Tell Me Your Story, I'll Tell You Mine: Young QPOC Talk Life From The Edges of Conservative Culture
Alli Cruz & Olivia Popp
Alli Cruz is an American Cuban-Pilipinx poet and artist from Orange County, California. She identifies as both Latinx-American and Asian-American. As per her quarter-life crisis, she is teaching herself how to ride a longboard.
Olivia Popp is an artist, writer, and performer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She identifies as mixed race, Asian American, and of Taiwanese and Polish heritage. Like Alli, she’s also been unsuccessfully trying to learn how to longboard — mostly because she likes California too much.
We’ve known each other for about three years — we met in a freshman seminar about theater but only really struck up our friendship a year later when we learned that we both liked playwriting and that our parents almost named us both Athena (weird coincidence, right?). After a last-minute Thanksgiving weekend in Alli’s hometown, partially spent together in Disneyland, our friendship grew. We’ve laughed together, cried together, and shared pivotal moments with one another (and lots and lots of boba). In years that we’ve known each other, we’ve also grown personally — towards each other, away from each other, with each other, by ourselves — but we’re always, always growing. We’ve talked a lot about our day-to-day experiences as QPOC, but rarely about our childhoods growing up — before we met and grew into the people we know each other as today. We began to ask each other: what do you remember about growing up as a QPOC before you knew you were queer? What boldly sticks out to you when you look back now? How did society brush over your queerness? What angers you, what saddens you, what makes you feel something now? What do you want people to know and discussions you want others to take part in? We wanted to ask each other, openly and honestly, because we knew there might be some memories we’d rather not think about now — either things we thought or experiences we had growing up in our shared conservative heteronormative communities.
OLIVIA: In the three or so years we’ve known each other, we’ve talked a lot about our experiences as QPOC in our day-to-day. However, living all my life in a pretty liberal town that still gets its fair share of conservativism from nearly the entire rest of the state, going to college in the Bay was truly an awakening for me.
The most salient thing that I remember is that in high school, my conception of being queer was, first off, very misconstrued, and second of all, extremely binary. I had a classmate who I knew was queer, as she and her friends were very open about it — I remember a moment when I overheard them all giggling and shouting “She’s just so gay!” in a positive and supportive way, and that to me way something I had never heard before. However, my concept of “being gay” was strictly limited to being attracted to one gender and that of the same gender in the binary — I couldn't even process queerness beyond that.
ALLI: Coming from a rather affluent neighborhood in south Orange County, the conservative pocket of Southern California, I hadn’t met anyone who identified as queer until I came to college, but not because there weren’t queer people in high school — there were. It just wasn’t a term that people I knew used, let alone identified with. It was more along the lines of that same classic binary: straight or not straight. Except, no one really liked talking about it. I realized later that that fact itself is a kind of erasure. Once, when a family friend from church went away to go live with her aunt across the country, for a few months, I thought that maybe it was because she was fighting with her parents, or doing drugs — which, to my recollection, was the main source of conflict that could permeate our affluent conservative bubble. Later, I found out that it was because she was bi, and her parents found out.
OLIVIA: That’s definitely in line with some of the coming out stories I had heard passed down the grapevine, although the liberal part of the town was sometimes the saving grace for some folks. I have a friend who’s always expressed gratitude towards her parents for being extraordinarily accepting of her, especially when she knows the struggles of some of her queer friends. This friend made a coming out announcement during the summer of my junior year of high school was it probably the first biggest reckoning for myself. She came out very publicly, on Facebook, and I didn't have Facebook at the time so one of our mutual friends sent me screenshots. I impulsively screenshotted them, not knowing how much I'd look back on them but maybe instinctually knowing they'd be important.
I've certainly had to confront my own internalized biphobia that I think stems from this — not invalidation based on attraction for two or more genders rather than one, but centered around a certain binary notion for queerness. Amusingly, I think she knew before I did that I was queer [laughs] — she told me once that I was asking about all this queer-associated stuff that I seemingly don't even remember asking. Her coming out was so important in the moment for several reasons: it cleared up my preconceived notion that queerness was isolated to single sex attraction and it also introduced the idea of being broadly queer and not needing to have a sexuality with a specific “name.”
ALLI: I certainly relate to the internalized biphobia part of your story — that was another deterring factor for me in the process of coming out. Again, because I could recognize and vocalize some semblance of attraction to men, I was like, “Oh, so there’s no way I can be not straight, right?”
In recent years, I’ve found that I prefer the term “queer” because it allows me to exist within the broad fluidity of my identity. I suppose that, yes, I identify as bi, but this identity alone feels imprecise and incomplete for me. I’m not at a place where I’d say I definitely identify as genderqueer, but it’s something I’ve been questioning a lot. In interrogating the gender binary with friends and through coursework, I’ve been thinking about how I identify with the experiences of being a woman, though I don’t know how strongly I feel as though I identify as a woman.
Those feelings change through time and place. I sort of like being referred to as “they.” The pronoun contains multitudes. As a mixed-race person of color, I think that a part of me has always had to exist within a sort of fluidity of some sort, or maybe just a spectrum of racial identity. I’ve tried, many times throughout my life, to be either/or. Straight or not. Asian or Latinx. A part of me is comfortable in, and perhaps even yearns for, gray areas. Usually, when asked my pronouns, I say “she or they.” But sometimes, I just say, “she.” This could change, and I’m learning to be comfortable with that. Whenever I bring this up, one of my dearest friends, who is non-binary, reminds me of this: “You don’t need to have experienced trauma to justify your identity. Period.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
OLIVIA: Back home, among so many things that I never learned about, I do wish that there was more education on gender expression. Perhaps the most incriminating moment that points to a lack of education surrounding gender expression was in middle school when we visited this teen center in my town. I remember when a volunteer introduced themselves with the pronouns "they/them" and my knowledge surrounding this was so little that I had but one question that I didn't ask out of embarrassment. Everyone started whispering and tuning out, so I didn’t want to attract attention to myself. I was wondering why someone would be using they/them pronouns — why would you refer to yourself as plural? I still can’t believe that was the first thing that popped into my head! [laughs] The gender binary was so heavily engrained in my mind that I simply was not able to process they/them as a singular pronoun despite it being used — I think it would’ve made all the difference if someone took a moment to elaborate, or else if I had the courage to just speak up. Many of my friends who use they/them pronouns direct people to informational articles in their email signatures, something that my past self would have been very grateful for. I simply had not been introduced to gender outside of the binary, and I was stymied. Maybe the restlessness amongst the students betrayed was a newness they weren’t ready to face, especially in a heavily heteronormative community.
ALLI: I remember, senior year, when one of my best friends, one of the very few people I still keep in touch with from high school, came out to me as a lesbian, then later, as asexual. When she first told me she was attracted to girls, one day after school, we were sitting in her cute little teal Toyota Prius. To be honest, I felt uncomfortable. Like, really really uncomfortable. I was like, where is this discomfort coming from? Why am I being such a dick to a dear friend that I’ve known since I was 11? I knew that I loved and supported her no matter what, so what was the issue? We were edging too close to a truth I wasn’t ready to touch. But now looking back, almost all the friends that I made in middle school and high school — and kept — were queer.
OLIVIA: Same here! We all laugh about it now, although it’s still eerie to think that we were all going through our own explorations and discoveries at the same time but only were able to recognize and embrace our identities once we left.
ALLI: It’s funny, I think, how we were able to find each other at the time without being out to each other. Maybe it was something about being in theater, or all collectively wanting to dye our hair purple — much to my Asian Mama’s chagrin. I also found, later, that a lot of family members whom I really “clicked” with as a kid were also queer. Even if it’s not acceptable to be loud and out within the family, I’m glad to have them. My younger cousin, Keegan, who came out as transgender a couple of years ago, definitely riled up the God-fearing side of my Pilipinx family. It’s hard for them to understand, but it doesn’t make the situation any better. Most of them either use the wrong name or pronouns, or avoid using monikers or pronouns entirely.
When they say, “But God made you the way you are,” he says, “If that’s true, didn’t God also make me like this?” Or “God also didn’t make us the way we are on antidepressants, or anti-anxiety meds, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need them.” I love him so much. He’s my hero. Especially since my process of coming out has been a very gradual one, separate from my family and the conservative gaze of south OC. As of right now, I’m only “out” to my brother and friends. I feel sort of weird even using the word “out,” which is why I just put it in quotes just now. I’ve always been “out” in the sense that I’ve always been like this. I think I’m just louder now. I was apprehensive about writing this piece because I’ve never even had a conversation with my parents. I don’t know if I want to do that any time soon. My family still refers to another cousin of mine’s long-term partner as her “roommate.”
OLIVIA: For me, coming out has been in stages. I would also say I’ve always been the same way, although naturally, plenty of my internalized thoughts and feelings make a lot more sense now — and so in a way, I would say that I’m also not the same. It seems like being out does have its stipulations that I have to deal with, beyond simply the potential for being harrassed. People pause when I say I'm gay, just “gay” — because I think that’s a word that I’ve jumped to and relate to most closely — like maybe I don't match what they think. Sometimes they ask me to “clarify” whether I’m lesbian or bi/pan/anything else — “Oh, so you really don’t like men?”
ALLI: I still think a lot about how, in the past, I enjoyed passing as straight. Never mind my middle school obsession with finding queer/lesbian show snippets/compilations on YouTube, never mind the weird jealous behavior I exhibited around female friends. How, in some ways, I found it easier to only embrace that side of me. But I had a friend in middle school, who was dating a boy at the time, turn to me and say: “Don’t worry, Alli, you’ll get a boyfriend someday.” I was annoyed at the time — but in retrospect, it was because that definitely was not what I was worried about.
OLIVIA: The displaced jealousy is also something I’ve looked back on and discovered too. I had a male friend whom I was essentially inseparable from in elementary school, and the most confounding thing for me was that all the teachers would laugh and smile and say “They’re going to get married someday!” and we’d just look at each other, puzzled and often annoyed. When I became close friends with a girl during middle school, I became extremely jealous when she and my male friend did anything together. I always thought it was because I was jealous of him and not because I was jealous that I couldn’t spend more time with her. Clearly, looking back, it was by far my jealousy of his relationship with the girl — obviously, I had a crush on her.
This girl happened to also be one of the most popular kids in school, and à la Mean Girls — but thankfully with no bullying — I gratefully took up a spot in her friend group. However, being in this new group of female friends became taxing for me as all I wanted was to fit in, and the best way they saw for me to engage was to have me identify my own (heternormative) crushes and romantic interests. After deflecting the question for several weeks, I ended up defaulting my answer to a male classmate who I was vaguely friends in order to get them off my back. I even got to the point of sort of convincing myself I liked him. This, however, backfired, because it was not the answer they were expecting — read: not one of the stereotypically “hot boys” that they liked — and I actually got called out for saying that I liked him. It was a strange experience and a moment of heteronormative gatekeeping, in a way.
ALLI: Same here — in the OC, it seemed like the “easier” option for me to just present as straight. However, this was because I felt like I could. Because I am attracted to men, to some degree, and I was able to choose to voice only that attraction. Accepting — and what seemed even worse, embracing — the parts of me that were outside the norm felt like just another way to be not: Not white. Not straight. I wasn’t ready for that. For most of high school, actually, I channeled all that frustrated energy onto a flurry of distant, not-gonna-happen-sort-of-crushes on boys I hardly knew. It felt easier — it felt safer — to keep my “desire” at a distance. Not to mention that I was a very awkward, very nerdy kid. I think a lot of my adolescent to early adulthood discomfort stemmed from an inability to embody my identity, as a queer woman of color, in a way that was proud, loud — or honestly, even audible. I somehow decided that the proper thing to do was deny, deny, deny. Keep silent. Blend into a body of erasure. Once, I even explicitly told this guy in college, who I was seeing at the time: “I really don’t think I’m queer.” Despite never having been questioned by him, or prompted. I wanted to give everyone around me just one answer: the half-truth.
OLIVIA: It seems like a space for growth is not fostered well at all, and thus, there’s simply no room to grow or think beyond what’s provided to us. Yet another instance of a generally dismissive attitude that both students and adults took was at my high school — our Queer Straight Alliance club had an assembly where representatives explained terms like cisgender and transgender for students who had perhaps never heard of these terms, ever. People didn't quite laugh if off, but it was clearly that nobody cared, even if people weren't actively homophobic and transphobic. I had heard that the person who led the assembly had been suspended for graffiti on the walls of the bathrooms, most related to rebelling against the strict and somewhat unsupportive school and school system. I was genuinely confused by this, trying to understand and clearly not facing the same struggles. But heteronormativity and cisnormativity were enough to do damage. I also began to feel that at the end of high school — my outlet for expression became playwriting and theater.
ALLI: And that’s where our interests first overlapped! I found something similar — the first full-length theater show I was involved in during college was Aditi Brennan Kapil’s The Chronicles of Kalki. I played a queer girl in high school that falls in love with a Hindu god reincarnated as another high school girl. I really liked that idea, even if it was really cheesy — the idea that my character fell in love with the person, no matter what gender, if gods even have genders. Why would we get caught up in a narrative specifically about gender and sexuality when we could just present these queer people as just that: people? It was also my first kiss with a girl ever. I think that’s when I really started pushing myself to question my identity. Why is it that, during every rehearsal, I always said to myself: “Oh my God, my character is exactly me.” Sometimes, it didn’t even really feel like I was acting.
OLIVIA: I also found solace in the theatrical material I discovered in college: plays by Asian American playwrights, and particularly, those with queer characters. The first play I wrote was at the end of high school and was essentially a gender-swapped confession of my crush on a close friend of mine, although the entire point of the play was to claim that I didn’t like her romantically. When it was performed, I cried when I saw it because I think something in me knew that I was also just denying a hidden truth. Contrasting with that, the first play I was involved in during college was Durango, a poignant but devastating play by Julia Cho about a Korean American high school boy and his struggle exploring and accepting his own sexuality. However, I barely processed my own proximity and relation with the material. I was definitely dealing with my own reckoning at the time, but it wasn't denial. [pauses] Maybe I didn't think it concerned me. The director had me do some research on coming out stories in the Korean and Asian American communities, and I researched with fascination but with absolutely no self awareness [laughs]. Durango is living proof that it's one thing to watch or read Angels in America, but it's the specificity of QPOC and Asian American theater about queer narratives that is so uniquely personal and eye-opening.
We wanted to share and explore our experiences, anecdotes, memories, thoughts, misconceptions, and more — to see how much our lives converged and how they differed from before. Our discussions on sensitive personal and sociopolitical topics are often filled with humor, and we encourage others to have conversations of this nature with people close to them, too. We found that our shared love of theater was what brought us together as humans, artists, and also as QPOC — and for us, talking to each other out loud, no holds barred, is an insightful pleasure and a wonderful way to connect. We hope others can use this conversation as a launching point for their own reflections and discussions on personal topics, no matter what they may be. You may share our stories or find little in common, disagree or agree with them, and more — but we want discussion to be a springboard for growth.
About the Authors
Olivia Popp (she/her) is an Asian American and mixed race queer artist/writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She enjoys writing narrative fiction for film and theater with a love for Asian American, queer, and science fiction stories. Her most recent project, a queer and POC-centered sci-fi comedy musical, will be produced in Chicago in February 2020 (doublevisionthemusical.com). She loves cult TV, passionfruit, and going to new places with her camera. @aestheticofthepathetic.
Alli Cruz (she/they) is an American Pilipinx-Cuban artist from Orange County, California. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart and DIALOGIST. She is currently the Feature Film Program Intern at Sundance Institute, and is at work on a Pilipinx-American family play called Unripe. @allicruzin.
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