On Being From There

If you know me, you probably know that I grew up in south-central Minnesota, in a small town that has two colleges and a horrendous town slogan–a cliched statement that always promised far more than it could ever deliver. I didn’t have an easy childhood–most probably, to be honest, because I’m not an easy person; I don’t move with ease through the world around me, and I doubt I ever will. That said, this awkwardness was hopelessly exacerbated by a local culture of repression and surface tolerance, where politeness is never genuine but serves as a boundary-setting device. People who live their entire lives immersed in “Minnesota Nice” often adopt its distances in place of their own personalities, becoming shadows of the people they might have been. So I left. I moved to New York City when I was eighteen in the hopes of becoming my own person.

But in New York, a Minnesotan is always a curiosity. My French instructor at Barnard, Yaëlle Azagury, made fun of me religiously for an entire year, refusing to learn my name and simply calling me “Minnesota” during the rare instances in which I dared raise my hand in class. In her eyes, it meant “hillbilly.” It meant, “you have no place here.” I’d gone from eighteen years of being out of place back home, only to be reminded in manners overt and covert that I had no place in New York, either.

I now know how piss-poor a pedagogical approach that was–and it’s one of the reasons my own pedagogy is rooted in mutual respect, rather than some doomed-to-fail show of authority. I enjoy hearing about where my students are from, because I think their migration stories matter, but I never make them the butt of the joke. Because this, this is the thing: saying “I am from there” is only ever a starting point.

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.

I like to think that any good writer could have told the Doctor that time is not a linear progression. Regardless of where you stand on the question of cause-and-effect, though, it is at the very least fair to say that our present is always reshaping our understanding of both the past and the future. (This is why Doctor Who remains a popular television show, as it imperfectly proves this point over and over again, week after week, from the viewpoint of the Doctor’s companion(s).) And perhaps that’s why today’s marriage equality vote in the Minnesota House feels simultaneously new and yet old, to me, like it happened today, and also decades ago. In a lot of ways, my point of origin is re-emerging in my personal timeline in order to validate not only my adult self’s ability to make relationships and family of my own choosing, but my quirky child self’s queerness and difference.

This doesn’t mean I plan to go back. But I would like to share some photographs of my home state, a place that has finally started to write people like me into the laws that shape its society, has started to see me. Not the shadow of who they think I was, or the specter of who I might become, but the resolutely real flesh-and-blood entity that I am, in this incredible, complex present. As they are cheering in the Capitol rotunda: Amen, amen, amen.

There are more here. These are early photos of mine, but I think they hold up. I’m still proud of them.