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June 15th, 2013 - Natalie Byers

“Did you have something to add to the conversation, Natalie?”

I shook my head and jammed my lips together; I needed more time to process what had been said, consider how much the other students had actually read, dig down into my psyche, try not to punch anyone, and create a perfect, compound-complex sentence that succinctly described my opinion on the nature of queer theory.

So, instead of saying something, anything, I say nothing.

I let my chest tighten. I struggle to breathe, clinch my fist, bite my cheeks, and smoke two cigarettes with Bailey during the night class break.

“I think I’m a *,” I tell her. Pull on a yellow, American Spirit, exhale, stare out across the university green at the Brown Derby liquor store on the corner.

I didn’t have a fucking clue what being a * meant.

In class though, there were fifteen straight, cis-gendered individuals who, apparently, did.

The week before, we discussed bell hooks’ 1990 essay, “Postmodern Blackness.” After no one else in the class volunteered to comment on the assigned reading, I posited that hooks’ sentiment was wholly accurate; black folks fall into two categories: “nationalist or assimilationist, black-identified or white-identified.”

I spoke, probably too long, about code-switching. I pointed out several current examples of young black men being portrayed as violent criminals in almost every type of media or entertainment, the exception being Fresh Prince, or maybe White Men Can’t Jump. Essentially, I fully expected the entire class to applaud my amazing discovery that critical race theory was, in fact, American history.

Dr. Jane nodded her head enthusiastically at my revelations.

No one else said anything. I thought, perhaps, Dr. Jane was being polite, encouraging her student. So, the following week, when we discussed queer theory, I assumed I must certainly be a moron and I most definitely misread the assigned essay.

I’ll just be quiet.

Shut my mouth.

Be amicable.

When other students posed that queer labels were too much, that things were just going too far, that men exist, that women exist, and that’s that, I didn’t think I had a valid opinion.

A student who prefaced their statement with, “I’m a trans woman” continued to claim that things were just out of control. “Calm down, already. Absolutely none of that matters.”

Our professor nodded enthusiastically. “When is enough, enough? Is that what you’re getting at?”

“Exactly,” Drew responded, “Like, I just wanna live and let live, you know?”

That’s when Dr. Jane asked me if I had anything to add. Clearly, my face was saying things that my mouth couldn’t get out.

By the time Bailey and I finished our cigarettes, I knew what I wanted to say.

Maybe when people aren’t being murdered for existing, we can debate what they want to be called when they were alive.

The second half of class went by and I sat on my thesis statement. I drove home thinking about it. I drank myself to sleep thinking about it. When Dr. Jane died, I thought about it. At her funeral, I thought about it. Every time someone is assaulted for it, I think about it.

For ten years, I’ve thought about all the people who simply want to exist.

And I think about how I said nothing.

This essay has a 1000-word count limit, so I can’t list all of the people who have died for existing black, brown, and or queer since then.

Now, I teach composition at a technical college in Missouri. I wish I could tell you what some of my students have said about people who aren’t cis-gendered and white. That would be a privacy violation and I don’t want to be tossed out of the only profession my six-figure-debt-education has prepared me for.

But, it’s the Otherness of it all.

As if Mary Shelley never wrote Frankenstein.

Or Prince never played basketball.

And Freddy Mercury was straight.


Natalie Byers is a mother, teacher, and writer living in central Missouri. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA from Missouri State University. Poetry publications can be found in Slipstream, Foothill, Witness, Fugue, and elsewhere.


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