When San Francisco Couldn't Accept the Painful Journey of This North Dakota Queer
In July 2016, I went to a friend’s wedding. I was nervous, which was odd, because it’s not like I was getting married. But it was the first gay wedding I had ever been to, and some part of me couldn’t believe it could happen without something horrible erupting.
I grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota. That’s the Dakota without Mt. Rushmore, if that helps. My experiences learning a community’s ability to be accepting and loving of queer people were horrifying. I won’t give you the full 2-hour documentary, but the cliffs notes will suffice.
See, in Bismarck, it wasn’t enough that LGBTQ folks weren’t accepted or tolerated. It had to be made even clearer that they weren’t welcome in all spheres and aspects of community life. One of the things I witnessed there has always stuck with me and is often the first story I use to describe what it was like to be queer, openly or not, in North Dakota.
When I was 17, I watched the girl (who I had recently realized I was in love with) force her boyfriend to sign a petition banning the only out gay boy in the whole school from changing in the boy’s locker room — all because she didn’t want him “ogling” her boyfriend.
The petition got 300+ signatures. The boy was later beaten-up by the football team. The players served a one-day suspension. There was a football game that week. The boy they beat up dropped out of school. I still remember his name.
I can tell you many more stories just like his. I already knew North Dakota wasn’t a place that was accepting of difference. I’d grown up there, with my brown skin, feeling like a pariah at times or a freak of nature at others. But this was adding a whole new level to the marginalization.
That same feeling was part of what filled me then, sitting at my friend’s wedding nearly a decade later. Everything I’d learned growing up here said that not only were gay people not accepted by broader communities, but that any attempt at being loving and proud in public would be shut down with violence and fear.
I knew we weren’t in North Dakota anymore. We were in San Francisco, which even I knew was supposed to be much safer and more open. But I couldn’t shake the certainty that something horrible and painful was going to happen.
As it turned out, nothing bad happened. No one got up or yelled or said something horrible. My friends were married. Their wedding was touching and gorgeous. Their families were supportive, loving, and present. The sun shone down and the birds sang. It was perfect. I cried so hard, one of my friends chuckled and said I was crying like I was at a funeral instead of a wedding.
I realized that was more accurate than she knew. I was mourning.
I was mourning all the times that this seemed impossible to me. I was mourning the loss of innocence that made me assume violence or harm would occur on such a beautiful day. And I was mourning the fact that even after years of being away from that toxicity, I still couldn’t quite believe in a world that would allow me and my queer friends to be happy and joyous for any reason, on any day.
And most of all, I couldn’t believe I was actually there to see it — that this moment of queer celebration and joy had actually occurred while I was alive. It seemed so impossible.
This is part of why I think it’s important to talk about how being out isn’t so simple for many people. It can have an aspect of mourning to it, especially if you come from a place where acceptance isn’t the norm. Friends are lost, families are broken apart, and community is hard to find. Fear and joy are so close together for some of us queer folk.
Most of all, we need to not be alienated by the very community we find with each other. I remember feeling so alien and wrong next to some of my fellow queer folk, who looked at me as if I was some deprived child when I spoke about what growing up in North Dakota was like.
We don’t all get the same experience and it’s important to allow that realness into our communities. We’re all at different points in our journey and we may have different destinations.
I didn’t have the words at my friends’ wedding to explain myself. I just babbled something about how beautiful it was and how this was my first queer wedding. It meant the world to me, to be understood somewhat and also allowed to have space for my feelings.
As we move out of Summer and its Pride-filled sun, I wanted to write this piece to reach out to everyone who might be living somewhere they’re scared to be themselves. It’s ok. You’re not alone. It’s ok to be scared. You don’t have to do anything you aren’t ready for. Make sure you’re safe and whole, first and foremost.
Don’t worry, we’ll be here when you’re ready, for all of you. That’s what community is really about, right? A place where you can be your whole, true self without fear.
About the Author
Shivani Seth is a queer 2nd generation Punjabi-American freelance writer who grew up in the Midwest. She has a background in Theater as well as a Master’s in Social Work. She writes frequently on the topics of mental health, burn out, community care and racism in a variety of contexts. Besides writing, Shivani also enjoys improvised theater, video games and crafting. You can find more of her work at www.shivaniswriting.com or on twitter @ShivaniSWriting.
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