O is for Other

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project (PBP). It’s the first one for the letter O. Or rather, it’s the only one for the letter O because I’ve just decided to officially go with one post per letter for a while because there are so many other things that occupy me right now that spirituality has taken a definite backseat.

At some point last year I realized that a huge part of my identity was tied to the concept of being “other.” In fact, the one thread that runs through my entire conscious life is feeling different from (nearly) everyone else.

I’ve been the only kid in my class who could read before she started school (I somehow taught myself but have no memory of doing that – one day I just could read). I was the only kid who didn’t belong to any religion during my childhood. I felt like the only girl who never understood the dynamics between boys and girls when puberty hit us all (and what I understood seemed incredibly stupid to me). I was the only girl who repeatedly got the key for the boys’ locker room at the local swimming pool (which was hugely embarrassing to me since I wanted to be good at being a girl so much). I was a very late bloomer in terms of physical development (and therefore was excluded from all teenage girl bonding over menstruation and such). I was the only one in my social circle who never had a “real” boyfriend during adolescence (and the two I was with barely lasted longer than a week or two that consisted mostly of me feeling pressured to be more sexual with them than I wanted to be, and I definitely wasn’t in love with either of them). I was the only one who read books on anti-psychiatry in eight or ninth grade (age 14/15) during school breaks (which got even weirder when people learned that I did this out of personal interest, not for a school project). I was the only one with tomato-red hair in my entire school when I was around sixteen (and got harrassed by strangers on the street for that on a daily basis). I was the only one in my class who would speak up on sexism and ask the philosophy professor to do a unit on feminist language philosophy (which he seemed delighted to do, earning me even more annoyance from my classmates).

I eventually became a lesbian along with being a feminist, which at least meant I wasn’t the ONLY one anymore. Suddenly, there was a whole community I could belong to. How completely exhilarating! If only I had managed to be the “right” kind of lesbian for that social circle. I was an utter failure at being butch or even androgynous (although I didn’t have the vocabulary to even talk about these things), I soon became fed up with sexuality being discussed only in relation to violence and abuse, and I – horror of all horrors! – wore a bright red gown from the second hand store to the ball to celebrate an anniversary of the local women’s (read: feminist and lesbian) magazine. With my big Doc-Marten’s-eque boots and a strange haircut. There was ONE other woman in the room who was also in a dress, and she was straight at that point (I think). Then I wanted to spend time with men again, because some seemed really great people to create really great events with, so I eventually lost my place in the lesbian feminist community for good. Instead, I reconnected with the leftist/punk subculture and went on to be the only punk lesbian in my city (an identity I was told I couldn’t take on by a so-called friend because it didn’t exist).

A bit later I was the (then-)only female member of a group of otherwise gay men who organized a weekly non-profit queer bar night. I went on to become the only self-identified femme in my queer-dominated social circle (I didn’t have much in common with the only other femme I knew of in that city), which got me ridiculed, laughed at, dismissed, and reduced to my outward appearance. It also meant that people questioned my queerness and my commitment to the queer community on a regular basis. When I went to a women’s dance every now and then, I still was the only one in a skirt. But hey, at least I had a queer social circle that made me feel like I belonged, even though I made people uncomfortable occasionally! That queer circle stayed home for large parts of my soul for about a decade (and I’m ever grateful for that). I could even integrate my interest in BDSM into it (and also gained a whole new community when I started exploring it in practice, even though I definitely remained at the fringes of that as well).

Then I got a partner who didn’t identify as a woman anymore but considered himself a transgender butch and went by a male name and male pronouns. We were the only couple of that kind in the local queer community (I was asked if I was straight now by people who had personally and directly witnessed me as a mover and shaker of the local queer community. I also lost an important lesbian femme friend and mentor over the transness of my then-partner). When I stopped drinking and smoking I also was the only one who did neither in my circle of friends (which excluded me from all those bonding rituals over getting drunk together, cast me as a party-pooper, and eventually played a large role in my stopping to go out or organize events with them altogether). In my new circle of friends(?) I was the only one with lots of tattoos and piercings and emotional ties to punk and DIY queer culture.

Eventually, I got back to university where I was almost the only student in all of my classes who was already over thirty (which at best helped me take up an unofficial co-teacher role and at worst isolated me once again). I often was the only one who seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter, and who had read all the homework assignments (at least this time I proudly claimed an identity as a “Streberin” – which doesn’t have an English equivalent but roughly is a combination of nerd/geek and teacher’s pet – instead of letting people shame me for my interest in learning things and thinking deep thoughts and discussing them in class). By that time I had also learned that I was “highly gifted” with an IQ that placed me in a minority of 0.13% of the population. While that explained a lot, taught me immediate patience with my fellow human beings to a degree I had never felt before, it also meant I suddenly had an acute sense of how different I actually was in that area, and that I really didn’t have much of a choice about that, either.  So I joined the local chapter of Mensa, where I was the only one who was that queer (even though I was barely out about it) and found that I could have a nice, fun conversation with some of the people some of the time, we never really shared enough areas of interest to turn these conversations into actual friendships (not to mention the casual sexism, racism, and queer hate that seemed to be a part of many equally casual conversations, or the general disdain for anything spiritual). Perhaps needless to say, I’m not a Mensa member anymore.

About six years ago, I started exploring spirituality, initially by reading tarot. Once again, I was doing something that was definitely not considered good and worthwhile in the vague queer academic-activist culture I felt most connected to (when I finally started coming out about my interest, however, I discovered that there were indeed others, even though that still didn’t make a community). To this day, I haven’t told my mother or sister about my spiritual explorations (my father would also be on the list if he hadn’t died) because it’s just not something we do in our family. I found a good place to learn in the Aeclectic Tarot Forum, but I still was the odd one out whenever it came to things like sexual orientation (I was neither straight nor was I a lesbian or any other easily named queer identity), which impacted my readiness to even ask for relationship readings (especially after I once had a reader tell me that my transgender partner shouldn’t get surgery – and only admitted she hadn’t gotten that from the cards at all when I directly asked her about it, not to mention that I hadn’t asked about that at all). Nevertheless, it was nice to have a virtual environment where we could talk about a subject we were all interested in, where our identities didn’t matter that much. I met some really nice people there, including some who I now consider friends (and I don’t call anyone a friend easily).

However, my attempts at connecting with spiritually similarly-inclined people outside of the internet (e.g. at meet-ups or workshops) and at were not so successful. Neither have I found any spiritual path/tradition that I would have been able to adopt more or less as-is. The biggest part of this were issues around gender and queerness (about which I’ve written before (here, here, and here), so I won’t repeat all that.

After university, I started working my first full-time job (at the age of 36!) as one of two queer (but not out) employees of a small company of maybe thirty people. I was the only one who hadn’t studied what she was doing (so I lacked the cultural background of that discipline my coworkers and boss had), the only one with a decidedly crooked “career path.” I also was the only woman who wasn’t into fashion and who refused to conform with the femininity standard of that company. That excluded me from both the women and the men, and I think I was the only one who was never invited to a social get-together with my coworkers. My Beloved had by then decided to take some of the “official” steps that law and medicine offer for trans people in this country, so it became increasingly hard for me to even share my own queerness and that part of my life. Again, I was neither straight (and I think it showed), nor was I out as something people recognized.

With the decision of my partner to start living as a “man” full-time, I lost even more ties to the queer community because I just didn’t feel represented and invited anymore. Most of the time, there wasn’t even a label I would use for myself on any flyer that spoke to “lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans people, intersex individuals, and their friends” – I’m sorry but I’m way more than a “friend,” I’m very queer myself but my queerness doesn’t even have a name (especially not in German). I started living in a strange place that really belonged nowhere (which is both figuratively and literally true because our apartment is in exactly such a place), and that made it hard to feel at home anywhere except in my own room.

There was a brief time where I found a place where all those identity markers didn’t seem to matter much at all, and that was during my training to be a hospice volunteer. We were human beings there, and everything that usually is oh-so-important either came up only a long way into the training or not at all (I still don’t know everyone’s day jobs or family status, for example). That was astonishingly nice, and it made me realize that I have no space like that anywhere else in the world. And that’s not because I don’t want to belong, because I want to be different at all costs. I just don’t, and I just am. There are hardly any spaces at all that aren’t fraught with all kinds of stories that usually end up reaffirming that I’m not “normal,” that I’m always the exception and never the rule, that I don’t fit in easily, and certainly not painlessly.

Sometimes I wish I could be a round peg in a round hole, just once, so I get a break. Because being different is exhausting. It costs so much energy. You constantly have to provide a running commentary of the world where you have room, where you can exist, where you are okay. All the time. Every day. Year by year. And then you haven’t even started to look for others like yourself so that maybe, on some days, you can have someone else tell you these things because you’re too damn tired to do so yourself (and do the same for them on other days). And then you haven’t even started to speak up and do something about it. Which takes even more energy, because then you will have to explain yourself over and over again, to people whose idea of a good time is provoking you on purpose, to people who tell you that you should be grateful for all the good things you have (and look how bad it is for those people over there in that other country!), to people who end up hurting you over and over again while telling you they didn’t mean to and therefore you shouldn’t be upset.

However, whenever I think of that theoretical fairy and the wish she’d grant me, no questions asked, I never ask for being “normal.” Because I like being different, as hard as it often is. I like being able to see how things like norms work. I like constantly having at least one foot on the outside for the perspective that gets me. I like the creativity required by having to come up with alternative narratives of mainstream stories, or repurpose and remix existing cultural content to include my experiences (this is definitely one reason why I’m very much in love with the idea of (non-canon) fanfiction/slash).

And, to make this post at least somewhat complete, I need to admit that it completely ignores the areas of my life where I am indeed a round peg in a very comfortably fitting round hole. Where I am not at all “other” in a way that would put me at a disadvantage. For example, I am white, well-educated, carry a passport of the Western European country I’m living in, and have grown up speaking this country’s standard language without any strong dialect. I have easy access to good, affordable healthcare and clean water. I am healthy and able-bodied and feel mostly good about my body. I have access to the Internet and several local libraries and can read/speak/write/understand two languages, one of them being English. I have a solid roof over my head and enough money to cover all necessities and then some. My family has very few issues with my queerness. I am constantly read as a cisgendered person (there were a few exceptions earlier in my life but they’ve all been a long time ago), and I seem gender-conforming enough to not be in immediate danger of being beaten up, raped, or killed for my deviations from gender norms (at least that’s true for where I live). I have never experienced a war in my country, I’m free to vote and say pretty much everything I want without serious danger of life and limb. And these are just off the top of my head.

But that’s the thing about privileges (and all of these are privileges in the grand scheme of things, so let’s call them that): they are very hard to notice unless you don’t have them all the time.  It’s only when you lose a privilege you once had or when you gain one you didn’t have all along that you even notice the effects of your own privilege without having to make a conscious effort. (Personally, I found this computer-game analogy an awesome way to think about having privilege and what effects it has on those who have it. Note: It can easily be adapted to also work for people who are not straight white men but still benefit from the privilege that comes with being one or two of these things.)

Nevertheless, I  still consider “being different” a basic aspect of my life experience (if only because there simply aren’t many contexts in my everyday life where my otherness is entirely irrelevant and I experience pure “normalcy”/privilege, especially long-term). And yet, I wonder… What do I gain by repeating “I’m different” to myself over and over again? Is this nothing but special-snowflake syndrome and a case of first world problems? Would an increased awareness of my own privileges/”normalcy” (which I try to gain step by little step) eventually make me realize that my experiences of being different don’t really “count” compared to the lives of others? Why can’t I just see myself as belonging to the category of “human” instead of spending so much time focusing on what makes me different (I have been asked that and could only say that “human” is a much too large category to feel meaningful and provide me with a sense of belonging…)?

Yes, there will always be people who are a whole lot more different than I ever was or will be. Yes, they will usually also have a whole lot less privilege than I do. I definitely believe I need to work on at least acknowledging my “normalcy” privileges and then do my part in making things less unfair in general. I can’t just focus on my own minority aspects and ignore all the ways that place me in a position of undeserved and unequal power. But that doesn’t mean I have no negate my own experiences of being different and being shut out of the “center” and their emotional truths, nor do I have to beat up myself for having privilege that I mostly got completely by coincidence (no, I don’t believe in our souls choosing all these specifics of our life so that our souls can learn a certain lesson during yet another lifetime). Getting the balance right between the two is the real challenge here I think…

P.S. And now I’m wondering if this topic is “spiritual” enough to be posted on this blog and as part of the Pagan Blog Project… You know what? I don’t really care. Especially not since I have a hard time drawing a line between my politics, my everyday life, and my spirituality anyway. And why should I?

4 responses »

  1. “And why should you” indeed?

    This post, like so many of yours, is priceless. At first blush, it seems odd that two people with continents and oceans between them, so differently situated in so many different ways, could have so many experiences in common (even if the particulars differ). I am talking specifically of the state of constant Otherness in which I–like you– have spent my life, as well as of the fact that we also benefit from the unearned social privileges that we have the clear sight to acknowledge as such.

    And I’m speaking too of the fact that we both take the analysis a step further and wonder why it is so deeply ingrained within us to protect and nurture that sense of Otherness even when we would presumably be relieved of so much anguish to focus on the traits we share with others, rather than the many ways we are different (“special”).

    But then, it’s not so very odd, is it? Ours is a highly social species, and where there is society, there must also always be its converse, alienation. Not at all surprising then that people around the world, of different sexes, colors, orientations, classes, can be united in their pervasive sense of alienation from the world around them.

    The people whom I find it easiest to breathe around are others who have lived lives of analogous alienation and constant Otherness. Almost by default, this excludes most people of both the majority ethnic group in my country, and my own minority group. Indeed, it excludes most people with whom I come into contact. And I certainly don’t need to be told the ugly truth about how minority groups of any kind (brown people in the West, queer people anywhere, etc, etc) self-police and alienate their own putative “members.”

    Maybe we shouldn’t self-segregate to such a degree; maybe we should, after all, give up our special snowflake status and try to reframe ourselves in our own minds as members of those majorities–able-bodied, middle-class, etc, etc–to which we do have a claim.

    But you know it doesn’t work that way. People tend to have eyes for what they’ve experienced: if you’ve experienced marginalization for being a flaming redhead or of much higher IQ than the people around you, or the wrong ethnic origin or uncommon form of queerness, you will have eyes to see all those manifestations of identity in much sharper detail than you do your compliant, assimilate-able traits and features.

    And once you have the eyes of Otherness, you can never go back to the shuttered, clouded vision of a Majority member, can you? That sight stays with us our whole lives, even long after we’ve moved to new places and made groups of like-minded friends and experienced communities where others share some of our traits.

    That’s the real reason we couldn’t assimilate even if we genuinely thirsted to: we have different eyes than the rest of them, and the world will always look different from where we’re standing in it.

  2. Although we’ve talked about this before, it is interesting to read it here. Other than the gender question, much of what you say about feeling ‘other’ relates to me (and many, many others I know) too. Not fitting in to groups for long, not doing what others deem ‘normal’, not being able to fit neatly into a round hole because what is taught doesn’t match what actually happens and when I challenge that, the group no longer want my input (read interference) and I no longer feel that I fit in with that group ethos.

    It is wonderful that you have posted this here in the Pagan blog part because so many people, for different reasons, feel this ‘otherness’ while, at the same time wanting to belong to something, to find their place or to not feel so alien, to have like minded ‘others’ with whom to bond. Learning how to hold that torch without it burning you isn’t always possible but, like you say, when we work for others without needing reward or recognition, the volunteering at the hospice where someone else is the focus of our care and compassion, all these senses of separate self fade and become less obvious.

  3. @ Chiriku: As always, your comments are a delight to read for me.

    “The people whom I find it easiest to breathe around are others who have lived lives of analogous alienation and constant Otherness.”

    “And once you have the eyes of Otherness, you can never go back to the shuttered, clouded vision of a Majority member, can you? That sight stays with us our whole lives, even long after we’ve moved to new places and made groups of like-minded friends and experienced communities where others share some of our traits.
    That’s the real reason we couldn’t assimilate even if we genuinely thirsted to: we have different eyes than the rest of them, and the world will always look different from where we’re standing in it.”

    I really don’t have anything to add to this because it’s so, so true. I simply can’t un-see what I’ve seen, and I can’t NOT make the transfer from one marginalization experience to another (without saying they’re the same, because they’re not, and without claiming I don’t still have gaps in my perception, because I do).

  4. @ milliecrow: Good point about how service for others can make us feel less separate and “other.” I would like to add, however, that I believe I can only this work because there are other places/people who see me for who I am, not for the ego-less servicing role I fulfill (which, let’s face it, is a lot about being the blank screen for someone else’s projections). So, for me, both of these are necessary for an existence that feels balanced.

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