Like most urban dwellers in the US, I am from somewhere else. I have been from somewhere else for as long as I can remember; when I was two years old my family moved across the country from Tacoma Washington to a suburb of Atlanta Georgia. I grew up saying I was “from Seattle” because in the 60s and 70s in the Deep South it was slightly more likely that one’s interlocutor would have heard of Seattle than that they would know about any Tacoma. Both possibilities were vanishingly slim and I suspect that Seattle was mostly missing on any map drawn east of the Mississippi back then.
Until I was about high school age it was the family story that one day we would move back to Seattle. My parents never did and now claim that they hated the rain anyway and prefer tornados to earthquakes, but of all the things they indocrinated me with, the only one that took was that I had to get back to Seattle. After a childhood of flying back to visit relatives in this lost paradise where it never got hot and the grass stayed green all year I was so hell-bent on getting back to Seattle that when my partner and I decided that we had to leave Atlanta in 1987 because, well, it was the South, I immediately and relentlessly campaigned for us to move to Seattle.
I was successful, much to my immense pleasure. Now I live in San Francisco but that has turned out to be something of an accident and I still assume that one day I will head back up to the land of dark and rainy winters. I miss those actually: one could stay in bed all day in the winter and not feel slothful in the slightest.
But what I mean to write about is going home. For me, going home and going to Seattle are at once similar ideas and yet completely different. While it is true that my childhood narrative of being Seattle-born (Puyallup, actually) and thus not of the strange people of the South had a great deal to do with my learning never to feel at home where I was unless it happened to be within 100 miles of Seattle, “home” itself would have turned out to be a complicated notion even without the involuntary exodus of my toddlerhood.
I wish my story were unique except that if it were I would not have very much company and that would make life feel even less worth living than it sometimes does with company. I have a theory about the nuclear family of the US in particular, and the Puritan/Protestant Anglo-Saxon ideal that is sold as the gold standard of familial foundations this country. I would try to state it minutely and precisely, but some years ago the magazine Granta summed it up so perfectly that I could hardly do better with a long exegesis: the family. It fucks you up.
Here are some of the things I associate with “home” as it coincides with “family of origin” or “immediate family”: shaming disciplinary tactics, horrifying religious indocrination (truly horrifying. I was told that I would burn forever if I did not “get saved”–I understood this to be the case by the time I was eight years old), sexual molestation, secrecy around said sexual molestation, and to cap all that off–to the point that by age 17 I was set to explode in a cavalcade of self-destruction — the suppression of any emotion that made the adults uncomfortable. We could not be angry and sadness was only permitted as long as the adults agreed that yes thing X was sad. If they did not agree, then you should be ashamed.
My parents are human. I don’t rattle all this off to damn them in some mid-life vendetta. In fact I think that what I grew up with is not all that unusual in the US, although sometimes some of it might be a little more subtle than it was in my case. We are a culture of indoctrination and subjugation. I do not know what history lessons consist of in public schools now–except in those places where the Tea Party is making sure they do not include any inconvenient truth–but my history lessons in Georgia, at least up until high school, consisted of mythological tales with the occasional supporting fact thrown in when such could be located and named.
There were no Indians in Georgia, for one. Or at least, if there had been, they vanished a very long time ago under such mysterious circumstances that it was not until I was in my mid-20s that I learned that in fact the Trail of Tears was precisely the forced relocation of many Southern tribes to what was at the time the far West. Although I had heard of the Trail of Tears, we were never told that it started where we were sitting or that it had anything to do with the South at all. At all! No clue.
And by this I do not mean to indict the public schools of the Deep South in particular. No, I suspect that most history taught to my generation consisted of construction-paper pilgrim hats and headdresses at Thanksgiving time and the regrettable but sadly no longer reversible fact that Europeans were forced to rough up a few people in order to obtain this land from sea to shining sea, our land, the land made for you and me.
Home? What would it be like to go home?
“Home” did not stop its descent into unrecognizability with my re-education in American history, which I undertook mainly on my own. No, to add to the confusion, I had to grow up queer. Growing up queer in the Southern US in the late 70s meant growing up without the first morsel of a vocabulary with which to describe, name, or explain one’s growing crushes on best friends. The word “homosexual” was not unknown; it was spat out with great distaste and the one guy in my high school class who was openly gay was bullied mercilessly. Honestly I do not know how or where he found the self-awareness to be able not only to name himself as gay but also to openly acknowledge it in the extremely, painfully conservative town we were growing up in.
Without that level of self-awareness, which I had not the slightest chance of developing at that age, being more concerned with escaping hellfire and figuring out what to do with a growing urge to kill myself, the best I could do was to try to explain to myself that I was really physically attracted to boys and only emotionally attracted to girls (yeah, right!)–but this mote of self-understanding arose after a very slow realization that I might actually have to consider whether or not I might be.. a lesbian!
Turned out I was a lesbian, for a little while at least, and then I decided I was a dyke for several years before remembering that as a child I had always thought I was supposed to be a boy and thus realizing that I was transsexual here in the very long run. But this took many, many years and long nights of wondering just what the hell was the matter with me.
I could not talk to my family about any of this–in fact, it has only been the past few months that I have had much communication with my parents since I told them I was going to be transitioning to “become a man” (it was about the only way to put in order that it make a lick of sense to them) fifteen years ago. We had had a vaguely unsettled truce going about my dykehood for a few years there, but when I rediscovered that I was trans at age 35, that all came tumbling down right quick. “Home” in the sense of “that place where you grew up” was foreclosed to me immediately at that point.
And so home, as you might gather, is an extremely unclear concept to me. I do feel as though I “belong” in Seattle and I seem to like the West Coast much better than the Deep South, but from a cultural standpoint of knowing I live on land that was literally stolen to a deeply personal perspective where “home” was a place where life was either inexplicably painful or it was a place that did not really exist at all in a familial sense, I honestly cannot tell you precisely where or what “home” is or how to get there.
And I do not think I am alone in that. Am I?