Activism in Suburbia

(Re-blog from Women and Words)

My students choose a theme every year. I did not tell them to do this, but hey, if you put together a group of smart, motivated teenagers, they do crazy shit. This year, my darlings chose activism for their theme. Previously, I was a big fan of coddling them, but now I realize what a waste that was. Now, when something uncool is happening on campus, I just ask what they are going to do about it. When they get to work and shit goes sideways, I tell them no one else is going to fix it.

So I’ve basically become a suburban dad.

And hoo boy is it working.

The club’s always had the motto “Support. Educate. Advocate.” which, honestly, looks great on T-shirts. And the kids have always supported each other and educated each other and advocated for each other. The issue, I realize now, is they don’t advocate for themselves. And neither do I. In the past, I was fighting their battles to protect them (No regrets. We all need the occasional champion). As I’m sending the little ducklings off to protest and make pamphlets and schedule meetings with administrators, I’m realizing that I have an excess of time. So you bet your ass I’m using that time to advocate for me.

There’s a fine line between defending the kids (“Remember, you won’t always be aware of the queer students in your classes by looking, so don’t say things like that”) and defending myself (“That was super offensive to queer people and I’m super queer”). Defending the kids is rote at this point. Calling students and teachers out on heterosexism is second nature. But telling people they just hurt my feelings is new. And weird. It’s also empowering as fuck. Suddenly, we are not talking about abstract offense. We are talking about me. And I’m offended damnit.

Of course, the kids tend to absorb the lessons I’m learning. Mostly, because I say things like, “Guys, I’ve been advocating for myself and it’s real empowering. You should try it,” and “You’re your own best advocate.” I really like that one; it has good cadence. I can also reverse it. “Who is your best advocate?” Then, they roll their eyes and say, with a dramatic sigh, “Me.”

The advantage of having bright students, of course, is they quickly learn to apply lessons from one subject to another. Last week, one of the queermos was dragging their feet on their college applications. We negotiated their task list to one item: pick up your transcript. The next tasks, I promised, could be tackled the following week. So off they toddled to pick up their transcript. Fifteen minutes later, much to my surprise, they marched back in my office, transcript in hand.

“I really wanted to walk home, but you said I’m my own best advocate and I figure the best way to advocate for myself is to apply to college.”

I’m starting to see why suburban dads are so proud all the time.


(Re-blog from Women and Words)

At any author panel, in any interview with an author, someone inevitably asks the question. The framing always differs, the depth of responses might change, but at the core the question doesn’t vary. Plotter or panster?

The plotters always speak in shades of insanity. There are authors with entire walls covered in color-coded sticky notes. Others build meticulous character profiles. Some have stock photo stockpiles. Some create playlists. For the fantasy or sci-fi or even historical authors, I get it. It’s world building. Details matter. They connect and frame—or they can implode a storyline if improperly utilized. But that’s as far as my understanding goes.

Obvi, I’m a panster. I know the beginning-ish and the end, kinda. And I know some cool shit that will happen in the middle. I’ve got a decent idea of who my characters are. I probably know the setting. Done. That’s all I need. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me alive. I need the spontaneity. That way, if I decide halfway through writing a trilogy that the good guy is the bad guy and the bad guy is…well, a comprehensible villain instead of outright evil or that a minor character is actually major or that the sex appeal of a character was overstated, then I can do it. There’s no scramble to re-plot. There’s no panic at the wrench I wedged into my own plan.

Plus, planning ahead freaks me out.

I’m not a heathen. Promise. Like, I plan ahead a little. I mean, I get up early for work so I pick out my clothes the night before. And I’ve got bill pay set up. You know, to make sure my budget is on track. And clearly I keep a running shopping list so I know what to get at the store. But aside from that, nope. No planning here. When I was younger, I planned a lot less. That was part laziness and part an inability to plan ahead in life. But I grew up. Evolved a little. So I pick out my socks ahead of time. It’s not a big deal.

As it turns out, though, when you start to grow up and make a habit out of planning ahead, sometimes it carries over. I learned that I can actually be a lot lazier if I do some shit ahead of time. It’s hard to pick out socks at six a.m., but it’s not so bad at ten p.m. And, yeah, I figured out that writing out a simple timeline for a book makes it a lot easier when I’m stuck because I can just check the timeline and see where I’m going. And maybe the way I wrote novels when I was twenty is different than the way I write novels at thirty.

So I guess I’m a fucking plotter now.

Dress Code for Spies

(Re-blog from Women and Words)

I went to see Atomic Blonde a couple weeks ago. It was glorious, of course. I grew up watching spy flicks. My brother and I spent every Thanksgiving glued to Spike TV’s James Bond marathon. Around us relatives would flow in and out of the house, women (never men) filled the kitchen with laughter and standard turkey day fare, my cousins would play rough games of football, but my bro and I never wavered. Food was retrieved at commercial breaks. The gender-split conversations didn’t interest us. Football required movement. But Bond was our constant.

I know the appeal of spy flicks for many is that whole good triumphing over evil bit. I never really understood that. Probably because I saw evil where other people saw nothing. I didn’t get why Grandma made pies the boys would devour, but never thank her for. My linebacker cousin was moved to the adult table before me, despite being two years younger. My favorite uncle was the focus of every joke for all the reasons that made him my favorite. My mother was treated as the weakest of her siblings even though she was arguably the smartest. But the real reason I preferred hiding with Mr. Bond was the ham we had to make in addition to turkey. A whole ham because the loudest, rudest uncle hated poultry. It all seemed so wrong to me. Incomprehensible. But he was a good man. And women liked to cook (though my mother hated cooking). So it was okay?

There is certainly an appeal in the clean cut lines Sean Connery paints for us. Russians are bad. Bond, with his sartorial sense and physical prowess and cultured accent, is good. (Of course, those early Bond films don’t hold up nearly as well when you watch as an adult. But that is neither here nor there.) Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton in Atomic certainly utilizes the same tells to let the audience know to root for her. Her coats are a wonder to behold. Her physicality is poetic in its brutality. Her lilting tongue, precise. But her villain is no simple Russian. He is a selfish uncle shouting for ham. A somewhat charming man who once was attractive, grasping at violence when words fail as a means to preserve the comfort of his life. A man who knows that the world, his people, the government he claims to serve will all benefit more from change, yet actively works against it. For his own benefit.

I appreciate a murky villain. Someone who isn’t a Nazi. Or a Russian. I prefer careful evil that settles like film on unattended hot chocolate. Some people like that unexpected thickness. Most people just swirl it in and pretend they never saw it. My wife hovers, her stir stick in constant motion to keep both mugs fresh until I’m ready to take one and drink it.

It’s cheap to write a literal Nazi. Easy. They are simple: evil. And there’s no point in analyzing their villainy. Once you actively exterminate a group of people, you’re not worth the effort of analysis. Kind of like Reagan. Analysis, the compassion required to comprehend unthinkable actions, is humanizing. Genocide comes with a clarity, not of thought, but judgment. I have judged you not worth the analysis. I’d rather write you off. But that moment before someone somehow decides that genocide is the answer is where our uncles ask for ham.

My childhood obsession with James Bond led to a lot of cap guns and Super Soakers and spy games. My brother and I would create elaborate stories comparable to convoluted spy plots. Or we would just shoot each other. One year at Christmas, he begged for a tuxedo like Bond wore. I was filled with absolute jealousy. Not just at his winged collar and clip-on cummerbund, but that he had thought to ask for one. It was a subtle sort of villainy that taught me the luxury of requesting tuxedos didn’t extend to me.

Atomic Blonde gave me a complex villain I could finally see. A villain that was real. But Broughton gave me a sartorial chance. How can we envision ourselves fighting evil if we can’t masquerade as damaged, powerful heroes?

I think it’s time for coat shopping.

Corporate Takeovers and Recruiting Children

(Re-blog from Women and Words)

I kinda hate Pride. Yeah, there’s the whole corporate takeover of what was once a rallying cry for validity and freedom and respect. And, sure, cis white people are pretty terrible at sharing space with the people of color and trans folk on whose backs our liberation was built. Those issues are pretty big deals. But that’s not why I can’t stand Pride.

I used to say I hated Pride because I didn’t feel shame so why would I feel pride? That was cute for my twenties. But now I’m old and I can admit a certain measure of pride. Mostly it has to do with watching my students grow from scared baby queers into adult-sized brave baby queers. On rare occasions, I’ll do something that makes me proud of me. You know, important stuff like styling my hair into a perfect quiff. Or nailing hollandaise.

I have pretty solid priorities.

As a young, fresh queer, I never attended Pride. Mostly because I hate crowds and I hate loud noise and I hate parades so the concept of Pride is pretty much horrifying. My first Pride was over a decade after I came out. I was 27 and could no longer ignore that it would simply be good marketing to attend. So I asked my publisher to buy a booth. I invited other NorCal authors. I made a very long list of supplies that included sunscreen (twice) and duct tape (once) because I’m very pale and super gay. I spent the day actively trying to talk to people. Like, actively. Basically, my worst nightmare, but louder and more exhausting. And people kept walking by with beer, but I couldn’t have any beer because I was too busy convincing the masses that reading is cool while trying to be charming. Also, selling books. So many, in fact, that my wife had to go back to our place and bring more books because I’d sold out. Depending on how you look at it, the whole day was wildly successful. Or whatever.

The next year I went, my students started coming by the booth. I’d refuse to sell them my books, meet their parents (this is what queer teens in the 21st century do. They bring their parents to Pride. It’s disgustingly adorable), send them on their way. This year, my kids participated in the march, volunteered in booths, THEN walked through Pride with their parents. (I might be mildly proud that they are both activists and children simultaneously. Maybe.) I think the ultimate kid spotting this year was the mom and kid with the kid’s ex-girlfriend and the ex-girlfriend’s new girlfriend. If that’s not the gayest thing I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is. We don’t need to bother recruiting and training. They become that gay all on their own. So I guess that part doesn’t suck.

The real reason I don’t like Pride is far more simple. It’s that, when I finally am able to break away from the booth, show my ID to twelve different people, get a wristband that swears I’m old enough for an adult beverage, I’m given two options: Budweiser and Bud Light. If those are your only beer options, you made a wrong turn somewhere in life.

I mean, I’ll drink it anyway. But still.

Verb Conjugation and the Act of Listening

(Re-blog from Women and Words)

Last week, one of my students excitedly proclaimed that they had chosen a new name with their mom’s help. I spent the next few hours saying the name to myself. Out loud. Repeatedly.

It still feels unfamiliar. I’m still coaching myself. But they doesn’t know that. And there’s no reason they ever should. This isn’t some act of bravery. There is no hero in this scenario. There’s a kid whose name was wrong and now it’s more comfortable for them. And there’s me, listening to this kid. That’s it.

This morning, we had a discussion about singular and plural verb conjugations with they pronouns. (Go back a paragraph. Third sentence. “They doesn’t know that” or “they don’t know that.” You with me? Cool.) My token cis-straight boy argued that colloquial usage already accommodates plural conjugations (“they don’t”). The kid with the new name agreed, but acknowledged that singular is technically correct (“they doesn’t”). Another kid argued that common, colloquial conjugations would make the language more accessible for moderate souls who might be more inclined to participate in non-binary language if it requires less effort to integrate.

Here’s the thing. That’s not my fucking responsibility.

Someone else can make it easier for normative people to absorb non-normative people into their society. That’s probably the most common way to integrate change—convince the kyriarchical structure to expand. Whitewash. Accommodate the patriarchy. Pass. Imitate heteronormativity. But I’m not interested in asking the power structure for acceptance. I mean, that’s nice. I’m just not built for that sort of work.

Shifts in language are uncomfortable. I get that. I’ve been explaining to my department that they pronouns are appropriate (or will be shortly) for years. Spoiler alert. It happened. That moment passed. AP updated their Stylebook. This isn’t new anymore. Our established systems are actively employing they pronouns. The linguistic kyriarchy expanded. So let’s take it a step further. Where AP says “otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible,” I say we don’t need to reword anything. I say, if a kid tells you they have a different name, use it. Don’t avoid it. Don’t reword it.

Laverne Cox said, “misgendering is an act of violence.” I trust her. Not just because it sounds both palatable and erudite, an easy to regurgitate sound bite, but because it is her lived experience. I will happily discuss gender and grammar and systemic oppression all day. I love a good debate. I particularly like debates I know I’ll dominate. But someone else’s identity is not debatable. It simply is.

If you want to know what to call someone, ask them. When they answer, listen.


(Re-blog from Women and Words)

I was born on October 16th, 1986 at 6:16 in the morning. As a result, my favorite number as a kid was 6 (still is? Do adults have favorite numbers?). I loved it, I’d talk about it, tell people in a sing-song voice that my favorite number was “six…six…six.”

And my dad would call me a devil child and I didn’t know why. He would laugh and I would laugh because he was laughing.

We have a strange relationship.

I just finished writing my sixth book. I don’t know if it’s any more magical for being number six. The fifth felt magical. Five before 30 just sounds impressive (or it did until my wife pointed out that I needed to stop greeting people that way. “Hi, I’m Ashley and I wrote five novels before turning 30!”). One was magical, I guess. I started writing that one when I was a teenager. Writing is different now. There’s the obvious: My first check was framed (after much debate). Now I’m just concerned about taxes. I used to have 20/20. Now I’ve got bifocals (when your mother says, “if you’re reading, turn on the light or you’ll strain your eyes too much,” listen).

The biggest change, of course, is in my process. When I was young, I was terrified that if the whole novel wasn’t finished when I pitched it, it would never get written. I wrote two and a half of the Dirty Trilogy before ever sending a proposal. I knew if I didn’t, there would be some obscure detail in book three that the entire rest of the trilogy hinged on and letting anyone read book one before I intimately understood book three would result in the apocalypse, probably.

I have overcome that fear?

When I sent in my last (beautiful, articulate) proposal, I pitched one book with a couple vague sentences outlining what the next few would look like. They sent me a contract for four books. Vague, muddled novels included. So now I’m contracted until the end of time and I have no plan. It’s fine.

I suppose I haven’t so much overcome that fear as said yes in a moment of panic and now I have to write some novels.

The healthy learning curve would be to make a schedule and follow it. I could even go crazy and plot the books out so as to avoid any messy, plot-hinging details. Instead, I’ve opted for procrastination. This, I feel, is where my true talent lies. Cash Braddock was beautifully procrastinated. I was writing thousands of words in a single sitting, sobbing and eating nachos, cursing myself and contracts and various deities. The Price of Cash (magical book six. Keep up) was procrastinated so well that I had to ask for my first extension. And then I was writing thousands of words in a single sitting, sobbing and eating pizza, and cursing myself, mostly. There’s something mythical about three a.m. two days after the denouement of your extension when you’ve already taken half a week off work and you really can’t face one more person brightly asking, “have you turned in the book yet?”

So yes, kind colleague who really has no concept of novel writing, but is earnest and sweet, I have turned in the book. I thank you for your blind support. I would also like to thank DiGiorno, which is a lie because it’s nothing like delivery, and my father who cursed me as a devil child, but never tried to curb my hellion-like impulses. All of you have led to this moment where I have learned nothing except a strange comfort with my own life choices.

Butch as in not you

(Re-blog from Women and Words)

I’m not butch.

Androgynous, maybe. Not femme, but not butch either. I’ve never been a fan of the binary. It’s generational, I think. I remember sitting in Queer Studies courses and dismissing butch/femme dynamics. We all did. Sure there was the issue of imitating heteronormativity, but it was more than that. It seemed like some quaint imitation of all normativity. And we—in our academic bubble—were beyond normative, plebeian behavior.

When I started working at the high school, it was refreshing to see kids take gender to the next level. They weren’t androgynous, no. They were genderqueer, genderfluid. The outright rejection was a validation. My generation had moved beyond the binary and the next generation was living that truth. Even when I didn’t entirely understand their distinctions. Even when I fought against my inner grammarian who disagreed with “they” pronouns. This was evolution.

At the end of last school year, one of my students began wrestling in earnest with her gender. She had always presented as a masc of center lesbian. She was young, articulate, self-aware. So when she triumphantly landed on genderqueer, I wasn’t remotely surprised.

But then she kept wrestling. Every morning before school she would sit in my office and talk about her weekend or her girlfriend or her homework, but somehow those subjects were covers. Instead, she would spend twenty minutes, every morning, five days a week, slowly pulling apart her identity. We discussed presentation and chromosomes and haircuts and hormones and gender and sexuality and the mess where it all intersected in this small, brilliant child.

I never tell my kids who they are. It’s a trademark of sorts. I give them terminology and we can talk feelings. Sometimes I give them specific terms if I think it’s a direction they will value. At times, we use the most beautifully careful language. Others, we make linguistic mud and throw it at the walls. But I try very hard to never assign them an identity.

Sometimes I slip.

One day this kid said she felt pretty okay identifying as a girl. This was a new articulation. She’d been fighting “girl” for a long time. But she was pretty okay with it now. She also was good with being masculine and she didn’t see why those concepts were at odds. And I realized suddenly what term she was looking for. The term I’d spent fifteen years fighting against. The only term I’d never really bothered to direct her to.

“Kid, you’re butch.”

She always carried tension in her shoulders. A constant hunch to protect her softness. Like she was always, always waiting for a fight. And when I spoke, her shoulders relaxed. She lifted her chin. It fit.

Act. Speak.

(Re-blog from Women and Words)

The night after Pulse, my parents called me. My step-mother was first. She held back tears. When my father called he simply wept. His grief was tangible and heavy. He didn’t know what to do with it and that was why he called me. As if sharing might ease his heartbreak. As if I wasn’t already carrying my own. And I found that I was angry. Not just at my parents, but all heteronormative people. I was livid that anyone whose existence perpetuates heterosexism would have the audacity to be sad on my behalf and then try to hand me that sadness because it was too frightening for them.

This world is heterosexist. I am queer. Heterosexism is violent. I am its target.

I have been taught fear since I was old enough to recognize that society was not created for me. There are multitudes of rules and laws and expectations with the sole purpose of keeping me down. Silent. Invisible.

Heterosexism is a constant. It began with lace covered dresses. Teachers who said I should read the lines for Becky, not Tom. Principals who dress-coded my jeans and boxers. Classmates who claimed I was worth a little bit less than other kids. Customers who hid me from their children’s eyes and managers who agreed and put me in the back room. These are the moments I remember. The times I was told that other people’s discomfort was worth more than my identity.

And so I built walls. I cultivated cynicism. I learned not to cry. I learned not to care. But my coldness is not a tragedy. It simply is.

Orlando was a tragedy. Of course it was a tragedy. But tragedy is also commonplace. Violence is commonplace. But my cold heart protects me. The only reason my father cries is because he just realized that this is reality and his heart isn’t cold yet.

Mass murder is a brutal way to learn a lesson. But I’m glad heteronormative people finally got a glimpse of what I’ve known all along. Our society is violent to queers. It is especially violent to those who are not white, not gender conforming, not like you.

Violence is not an aberration. It is not a man with a gun. He is only a representation. He is the result of every time we hear the word “faggot” and don’t respond. He is the result of every person denied housing or healthcare because they are queer. He is the result of every person who hates the sin, but loves the sinner. Every kid whose gender is policed. Every trans person who is misgendered. Every time we see a dead queer on television because that’s the only good kind of queer. Every time we write off bigotry as a joke because a good person made it. Every time we excuse behavior because “that’s not what they meant” or “they’re cool with gay people” or “my sister’s gay.” Every time we remain silent to maintain civility.

I’ve stopped handing out passes. It doesn’t matter if the speaker is a colleague or a child I’m supposed to guide or an old friend. I point out the language and maybe we have a conversation. Maybe they just nod along. I’ve learned that difficult conversations are actually not that difficult. More often than not, they are a relief.

It can feel impossible to police the language of someone you’ve known since you were twelve. Or a stranger’s behavior in public. The cost of silence is dead queers, dead people of color, dead women. We can’t afford complacency. We never could.

The Incantation for Queer

(Re-blog from Women and Words)

Last semester, the Queer Alliance I run was observed by a grad student. It sounds weird, but it wasn’t. She interviewed the kids and asked questions and brought them cookies and it was cool. The last question she asked me wasn’t fully formed. It had to do with the way I talk to the kids. I said something to a baby gaymo like “kid, that shirt is straight up dyke. It’s like the hella gayest shirt ever” (yes, this is the way I speak to them). And our friendly graduate student wanted to know why I so frequently use common pejoratives as compliments. And, more importantly, why the kids seem to enjoy it so thoroughly.

I do it for all the standard reasons. It’s a reclamation. It’s a method of inclusion. Our club is the only place the queermos are in the majority. Most of us had to wait to hit 21 (or 18, at least) to experience that feeling. It’s whatever.

But it’s more than that. Ultimately, I tell the kids they are looking super gay that day because the heteronormative remainder of the staff can’t. Have you seen my gay face? Can you imagine being 15 and having an adult at your high school with a face as gay as mine? Neither can I.

I’m old (apparently) so I don’t fully understand half of what the kids say and they don’t fully understand half of what I say. It’s a cute thing we do. But I know every possible incantation of the word gay. I can imbue it with power. I can give that power to a bunch of pint-sized queers.

Don’t we all deserve that magic?

Outsiders and Catharsis

(Re-blog from Women and Words)

I’m uncommon. It’s not just that I’m a gaymo. And it’s not just the masc of center gender presentation. It’s everything else. The dark sense of humor. The lack of social skills. The obsession with the way names are spelled. The dislike of human contact. I am an outsider.

I’m always surprised when I hear people talk about my books. The language they use is queer and shadowed and always seemingly whispered. And I forget until those moments that I write anti-heroes. I write characters placed in twilight and opium dens. Not by society, like in old pulp fic, but by choice. Characters that demand to be taken as they are. Imperfect and repulsive and charming. Characters who refuse to be defined as any one thing. Characters defined by their multitudes. The interactions between their flaws and perfections. Because people are that way too.

I learned a long time ago that my favorite qualities about myself were distasteful to normal people. I read too much. I noticed things we weren’t supposed to notice and I wasn’t quiet about my observations. My fashion sense wasn’t pretty. I used words that were too big. I didn’t trust authority figures. Ultimately, I had a choice to make. Be normal. Or not. Once I accepted how abnormal I was, I began to see that normal was a lie. No one was normal. At best, they were common. I’d much rather be uncommon.

My characters, like me, are queer in so many senses of the word. There’s a strange power in stepping outside the lines. Once you’re looking in, you can see the foundation. And it’s fragile as hell. We patrol and systematize so much to keep things normal, common. We use laws and rules and standards. Social mores and literal police. We build new systems to replace the relics. There are days I’d like to burn it all down. Most days I know that’s not possible.

So I write. I write characters standing outside and staring at the behemoth we call a society. I write characters who know that imperfect isn’t broken. That broken can be perfect. Characters who teach me that there’s nothing wrong with not loving people you’re supposed to love. Or demanding respect when you deserve it. Or turning away from people and places and structures where you should be accepted and aren’t. We are all deserving.

We are all outsiders.