By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
I grew up on Long Island and have lived in the city for 15 years. These days my partner and I split our time between Brooklyn and a small one-stoplight town in the Hudson Valley upstate. This city girl has been plucked from her urban domain and forced to contend with the trappings of country life. I've done okayI figured out how to refill the gas in the riding lawnmower.
While it's strange living in a place with no streetlamps, no sushi restaurant, and no subway, I can get used to seeing stars in the wide night sky and buying corn at an unattended farm stand where I leave my money in a cash box and write down what I bought on a yellow legal pad. Though I'm still grappling with the sign in the window of a store a few towns over that reads: "Let us professionally butcher your deer."
My adjustment to small-town life may seem like a familiar Hollywood plot, but the transition is a little more complicated. It's not just about getting used to everything closing early, or the fact that the clerk at the pharmacy knew my name and address after one visit. Admittedly, there's a certain charm to everyone knowing everyone; but as a sex columnist, porno guru, and queer girl with a genderqueer partner living in a rural town, that kind of openness is difficult and not what I am used to.
The simplest questions ("What do you do for work?" or "Are you married?") plunge me into a state of anxiety. I can't say I'm a writer, because the next question is always, "What do you write?" Should I make something up, or should I offer up a few tips on fucking, sucking, and swatting? When people see me with my partner but sans wedding ring, they inevitably want to know when the question will be popped. Do I say I'm in solidarity with Angelina and Brad and won't get married until everyone can? I feel conflicted about being out in our tiny townout as a sex educator, a pornographer, a queer, and the partner of a transgender person. It's not like I was out to all my neighbors in Brooklyn, but enough of them had read the Voice or seen me on Ricki Lake to get the general picture.
We are not the only queer folks in this town, which consists of two gas stations, a grocery store, a drugstore, and a handful of other businesses. One of the six retail stores is owned by a gay man, although he's much more interested in advertising his sale on Carharts than his sexual orientation. When my neighbor first saw my partner walking out of our house, she asked me, "Is he yours?" to which I started to nod without thinking. She thought he was my kid. He's routinely mistaken for my teenage son, my husband, or my lesbian lover, depending on who's looking; it's difficult to determine when to correct someone. I don't want to mislead people about my relationship, and yet I can't say, "Oh, he's a tranny boy my tranny boy." It's just not part of the vocabulary here.
I suddenly don't know what to say about who I am or what I do. The way things seem to work up here, if I tell one person, most of the town will know, so I have to be sure before I open my mouth. My first instinct is to tell the truth, put it all out there, and field the questions as they come. But I'm not sure I want people Googling my name and clicking on links to stories about assfucking and sex camp. Part of the reason I like being here is that no one knows who I am. So I am torn.
The holidays have really underscored how far from the city, and how far outside my comfort zone, I am. There were no arguments about representing diversity when the town park got decorated. Christmas is the only holiday that seems to existand not just trees and holly and snowmen, but Christian Christmas. Gone are the days at the Brooklyn post office when I had my choice of festive stamps: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Eid (which commemorates two Muslim festivals). Here, it's Mary and Jesus or snowflakes, and I am the only person who opted for the snowflakes, according to the nice lady behind the counter. I got invited to a Christmas party for the "ladies in the neighborhood" on the first night of Hanukkah. In my gift basket from the hostess was a book called Why a Manger? The kindness of small-town folk is refreshing, but the assumption that we're all the same is unsettling.
I feel suspicious about such an overtly Christian present from a total stranger. It makes me wonder: How Christian is she? If she knew I was queer, would she think I'm going to burn in hell? Is she way-out-there evangelical Christian? These questions are not unreasonable given that, in the past two months, sex and religion collided very publicly for two prominent evangelical leaders who were involved in gay sex scandals: Reverend Paul Barnes of Denver's Grace Chapel, a church with a 2,000-person congregation, and Reverend Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals. These men led secret lives that boldly contradicted their sermons. I think they also hid their homoerotic behavior because they couldn't reconcile their desires with their faith. It's a shame that instead of embracing who they are, they've both chosen to publicly flog themselves, seek forgiveness, and promise to pray their sexual orientation away. Will the day ever come when an evangelical leader comes out and says, "Hey, I'm gay and God loves me!"?
Religion makes me uncomfortable. It always hasand living in a small town heightens that feeling. Maybe it's because I grew up in a predominantly Catholic community and extended family, and my parents decided not to baptize me or raise me Catholic (or any other religion). Mostly, though, I think it's because most traditional religious institutions have an uneasy relationship with sexualityand not just queer sexuality. Instead of being a positive force, an expression of love, or a celebration of a higher power, sex is the territory of unholy desire, sin, compulsion, addiction, guilt, and shame. Religion makes a lot of people feel bad about their sexuality, and I want to empower people to embrace their sexuality, so we seem to be at odds. I want people to discover and nurture their erotic identities and desires, to capture this important part of themselves with non-judgmental compassion. I hope my new neighbors, whatever their religion, can embrace this city girl in the same way.
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