FINNERAN K. MUZZEY, MA
Queering the PhD
I am a tulip.
If you've seen my pictures (which, c'mon, they're all over this page), then you've probably noticed the tulip tattoo that covers a good portion of my left forearm. It's one of my favorite tattoos. It's meaning is deeply symbolic to me.
For one, it's a roundabout homage to my Aunt Vivian who remains the most influential person I've ever had in my life (and I've got some really spectacular people in this life, y'all). That's a story for a different day though.
The more relevant symbolism of my tulip tattoo to this blog post is that I, myself, am a tulip.
You know what's great about tulips? They need the most pristine conditions to thrive. On the surface, they're not some hardy flower that blooms beautifully and remains no matter how poorly you take care of it. Tulips need a specific, ideal set of conditions to thrive; once they have it, they bloom beautifully and wither away once the conditions are gone.
Seems like a silly thing to be great about them, right? Idealistic setting = perfection? Great! If only we all had that.
But it is beautiful. It's beautiful because they never actually die... they just wither, crumble, fall, disappear for a bit, and then once the ideal conditions return, then BAM! there they are again... beautiful, thriving. Remove the ideal conditions, they fall again. Return the ideal conditions, they rise again. And repeat, over and over again. Forever.
I have no shame in saying I'm a scrappy kid from the streets. I come from a mostly crappy biological family. I have a history of repeatedly bad, neglectful, and abusive circumstances that are no longer my baggage, just a part of me. I don't thrive. I survive. And, most of the time, I don't care about thriving. It's whatever, I'm a survivor and I love that about me. You can leave the thriving for the other flowers. I'll take the survivors any day. They got great stories.
It's little surprise to anyone in my inner circle that this semester has been rough. I spoke with a treasured friend yesterday and she counseled me to stop trying to fix my pain. Hold it, own it, embrace it, love it. After all, we don't try to fix our happiness. Why do try to fix our pain?
So that's it. Right now, I suck. I'm surviving. I'm in the space of the very, very not ideal conditions needed for blooming. I'm the tulip bulb, burrowed deep into the safety of the ground, waiting for ideal conditions to return. You won't see my beautiful flower, you won't be marveling at the gorgeous, bright colors of me. But if you look closely enough, you'll see that that, THAT, is exactly where my true beauty lies. Because the ideal conditions will return and when they do... cover your eyes because my colors will be blinding.
I am tulip because, no matter the conditions, no matter the harshness of the climate, I will always return. I will never be kept down. I will always survive.
So, it’s finally time for a new blog post. It’s been awhile since I’ve written one. I took a hiatus for a bit while I strove to find a better work/student/personal life balance. The journey of finding better balance has had its ups and downs but I think I’m getting there. I’ve also needed to spend some time really learning to accept and adjust to my disability. I’ve worked myself stupid my whole life and meanwhile, my body has changed, and my spirit has needed to find comfort outside of work. That’s not to say that I don’t love my work – I do! Unequivocally, without a doubt, I’d be missing a key piece of my identity without it, but my work can’t be my whole identity.
I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for months now, but I also wanted to give it the consideration, time, and thoughtfulness it deserves. This is a topic that I felt important to let fester inside me for a while… stew on it… let it bake and come to its full fruition. Because, it’s an important topic. A damn important topic. I didn’t want to rush it for myself or for anyone that reads this blog.
This post is about identity terminology and my personal evolution of its use for myself. Before I get into the nuances, here’s a general trajectory of my gender and sexual identity since I was 15:
Age 15, came out as lesbian
Age 28, tried to come out publicly as a transgender person
Age 28, went back into the closet as a transgender person
Age 30, internally came out as non-binary
Age 34, publicly came out as non-binary
Age 34, publicly came out as queer and no longer identified as a lesbian
Age 36, very quietly and somewhat covertly came out as a queer, non-binary, dyke, lesbian
So…. Yeah. Looks messy, right? Well, it’s been an evolution. Not an evolution of myself (a bit of that, sure) but more an evolution of understanding myself and, more importantly, an evolution of my vocabulary.
This leads me to the focus of this blog post, my identification as a queer, non-binary, dyke, lesbian.
I identified as a lesbian for years, but when I came to accept myself as a non-binary person, I rejected that label and shifted to identifying as just queer and non-binary. To my own admission, I rejected the term lesbian for myself because it felt more and more alien to me. I couldn’t see how I could identify as both non-binary and lesbian. They just didn’t seem to work together. True, I was assigned female at birth and true, I’m still primarily attracted to females, but my non-binary identity seemed to require that I could no longer understand myself as a lesbian.
Letting go of that label was hard. It was like saying a very hard, very long goodbye to a dear friend that you aren’t sure you are ever going to see again; knowing that the goodbye was necessary in the moment, but not desired.
I let go of the term lesbian because I needed to let me gender identity finally take precedence over my sexual identity. I felt like I couldn’t get people to take my gender identity seriously unless I conformed to the rules of the gender identity. So, for me to be able to identify as non-binary, I couldn’t also identify as a lesbian. I could possibly identify as bisexual or pansexual, but neither of those seem to reflect me either. So, my only choice seemed to be to let go of the lesbian identity altogether and claim only the queer identity.
The queer identity served, and continues to serve, me well. It’s political, it’s angsty, it’s in your face about who I am, it’s also accurate. I’m queer, but I’m also a highly political queer. My queer identity isn’t just about me, it’s about community and action. It fits. I like it. I’m proud of it and I feel empowered by being queer.
But what I found after I came out publicly as non-binary is that my sexual identity got subsumed underneath my gender identity. I guess I kind of wanted that to happen because I wanted my gender identity to be seen and valued as authentic. But I didn’t fully realize how much of a backseat my sexual identity would take to my gender identity. Suddenly, I wasn’t a queer person as much as I was a transmasculine person. Or, a transman. Or, a masculine presenting transgender person. Or, a masculine presenting non-binary person. My queerness in relation to my sexual identity all but disappeared. So did my femininity.
And that’s the part that drove me nuts. Truly. Socially, it has seemed to become impossible for me to be feminine or possess any femininity because of my non-binary identity and my masculine expression. When I identified publicly as a cisgender lesbian, there was always a piece of my femininity that was honored – almost always in my dyke-y butch-y ways. That was respected and treasured even. But when I came out as non-binary, those arenas were closed off to me. Now, I was a transmasculine person.
I have spent the last two years struggling with loving the femininity that inherently exists in me, with the dyke-y ways I still hold myself with but not having that honored by people. People have assumed that I will be eventually transitioning to male or are shocked when I display some of my more overt feminine pieces of me. I’ve found myself not fighting so much for my non-binary identity, but for all of the pieces of me that make up my non-binary identity.
I’m not male; I’m not female. I’m non-binary. But I have masculine energies that I possess, and I have feminine energies I possess. They make up who I am. I still walk like a dyke and I still carry the dyke badge like an honor anytime that term is thrown at me in a way that’s meant to tear me down; I just carry my head higher and smile. I carry the dyke identity like I carry the queer identity. I’m reclaiming them for myself and using what is some people’s discrimination and hatred as a tool of empowerment and action.
I’m also a non-binary lesbian. Taking lesbian back for myself brings to the forefront that my sexual identity is just as important as my gender identity is to me. Neither take a backseat to one another and neither can be ignored within me. I am both masculine and feminine and something else altogether. My gender identity is non-binary and my sexual identity is lesbian. They are not dependent on each other. They are completely dependent on each other.
If you find this confusing, that’s okay. I’m really totally fine with you being confused. These are my identities and I not only accept, but also love them.
While reading through a required class reading, I came across this quote:
The paradox of “human nature” is that it is always a manifestation of cultural meanings, social relationships, and power politics – “not biology, but culture, becomes destiny”
(Butler, 1990 – Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity qtd. in Lorber, 1993 – Believing is Seeing: Biology as Ideology)
I immediately texted a friend some of my paraphrased thoughts on this quote, that: “the idea of “human nature” is a paradox. As humans, we’ve defined what human nature is, claiming it to be destiny – a destiny we’ve created the definition for. “Human nature”…innate qualities of humanness…are, thus, nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecies.” My friend steadfastly agreed with the thought and my summation of it.
Basically, the conclusion we came to, even if I am tentative to it, is that we construct our own destiny. We define for ourselves, who we are currently, who we are going to become, and even who we have been previously. The definition we apply to describe our “human nature,” is who, what, we manifest into. If I am sad, I become sad. If I am happy, I become happy. If I am love, I become love. If I am overwhelmed, I become overwhelmed. The concept, the thought, the ideology, behind this quote and my subsequent summation of it is that it is not that we are actually the thing we have defined ourselves as, but that we become the thing that we have set our definition for ourselves as.
I’m not sure exactly how far I agree with this, but it feels incredibly apt to me at the moment. And, to be truthful, I think I’m about 90% in agreement with this ideology. As a statistician, though, I always have to leave some room for error. We are, after all, nothing more than mere humans.
The past few days, I’ve been telling myself I’m overwhelmed. Today marked the first full week of classes, I’m working part-time under an assistantship this year, I’ve rearranged my home to fit a new life, I’ve been travelling all summer and felt little grounding, little space that belonged solely to me, I’ve officially been marked as being in remission for PTSD and depression (Yay!), I’m still struggling through a crippling neurological condition that forces me to make limiting accommodations in my life, I’m attempting to overcome deep pain related to an important personal relationship, I quit smoking a week ago (yeah, uh-huh, I was a smoker – but I’m not anymore and I’m going to own that non-smoker label so hard.), I find the minutiae of daily living tedious and isolating to manage. In all of this, I tell myself I am overwhelmed.
But what does telling myself I am overwhelmed get for me? It only seems to affirm that I am, in fact, overwhelmed. Telling myself I am overwhelmed becomes my definition for myself. Being overwhelmed becomes my self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or bad to feel overwhelmed. It happens. But, in these moments, we always have an option. An option to embrace the negative feelings, or an option to embrace new feelings, a new self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead, in this moment – RIGHT NOW – I am going to choose a new definition for myself. I’m going to choose a new destiny for my life, in this moment. I’m choosing to make my destiny one of love, compassion, and grace. Love for all things, including myself; compassion for those that I struggle to understand; and grace for those things that hurt me. This won’t erase any of the things going on in my life right now. This won’t stop things from overwhelming me in the future. It will, however, change how I approach managing the difficult things that make me feel overwhelmed. It’s akin to when you decide you want to buy (or have just bought) a new car. All of the sudden, you begin seeing your new car everywhere. It’s not because the world suddenly became flooded with your car, but because you have chosen to start seeing your new car. When the facts of our human existence become overwhelming to us, we can chose how we see them and how we approach handling them.
I’ve often said (and will keep saying): every interaction we have with another leaves something with them, what do we want to leave them with?
I might, perhaps, amend this a bit today to say: every day we have an opportunity to define for ourselves who we want to be, what do we want to leave ourselves with?
I once read somewhere that a “soft soul requires a hard heart.” Don’t ask me to cite it because I truly can’t remember where I read it. I just know that the phrase occasionally finds its way into my brain and gets stuck there for a bit. I suppose this phrase pops up in my life during times in which I wish I had a hard heart, because I certainly have a soft soul.
During these times, that are admittedly a bit rough, I lament the fact that I don’t have a hard heart, that I feel too easily, that my feelings confuse me, and that I wish I could just put up that metal shield around my heart. Certainly, I think to myself, life might be easier. But then I remember that life wouldn’t actually be easier with a hard heart. Life would kind of suck for me.
I like having a soft soul. It requires contemplation. It requires self-reflection. It requires new experiences. It requires wandering and beauty. A soft soul allows me to accept new experiences, to seek out new experiences, and to hang on to those wonderful memories.
A soft heart, on the other hand, is a bit troublesome. It makes me feel and feeling doesn’t always feel good. A hard heart blocks the feeling. It stops feeling from manifesting too deep inside the soul; from manifesting inside our memory. With a hard heart, we can experience new things, but never quite get a hold of them, thus protecting us from the things that could potentially harm us.
But a hard heart also stops us from gaining the good stuff too. It stops us from being able to see people beyond what they project to us and instead see them from the totality of their lives. A hard heart may protect us from harm, but it also stops us from having empathy, unconditional love and compassion, happiness…
I don’t wish to have a hard heart, even in times that are rough. I like my soft heart, and my soft soul. I like the pain because it reminds me that I’m human, that we’re all human. It reminds me that I love hard and I like that I love hard. I like my soft soul that seeks out new and diverse experiences, and I like that I have a soft heart that allows me to experience them deeply, authentically, and passionately.
I think being a social science researcher requires having a soft soul and a soft heart. A soft soul requires us to seek out new questions, new methods, new experiences and to embrace those with a soft heart, one that is open to feeling, connecting, empathizing, and loving the people we work with to try to make it so that everyone can live their best possible lives.
Crap in life will attempt to harden my heart. But I’m not going to let it. I’m going to stay open to pain and vulnerability, to chaos and heartache, to joy and happiness; it allows me to see the colors of life more brightly.
As a kid growing up, I was always “different.” I was largely labeled as the “weird” kid in the family, the one no one could seem to figure out. I was called rebellious, but I’ve always preferred to think of myself as independent. I always knew I wasn’t a boy, but I never felt like a girl either. I remember when I would get teased (or bullied, really) about whether I was a boy or a girl and I would say, “I’m not a boy, I’m not a girl, I’m Allison!” For as long as I can remember, I paved my own way through life.
As time went on, my gender-role breaking brought more than just teasing, it brought pain, physical and emotional. I tried to “be a girl,” to fit in with friends and make my parents happy. It didn’t work. It just made me incredibly unhappy. And, as I’ve long said throughout my life, if I’ve ever failed at anything it was trying to be a girl.
I was never actually a girl, just a person born with female genitalia who later got labelled as “female.” I never understood the role I was supposed to play, or why it mattered. I really just wanted to be me. An intellectually curious child who liked to hang upside down on the monkey bars (hard to do in a dress). I wanted to play basketball and baseball and ride my bike through the mud. I wanted to learn everything about space and become an astronaut. I took everything I could get my hands on apart, just so I see if I could figure out how to put it back together.
As a teenager, I fought through feelings of not being a girl, but also not being a boy. I didn’t know where I fit and I didn’t have the language to articulate my feelings either. I defaulted to calling myself what everyone else had always called me, a “girl.” Later, as an adult, I learned the language to describe myself better and one night, when the desire to take the weight off of being genderqueer overwhelmed me, I confessed it to someone I was dating at the time.
I anticipated a conversation, but not a blow out. Their reaction was not supportive. I was called a liar. I was told that they only dated females. I was told that I couldn’t change my body if I wanted to keep that relationship. I was told I needed help. I clammed up my feelings and identity, shoved them deep down inside me for no one else to know about.
A couple of years later, I finally found a support system that loved and cherished me for me. Friends and family that didn’t balk at my gender identity, that didn’t deny it, that didn’t require that I fulfill any other role than the one that worked for me as a human being. Since then, I’ve been on a (long……) process of acceptance, radical body love, and coming out. The time has finally come for me to move to a more gender-neutral name.
At first, I thought transitioning to a more gender-neutral name meant having to reinvent myself. While Allison never fit me well, it was me for a long time. I thought taking a new name meant having to take a new personality, a new history. The truth is, I’m not reinventing myself. In fact, I’m more accurately describing myself. My new name is a more accurate descriptor of my personality, my identity, my history. Allison is not gone, they’ll never be gone. Allison was just the prequel to the movie that is my life. Allison was good to me, a cherished chapter in my story, but now it’s time to start the next chapter.
I’m now going by Finneran, but you can call me Finn. The beautiful thing about choosing my own name is I get to make it symbolic of something important to me. I get to choose who I represent, beyond just myself. My Aunt Vivian is the most important person that ever existed in my life, so I’m taking her maiden name.
Finn is not a new me. Finn is not a reinvention of a former self, but a realization of who I’ve always been. For those that have always known me, you’ve always known Finn. You just knew to call Finn, Allison. Now, I’m sharing with you that my name is Finn.
I have a distinctly vivid memory from when I was younger: I was going to leave the house and when I grabbed onto the front handle, the I noticed the doorknob was loose in my hand. I looked at the doorknob and saw that a screw was hanging loose from it. My mother was knitting on the couch and I said to her, “there’s a loose screw in the doorknob.” My mother must have misheard me because she began screaming at me to never talk like that again; that the word screw was a disgusting word to use. I was confused. I thought I was being helpful by letting her know that there was a loose screw in the doorknob. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the word screw had multiple meanings, with one of those meanings being a sexual innuendo.
I’ve long contemplated why such a seemingly benign memory has stayed with me. Of all the memories that have had an incredible impact on me, why have I hung onto a memory about a loose screw? Truthfully, I think this was the first time that I realized that words have a deeper power. I’ve always been the kind of person that questioned the power of words. I have often stayed with a mantra of: words are a series of letters put together in such a way that they produce a sound. And, at their most simple level, that’s true. That is all words are, just letters that produce sound.
But behind being “letters that produce sound” is meaning. We socially ascribe meaning to words and sometimes we ascribe multiple meanings. It is not the words that become problematic, but the meanings we attach to words. We sometimes attach meaning to words to praise and uplift people (such as calling them beautiful or intelligent) and we sometimes attach meaning to words to hurt and denigrate people (such as calling them stupid or ugly). The words with the most powerfully profound impact, however, are those that are used to punish or keep people in a socially inferior position. There are several of these types of words that have been leveraged against multiple groups of marginalized people, but the one I’m going to discuss now is queer.
I’m going to admit something: for the longest time I was a passionate advocate against the use of the word queer in any context. Anytime I heard the word used, even as a person’s personal identification, I cringed a bit inside. I always respected another’s choice to use that word for themselves, but I secretly hoped the word queer would disappear from our collective lexicon. If you’ve read my about section, this might confuse you because I now openly identify my sexual identity as queer and my gender identity as genderqueer. The path I’ve taken to get to these using these terms has been complicated and I’ve had to wrestle with it internally.
Queer was a word thrown at me as frequently as dyke was when I was a teenager. Both were meant as insults and made me feel ashamed of myself. These were words that were only ever used to inflict maximum pain and they worked. When I started hearing people “take back” the word queer and using it as a self-identification, I viewed it as a way to further disenfranchise ourselves.
What I came to learn and accept was that the word queer was only an offensive term when it is used with the meaning ascribed to it by cisgender, heterosexual society. If we (the broader sexual and gender diverse community) take back that word and ascribe a new meaning to it, we are letting go of the painful power of the word and attributing a new, beautiful, and empowering meaning to the word. For me, being queer is no longer something to be ashamed of, but something to celebrate and experience. (For clarity: I’m not advocating for the entire sexual and gender diverse community to start using the word queer; I understand how painful that word is to some. I am only describing my personal path toward accepting the word queer).
I don’t use the word queer to describe merely an identity. I use the word queer to describe an experience. An experience that has been extraordinarily painful and extraordinarily beautiful. I use the word queer as an act of resistance; to force a dominantly cisgender, heterosexual society to see me and respect me.
Being queer doesn’t just describe how I sexually identify, it does, that is one meaning, but more importantly, being queer describes my experience in life.
I have been rejected by family for being queer.
I have been rejected by churches for being queer.
I have been told I am going to hell for being queer.
I have been rejected by society for being queer.
I have had food thrown at me and been spit on for being queer.
I have been kicked out of and banned from restaurants for being queer.
I have been told that I needed to show my genitals so someone could figure out if I had a penis or not for being queer.
I have been homeless for being queer.
I have been beaten for being queer.
But that’s only half of the experience.
I have been loved because I am queer.
I have been embraced by strangers because I am queer.
I have found a community of people that is beautiful and unique because I am queer.
I have gained immeasurable amounts of strength because I am queer.
I have learned to love my weird quirkiness because I am queer.
I have found my voice because I am queer.
I have had the most profoundly beautiful and life-altering experiences because I am queer.
I have discovered a passion in life because I am queer.
I have learned how to love unconditionally because I am queer.
This is my experience being queer and I won’t be quiet or ashamed about it. I will speak loudly and strongly about being queer and insist on being heard, understood, and accepted. As I am able, I lift the voices of other queer individuals so that they can be heard, understood, and accepted. It’s a radical shift in thought and love when we embrace queer identity as a queer experience and I cherish each moment of it.