That party happens a few weeks after I’ve left my university for the summer, which means that I’m still in the throes of censoring myself, making sure that my bangs aren’t too radical, making sure that every possible unusual thing about me can be softened, feminized, tucked away into conservative clothing. My hair is long, hippie-long, falling past my ass, and even though long hair registers as female, it has enough ties into the anti-war movement that I put it into a military sock bun every time I meet with someone important. I roll my bangs so they lie flat against my head, the red-dyed ends hidden and tucked away inside the bun, enough natural-colored strands covering my ears that I know my extra piercings won’t be seen. I know that, technically, I don’t have to do these things. I know that my roommate has green hair and a lip ring and a tongue piercing and that her professors love her, but I also know that she’s tiny and wears American Eagle shirts that cover her tattoos and doesn’t argue with her professors about queer interpretations of Victorian poetry, so it sort of evens out.
I got into this school last minute, by the skin of my teeth and some tentative initial endorsements by my student advisor, who I worship, mostly on the basis of my math skills and femaleness. I don’t know what it actually thinks about me. I can’t tell if this school wants me there. I can’t tell if I’m its attempt to change the overwhelming rape culture of its campus, or if I’m what’s standing in the way of its older, preferred habits. Even though I know that I’ve been accepted as a student, that I’ve been endorsed by professors who knew me for the whole school year, that I’ve been offered jobs and internships by school affiliates and strangers alike, it’s incredibly difficult, so far impossible, for me to avoid the overwhelming feeling that I have no right to be there.
I’m a civilian. I’m an atheist. I’m an ordained atheist who joined the on-campus Christian club and attends the weekly Bible studies unironically and intensely, who interprets Scripture to the best of her ability, even when that interpretation disagrees with what the group leader wants it to say. I’m a queer who, after her club’s Bible study ends, goes to the LGBT group meetings that start five minutes later. I’m an intellectual who, after the meetings end, will walk up to the President of the LGBT group to tell him that no, a transvestite and a transgender person aren’t the same thing, and that he shouldn’t worry because that’s a mistake that a lot of people make and it just means that he hasn’t gotten to that particular Wikipedia page yet, but now he knows, so next time he’s presenting a slideshow on what various identities are, he can refine it and make sure that there aren’t typos like that, who gets told that she’s nitpicking unnecessarily and needs to stop trying to usurp his position of power. I’m as politically correct as I have to be, I’ll tell the Vice-President of the LGBT group that her comments are racist and transphobic and sexist, and when she refuses to change her behavior, I’ll take it up to the other leaders of the group, who will inevitably tell me to stop nitpicking and trying to usurp her position of power, who will refuse to recognize the years of research, interviews, and personal experience I have had with every single color on the rainbow flag they keep using the old, discontinued interpretations of that I have stopped commenting on because that would be nitpicking.
In the interview I did with my advisor to get into this school, I told him that I wasn’t an activist, that I wasn’t interested in bringing politics into my everyday life, that I wanted to go to a military school to understand more about the military, to keep myself from staying in a secluded, evolved, queer-friendly little bubble that, while fantastic, didn’t necessarily reflect the rest of the world. I told him that I was a lesbian. I told him that I was a feminist, but that feminism is just focused egalitarianism, just another way of saying that everyone should have equal rights and standing. I told him truth, yes, but I told him the softest, kindest, least threatening truths I could. I made myself edgy enough to explain my grade dip in the last semester of my senior year, told him that I was still working through some emotional stuff from school and my parents but that I looked forward to this military school as a place of healing, recovery, learning about the world.
(It’s surprisingly uncommon knowledge that most military schools have a fantastic international exchange going on, and that, if you go to one, you’ll probably meet a lot of people from a lot of different places. Yes, the general student body will be uncomfortably and unconsciously racist, but I’ve found that the racism here leans more toward awkward lurching in the direction of universal acceptance rather than an exclusion. White christian boys will make black jokes to their black friends, who will laugh, and after a couple of years, the white christian boys realize that maybe their friends are laughing with them, in spite of their jokes. It’s a slow change, but it’s there. Or maybe I’m looking for anything that will make my school seem more accepting. I don’t think I’ll be able to tell for a while. I think I’m just going to keep hoping.)
These things I told my advisor, fantastically accepting, open-minded individual that he is, were my nervous wish that I could be accepted, at least a little bit. At the time, I didn’t realize that acceptance was so important to me, because even though I was aware of my luck and privilege of having been born to liberal parents, of living in a liberal school district, of having people go “So?” when I came out to them and not caring when I held a girlfriend’s hand in between classes, I had forgotten what it was like to be not just ostracized but directly targeted by an entire community.
The three years of my second, third, and fourth grade were spent in a small farming town that had recently discovered the twenty-first century and incorporated it rather badly, so it was terribly close-minded but fairly wealthy and technologically advanced, so my love of Edward Gorey and actually reading– novels and nonfiction biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Shakespeare and every book I could find, really– and strange art and punk/classical/indie/metal/notmainstreampop music didn’t go over particularly well. I was kicked, punched, excluded, mocked, whatever by other students. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the experiences of most of my college friends– mine was the most extreme example in that area, and it ultimately came down to a girl pushing me into a snowbank, which, when I told my parents two whole weeks later and didn’t stop them from reporting it, was met with relative sympathy from the administration, who told me that even though they couldn’t punish the girl as harshly as they would have if I’d reported it earlier, they could take away her recess time for the next week and make her go to the guidance counselor. I was, again, incredibly lucky. I was also seven, and unable to appreciate my relative privilege in the wake of the self-protection that inevitably occurred– silence, withdrawal into various interminably long fantasy novel series– but I also recovered fairly well. I never stopped trying to make friends with the people who ostracized me. I never stopped saying hello in the hallways to people I’d never met. I never stopped saying “Thank you!” whenever anyone told me I was weird. Ultimately, I’m grateful for the experience, because I learned a lot very quickly about myself, about others, about the world.
But it really did suck. And it was what I referenced whenever anyone talked about their shitty experiences with high school ostracism. Knowing what I know about childhood psychological development, I’d say that the bullying that goes on during those years, six to eleven, probably has more of an effect on personality development than that which goes on in high school, but I don’t mean to discount other experiences. It’s just that I never had any sort of quintessential high school experience– I took my friend, who happened to be a girl, to my senior prom, after having a sleepover with her in which we made our prom dresses out of satin and duct tape– so the closest thing I can compare others’ stories to is my primary school years. I’ve never really belonged to a clique, and I’ve never not tried to make friends with anyone at least once, and I’m friends with pretty much every type of person there is, because why not? And I’m so lucky that I have that ephemeral thing that makes me able to go up to a stranger wearing a pro-life button and a crucifix and start a legitimately intellectual debate about the definition of life without any kind of aggression, to be able to buy that stranger coffee and then friend them on Facebook, where I’ll avoid their page like the plague because of its anti-woman, anti-gay status updates but accept all their incoming messages with a smiley face and legitimate interest. I think I’d call that ephemeral thing “idealism,” but whatever. It is what it is, and I’m grateful that I have it.
Mostly, though, I’m grateful for this ability because it means that I can survive at military school. While there is a fairly large, if extraordinarily well-hidden, liberal population, I’m not a person who wants just a single group of friends. I want to be able to walk up to someone and say hi, but getting used to that person usually being extremely conservative, extremely sexist and racist, was an adjustment. I’m still adjusting. I’m adjusting by changing my hair when I need to, not by no longer dying it strange colors, but by making sure that I can remain a chameleon. I’m adjusting by recognizing that, when I wear my beautiful, sexy man-pants, I’ll be pretty actively shunned by guys I don’t know, just for not being immediately sexually attractive to them.