conversion therapy relied on time spent reading the Bible — I read it cover to cover twice that year — and equal amounts of time spent journaling and praying. In addition to time spent in meditation on my own, I was to report to my dean daily on what thoughts I was experiencing, why they were wrong, and what I was doing to counter them. He also took away my Kindle — my only access to reading material on a campus that proudly lacked a library.

I was on board with conversion therapy, but despite wanting to change my sexuality I quickly became depressed. I could barely eat, and it was difficult to keep food down. The discomfort I already felt around my peers was now manifesting itself in my physical and mental health, and my need for an accepting community became more urgent. After a few weeks of regular meetings with my dean-turned-counselor, he stopped talking to me, began missing our meetings, and avoided me in the school’s hallways. His refusal to acknowledge me convinced me of my hopelessness. He had been the first adult I had openly discussed my sexuality with, even if those discussions took place within the context of changing it. I felt like he had given up on me, and I began to resign myself to a growing belief that I would never find community among people.

Conversion therapy turned me into my own self-policing force of hatred and hurt. I represented both parts of the Panopticon, the penitentiary model designed by Jeremy Bentham. In it, a central tower houses an observing party that can see the inmates in a surrounding circular structure. The French philosopher Michel Foucault uses the Panopticon in his book Discipline and Punish as a model for how those with power use their gaze to enforce social rules and guidelines. This system relies on two members — one with power, whose gaze enforces and normalizes the behavior they deem appropriate, and one who is watched, whose behavior is subject to the control of the observer. The inmate in the Panopticon is aware of being observed, and the result is that he or she constantly monitors his or her own behavior: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: To induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 201). Whether or not the party with power is watching, the prisoner always feels seen.

After conversion therapy, I found myself stuck between two conceptions that functioned as the observer and observed in the Panopticon. My most genuine self was aware of my difference and of its unchangeability and authenticity. This side was familiar with the certainty of my sexuality, and in the metaphor of the Panopticon it functioned as the observed prisoner. My other side was saturated in the bigotry and religious judgement I had gleaned from my life and the conversion therapy program. This part of me functioned as the observer, and it projected with its gaze a hatred for my other half. Within one mind, I entertained a battle of trying to discover who I was while also policing my movements, my speech, and my thoughts. I knew I was gay, but I hated everything that made me so — after conversion therapy it was impossible to escape the policing gaze of my own learned homophobia.

The balancing act consumed me. It was getting harder to hide — my body and voice were constantly threatening to give me away. The therapy had caused me to hate my sexuality, but I’m sure my dean noticed it did nothing to stiffen my limp wrists, remove the flamboyant inflections I used in my speech, and straighten my feminine gait. I evaluated every movement I made, how I occupied spaces, and what mannerisms were giving away my differences. The theorist Judith Butler touches on this bodily conflict in Gender Trouble, where she discusses how prisoner’s bodies incorporate the law they are subject to in Foucault’s use of the Panopticon:

[T]he strategy has been not to enforce a repression of [the prisoners’] desires, but to compel their bodies to signify the prohibitive law as their very essence, style, and necessity. That law is not literally internalized, but incorporated, with the consequence that bodies are produced which signify that law on and through the body; there the law is manifest as the essence of their selves, the meaning of their soul, their conscience, the law of their desire. (171)

My mind wanted to incorporate the “prohibitive law” that I knew very well. I understood the religious and cultural rules prohibiting who I was, and I wanted to live in accordance with them, yet the transgressive urges and mannerisms my body contained continued.

I was deeply afraid of my body. I looked for alternate explanations for why I moved and sounded the way I did, sometimes blaming my voice on my braces or on being from the Northeast. My peers were just as eager to find alternate explanations for why I talked and moved differently. One dean told me he thought I was a black woman trapped in a white boy’s body. I never asked him to explain his thinking, but his misguided analogy gave him a way to acknowledge my difference without condemning it or identifying it as transgressive. Instances like this where I found my peers trying to explain away my gay identity as something else were indicative of our mutual fear: my peers were just as afraid of my sexuality as I was. What I perceived as a threat to my safety, they perceived as a threat to their ideology. As the indigenous queer poet Tommy Pico writes in his book IRL:

There is a kind of power

in being reviled

for just being

in the sense that my

scooped shoulders, the snake

of my neck, my bare legs

strikes frenzy I scare them

Something in the lumen

jolts, terror or desire, hate

so swoll it destabilizes some-

thing about their everyday Some-

thing bubbling, shuddering

under the brushstroke

of stars… (63)

I had yet to discover that power while I worked through my fear of myself.

My sense of isolation ran deep. Even with groups of people I enjoyed, I remained inaccessible. The people I craved community from threatened my safety, so I again found myself seeking moments alone in nature. During the winter I would get up at five to skate on the pond while the bats were still flying around. Why the bats were out in the middle of winter or frequented the pond every morning I do not know, but as we each twisted and fluttered around the surface of the ice I could momentarily shake my sense of being an outcast. Though I still carried the homophobic beliefs of my school with me, in spaces where there were no people or structures to stand in for the religious system I lived in, I could momentarily feel free of its Panoptic gaze.

My experience in the outdoors is mirrored by the eponymous character in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, an androgynous heroine who finds herself moving between gender roles throughout her long life. Stuck in the space between masculinity and femininity, Orlando wonders how she will fit into the relationship models she observes: “‘Everyone is mated except myself,’ she mused… ‘Whereas, I, who am mistress of it all… am single, am mateless, am alone.’” (246). Orlando concludes from her quest for community that she belongs with nature: “‘I have found my mate,’ she murmured. ‘It is the moor. I am nature’s bride… My hands shall wear no wedding ring,’ she continued, slipping it from her finger. ‘The roots shall twine about them.’” (248). Like Orlando, I found space for myself in the environments where I appeared alone.

Closet Meditations

December 4, 2012

Strange things are happening. I don’t want to put it into words, for fear that by acknowledging them they will grow. Finally I sat down with Sierra and just opened up about it. If you put the whole conversation in a cauldron and boil it down it would sum up as this: I’m having gay feelings. It’s not just a phase, though. I didn’t choose to feel like this. It’s just thrust upon me. Will I have to live on like this? Never get married, trying to ignore the feelings I am really feeling, not letting anyone know?

During spring break of my senior year I unearthed a first edition of Silent Spring sitting in the back of Earthlight Books and recognized the cover from my history textbook. The tone of Silent Springwas contagious: “There was once a town in the heart of American where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings” (1). Rachel Carson did not shy away from charging those who were responsible for the careless use of DDT and its harmful effects on birds. She upheld the natural above anything man made. The nature writing I was familiar with compared God’s world to God’s word, the Bible, the superior of God’s two books, but in Silent Spring, a small, unassuming naturalist confronted powers much greater than she without faltering. I recognized in Carson’s prose a despair over the endeavors of men — Carson preferred cohabitation and respect, and I was hooked.

My love for Carson grew out of seeing a part of myself in her writing and devotion to the environment, but I felt there was more beneath the surface. I began reading about Carson’s life, trying to understand what I found so enchanting. I started with Wikipedia, which briefly mentioned a longtime friend of Carson’s, Dorothy Freeman. The page described how the two women spent summers together at Carson’s house on Maine’s Southport Island, but I understood the subtext of what was being said: Carson was not all that different from myself.[1] I didn’t need to know what her friendship with Dorothy meant to her to understand that her life existed outside of society’s standard framework. As someone who had her own differences, Carson appeared to be most comfortable with her books and seaside explorations, opting to spend time alone in the woods and beaches surrounding her Maine home rather than the public events that her literary agent wished she’d attend. Though she did not completely evade the public eye,[2] I found in the similarities of our experiences a validation for my own life.

I wonder what Carson knew of herself, and if her feelings of difference allowed her to challenge the man-made and defend what was threatened. Was her vibrant mental life a result of her not fitting into society’s models, and would she have always had a predilection for the solitary and unoccupied spaces even without her differences? Regardless of the underlying motivation, the spaces Rachel Carson and I found are places where the hegemonic gaze described in Foucault’s Panopticon is not so readily felt. Society’s gaze that enforces heteronormative social order can be momentarily escaped on the tidal shores of my Penobscot River and Carson’s Maine coastline, and in the books that testify to lives lived outside the normal. My relationship to Carson began with my love for Silent Spring, but the parallels between her life and mine have solidified a comradery that validates my experience and encourages me to continue my lifelong search for understanding — of myself, of my environment, and of my relationship to it.

Though mine may sound like a story of isolation, of not having access to a queer community, and of not knowing that there were more people who were like me, I did not have a lonely childhood. I found community and belonging in the rows of tress, on the riverbed, the frozen lake, in the books I read, and in the natural environments I explored. I will always be loyal to and fond of these lively outdoor spaces. My love of books, born in the Bangor Public Library, is now a lifelong passion. The peace I found in these places is invaluable, yet the belonging and comfort I have found in them has not been derived from these places, but from the experience of searching for them. My childhood of looking, of wondering where I could fit and dissecting how I related to my peers, created in me the habit of curiosity and wonder. In the exploration, in the search for understanding, I find belonging.

[1] Carson’s biography is less shy about the nature and uniqueness of Dorothy Freeman’s relationship with her. “Both women soon realized that the things they said to each other in their letters might meet disapproval from [Dorothy’s husband] Stan or Carson’s mother, Maria — the “craziness” between them was something other people could only misunderstand” (Souder 180).

[2] Our passions are even closer than I would have originally imagined. “Nothing made her happier, she said, than that unmatched perfume of the Maine coast in summer, an intoxicating blend emanating from the exposed rockweed along the water’s edge and the sun-drenched spruces of the forest” (Souder 193).

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble Tenth Anniversary Edition. Routledge, 2002.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish the Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, 2011.

Pico, Tommy. IRL. Birds, LLC, 2016.

Souder, William. On a Farther Shore. Crown, 2012.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Harcourt Brace & Company, 2006.

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