I've spent much of my life trying to be a lot of things. Most of the time, I felt like I was settling for an identity that was foreign to me. I would attach myself for as long as I could, but eventually, I'd end up feeling lost again. Once I gave up trying to con myself into subscribing to identities I could only wear as costumes; I began discovering my soul. If that sounds witchy and cliche, it's because it is. This process has been my spiritual awakening. In searching for myself, I have discovered the divine within the truth of my being. These days I identify as bisexual/pan/queer, multiracial, cis male, and sometimes femme. And while I don't feel like gender as we know it is capable of defining how I feel sometimes; I identify as a cis man because that's where I've often felt most comfortable.
Getting here was agonizing because self-actualization is torture, which is why so many young queer people kill themselves when they have no help. When you add racism, femme shaming, body shaming, transphobia, and colorism to the picture, young people are forced to survive a superstorm of hate brewed and sustained by not only other young people but their adult counterparts. A UCLA Williams Institute study found that 23% of LGBT youth attempted suicide in the year preceding the survey. They also found that attempted suicide to be even greater among LGBT youth of color. Pediatric cancer takes the lives of 20%-25% of victims. Basically, an LGBT youth of color who also has cancer has a higher chance of attempting suicide than dying of that cancer. That's not just a problem; it's an epidemic. A key reason I made it to adulthood was because of the kindness and guidance I received from a high school friend who was gay, femme, and a person of color. Every time I hear tragic stories of LGBT people of color losing their lives, I remember what I went through and how someone from this community saved me from the darkest of places a young mind can go.
I wanted to know more people like me, but finding my tribe proved to be difficult. My divorced parents came from different backgrounds; my father was Portuguese, and my mother was mixed Mexican and white. An assembly of family members raised me: Mexican mother, Portuguese grandparents, Mexican grandfather, white stepfather (later), and a Mexican uncle. Even though I was more genetically Portuguese than Mexican, I always felt more Mexican because I was predominantly raised in that culture. I spent the most time with my mother. She was raised by her Mexican father and Mexican grandmother, with her white mother having little to no cultural influence on her, so when she raised me, that was who we were.
Despite my background, I look white because I'm genetically more white than anything else (I'm classifying Portuguese as white). Most people can't tell I'm ethnic unless they study my face carefully (believe me, they have), or see my middle and last name, which both ironically come from my Portuguese father, and not my Chicana mother. This created an awkward cycle of me having to not only factually convince others I was Mexican but prove my Mexicanness to other Latinx folks. Interestingly, white people have had an easier time with this than my fellow Latinx counterparts. I never spoke much Spanish, I went to English and Portuguese Catholic Mass, and I looked white. In a way, I was an outsider in a community that was already marked as the "other."
Many mixed people have experienced the unique struggle of having to prove their ethnic roots to a world eager punish appropriators and liars from Katy Perry to Rachel Dolezal. While the "one-drop rule" might have been historically enough for white people to regard a person as ethnic, it's often not enough today for members of a mixed person's own minority community to recognize them as a "real," fellow member. I am wholly aware of the immeasurable amount of benefits and privileges I've received as a result of my light skin and white features. In fact, because I'm Mexican, I was always hyper-aware that I was treated differently than other Mexicans around me. I didn't wake up one day, surprised I benefited from white privilege; I always knew it was there, and as a result, have lived with guilt. I don't feel white guilt in the traditional sense because I don't feel white, even though I'm mixed. I feel guilt over not being mistreated as often and in the same way as the darker members of my culture. It's a bizarre complex, but one that light-skinned or white-passing minorities experience all the time. I have sometimes struggled to make meaningful relationships with other Latinx people because of this tension. If discovering my tribe wasn't hard enough, finding a space where I could be myself within that tribe made feeling comfortable in the world nearly impossible. It was only complicated even further when I started to realize the complexity of my sexuality.
I was a very effeminate child. My single mother would take me with her to the beauty salon, and I would just revel in the glamour and grace of how women had their nails done. Black women, white women, Latina women; I wanted those nails. As a young boy, I would fantasize that I had long, red nails that tapped on marble counters or typed on a computer. I loved the way they looked on the receptionist at my dentist's office as she'd type with a pen in her hands. I made my mom buy me fake nails I spotted in the girls' section of the toys aisle. They were like thimbles produced to look like acrylic nails. When I'd put them on, I would wave my hands around, thrum my fingers on the counters, and tap away on an old typewriter my grandmother had until my fingertips got pruney under the plastic. I never felt like I was a girl, but something was comforting and soul-nourishing about embodying and adopting what I thought were the manneristic accoutrements of mature womanhood.
I still loved playing with toy cars and toy soldiers (I would make armies stretch out across my living room). I enjoyed sports (basketball and baseball), but I also was in dance as a boy. I was obsessed with Michael Jackson. My first memory of him was on MTV when they played his music video to "Remember The Time." His gaudy, gold costume captivated me. The regal, Egyptian aesthetic of the video from the magical grace of the all-black dance ensemble to Michael's own fluid performance completely enthralled me. I loved his long, black hair, and how it dangled in his face. The way his eyeliner and perfect eyebrows made his features pop created a soft yet harsh look. He was a god and a goddess at the same time. I knew he was a man, but only because that's what my mom told me. At that age, I was not putting people in boxes. Michael Jackson was aggressively masculine while being delicately feminine, and I accepted that without asking questions. He was almost genderless in a way that transcended traditional ideas of gender. That experience changed my life in that it set something in motion that would eventually revolutionize how I see the world. His music became my primary source of entertainment, and to this day, he remains very special to me. I also knew he was a black man, but didn't look black. I identified with this because of how I was Mexican but didn't look it either. His general separation from the confines of what society prescribes for us made me idolize his spirit of individualism. While I wasn't theorizing this as a child, my subconscious mind was drawn to his raw humanity.
When adolescence came around, virtually all my crushes were cis women. I had occasional and minor feelings of attraction towards the same sex, but never took the time to address what it all meant. In late middle school, I realized my same sex attractions were not a phase but an integral part of me that was growing more noticeable. My attraction to the opposite sex wasn't going anywhere either. This confused me. I found that my interests came and went in wave-like seasons. Sometimes I would feel more attracted to the same sex for months or just a few days even. Other times, I would feel more attracted the opposite sex. It was also typical that I would feel equally interested in both simultaneously. This was a frustrating time as I was regularly dealing with severe anxiety, depression, and a drainage on my creative spirit. I hated feeling uncreative because I did theatre in high school, which was the one thing I felt best at, even when I was still in the closet.
I couldn't figure myself out. If I was bisexual, why did the levels of my attractions fluctuate? I eventually began to think of myself as a non-traditional bisexual (at the time, the irony of that classification had completely slipped my mind). Once I accepted that I was different, everything started to get better, even though I still felt confused about the idiosyncrasy of my sexuality. I had always understood sexual orientation as heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality. Conventional high schooler wisdom led me to believe that "true bisexuals" were 50/50 attracted to both sexes, all the time. But I didn't feel that way.
College changed everything for me. I was introduced to feminism and the concept of fluidity in queerness, which more accurately described how I felt. This blew my mind as I had finally found an academically validated concept and theory that I could use to describe myself. This was important to me because identity was my shield against invisibility. I was not only looking for tolerance; I was seeking societal validation. This period led me to understand why LGBTQIA is such a long acronym in its more inclusive form.
In discovering more about myself, I also realized I was an outlier within the existing margins of society. I found that bisexual/queer representation was severely lacking in entertainment, the media, and in politics. Dating was hard. I accepted that because of who I am and how I love, finding partners would be much more complicated for me than it was for straight people or even gay people. Biphobia within the LGBT community was a serious problem along with misogyny and racism. I didn't fit in with any group. My straight friends thought I was gay, "or bi or whatever." My gay friends thought I was straight or secretly gay and closeted. I was in the same situation I experienced with my ethnicity, but this time, if I wasn't having to prove my queerness, I was pretending to be straight or straight-acting to appear less obvious as a queer person.
When I studied musical theatre as an undergrad, I had some professors and friends tell me I would get more work as an actor if I presented as butch and concealed my sexuality. When I started acting in New York, I realized how wrong they were. Trying to come off as straight and macho was as absurd as it was self-sabotaging. Faking who I was made my work suffer. To be an effective actor, I had to be my true self, as the characters I was playing. If I had ever auditioned for the role of a young, queer actor, pretending to be straight while auditioning for the role of a butch baseball player, I would have won an Oscar. Unfortunately for me, most writers don't create those kinds of roles. I had to accept that. If this meant fewer opportunities, so be it. Do dark-skinned, black actors paint their faces white to go in for white roles? Of course not. They could be classically trained, Shakespearian thespians and still have to settle on an industry that limits them to auditioning for two dimensional, do-rag-wearing caricatures, slaves, historical black figures, or animals in kids movies. So who was I fooling? I wasn't very effeminate, but I wasn't chopping wood in plaid either. This made "typing" (figuring out my character type) remarkably difficult. I didn't fit in anywhere, again. This yielded a lot of character roles, which was fine for me, because when you're an unknown actor, work is work, no matter how good you think you are.
After a while, my creativity turned to writing and stand-up comedy. I realized that what made me odd in society made me appealing as a comic. When it was just me onstage, I wasn't being compared to the rest of the cast because I was the cast. I was my own act. I wrote it, I hired myself, I directed myself, and I performed it. Like every other comic, it took years before I came into my own, but once my bomb to slay ratio (terrible to terrific performances) started tipping in favor of me slaying audiences, I began to feel even more comfortable in having a voice and not pretending to be something I wasn't. Most people who knew me up until that point would probably have said I was a fairly confident person. The truth was that I frequently wrestled with crippling self-doubt. Comedy has helped me find my way out of that dreadful cycle.
Like most queer millennials who moved to New York, I became interested in the drag scene. I knew who RuPaul was as a cultural icon but hadn't watched much of her show. Once I started regularly following drag, I began to have another revolution in my mind. I started realizing how silly gender was as a societal construct. I began to see artists who bend gender and other norms, like Michael Jackson, or drag queens, as the purest artists. The reflection of the world they reveal is so uncomplicated and spot-on; it's almost uncomfortable to face. I think this is where that emotional, funny bone feeling of shock and infatuated awe comes from when true art strikes the core of an audience member. The shock is like a disbelief that the artist could make us realize the meaning of what we see, while the infatuation is the lust for more truth or an encore. When the Devil tempted Eve with knowledge, he put on a show. He charmed her. As a snake, he was both phallic and effeminate. He represented everything, and that was why he was so compelling to her. People want to know everything. Bob Fosse recognized this dichotomy in his "A Snake in the Grass" performance from The Little Prince. Of course, this was later expanded and built upon by artists like Michael Jackson who was an unofficial disciple of Fosse. This is the epitome of drag: the artistic commodification of societal constructs into exaggerated representations so that they are on heightened display. This way, we realize how absurd they can be. This is why good art makes people uncomfortable; it has the potential to uproot long-held beliefs.
When all these pieces started coming together in my mind, I began to reexamine how I associated with gender. I realized how a lot of tumultuousness in my life had derived from my trying to live up to certain standards of "manhood" that were inauthentic for me. I had always called myself a man, but sometimes I felt like I was more than just a man. I didn't always feel like a "dude" or a "bro." I felt like a combination of feminine energy balanced by masculine energy, in a body of the male sex. These are merely descriptions of the fruits of my soul searching after working to let go of preconceived notions of gender in the wake of an artistic epiphany. The reason I identify as cis male is because I feel comfortable with the sex I was assigned at birth. What I don't feel comfortable with are antiquated societal expectations of manhood. I despise that so many people, particularly cis men and pre-transitioning trans women, are forced to wear butchness as a means to avoid being robbed of their humanity. It's particularly cruel in how toxic hypermasculinity is the fixation of an oppressive patriarchy that aims to dehumanize the same people who are forced to wear it as a means of survival.
Drag opened my eyes to this culture war. I soon realized that drag queens and trans people were the warriors on the front lines fighting it. Finding my appropriate space in this war was tricky. Being cis male and passing for white has measurable advantages in the world, which is unfair to those who are not. I cannot control that about myself; I can only use my privilege to gain access to those who otherwise wouldn't acknowledge me if I were darker or non-cis. With this access, I have the potential to change minds that will listen to me. I came to feel that doing anything less than aggressively using my privilege to help those without it achieve autonomy, would make me complicit in their oppression.
Being Mexican, queer, cis male, and sometimes femme are the politics of my identity. Anyone who would seek to deny my right or anyone else's right to associate with, participate in, or rhetorically identify as who they are is no friend of justice. This includes opponents of identity politics. It's easy to dismiss the identity of the "other" as divisive when the white, straight, and cisgender norm or ruling majority has managed to codify their identity as standard and everything else a deviation. If there's one thing White America cannot stand, it's being reminded of its legacy of oppression. As a result, these labels become "identity politics" and "divisive" because they recognize groups of people frequently subjected to discrimination. Identity politics do not divide us; they challenge the power of the ruling majority by reminding them that other people exist too. That's the reason why the ruling majority call it "divisive." It's a bad word to them. They also want to convince us that we are guilty of the very social crime we seek to rectify: causing suffering by dividing minorities into groups where they are more easily subjected to oppression. It's a dirty, Nixonian and Trumpian trick where the perpetrator accuses an opponent of the very act they are guilty of. Its aim is to be so galling and shameless, the victim of the attack would never consider the possibility that the perpetrator would themselves be guilty of their own accusation. When I realized how deplorable bigots could be, my resolve to beat them in the culture war only made me more hopeful for humanity, because for once, I knew for sure there were others like me. They are trans activists, drag queens, social policy makers, relentless pragmatists, and progressives that aren't afraid to beat the right wing at its own game. This was my tribe.
My journey to arrive where I am today has been everything but easy. It took an artistic revolution for me to realize my next step in life was to be creative through a different muse than art. Now, I'm a student of public policy. My motivations and desires to make change are driven by a culmination of personal growth as a multifaceted mosaic of humanity. I'll state it again; I'm bi-queer, multiracial, cis male, and sometimes femme. I am a lot of things, and that's OK. The world is more complicated than my identity, which is why people like me are an easy target for those to wish to vent their frustration with their fear of enlightenment. Realized, complex people are human manifestations of questions many are mortified to ask. That's why the more a person discovers about their sexual and gender identity, the more hated they are by opponents of sexual liberation.
The survival of the "other" is a demonstration of a resilience that threatens patriarchal white supremacy. My Mexicanness is different from my queerness just like it's different from someone else's blackness or transness. In the midst of our differences and intersections, one thing is indisputable; the same people who want to stop all of us from flourishing, do so for the same reason regardless of who we are. We threaten their power. If that doesn't unite us: survival; then nothing will. I can't adhere to puritanical standards of resistance because my autonomy doesn't fit into one file. My identity is too complicated for that. Yes, that makes me unique; no I don't want a trophy; please, let me be who I am.
Just don't be a fascist unless, of course, it's a part of your drag routine; in which case, you should end it with a lip sync of Ivanka Trump's Republican National Convention Speech matched against a Russian pop song.
That would be hilarious, and it would slay, girl.
*Photo from Buzzfeed