Finding Myself

My Year of Living Queerly

I finally got to live queerly in the fall of 2015, when high school started back up again, and with it the Gay-Straight Alliance, which had come back after an absence of a few years. There was also my first Rocky Horror screening at Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre, where I crawled through the aisle and got spanked by every member of the shadow cast. There was the party where I’d gotten drunk for the first time and hit on the birthday girl’s boyfriend. Not to mention the Wiccan ritual at the skate park with other queer friends following a dinner where they’d taken poppers (I was too scared to try.)

But, before all that, there was a delay.

I came out as pansexual in May, on the day I turned 17. It was the first label I attached to myself publicly. My friends were accepting; they were already out as queer. Promises were made: that we’d get together in the summer, that we’d see Rocky Horror like every queer kid in Milwaukee County did, that I’d get to wear some of my friend’s lingerie when we went. Phone numbers were exchanged. Then, hardly anything happened.

I did get to see friends once that year: We went to Summerfest together. The only artist we knew that was playing that day was Smash Mouth, so we saw them after a few hours of wandering around the Henry Maier Festival Grounds. I showed my friends the little black notebook I carried in my pocket, where I’d write down occasional ideas I had for stories. One of them was about a world where women got squeakers implanted in their breasts for fetish reasons. My friend liked it, and demonstrated how much she liked it by groping my own chest.

Egg Me didn’t know it, but that was my first experience with another person that could be described as lesbian.

How did I fill the time beforehand? One way was by taking long walks, a habit I’d had for a few years. Walking was both a necessity and a rebellion. I wouldn’t get my driver’s license until the end of the summer, so there was no way for me to get around alone except by walking. It was rebellion because everything in my home town, Oak Creek, was so designed around cars that the presence of a pedestrian on an otherwise unpopulated sidewalk next to a busy road felt revolutionary to me. It was a place I didn’t belong in, but continued to occupy. Nowadays I feel that way about the entire city of Oak Creek, not just its sidewalks.

There was music, too. The previous summer I started to let myself like emo, in whatever form, after refusing to consider it for the longest time. I didn’t ignore it because I was averse to emotional music (there were nights I’d listen to “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” over and over again). It was because I realized I wanted to be emo.

And by that, I mean I wanted to be an emo girl.

Everything in my hometown of Oak Creek was so designed around cars that the presence of a pedestrian on an otherwise unpopulated sidewalk next to a busy road felt revolutionary to me.

The boys and men that Egg Me considered to be fashion inspirations were never any long-term fascinations; when I cut my hair that spring, I did it out of a spur-of-the-moment desire to look like Max Fischer from Rushmore. When I discovered the electric razor my dad cut his hair with, I started to buzz the sides of my head. I told myself it was because I wanted to look like Morrissey, but I’ve come to realize it was because I wanted to look like the queer, emo girls that shaved the sides of their heads. The ones that dyed their hair (Egg Me was too scared to do that.) I don’t understand why cultivating a look, any look, gets people slapped with the label “artificial,” or words similar to it. When you cultivate a look, it’s because you know what you want to look like as opposed to just carrying your body around with you, not taking any joy in it, which is what I did for the first few years of high school.

I wasn’t listening to most of the music those girls listened to. My main focus was the emo stuff that came out in the 90s. This started soon after Polyvinyl, the label I’d paid attention to since falling in love with Japandroids a few years prior, had recently reissued American Football’s then-only album for its fifteenth anniversary. Like most of the young people who rediscovered it this past decade, I fell in love with it. At the time I didn’t care about the intricacies of the Steve Reich-inspired guitar lines, couldn’t tell you what phasing was. I just cared about the emotions it stirred in me, the emotions contained in the lyrics. That’s life, so social, Mike Kinsella sang on “Stay Home,” and Egg Me, who stayed home 99% of all nights, knew what it was all about.

I told myself it was because I wanted to look like Morrissey, but I’ve come to realize it was because I wanted to look like the queer, emo girls that shaved the sides of their heads.

From there I moved on to other bands. One of them was The Promise Ring, originally from Milwaukee. In the Egg Years there were certain songs that made me lament the doctors didn’t assign me Woman, and that because of that, I couldn’t be a lesbian. I know more now of course, but listening to, say, Patti Smith’s version of Gloria, with her lyrics embroidered around the original song’s core (there are few better opening lyrics than “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”), or the This Mortal Coil cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” one of the rare songs where you can make out exactly what Liz Fraser is singing, made me feel emotions that Summer 2015 me lacked the language for.

In the years since, I’ve recognized that “Red and Blue Jeans” by The Promise Ring belongs in that list of songs. I read it as very Sapphic, not just in content – the emphasis on the individual feeling, that nothing feels good like you in red and blue jeans and your white and night things – but the form as well, how the lyrics sound like a fragment, an incredibly powerful one. Listening to it now, I’m transported in my mind to a hillside during a sunset in autumn. I am not cold at all. I’d be lying next to a girlfriend on a flannel blanket, her hair in my face, perfume on her neck.

I listened to The Promise Ring, Sunny Day Real Estate, Braid, Rainer Maria, Cap’n Jazz, and also more recent emo-adjacent bands like Cloud Nothings and The Wonder Years. But none of those bands were queer in the way My Chemical Romance were. They have been discussed as a queer band many times before, so I won’t spend too much time on them other than to discuss their impact on me. Unlike the earlier emo, which was very much ensconced in the culture of the 90s underground, MCR and the bands that became popular along with them were more theatrical, had more of a look than the bands that came before them. At the time, I wasn’t in the habit of watching music videos. But I was drawn to theirs.

The high school movie-themed music video for “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” is Queer Cinema. There’s the obvious: Gerard Way’s look, Frank Iero’s quick peck on Gerard’s cheek (one of many such “Frerard” moments), the shirtless jock that checks out the other shirtless jock in the locker room after the words “If You’ve Ever Felt Curious” appear on the screen. There are also much subtler touches. My favorite is the row of swimmers, all of whom are in speedos and about to dive in, except Gerard, who is fully clothed. That is as trans as it gets in 2000s pop culture.

In the mid-2000s emo was becoming queerer in visual aesthetics, with MCR’s fellow emo Trinity bands Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco also having male members who wore makeup, and in Panic!’s case, having a queer (though at the time closeted) lead singer. But 90s Emo was Queer too. Jason Gnewikow, the guitar player for The Promise Ring, is gay. And then there’s Chris Broach, the co-lead singer and songwriter from Braid. After Rainer Maria broke up, guitar player Kaia Fischer came out as a trans woman. Emo has always been queer. 

You know what else is emo and queer? Poetry. It made me feel more emo, and the more emo I felt, the more feminine I felt. I hadn’t read much besides the poems they made us read in school, and also Seamus Heaney’s “Digging,” which I discovered after he died (his death was the first poet’s death I remember being discussed on the news,) and liked because it reminded me of my mother’s side of the family, who were all farmers. The previous summer I’d bought a book of Heaney’s work, but hadn’t read it.

One June day, I went to Downtown Books with my mother and sister. Downtown Books is Milwaukee’s best used book store, one of those places that seems endless, like The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles but more compact, or like Bookhaven in Philadelphia. That day I found two Library of America volumes of Twentieth Century American Poetry for cheap. I focused on the more well-known names at first—Eliot, Pound, Williams—but soon began to explore the queer writers buried among them: Elizabeth Bishop, H.D., May Swenson. 

I didn’t start to dive deep until we went to Minnesota for a few days. My sister was about to start school at the University of Minnesota, and I remembered the bookstore at Coffman Memorial Union from the previous summer, how it was the only place I had ever seen books by several authors I was interested in but had only read about. I went to the poetry section, looking for something I hadn’t seen anything else before. I decided on a copy of the Wallace Fowlie translations of queer-as-hell 1800s French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote most of his work when he was around the age that I was then, and stopped entirely when he was 20. I was enraptured by those Parisian scenes, even though when I read the poems, I always paused at the end of every line regardless of whether or not it had a period or comma. I have friends my age who still read poems like that.

I focused on the more well-known names at first, but soon began to explore the queer writers buried among them: Elizabeth Bishop, H.D., May Swenson. 

I soon learned not to, after I became obsessed. I spent a great deal of time at the Homecoming dance reading about Wisława Szymborska, still one of my favorites, on my phone. I privately wrote my own verse, hardly any of it good, and I would only show it to one of my pen pals, a girl who lived on a French military base in Abu Dhabi. I was not ready to share publicly yet. I’d begin posting occasional verse on Instagram the following fall.

There was another delay: I had all this desire for the feminine, but my egg wouldn’t crack for another three years. There was one trans girl in GSA, and she was not out to anyone except us. Until a few years into college, most of the trans people I knew were trans men or nonbinary. It wasn’t until 2018, when I went to Milwaukee Zine Fest, that I’d start following a nonbinary writer whose zine I bought, which led to following the people they followed, which led to me being immersed within a culture of other trans women, which led to me understanding my feelings better, which led to my egg cracking.

Back in 2015, I wanted to be a filmmaker. My approach to filmmaking, from high school to college, was very passive. I wouldn’t use color correction and wouldn’t really try anything. This was partly out of laziness, partly dysphoria, partly mistrust of my own voice. In recent years, with poetry (and transitioning) I’ve learned to trust myself, to unlearn the toxic attitudes about art I garnered and learn new things. That not everything has to be perfect on first writing, there can always be revision before finally putting poetry (or a made-up face) into public.

Among the many other queer things I did in the fall of 2015, I also found a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems at an unlikely place: the Goodwill in Franklin, Wisconsin. One of the lesser-discussed poems from it, the one I fell the most in love with when I first read it, is simply titled “Song.” Amid the other poems, with their frenzied lines and more revolutionary content, this poem serves as more of a distillation of Ginsberg’s spiritual side. The final stanza is my favorite thing Ginsberg wrote, and describes what I’ve been trying to do, mentally and physically, since my egg cracked three years ago: “yes, yes,/that’s what/I wanted,/I always wanted,/I always wanted,/to return/to the body/where I was born.”♦

Jacqueline Modjeska is a writer living in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Her first chapbook, Suburban Angler Fish, was published last summer.

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