How To Read Me, feat. Untouchable (Again)

Last year, Untouchable was one of the largest-by-word-count projects I undertook. I’m still really proud of it, because I was able to grow an analysis from a single idea—”nobody wanted to sleep with me”—to the point where I could talk about hostile work environments the following week. More than that, though, I was able to point at some of the things that made me feel most uncomfortable, unsafe, or Othered while I was spending time and money in the Jazz Studies department at ASU. I was able to speak with more specificity than usual to my story and my experience in this particular space.

It was also one of the last things I published before I came out, and I knew that was going to be the case by the time I was halfway through my edits. (The original plan had actually been coming out at the end of Untouchable, which I’ve talked about before.)

I’m hesitant to say Untouchable was one of the last things people read of my work while assuming I’m cis, because that is DEFINITELY still happening even among people I’ve considered close. But it was functionally the end of that era, and today, I’d like to talk a little about how reading even my old work through a lens of queerness yields an overall more honest, accurate interpretation.

First, here’s a big, important point: though I still, on VERY rare occasion, caucus with women, being a Woman in Music or a Woman in Jazz or a Woman in [Insert Field] was never a label I particularly resonated with. It was a mantle I took up begrudgingly at best—not only because I hated the monolith but because I am and have always been Bad At Being A Girl. But my teachers and peers had likely (in most cases) never even considered nonbinary and/or multigender people as part of their academic and creative spaces, so the only options available were Men in Music/Jazz/Etc. (or “musicians,” as they are so commonly called) and Women in Music/Jazz/Etc. Our roles were assigned by the binary gender we were assumed to be, and even as a newly-minted Woman in Jazz, I hated the role. It wasn’t just that I thought I was bad at it; the social structures around me also put for an environment incentivizing and rewarding certain performances of Womanhood in Jazz with success.

And that’s where it got really, really shitty to be a nonbinary aroace.

As I talked about in Untouchable, one of the surefire ways for gender-marginalized people to build social capital in and around ASU Jazz from 2015 to at least 2017 was by establishing close personal relationships with the young men around us. This arguably didn’t have to be a romantic or sexual relationship, but the culture and accepted humor of the Jazz Studies studios at large meant that sex and physical intimacy was never very far removed from the topic of discussion. A lot of the time, engaging with that subject matter felt absolutely mandatory. One-on-one time and individual conversations could get dicey, too. Most of the program was men in their late teens and early twenties who had a penchant for oversharing. You do the math.

Given the frequency with which sex came up in everyday conversation, it wasn’t a surprise that many of the guys were constantly pursuing the women around me. Even if it hadn’t been such a hot topic, I have every faith my female peers would’ve found meaningful partnerships within the community as many of them have at one point or another. (It arguably might have been easier to safely do so.) But importantly, with those relationships came access to a certain (sometimes twisted and insidious) respect and safety that offered some protection against the rest of the studio and community. Maybe it was just the idea that if you were dating someone, they were at least supposed to have your back. It was never an infallible defense, but none of those existed.

There I was, in a sea of young men who virtually all wanted to sleep with or date someone. The vast majority were into women. This romantic and sexual desire was one of the biggest ways we saw womanhood being validated and appreciated in that environment, and as someone who was Bad At Being A Girl, I needed that validation.

I didn’t need the sex; hell, I didn’t really even need the formal relationship, since as an angled aroace my relationships look and feel pretty different than the ones on offer at the time. My brain has never structured relationships with sex at the center of it all, and I experience squishes (original coining of the term here) more than crushes. Sure, I wanted and would happily engage in a close personal relationship of some kind, but in most cases, sex is only something I initially engage in because it’s a way to connect emotionally to the person I’m seeing.

So rather than something I needed for me, a sexual and/or romantic relationship with a peer was valuable for two reasons: first, to strengthen my connection with that person and within the community as a whole, and second, to know that at least within this context, I was Good At Being A Girl.

Nobody wanted to sleep with me, and the words take on a new weight in this context. I can explain it now, but I couldn’t then. At that point in time, I one hundred percent knew I was ace-spec, and I was pretty sure I was bi or pan, but genderfluidity was mostly something I didn’t want to think too hard about yet. I wanted to believe I could be Good At Being A Girl, and that studio taught me the way to do that was to be sexually desired by my peers.

I wasn’t. And because of how gender performance affected the power structure in this way and others, that simple fact felt like the single biggest professional failure of my life.

When one of my teachers told me over a year later that I’d “turned [my] back on jazz,” there were two things I wanted to tell him but couldn’t: first, that I’d only turned my back on paying him and his colleagues for it, and second, that his program had never even tried to make room for any version of me beyond the one they expected me to become. Not only was I creatively stifled through repeated gatekeeping, I was only ever allowed to exist under the guise of a binary gender that has only ever tangentially belonged to me. The faculty had shoved me at the girls and pressured us to get along while reinforcing cispatriarchal conformity and subsequent acceptance as the prize.

Speaking as a pedagogue and an educator, if your program doesn’t leave your students room to search for and explore their own queerness, if your studio culture forcibly hypersexualizes its gender-marginalized participants without actively interrogating that standard, if your educational legacy is shoving every student into the binary gender they were assigned at birth and marginalizing or tokenizing them accordingly, then you are failing ALL your students.

I understood, by the time I started pulling myself away from the academia of ASU Jazz, that my inability to perform my assigned gender as expected by the men around me was the single most significant reason I did not find support and community among my peers. But it took me four years from the day I decided to stop wasting tuition to be able to claim that identity in front of the people who denied me that freedom in the first place.

My time in that program made me ashamed to be who I am, because my peers set a binaristic, queerphobic, misogynist standard and every single professor I ever spoke to ultimately decided that was good enough. I could not have survived the two years I spent around ASU Jazz if I’d understood my genderfluidity enough to try to perform it.

And I understand that some of you probably read my words last year and cast them aside as me saying “I’m not like other girls” because we hadn’t yet formally discussed the “I’m not a girl” part. I wish I’d had the terminology and the freedom to better represent myself in the twenty-four-plus years prior. Unfortunately, we don’t auto-assign a gender of “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.” All I can bring to you is this truth: you will better understand all of my writing if you read it through this lens of queerness. I raged and stormed both because my counterparts and I were being continually marginalized and because none of the labels I was forced into fit me very well at all.

Yes, I am still angry, and yes, we’re probably going to talk about it more over time. But this is the lens through which you should read me—past me, present me, foreseeable-future me.

And if you’re mad, I hope you’re taking a moment to sit with yourself and examine why.

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