In 2011 I got a chance to go to Belfast for a queer arts festival, and largely because those two words – Belfast and queer – don’t appear in sentences together nearly enough, I jumped at the chance, and I jumped on a plane, and found myself telling stories in a small theatre in the heart of the city on a Thursday night.
At about nine pm, partway through the second half of my show, decidedly mid-story, I heard an untuned orchestra of gymnasium style metal chair legs skreaking against the concrete floor in concert, and about ten or fifteen members of the audience all got up together and left by the back door. Streetlights and a car horn bled into the silent dark for a long breath, and then they were gone.
I took a breath, waited for the rest of the crowd to settle for a couple of seconds, and continued, wondering exactly what it was that I had said to offend. The artistic director of the festival shook her head after the show and explained to me what had happened.
Maybe I should have told you about it before, sorry love. Nothing to do with yer set, that was lovely, it was just the last-train-to-the-country crowd that had to bugger off on time, so they could get home and be up early to feed the chickens and the sheep and such.
She told me more about it over a shot of Jamieson’s at the bar. Rural Northern Ireland was suffering from a brain drain of youngsters, she explained, who had grown up in small villages or on farms out in the country but had been pilfered by London and Manchester and the like by the promise of jobs, and nightlife, and shopping, and an end to the hard labour and perceived drudgery of rural life. This often left aging farmers without their children or grandchildren around to take over the family business, and these now elderly farmers were increasingly unable to maintain their properties and look after their animals. This had birthed a kind of recent tradition now, of single, often butch lesbians, who took jobs on these farms, helping out in exchange for a nominal wage and free housing. The trade-off, in this conservative and catholic part of the world, was that there was an unspoken law that these women should live alone, without partners, and remain quietly in the closet.
This struck me full in the chest, like the flat and hard side of a pair of fists. That’s who had left the theatre just after nine pm. A bunch of butch farmers who had to take the last train out of the city to get back to their empty farmhouses so they could shutter up the sheep and check the chicken coops before the moon set behind the rolling hills of someone else’s farmlands.
I just dug around in my Facebook past and found a post from earlier that same day, posted right after I had taught a workshop to a couple of those butch farmers, but before I knew about the last train to the country:
13 November 2011:
Just finished teaching a workshop. Got to see a big old butch with steel-toed work boots on cry quietly in her chair while writing something down. She said at the beginning that she always wanted to write but never did on account of her terrible spelling, yet there she was, cranking it out. Ever seen anything more beautiful than that? I haven’t, not for a while, anyway. Belfast, you move me, you do.
Five years later I was in Brisbane, Australia, at the Queensland Poetry Festival. A dream gig. Beautiful venue, warm, humid night, sold out crowd, standing ovation. There was a long line-up in the theatre lobby after the show, folks wanting to hug or shake hands and buy books and take pictures.
I will never forget her, even though I can’t remember her name, and there were about a dozen people that looked a lot like her lingering in the lobby of that big theatre that night in Queensland five years ago.
She was wearing a striped button-down dress shirt and faded jeans with frayed cuffs and a worn leather belt and hiking boots. Barber shop haircut. She smelled of tobacco and Old Spice deodorant. She needed to talk and so I listened, even though there were people waiting and growing restless behind her.
She told me how much she loved the show, and that there were at least ten places where she would have cried, if she were the crying in public type, which she definitely was not. She told me how she grew up on a farm in the outback without community, without role models, without pride parades or flags, without ever holding hands in public with her lover, without books or movies that contained characters that looked anything like her, nothing, no one, never not ever.
She told me that Queensland, of all of the states in Australia, had historically been the most brutal to its queer people. Consensual sex between gay men was illegal in the state from 1895 until 1991. The maximum sentence was seven years in prison. And that all through the 70s and 80s (which happened to be her formative years), Queensland was governed by the socially conservative National Party, led by a real piece of work something something Petersen, and during that time gay men were not permitted to be schoolteachers, and the government actively used homophobia as a hammer to forge electoral advantages, linking being gay to pedophilia, and moral deviancy. They even passed a liquor law making it an offence to serve alcohol to ‘perverts, child molesters and deviants’ or to allow them to remain on licensed premises. Though most of the laws were targeting gay men, Peterson’s ‘homosexual deviance laws’ specifically allowed bar owners to call police on patrons suspected of being lesbians. Nothing changed, legally, until 1991, she told me.
Imagine trying to find yourself in that climate? She asked, her eyes wet with tears that she blinked to control. We weren’t allowed to put posters up or place ads in the papers that even used the word homosexual, or gay, or lesbian. And transgender? She shook her shorn head. I don’t even. They tried to make it impossible for us to find each other, but still, we managed it. But it was dangerous, you understand me? So, to see you up there tonight, telling me my story a little, under those lights and all that, looking a lot like I did twenty years back, with all of these people gathered here, well, I’m trying to even find the words for how I feel right now. Look at us, eh? Here we are, and fuck em, I say. Because here we fucking are, y’know?
So. I’ve written a few words for those older Irish butches, and the Aussie ones too, and the ones living in a one bedroom in Barrie, Ontario and under pandemic lockdown in Pakistan and an inherited townhouse somewhere in Arizona. All of you. All of us.
You might use the word butch, or trans man or genderqueer or non-binary. Maybe you are masculine of centre, or a stud, or maybe you shirk any and all of these labels. All of these are only words, and words are never big enough to hold all of us all of the time. All I need to do is catch a glimpse of you on the street, in the grocery store, in the park walking your stiff and trembling old dog, and I see you, and know you are my brother, my sister, my sibling, my family.
We belong by not belonging. They have always tried to disappear us. To force us to fit. We have forever been the second left foot, the mother wearing army boots, the bearded lady, the black sheep in the back row of everyone’s family photo, the bruised and sore thumb that cannot help but stick out of a clenched fist.
We deliver the mail and teach gym class and work the night shift at the hospital and shear the sheep and mow the lawns and answer the phones and take care of someone else’s grandparents.
They tried to un-invite us to the feminist discussion circles in the seventies, and they ousted our trans sisters from their collectives and shelters and music festivals too. They have divided our ranks but never truly conquered us, never all the way.
I see some of my future in you. I always have. I want us to gather together somewhere when we are able to again, because now we know how much this time together must never be taken for granted, never wasted. We will lean in close and tell each other where to get a second-hand suit altered, where the friendly barbers are in this town, and where to buy pants that do not accentuate these hips.
I am sorry that we all built ourselves on crumbling foundations and modelled our versions of masculinity on the only examples we were provided, the heroic and stoic and damaged and damaging, on handsome like Han Solo, on our absent or unavailable fathers and our problematic uncles, but I know between us we can help ourselves be better.
I want to let the tears flow and talk about the hurt some of us still hide under booze or beards or bravado.
I want to talk together about how we have sometimes skirted (no pun intended) just under the violent eye of the state. That the laws and lawmakers that seek to police and punish queerness almost always aim and fire at our queer brothers and our trans sisters, that they often target our queens and shoot over the heads of kings. I want to speak about the consequences of this, because though we are sometimes invisible, we are never bulletproof.
I don’t want us to ever draw lines in the sand based on what we call ourselves, or our testosterone levels. Breast or flat chest or M or f or x or Bind or pack or pluck or who you fuck I promise I will not line up separately for justice or be divided by shifting categories or imposed borders or imprecise pronouns.
Because it is not true that words will never hurt us.
Tonight, when you catch the last train out of the city, I want you to know that you are part of a multitude. I want you to know that your family is waiting, and that we will recognise you when you get home.