"The population I was working with was majority immigrant. Majority low income. Predominantly Black, Latino, Pacific Islander. Pretty disenfranchised young people. When you work in that system, the system isn't built to serve them, so you're always fighting against a fucked up institution."
I am so honored to be sitting with you in your beautiful kitchen with your wondrous family! I usually start off with the same question. As QTPOC folks, I feel like we are constantly bombarded with labels, boxes, and stereotypes. I would like to give you this time to self-identify.
Why thanks! I feel like that is something that is often overlooked. I say that I identify as a high femme, mixed-race, queer woman. And those are all really important parts of my identity that do often get policed by other folks, whether that is my ethnicity, the ways I “pass” in a variety of contexts by being ethnically ambiguous, or being femme and “passing” as straight. There are lots of ways where other folks make those decisions for me.
So people may not know this, but I met Carrie during my fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center. It is a little haven for creative minds to flourish and be themselves. Would you like to share what you make Carrie? Additionally, how does activism play into your professional roles?
I am a poet, and I definitely write about identity a lot. Not just queerness, not just race, but gender, abilities, all kinds of things I grapple with. I really try to allow my work to be complicated, and for my speaker, who is usually a stand in for me, to feel complicated about her own privilege, and her own oppression. So not just a victim, but not just fine with everything. She is trying to see the systems she lives and acts within.
And for the last eight years, I have been a high school educator. I’m on a leave, currently, to focus on my writing. So 8 years as a teacher, especially high schoolers, allows a lot of space for advocacy work. Specifically, I spent 6 years in special ed, and the last two as a coach for other teachers while teaching too. So special ed is a place for a lot of advocacy around different identities in general.
So there was a lot of space as the GSA advisor, and also an out teacher (even in San Francisco, not all the gay teachers are out, though many of them are). And I'm high femme, so I present a certain way and my students make certain assumptions, and in special ed, most of my students were male, so all these possibilities and ops to have fruitful conversations around identity and how we get to define it ourselves, what that means, and question institutions like racism, sexism, and all of that.
In the last year I got to teach a 9th grade Health class which was extra fun, and in our district we have an amazing Health curriculum, with a whole section on sexual identity and gender identity. Sexual development is an important part of the health standards.
Teaching that was like SO MY JAM! This is it. All I wanna do. Forever and ever talk to 14 year olds about our reproductive health and how our gender expression is the outside, and how our sexual identity is different than our gender identity, biological identity -- it was so fun, just so fun! I think it is so important for students to see a teacher so excited about that stuff, and who makes it fun. No talking about it like, “This is where babies come from. Don’t ever do it.”
I think growing up with radical parents, I knew social justice work was always the work, and so growing up, I always knew I wanted to do that. Around middle school when I was -- let’s say a difficult child, I had some teachers who really saved my life, and so I figured, oh, let me pay it forward. Let me be a teacher.
Wow! I wish everyone could see how much you lit up when you talked about teaching. It is so refreshing to see professionals who truly love what they do. I wish I could have been in your classroom growing up. I didn’t get any education around gender and sexual identity during my high school years in Texas. Just The Miracle of Life.
Taking a year off is a huge decision. It is quite radical to love yourself enough to do that in this day and age. May I ask what are your goals with this year off? What do you hope to accomplish?
Haha, thank you!
Being a teacher is awesome, and I'm glad to hear I was glowing, but it can be a soul sucking world. Well, the institution can be. Districts are notoriously fucked up and dysfunctional. And working with the kind of community I wanted to work with: urban, under served, and all these codes we use for low-income, whatever. The population I was working with was majority immigrant. Majority low income. Predominantly Black, Latino, Pacific Islander. Pretty disenfranchised young people.
When you work in that system, the system isn't built to serve them, so you're always fighting against a fucked up institution. And sometimes I felt like I was really complicit and went home like, I oppressed children today. That's what I did. WTF am I doing with my life. Some days, I felt like I wasn't enough of an opposition to the system. And there were political problems with my school. We were closing due to flaws in how structurally racist and classist the system is to begin with. I needed a year off to take a break, recharge, and to deal with my own trauma.
So I took the year. I’m fortunate enough to have the resources to take a year off. It’s also a chance to reconnect with my writing. In term of my goals, what would it look like to make this education work sustainable for me? What do I want my work-life and life-life to look like going forward? I don’t know. They aren't really separate. I’m working on being ok with the unknown. I'm pretty type A, and I’m 6 months in without a plan, and it’s pretty cool.
I am beyond words excited for your work. The sample I got in Vermont was truly special.
Would you mind sharing early memories of coming out and your experiences?
I think I came out relatively young. I was 14 when I publicly came out to folks and had a girlfriend. I was in high school so everybody knew about it, and a lot of the response I got was something that I think is common for a lot of femme identifying folks. “Well, but you’re so girly.” People could clearly see and read my girlfriend at the time as queer, and see how her gender performance was less normative, and so her sexual identity would also be less normative. But I think because my gender performance was very normative in many ways, a lot of people struggled with my sexual identity.
Even I didn’t have any of this language yet. I didn’t have femme or a more complicated understanding of how gender identity and sexual identity are not in fact the same thing, or how they do and don’t intersect. But even at the age of 14, I was like, “Why the fuck does it matter what I look like?" That doesn't necessarily determine whom I’m attracted to, and so I pushed back on that. I defended myself by thinking about feminism, which is one of the concepts that was already available to me at 14.
And so as a young feminist, my thought process was: I don’t think women have to be any one thing. And even though I’m very girly doesn’t mean anything else about my identity. Like painting my nails, and loving the color pink, and wearing mini skirts do not define me solely.
So that was one way I resisted that.
Particular type of policing. Hmmm. I think one of the most interesting ways I was policed in an intersection of ways was by my own parents. Which is probably true for, like, all humans. Parents try to make you do stuff. But in particular as an interracial couple -- my father is Chinese American, my mother is white Irish American; her family has been here for many generations while my father is first generation American born -- so they are an interracial couple. They got together in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s and then they had me, and I’m an only child, and that made for a lot of pressure in all kinds of ways. And they were really uncomfortable about my coming out even though they otherwise had very radical politics. They were really homophobic because the particular Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong school of thought they followed was, as my mother once said to me, “Not good on the gay question.”
They have since done a lot of work and acknowledged that, and worked through a lot of their homophobia, but they really struggled. The first girlfriend they saw me with and interacted with was in college. It was the summer before my junior year and we were living in New Orleans. My parents came to visit, and so we’re in the South. My parents are an interracial couple, I’m in an interracial relationship with another woman. My parents are super uncomfortable. I’m super uncomfortable. Sometime during one dinner out, my father was just like, “You guys need to be more careful.”
This particular policing coming from my parents was very similar to a lot of what I've heard from them. “We want you to be safe. We want you to be happy.” As if “choosing” to be queer was going to make my life worse as opposed to making my life better. But also that my partner and I were holding hands, and my parents were like, “It might not be safe around here,” which meant they were projecting their own kind of notions of what the South is, and that the South is less tolerant, and also possibly their own racism on top of that, the fact we were living in a predominantly Black city, and maybe they were feeling, you know, all Black people are more homophobic than white Bay Area people.
I mean WHO KNOWS what was ultimately going on with them. I was like, “You're in an interracial fucking relationship, are you kidding me?” And then they were like, “Yeah, in our lives, we've been threatened by white men who are like, you know, to get the fuck away from that white woman.” So their own experience with policing was perpetuated onto their daughter.
What conversations were you able to engage with your parents? How did you go about normalizing it for them?
There was a lot of fighting. Fighting was a huge part of it for sure. Normalizing as well. I also didn't have the opportunity to come out to them on my own terms. I didn't get to be thoughtful and intentional about what the conversation was going to be, which would have helped.
I was talking on the phone with one of my best friends all excited about an experience I just had with another girl who had asked me out. So I was like, “OMG, she asked me to be her girlfriend!” I’m so excited in that moment, you know? I’m taking on my phone and my dad overheard/eavesdropped, so that’s how they found out. And freaked out. A hot mess. So the initial coming out was really difficult because it wasn't consensual, it wasn’t a conversation.
My parents were blindsided, and I was blindsided as well, which made it harder. It was new to me, so I didn't have time to be thoughtful about it. Lots of fighting and arguing, and car lectures, and me sharing zines of angsty teen poetry with my mom, “See, stop oppressing me, this is really important.” I was really struggling, and trying to be cool, and I was dating a girl my parents really didn’t like, who was admittedly a struggling young person who didn’t have her shit together. So it didn’t help I chose to be with someone who was a hot mess. Once, she came over to introduce herself, and my mom slammed the door on her face. And at the time I identified as bi, so I eventually just got a beard. A very nice guy who drove a truck, and played football. We dated for three years.
Yeah, high school sweetheart. Really lovely. Like a bestie. Really great guy. And it was a serious relationship. I had real feelings for him, but towards the end of high school when I chose to go to college, and I chose to go to an all women’s college, even my therapist was like, “Do you feel any passion about this relationship?”
Basically it was like, SOOOOO now you don’t NEED to date him. Do you think he has served his purpose with your parents?
So I thought, hmmm… maybe not. We went off to college. We broke up. I went to a women’s college, I had been the president of GSA. My sexual identity wasn't a secret, but my parents could ignore it because I had had this nice boyfriend. They thought maybe it's just a political thing, or a phase, we’ll see what happens. Then I went to Smith and DUH, what happened? Well there are women everywhere, and then of course I called my parents one weekend and told them I joined all these clubs, and they were like, “Great honey, which ones?”
And they were like, “What’s that?”
“The queer students of color club.”
SILENCE on the phone line. But I wrote them a letter and continued the conversation.
With every relationship I had, my parents were introduced more and more to the women in my life, and struggled in different ways. And then it was really, really bad with my recent ex. Bad for a number of different reasons, partly because the relationship was really fucked up, so they were constantly trying to have an intervention but it was also wrapped up in their homophobia, and I couldn't hear them because I was like, “You’re just being homophobic.” I finally separated from that partner. And then when I met Sandy, my wife, they just LOVED her! ‘Cause she’s awesome. That made it easier. I was finally dating someone that was likeable as a person. That made it much easier for my parents to shed any of their remaining baggage around it.
Are they now superb allies?
I think they are much more open minded over all, and I think honestly, they were never homophobic in the we-hate-gay-people way. They certainly had heterosexist and patriarchal stuff around effeminate gay men, which a lot of us carry. But I think it was more like, Oh my God, OUR DAUGHTER!!! They were those parents. They were like, yay we live in such a great and diverse city, but no, not our child. Her life is gonna be so hard. What do we do? No grandbabies!
I wouldn't categorize them quite as allies. They are very politically engaged, but this isn't where they decide to do their work. They ally themselves to a variety of communities. The queer community isn't one of them. But they are very good about it in public, for example intentionally introducing us as a couple. They learned to let go of that “friend’ or “roommate” garbage years ago.
They are definitely more open minded, but they aren't the parents who are gonna join PFLAG.
That totally makes sense.
One question I enjoy asking people is, what is one question you wish people asked you more often?
I like the question you asked Jeffrey Mitchell. Who’s your favorite drag queen? That's a pretty good one. Bob, Bob the Drag Queen. Big follower on Insta, also follow his assistant. That, or I don’t know, What’s something you're doing right now that feels meaningful?
Yas! Bob the drag queen! Fabulous girl. Purse First.
What advice do you have for your younger self and/or the next generation of QTPOC folks?
I feel old sometimes. My nickname is “Grandma” in certain social circles, because I’m all about that mom life. I think a lot of people talk about self care now. For a long time in social movements, it wasn't talked about, which is fucked up and unhealthy. But folks still aren't always talking about practical ways to do it.
Part of the reason for the year off was that teaching was the only work I was doing, and I felt guilty and disconnected. I couldn't practice self care and still figure out how to do the work. And I think the struggle is really long. My parents are an example for me. The struggle is never, ever, ever done. If I want that lasting power and to still be engaging, I need to figure out how to stay healthy. I don't have a secret, but I’m working on boundaries and letting go of self judgement. And maybe some kind of combo of options - not thinking anything is too small. The small stuff really matters, too, but not letting yourself off the hook with the big issues either. So I don’t have the answer, but I do think self care is a big part of it.
THANK YOU SO MUCH! Bob the Drag Queen, peace out.