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  • Writer's pictureMarley Toben

From Resister to Reformer: My Queer Wake Up Call

Some of you may be surprised to learn that my partner, who came into her queerness in her 30’s, was the person who taught me, a “never in” lesbian, that I had a flimsy relationship (at best) with my queerness. 


We were sipping fruity cocktails and basking in the Caribbean sun. I had just turned to look out at the point where the sky met the calm water below, and to my surprise, a literal whale lept from the sea, spun belly up, and flopped down with a great splash. What a wild thing to see, and on our last day in the DR.


Leaning palm trees against blue skies
The view from our loungers every day. We had great weather.

I must have been flapping my arms enthusiastically or soapboxing about how wonderful our stay had been, because an events coordinator sauntered over to us. 


He tried to entice us with the day’s events, sand volleyball at 3pm, traditional dance at 7pm…We politely declined, mourning our rapidly approaching departure. 


How exactly the conversation devolved to this point is beyond me, but the man decided to ask about Brianna’s relationship status. He teased her about a boyfriend and inquired about why she wasn’t traveling with “him”. His demeanor was flirtatious, but not overbearing. It was the kind of encounter that, unfortunately, most women and female presenting people have learned to negotiate and facepalm about later. 


Brianna explained that she did not have a boyfriend and that she was traveling with me, her gxrlfriend. 


I felt a familiar dread creep up from the pit of my stomach and get lodged in my throat. It’s a feeling like dangling raw meat over a murky swamp and waiting to see if a crocodile surfaces, bites, and takes your arm with it. I wasn’t upset that she owned our relationship; I was glad! And I was bracing for what would come next. 


The man became giddy with disbelief. He was astounded, asking “really?” “you and her?” “together, like insert lewd hand gestures?” “But how?” “Who is the man?” “When you lewd hand gesture, who is on top?” 


I have a memory of him asking to be for us what he perceived we were missing from our intimacy, but I may be blending stories. Of course this is not the first time I’ve been subject to this kind of invasion. 


But this is, to me, the least interesting part of the story. It’s what happened next that fascinates me. 


Instead of clearly communicating that his interrogation was incredibly inappropriate and promptly seeking remediation with higher management, I got chummy with the guy! I didn’t share details about our private life, but I bantered with him and ever so gently encouraged some perspective taking. 


In other words, I devoted precious time and energy to helping this stranger have an “aha” moment so that he might protect my right to privacy and respect, instead of advocating for myself…and consequently, my partner. Me, a therapist who talks about the importance of boundary setting and self-advocacy everyday!   


Now, I imagine you’re thinking I had a “Holy shit! What did I just do?” moment as soon as he let us off his hook… 


Nope! 


I shrugged it off. Even when my partner cried to me about it that evening, I empathized with her but I couldn’t fully relate. 


In the story I was telling myself about myself, I had graduated from No Fucks To Give University with highest honors and was now CEO of remaining totally unphased by lecherous men who fetishize lesbians. I was an old school gay. 


It was Brianna who, upon our return home, decided to contact the hotelier regarding the incident. Honestly, this idea had not even crossed my mind until she sought my validation for the email she had drafted. Seeing the look of indignation on her face…


That was the moment when I realized I had so much still to learn about myself and about how to truly nurture my queerness.


My partner was the beneficiary of straight privilege for 30 years of her life and so, maintained the important perspective of how fucked it actually is when we, queer folx, are harassed on the basis of our queerness. 


I had become numb and defended. And my neglect of my queerness, I realized, translated to neglect of my queer community. I used to think that there was pride, and there was shame. I believed that because I wasn’t embarrassed by my sexuality, wasn’t wishing I were different, that I had reached peaceful resolution within my queerness… even though I resented myself for assimilating to queer culture because I didn’t want to “be a stereotype.” (Ouch.) Needless to say, I had A LOT of unlearning and relearning to do.


In Zen Buddhism there’s this practice of shoshin, or beginner’s mind. It’s essentially about letting go of all preconceived ideas or expectations we may have about something and looking at that something through fresh eyes. Sometimes in therapy, we might help a client adopt this practice to deepen connection, reduce worry, allow creativity, and enrich experience. 


Brianna’s pain woke me up to my pain. I started seeing myself with fresh eyes.


I now think about my queerness like a loved one who needs me as a witness, mother, and champion. I grieve for all the times when I silenced her hurt. I feel anger for her (not towards her!) that she learned to soften to cruel or ignorant people in the hopes that they would soften in return. I’ve renewed a long lost sense of entitlement to decency and respect no matter where I am in the world. And you know what? I’m not immobilized by the adversity I never wanted to claim, I’m energized by it! You better believe I’m compensating for all those years when I accepted less! 


All I want to do now is help folks recognize and honor that it’s fucking exhausting to have the bar set at safety for us when it’s set at belonging, self-esteem, and fulfillment for our cis-het peers. Growing tough skin doesn’t make us more powerful, it makes us more obedient. It keeps the bar on the floor. We must feel into our authentic beauty as queer people. It is pure magic when we can embody a reality wherein our joy is more essential than their fear.  


Two white women take a mirror selfie while hugging
Testing out our mirror selfie skills and loving each other before hitting the lounge for some coconut martinis.

I’ve had the privilege and misfortune of hearing many stories similar to my own. I’ve known “never in” queer folks to wear their defenses like a badge of honor. I’ve watched as people I care about have abandoned themselves to aid and abet society’s delusion that our love is dangerous, exotic, or repulsive. Let me be clear: I don’t blame us. And sometimes our conditioning makes us believe we don’t have power, even when in certain situations we have a hell of a lot. 


Brianna’s experience was the catalyst for this realization in myself, which goes to show that rising up and out of our limiting beliefs doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I had nearly 20 years of being out under my belt, 15 years of personal therapy, and a penchant for deep reflection on issues of identity, and still, I couldn’t have gotten here on my own. 


We need each other. We need each other’s courage, pain, joy, and moxie to explore new terrain inside and outside of ourselves. We deserve to realize the magnitude of our beauty and likewise, the beauty that awaits us out in the big wide world. It’s waiting for us.   

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