When we were children, we learned the traditions and customs of our cultures. There were foods, dances, music, clothing and much more that we were to internalize and accept as our own. We were born with these rich and deep histories inside of us, just waiting to be unlocked so that we could connect to them. We were taught about each of these little details so that we could understand ourselves and our behaviors better. After all, understanding your relationship with the world helps you to navigate it so much clearer.
It’s different for everyone, but for me, I learned about what it means to be Italian, my culture given to me at birth from my family, and everything that came with it. I learned where my ancestors were from, the recipes and flavors passed down from generation to generation, and all of the traditions that we partook in during each family holiday. I am proud of my heritage, though I had no choice in being a part of it, and love where I come from both literally and figuratively. While I cannot speak for everyone, I would say that generally, this experience of learning one’s own culture is rather common and important to how we fit ourselves into this world.
The day I began looking at my queerness as my culture is the day that it all changed for me. As silly as it may sound, to me, being gay is on the same level as having roots in another country or part of the world. It is a part of me that I was born into, cannot change and wish to celebrate as often as I can. It is something that I had to learn and internalize on my own, an entire realm of possibility now open to me. I started to look at my queerness as a gift that was given to me completely by chance, a gift that took me a long time to open, but one that I fell in love with once the paper was unwrapped.
As queer people, we are born into our culture completely randomly. We have no choice in the matter, but are chosen as facilitators of a culture passed down from friend to friend rather than by blood. It felt like I was hand picked for some sort of divine purpose, though I didn’t always feel that way. At one point, it felt like a heavy burden to have to bear every day of my life. The trickiest part is that no one but ourselves and other queer people can and will teach about queer history and include us in the narrative, not those subscribing to the world’s heteronormative agenda.
For the longest time, my queerness loomed over me like a dark cloud filled with heavy rain. When I finally stopped fumbling with my umbrella and let it all rain on me, I was able to look at the world a different way, and the clouds quickly cleared away. All the time I spent hiding who I was, keeping all that pent up energy inside and hiding the truth for so long caused me to explode. I came out in the worst way possible but knew I had to somehow pick up the pieces and make sense of this emerging identity.
Eventually, I figured it was time to educate myself on who I was. Who I am. After all, there now was a whole world for me to explore and I wanted to soak up every aspect of it that I could. I began straight away learning about the people, places and practices that made me who I am today, whether I consciously knew of their influence or not. There was an entire culture for me to take on and learn about, and the best part was, I could be conscious and aware for every second of it, molding my own personal relationship with my culture.
I started with our history. I researched as much as I could to learn about the queer heroes that came before me and the battlegrounds they fought on. I learned about the Stonewall Riots and put myself in the bar patrons’ shoes, feeling the fear and frustration that they felt. I watched documentaries on Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and their work for trans youth in New York City during the late 60s. I listened to the firsthand testimonials of queer people who knew Martha P. Johnson and resented her murder because they knew that she was a kindhearted woman with only social activism on her personal agenda. I learned that Pride began as a protest. I learned about voguing and the oasis of freedom that was created by ballroom culture for Black queer people. I learned about the horrible atrocities that inspired the Laramie Project and how Matthew Shepard lost his life because of who he was. I learned that to be queer inherently means to defy the societal norms that exist in front of me. I learned of all the pain and suffering that our people experienced and continue to deal with, because for much (certainly not all) of queer history, that’s what there is.
I also spent time indulging in the good stuff, because there’s plenty of that too. I learned about the art of my culture and how many forms that can exist in. The dances, the music, the movies, the plays, the musicals, everything. Despite being taboo to many other cultures, the art of drag is a celebrated facet of queer culture. It is a type of performance art for our people and doesn’t have to be widely digestible for the rest of the world. I fell in love with performers who worked their magic on stage. I fell in love with queer artists like Andy Warhol and the artists that queer people fell in love with like Lady Gaga and Cher. I learned to let the music set me free and get lost in dancing when surrounded with other queer people. I felt a family presence when the opening chords of “Kinky Boots” on Broadway sounded in the theatre. I started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and stopped hiding that fact from my family. I bought my first pride flag, one of my favorite pieces of queer art, and hung it proudly on my bedroom wall.
It took me a long time, but I fell in love with the very thing I once wanted nothing to do with.
After learning all of these aspects of culture, and many, many more not outlined in this column, it felt more like an obsession than an identity. It took coming to college, surrounding myself with other queer people and forming my own chosen family to make it all feel real. I took it all on as a facet of my culture, my very being, and something that was important to nurture. My queerness affects my life at every single level and I would never wish for it to be any other way. Diving headfirst without fear into one’s own identity can be scary, but I hope that we can all feel a little more comfort knowing that it is a part of us that can’t and won’t go away.