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Outside In: The Failings of Alternative Communities

I've always been "different," been one of those people that never quite fits in and is therefore labeled as "weird."
Kim Nicolini

Issue #38, May 1998

Sex I Am

I've always been "different," been one of those people that never quite fits in and is therefore labeled as "weird." It started when I was a little kid and has persisted through today, when I am a thirty-five-year-old professional. My weirdness has been difficult to pinpoint and categorize and has led me through many attempts of trying to join a community and fit in. Attempts which, except for my relationship with Bad Subjects, have failed. What I've learned through my travels through alternative communities, especially those based on sex and gender, is that prejudices, ridiculous codes of behavior and fashion, and rigid re-enforcement of the status quo can be just as insidious and persistent as in mainstream heteronormative society. My experiences with sex and gender-based alternative communities point to a huge problem in organized groups that need to classify people and put them in their place on the basis of who they are instead of what they want to do. They "essentialize." By talking about myself in this article, I hope to show the need for post-essentialized communities that are more flexible in their classifications and more open to the many "others" that populate our world.

I grew up in an abusive household. This is not the place for a gut-wrenching melodramatic memoir scene. Nevertheless being ritually abused in a middle-class suburb, where the neighbors could hear the fights, the crying, the beating, on a daily basis, automatically marked me as an "outsider" in our tight-knit community. Friends were not welcome in our house. And friends' parents did not want their children in our house. Our house was a dangerous place; it was the evil "other." No Brady Bunch or Beaver Cleaver there. Just a huge tyrant of a man, a hell of a lot of alcohol, and three very scared kids.

That's what my home life was like. To spice up my life outside the home and to take control where I thought I could grab it, I became "funny." I was not the traditional girl. I wore my brothers' hand-me-downs, played in the mud and dirt, got in fist fights, talked a lot in class, pulled faces and cracked jokes. I was the clown, the feisty fighter, the girl with a dirty mouth. For this reason, I fit in nowhere. I wasn't a nerd. I wasn't the popular girlish girl. I was the one who was hard to pin down. When I did decide to be a girl, it was in a very bad and naughty way — stripping for the neighborhood boys while my brothers sold tickets and parading my eight-year-old body about in outlandish sluttish gear. Needless to day, this did not make me into an honorable Girl Scout. Kids are trained at a very early age to recognize acceptable and unacceptable behavior. So the kids in my school didn't know what to do with me.

Still, I didn't seem to care. Even though I was acting a slut at times, I still wasn't actually sexual. Everything was a game and an act for me. But when I became an adolescent all that changed. My gender started becoming more of an issue. My girlfriends tried to dress me up and put make-up on me, and the boys started identifying me as sexual. Suddenly I was referred to as "the slut," even though I was a stone cold virgin and had never even kissed a boy. In the tight-knit circles of suburban adolescents, definitions of what is "normal" are quite narrow, and I didn't fit into any of them. I was a girl, but I was also loud, strong, and funny, and I didn't seem to care what people thought of the way I acted. Communities cannot stand it unless everyone is labeled and in their proper place, so the only way my peers could define me was through sex. If I wasn't the traditional well-groomed and well-behaved girl, then I had to be a slut. Fine, I figured. If they want slut, I can show them slut. I didn't understand that my sexualization as a "slut" was the effect of a larger problem, not the cause of the problem itself. I really began to believe that I was a slut. I became obsessed with Bad Girl books: Carrie, Go Ask Alice, The Exorcist, and The Happy Hooker. All these books somehow equate girl sex with bad behavior, and they all had a strange allure to me. I started writing in my diary about how I was going to be a prostitute "when I grew up." This was all fantasy of course. But somehow, in these books I finally found a community of girls (be it fictional) where I felt I belonged. So I lived in books for a while.

When I was thirteen, my family uprooted and moved away from the town where I spent my life. Suddenly I had no control over any of my environments. At least in my hometown Pacifica, regardless of my outsiderness, I had my friends and I lived in a hippie-ish environment that was more willing to accept "different" people. I had places outside my home where I felt safe and where I felt like I sort of belonged. But when we moved, suddenly I was completely alien both inside and outside of my home. There is nothing worse for an adolescent girl who has a completely fucked-up home life than to have to be the "new girl" in class. I had no grounding whatsoever. So what did I do? I took the books I loved so much and turned them into my reality. I literalized the "slut" that people had categorized me as for years. I made her real and followed the typical teen runaway narrative — teenage girl starts taking drugs, hangs out with the wrong crowd, has sex with lots of older boys, runs away, becomes stripper, becomes junkie, becomes prostitute, etc. That's what my teenage years were like, but that's not what I'm writing about here. Suffice it to say, that once you've had that kind of experience, spending your entire high school years in the sex industry instead of geometry and history, you're marked for life. Coming out of that scene, I realized I was now doubly marked. There really was no where I fit, so I tried to find communities of people with whom I could identify.

Queer in the Queer World

Looking for a place to belong, I turned to alternative communities based on sex and gender, since my experiences and my sense of otherness were determined by them. But instead of offering solutions to my problem of outsiderness and alienation and instead of providing me with a network of support and bonding, those communities reproduced the very problems which had screwed me up in the first place. Because sex played such a key role in my otherness and because my history in sex work made it fairly impossible for me to ever identify myself as a "normal heterosexual," my natural inclinations were to head toward the gay and lesbian community. Here I was sure I would find comrades. After all, wasn't the gay community somehow also alienated from mainstream society by sexuality? Wouldn't its members be able to identify with my alienation and experience? What I found instead was disappointment after disappointment. What I found were microcosms of mainstream society, complete with enforced stereotypes, classism, and a structure which nurtured a society of the elite. What I also found in the gay and lesbian community was that, for the most part, people did not want to deal with my sexuality — it was too loud, too much on the surface, and too much based in the heterosexual world.

I discovered that in the gay community, maintaining its own version of the status quo seemed to be more important than actually promoting an alternative to mainstream society. Too frequently, gay and lesbian communities create a mirror image of the very mainstream society from which they have attempted to escape. These communities become a highly essentialized gay and lesbian mainstream, where you have to do all the right things to be in and to feel like you belonged. You have to be just the right kind of queer.

Take San Francisco, for example. In the Castro, the hippest gay and lesbian neighborhood around, queer culture and consumer culture seem to be interchangeable. To really belong in this community, you have to go to the right gym, wear the right clothes, have the right haircut, eat at the right restaurants, go to the right clubs. Basically you have to be the right kind of queer consumer if you're going to stand a chance of being accepted. And the Castro isn't the only place where this is a problem. I live in the working-class town of Vallejo, which happens to have a pretty big gay and lesbian population. Time and time again, I have headed down to the local gay clubs looking for fellowship and camaraderie. Time and time again, I have found the same stereotypes and rigid codes of dress and behavior that perpetuate themselves in the heterosexual world. I can't hang with the girls because I'm not butch enough, don't play on the softball team, don't have a truck, and simply am not part of "the group." I can't hang with the boys because, well, I'm a girl. I can talk with them a little bit, but ultimately the wall comes up and the division is drawn.

Individuals aren't the problem here. It's the communities in which they participate. I guess that's where people really get fucked up: in groups. Suddenly, they want to classify everyone, put them in their caste, and fight for the "in" spot. Who's in and who's out, who's got power and who doesn't, become more important than building relationships and developing a community of support. Well, I've always been "out," and what I've learned, especially by writing this article, is that I have built and preserved my strong sense of self and integrity by embracing my "outness." I have no use for the status quo except to analyze myself and others in relation to it and to try to figure out alternatives to it.

Feminist or Foe?

Living in the Bay Area and hanging out with "Berkeley Types" over the years, I've found myself on more than one occasion in the midst of feminist communities. Now here is somewhere where I should get support. Women supporting women, understanding the atrocities of patriarchy, the abuses we suffer at the hands of the men in power. No group of people should understand, sympathize, and support me more than these dedicated feminists. Right? Wrong. A few years ago, I was invited to a party hosted by a radical Berkeley feminist political group. I jumped on the opportunity to meet other women and participate in a community where I could share a sense of commitment to bettering women's lives. Over and over, throughout the evening I tried to meet and converse with the women at the party, but as soon as I mentioned prostitution, empowering the sexuality of all women regardless of orientation, or anything that was not within the narrow parameters and guidelines of their "group," I was met with ridicule, repulsion, or utter disregard. I was shocked. It was like a huge slap in my face. If these women couldn't relate to and accept me, then who would?

What I found in these types of feminist communities is that these women also could not deal with my sexuality. I would talk to them openly about my experiences thinking I would open the door for a discourse about sex, identity, oppression, power, etc. Instead, the door slammed in my face. For the hard-line, anti-male feminists who policed these communities, I was way too deep in the heteronormative world and way too tainted by sex and men. For the punk, hip, neo-feminist, I was a threat to their "alternative" world which carefully maintained a mini-elite structure with the ruling divas on top. My "alternative" lifestyle was a little too real and dirty, and of course a little too "authentic" in a hipster culture which strives to prove who is and who is not authentic. It's the in and out thing again.

Bad is Good

A few years ago I connected with Bad Subjects and found a community that actually was somewhat utopian in its views. With Bad Subjects not only do I feel completely accepted, comfortable and respected for who I am, but by being involved with people who think about the complicated workings of social structures, I've been able to learn more about the forces that have affected my life and to better understand my identity. It took me years to understand that my sexual identity was not the cause of my problems and situations but was an effect of forces in my life that go far beyond my sexuality. I'm still trying to understand that as I am write this piece. What I see now is that although I thought my hyper-sexualized history defined me, it doesn't. The social situations that led to my sexualization played an even larger role. That's why I have a hard time fitting into gay and feminist communities.

My experiences with Bad Subjects so inspired me with a new sense of confidence in the academic world that a couple of years ago I decided to sit in on a UC Berkeley graduate class on "Queer Theory." I felt that because I had spent all this time analyzing my "queerness" and thinking about the types of queerness that exist, I would be a great candidate for this class, even though I wasn't a graduate student. I expected that a class entitled"Queer Theory" would offer a broader and more tolerant perspective on what constitutes queer rather than traditional gay or feminist studies. But what I found was a class focused on a narrowly defined gay studies agenda with little sympathy to anything outside of mainstream definitions of gay culture. Even worse, the class was infested with a sense of hierarchical structure, elitist posturing, and overall intolerance. What I thought it would be and what it ended up being were two completely different things.

I learned from my experience in this Queer Theory class and from writing this article that there is a great need to address the problem of categorization that proliferates in all group dynamics, particularly those that are organized around sex and gender. We need communities that embrace a wider sense of "otherness" and queerness and that actually practice the tolerance which they preach. We've gotten to the place where we identify social problems of a singular nature (e.g. homophobia, patriarchy, racism). Now let's go the next step by combining forces to create an alternative community that really is an "alternative" to mainstream society and not its microcosmic mirror image.

Kim Nicolini is an artist and poet. She also directs a small non-profit that provides arts education and cultural enrichment to the disadvantaged. In her extremely limited free-time, she enjoys reading on the sofa with her gender-neutral cat Tibbs. She would love to hear from you:

Copyright © 1998 by Kim Nicolini. All rights reserved.