What It’s Like to Live in a Queer Southern Body
Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of years ago, but it felt too personal at the time to release.
I’m in my kitchen, slicing fresh corn off the cob, swaying my hips and stamping my feet to a Carolina Chocolate Drops cover of “Hit Em’ Up Style.” Body memory integrates — a rare occurrence — with the present moment, and I am brought back to my Southern childhood by the scents of fresh vegetables and the familiar rhythm of a solo dance. I am not my own audience — I prefer not to observe my movements as an outsider would — but dancing with no focus on form or appearance is its own satisfaction. I am briefly grateful for this body, the one wrapped in an old sundress with a scarf around the waist that sways as I do, the one that appreciates the taste of fresh food and the sultry song of a tuned-up fiddle. In this moment, I’m not thinking about dance-class rejections or the pain of my trans experience. For a few minutes, I’m just experiencing my own self, and the joy of creating something — both dance and meal — that can never be precisely duplicated.
In recent months, I’ve struggled to locate myself as a creative, living with an amazing writer and artist who pours creativity into everything they do. I feel outside of that world, too logical and focused on organization to claim creativity. The meal I’m eating as I write this piece, the one I’ve just created, was guided by a Blue Apron recipe, and as much as dance has guided my life, I have to face the fact that I essentially failed as a choreographer. The innocence of my mom’s always-available garden and a childish form that was constantly in motion feel remote as an adult who knows the price of organic vegetables and the pain of living in a trans body. Typically I distance myself from that body, because it’s too complicated, and because I trust my mind. Trusting my body is much harder.
Body memory is a well of reserves for which I’m grateful, but I also don’t know how to bridge the chasm between childhood freedom and grown-up realities. I think it’s funny that the South is always conceptualized as a place that limits and tramples on freedom, because I felt much freer there than I ever have in this Yankee urban landscape where folks are constantly trying and failing to put a name on my gender presentation. I remember, as a child, feeling uncomplicated about womanhood, and now I think of Southern women with a nostalgia that is tinged with shame. I know that my femme presentation hides my non-binary identity, and thus it’s hard to fully embrace or connect to anything unrepentantly feminine, whether in my present or my heritage.
My mom is a woman who is no stranger to body issues. A born-and-bred North Carolinian like me, she still looks in the mirror and expects to see a figure half the size of what appears there. Her hippie, anti-authority roots as a Southern kid who came of age in the 70s manifested in a brief career as a singer-songwriter and a longer-lived hobby of coaxing sustenance from our modest backyard. She made feeding our family of two look easy, and the diet of fresh vegetables and occasional fruits was one of the few ways in which I’ll admit to actually being spoiled as an only child. Working with her hands came naturally, and while she avoids photographs now, I think the things she can’t do after cancer and arthritis are more frustrating for her than an unsatisfying appearance. Mom always kind of rolled her eyes at the feminine beauty standard, anyway. She was one of the first kids to insist on wearing jeans at her high school, and she’s certainly never worn makeup.
I’m not much like her, at a glance. While my gender identity is unrepentantly queer, my presentation is also far more femme. I like bright colors and spike heels, and at least the occasional eyeshadow. But I don’t like to look at myself in photographs or mirrors, either.