Kai Wright: I’m Kai Wright, and these are The Stakes… In this episode: rich lesbian soccer mom chic.
Kristen Tomlinson: I’m Kristin Tomlinson. I’m 21. I’m a Pisces. I like long walks on the beach…
Kristin: Oh and my gender is gender fluid.
Kai:So what does that mean?
Kristen: Mostly like you know I can be anything. I can be a boy or a girl or things that are in between or you know vastly out of that realm of the binary. My gender is fluid, it moves with the wind.
Kai: And is that an internal thing, like something that's going on inside you or is it an external thing about what you present to the world?
Kristen: A bit of both. I would have to say like really it got solid around high school, that’s when I knew the vocabulary. And there were hints around my whole childhood. Like when I was little I had this stuffed animal… I named them mittens. And like maybe in elementary school I never remembered their gender. So I just referred to them as like a boy or a girl or whatever the day struck me whenever I remembered that. And it's like you have these feelings before it's just until you find it, you don't know what it really is.
[Music cue as Kai turns to audience]
Kai: Kristin is a Radio Rookie—that’s a program working with The Stakes, in which young people make documentaries about stuff they care about. And she’s been reporting on something I’m thinking a lot about as well. This June is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, which a lot of people consider the unofficial launch of the modern LGBT liberation movement. It started when cops raided a gay bar here in New York's Greenwich Village, a place called the Stonewall Inn.
Just to get into the stonewall you’d walk up and you’d knock on the front door. The stonewall, like all gays bars at the time, was painted black….
Kai: It was a fight over space—like literal space. A group of transgender people in the bar, and some queer kids in the park across the street, they faced the cops and decided, you know what, No! We claim this spot—here, in this bar, on this street corner, we make our stand. Here, we are no longer deviants.
Sylvia Rivera: It was always the gay bashing on the drag queens by heterosexual men, women and the police….
Kai: By the time I was coming out, in the mid 90s, our community’s demand for space had broadened significantly. We were not gonna be considered deviants anywhere in society... And we weren't gonna hide. On the contrary, we made ourselves as visible as possible. I am gay. I am lesbian. I am transgender.
[Queer nation chant from 1990-1993,
"We're here, we're here, get used to it!"]
See me... Make space, because I’m not going away... We declared our existence with so many names that we needed a sprawling acronym to hold em all — LGBTQI... It could go on. And that’s where I come from. My liberation is tied to my self-identification. I gladly check a box, because it means you have to deal with me. But now, along comes this generation of LGBTQI folks, who don’t really wanna check any of the boxes. And honestly, I don’t totally get how that works--not in this political moment, in which so many of our labels are under attack. But I do know it’s yet another way our community is challenging the toxic idea of what is normal. So I wanna understand, and Kristin offered to help.
[ Music ends]
Kristen: Alright, I think a good place to start is with my two best friends.
Ruby: Hi, My name is Ruby.
Faith: Um. My name is Faith.
[ Kristen fades out Ruby’s voice]
Kristen: My friends and I are hanging out in Ruby’s room. It has an organized desk with the complete set of Harry Potter books and Snape’s wand resting on top of them . . . a space that’s obviously inhabited by a nerdy 21 year old.
Ruby: When I see like when I see like comfort and drog, kind of just like basic comfort like --
Kristin: Fine honey lesbian.
Ruby: Right. Like Kristen Stewart has it all. Like you guys saw that picture of her .
Kristin: We saw that because you sent it to us last night. . .
Ruby: Yea . . . I was like everybody needs to see this…
Kristin: Ruby and I met in high school.
Kristin: Alright, so first question basically: don't look at my questions... they're secrets.
Kristin: So what is gender to you?
Kristin: Feel free talk over each other like you normally would too.
Faith:Gender to me is a system that I use to. . I don't know regulate like my moods sometimes. Identify as gender fluid. I feel like it holds a lot of power over my life and the things I do because I like it too. It's like structure for me sometimes.
Kristen: Ruby, Faith and I connected over being sad, self-deprecating lesbians and facing rough things at home. We’re over this idea of a fixed, unchanging identity.
Ruby: I feel neutral. there's no reason to identify any specific way for me because it just it just doesn't hold authority, like I could say I identify as like, you know, a fucking ghost. And you're just gonna have to take my word for it because it's what I say. So at the end of the day..
[ Ruby’s voice fades under Kai’s]
KAI: So did you guys start questioning your gender together like as a group or did it come earlier?
Kristin: For me it was earlier. Growing up I would watch cartoons...with characters where you couldn’t tell their genders and I got really attached to them --
Like there was this show called Code Lyoko and there was a character named “odd”.
[ODD CHARACTER TALKING]
Kristin: And he wore purple crop tops.
I think because of all that I knew I was queer in middle school and then in high school the internet gave me a place to explore my gender identity. ..... Kinda like forming a person through puzzle pieces…. I’d go on Tumblr and then …. I’d follow tags and read fan theories about band members being together, that led to threads about why my favorite TV show characters should be in same sex relationships. From there, I might stumble onto blogs about….. iconic 90s lesbians.
I waited until the last minute to record this Diary. So… Who’s a lesbian from the eighties or nineties? Let me google this. 90s Les…. Les be being lesbian 90s lesbian. Melissa Or thur ridge or Etheridge releases lesbian anthem. Come to my window. Uh dyke punk. What is this?
[“Come to My Window”]
Kristin: Oh this song. OK. Yeah. No I totally know this song... vaguely. It's not like a bop for me per say but Yeah. This hits…..
[“Come to my window” continues to play]
[KAI COMES IN]
Kai: Wait, you really don’t know who Melissa Etheridge is?
Kristin: Listen, high school was my heyday of music listening and that was mostly just emo bands…
Kai: I mean she wasn’t my thing either musically. But you have to understand when she came out, she was one of the first openly gay musicians that was still had commercial success. And she showed a lot of young women that was actually possible… just… to be...a lesbian.
Kristin: That must’ve been hard for some women to only have a white rock star to look up to… Now, I can look up to someone like Janelle Monae--she’s a pan-sexual black woman and a fashion icon. But even beyond celebrities… with Instagram, I can follow whoever I want…. like pretty black girls with acne scars, amateur models from Japan and Gay Youtubers….basically your average icons of gender fluid fashion.
[More internet/scrolling sounds, sound design: heart bubbles, pings, internet montage vibe]
-- music bridge to bring us back to K’s world
Kristin: The internet is where you can craft a version of yourself and you figure out who want to become. For me: I was born and look like a black girl. I’m 5 ft 7. Most days I wear black lipstick and Doc Martens and never smile. Some days I want to look cute, showy, and sweet and other days I’ll feel comfortable, like I just want to wear dark clothes and sweatpants and on another day a button down shirt...it’s never tied to a binary feeling.
Kristin: In lower Manhattan, there’s a clothing store without a male or female section, it’s called the Phluid Project. There’s jean crop tops, platform Filas and asymmetrical shirts . . .Even the mannequins are gender neutral: no c cup boobs or weird, bulging crotches.
Kristin: OK. Hold on. OK. So just walk up to him?
Kristin: I walk in the store and see this gorgeous person with a soft androgynous face browsing black shirts in the sportswear section …
[Sounds in the store….]
Kristin: can I get your name and age please ?
BHAWK: Bhawks snipes and my age is 30 and fabulous.
Kristin: BHAWK walked the runway on the TV show Pose last year…
I didn’t think an actor, model and mogul would talk to me.
Kristin: How would you like describe your style?
BHAWK: At this time I'm going for rich lesbian, soccer mom chic. I think that's my aesthetic right now. So yeah, that's my look at the moment--
[ BHAWKS’ VOICE FADES UNDER]
Kristin: A rich lesbian soccer mom dressed in all black, by the way that’s a perfect Instagram bio…
Bhawks: I call humans kind of like Pokémon. We're all kind of a lot changing and evolving every day. Like I just came out as non-binary last year which kind of blew my mind because I was like I'm just gay I don't know you know I'm androgynous gay person. When I was on Pose representing as a female figure and it was the first time people started to hit me I was like “Oh my God, You know nonbinary or I’m gender nonconforming and I and I love your character and I love the role you're playing” and I was just like I think this is more than a character for me. I think this is really who I am. It took me a minute because even using they and them pronouns is..kind of triggering because I’m 6 months in.
[BHAWKS voice goes under]
Kristin: For me, the pronoun ‘they” doesn’t work: too awkward. “Ze” seems so new and weird. I like ‘she’ the most but if I just use she, it feels like people wouldn’t recognize that I’m non-binary. “He” is complicated for me: because of how I grew up: as a black little girl around creepy uncles and family friends -- I feel like a masculine identity means people might see me as predator. But when it comes to family, it’s really hard to have a gender that is neither male nor female.
Kristin: Hi, can you tell me your name and age?
Brenika: For real?
My name is Brenika.. Banks. Twenty seven years old.
Kristin: And can you tell me our relationship?
Brenika: You're my annoying little sister.
Kristin: Brenika is one of the few family members that I’m out to as gender fluid.
Kristin: Why do you seem a little annoyed right now?
Brenika: Because you have a microphone in my damn face!
Kristin: Sometimes you refer to me as a boy… So I want to ask why is that.
Brenika: First of all I started saying that because you be referring to yourself as a boy. I don't really see you as a boy. It's more of a.. Dang, should I not call you that anymore?
Kristin: It's perfectly fine.
Brenika: OH OK. OK! I feel like because you refer to
yourself as that.. So, I probably should have asked you if I was being more emotionally considerate. But it's always in a joking way and I'm very aware of all of your femininities. So I am aware that you're not a boy.
Kristin: Sometimes I do feel like a boy. So whenever you call me that . It actually makes me really happy.
Brenika: OK! I won’t make a habit of it. But yes, I'm glad to hear that if I do say that you wouldn't be offended.
Kristin: I don’t need my sister to assure me I’m feminine, I just like that she is aware of how I see myself. Brenika sees gender as a fixed thing…feminine people have to act soft and delicate, masculine people have to.. be brash.
Kristin : Would you say sometimes I dress or act masculine or like more boyish?
Brenika: Dress like?... ooo now after this .... Like since this interview- I don't know. Now I'm thinking it's not so much about the clothes. It's about that person, how they view them self how they perceive themselves.
Kristin: I really like that thought process and where are you went right now that--.
Brenika: Yeah, I'm not going to say I would have necessarily said that before this interview but you're like got my mind now thinking, Hmm.
Kristen: That’s all I want, that’s all I want. Um, last thing. Do you think there’s anything else you’d like to tell me?
Brenika: I love you Kristin.
[ KAI COMES IN]
Kai: Listening to your sister it just feels like you have a
really wonderful and open relationship with her. And is that true for the rest of your family?
Kristin: No. I mean I'm not really in contact with like my extended family but with my mom, no we don't really have that much of a open relationship to talk about things. You know we've been through a lot of struggles with.. just.. you know she's a Christian Jamaican woman and like old traditional values. So there was a lot of fear from me when I was younger to even like bring up any parts of my sexuality or gender. She's so overworked and I just don't want to bring up any uncomfortable conversations that can hurt either of us.
Kristin: But one night me, my sister and my mom got to talking about her beliefs.
Mom: Use us an example of what we went through.
Kristin: Our family?
[ Mom voice fades under]
Kristin: We were talking about how we went through hard times and how we were living in a shelter.
[Kristin, Brenika, and Mom]
Mom: Nobody else helped us but God to provide this roof over our head.
Kristin: So she’s super religious and that’s complicated for me because I’ve always heard stories about Jamaicans being really traditional about family and gender roles.
Mom: Growing up as a little girl growing up in Jamaica, like I remember there was this guy from our church. And he used to act feminine, and he used to do his hand and you know and people used to called him lady Spencer. You know as a young girl I knew..we knew.. We all knew he was gay. But, nobody stoned him. But now it’s different. Because now they will kill you. . . .
Kristin: And when I hear her say something like this it puts a fear in me. I know I have a privilege of appearing as CIS, feminine women but when I hear about this Jamaican culture that my mom comes from, it’s still scary to me.
Kai: Yeah.. So does that mean..Are you out to her?
Kristin: No..I mean the last she knew was that I was a bisexual girl but no she doesn’t know anything about me being non binary now…
Mom: No parent have a child and want to hear the child say OK, I was born a man but I’m really a woman. You don’t really expect but you want to know that okay my daughter is going to have a husband....People looking forward to grandchildren.
Kristin: That’s part of why I haven’t come out to her as gender fluid.
Kai: Right. So your family is complicated. And I’m wondering if you’ve ever sought out any mentorship around all of this. I mean for my generation, we didn’t have that option as much. But, it feels like now there’s so many out queer people of my age and older--I mean Stonewall happened 50 years ago at this point. So...Have you ever been able to find someone older who can help you figure this out?
Kristin: No, no not at all. But I wanted to meet people. I wanted to connect with queer people through this story. And that’s what I did and I met this older black lesbian in Harlem who was wearing red leather pants!
Kai: Ok, well that’s after the break.
[ Kristin to Paulette]
Kristin: . . Um, could I ask your sexuality?
Paulette: I’m Lesbian
Kristin: See, this is the first time I've ever talked to like our older black lesbian before. Like I've always been around straight adults my whole life so I don't know this is like really giddy for me.
Kristin: I met Paulette when I went to SAGE, a place in Harlem for older LGBTQ people to meet and mingle… she is the epitome of all struggles stories that you read about in your life. You know you have to be in the closet you have to pretend to be straight. I mean… Paulette told me she got pregnant at 17; and later she got married in her 20s.
Paulette: It was hard beyond belief. I had to bury who I was.
Kristin: On her wedding day she felt horribly sick.
Paulette: To live that life, to live a straight life without understanding that you don't have to, feeling like something's not right. It's no balance. I'm out of sorts. To describe it. This is how I described my life. I was in, you know a manhole, going into the ground. I was in that ground with the heaviest and the darkest Manhole cover covering my head and I couldn't breathe. It was horrible. It was horrible. It hurts my soul that I did that. I came to understand was a tradeoff: would I do it again? Never. Never.
[ Music starts to play]
Kai: So Kristin, listening to that, I wonder do you get what Paulette’s talking about there? Queer people, as a community, we have really fought for the space we have now -- both personally and collectively. And a lot of people have claimed these labels for themselves at a very real cost -- I mean it took bravery for Paulette to say, I am a lesbian. So when we then hear people say, nah, I’m past this labeling thing, It’s hard for us to hear it, because we fought so hard for those labels and everything that goes with them. And our ability to embrace them has been a big part of our freedom.
Kristin: I get that.. but I haven’t had that experience. I didn’t need a coming out. Its like I dusted myself off. …. like I unlocked a new level in a video game, or I collected enough loot boxes to discover a legendary character.
Kristin: Paulette knows a few of the terms. She's been active in the youth community….
Paulette: So we've had to educate ourselves. We got all these colors and banners and.
Kristin: And all the pride flags.
Paulette: Oh Lord. I just know the rainbow colors.
Kristin: So for transgender: pink is for the female part blue is for the male part and then white actually symbolizes non binary which falls under me so because I identify as non binary or gender fluid.
Paulette: So what's the point of so much different terminologies and verbiage to say basically the same thing?
Kristin: I think it's just preference at the end of the day. Honestly I don't know. I used to identify as bisexual but when I heard pan-sexual it just felt better to me because bi uses like by it's two. But like--
Paulette: Pan means many. Cause see in my mind this is a very good topic for inter-generational conversations. It's important that each generation has a language they can identify with. Back in my day was Butch femme. Bisexual was just nasty. Sorry but that's how it was . . . Kristin: Like promiscuous.
Paulette: Yeah. It was just nasty. And you’re Straight. That was it. You need to have your language to identify with your needs and what they did 20 30 40 50 years ago doesn't. So that's another issue of if you don't have that language how do you communicate?So to have a conversation with someone of your age opens our eyes and our ears to understanding that yeah, it doesn't make sense but it's not our world to make sense. So you know it's all good. So thank you.
Kristin: I like that way of looking at things because it's like I might not understand you but I still respect that what you're going through is valid.
Paulette: As we're talking, I'm understanding a lot more myself about the pan pan. What do you call it pan…. What do you call it?
Paulette: Pan-sexual.Paulette: I think that's a difference what our age is like for me I'd like cut and dry. OK. I don't want to be disrespectful. I don't want to judge. So I accept what people say but I like cut and dry, black and white in that respect because I have many many colors. I don't think black and white. But as far as language goes, I need to understand where you're coming from.
Kristin: Ok, so maybe I don’t have cut and dry answers but queerness is just an essential part of my identity as a black, gay 21 year old. And maybe I won’t always be pan-sexual and gender-fluid. I’m still figuring out dating and all of that…. So this period is a necessary stepping stone (to what I don’t know…). There are days when I wish my gender was like Mr. Potato Head, like I wish my chest was just an accessory I could Velcro off, and by doing so I wouldn’t get rid of my femininity either. Being gender-fluid is the perfect way for those two binaries to meet and form something new.
[ BEAT CONTINUES]
Kai: I am so here for something new. Mixing and remixing ourselves to find what truly fits.That is as long as we understand the difference between individual freedom of expression and the collective liberation of LGBT people.
How we describe and style ourselves in our day to day lives, that is not the same thing as the identities we claim and carry into the world. The latter is a deeply political act. It’s about picking a side in the culture war over who gets be quote normal in our society, and who gets banished to the margins as a deviant.50 years after Stonewall, that war is very much ongoing. Even as I record this, transgender people are about to lose civil rights protections they’ve had in health care settings, just as one example... So I worry a great deal about the end of boxes and labels, as political tools for protecting the space we've made for ourselves so far. But also, I hear Paulette. People now have a whole lot more options for finding and defining themselves—or choosing not to do so at all. And that is unquestionably good. Because the labels we’ve tried to wrap around our individual expressions of sexuality and gender, they have always felt awkward; these things are just not one-size-fits-all. So here’s to more couture choices. That, after all, is exactly the freedom we've spent all these decades trying to create.
[ MUSIC ENDS AND FADES OUT]
[ MUSIC STARTS AGAIN]
The Stakes is production of WNYC Studios and the newsroom of WNYC.
This episode was reported by Kristin Tomlinson and produced by Jonna McKone. It was edited by Kaari Pitkin. Karen Fillmann is our Executive Producer. Cayce Means is our technical director. Jim Schachter is vice president for news at WNYC.
The Stakes team also includes…Amanda Aronczyk, Christopher Johnson, Jessica Miller, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams…
Kai: With help from...Hannis Brown, Michelle Harris, and Karen Pearlman.
You can join the team, by signing up for our newsletter at TheStakesPodcast.org. You can hit me up on twitter at kai_wright.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP CREDITS:]
A special thanks to the media burn archive and Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, for the archival tape reflecting on Stonewall. To hear more of StoryCorps' work, subscribe to the StoryCorps podcast. This season, they're sharing the stories of LGBTQ people across America -- those who lived before Stonewall and those whose lives have been shaped by it.
Thanks for listening.
[Drums and music ends]
Radio Rookies is supported in part by the Margaret Neubart Foundation and The Pinkerton Foundation.