The In-between: A Familiar Feeling
I got my first tattoo when I was sixteen years old, from a friend I knew in high school. It was early summer in Madison, Wisconsin and we were downtown in a place known as Concrete Park, which was little more than a small, open patch of cement-covered space lodged between Urban Outfitters and a Mediterranean restaurant. I was a little nervous as we walked back from Walgreens with our supplies, mostly wondering how much it would hurt since I had almost no experience with needles. However, once we sat down and he started to work, my focus shifted outward, because it was my job to ensure that no one beyond our nearby friends noticed what we were doing.
At the time, I remember thinking how inconspicuous we were—me and my tattooist crouched quietly in a corner while our friends surrounded us smoking cigarettes and playing cards. Like my tattooist, most of these friends wore dark clothing and trench coats even though it was summer, and donned a variety of black leather accessories ranging from dog collars and wrist bands to studded belts and chain wallets. I, on the other hand, had on a short-sleeve shirt in bubblegum-pink and a pair of white booty shorts, which meant that, despite our best efforts, there was no way I was blending into anything. Our only saving grace was that this location was one of our favorite hang-out spots, such that folks on the street had likely already grown accustomed to my visible incongruity.
My lack of congruity was, by then, a feeling that I, too, had become accustomed to. As previously mentioned, I grew up biracial in a predominantly White environment, which meant that regardless of what I was wearing, I spent most of my life looking and feeling slightly out of place. Because this feeling was constant, I learned to navigate a wide variety of spaces where I was seen as an outsider in some way, which meant that by high school I floated rather effortlessly between a number of vastly different social groups. I had my orchestra friends, my theater friends, my hippie friends, my stoner friends, my gothic friends, my Japanese-class friends, my youth group friends, my McDonald’s work friends, my neighborhood friends, my athletic friends, my popular friends, and my preppy friends. Of course, there was often a lot of overlap between these groups, but in general, I was always a bit more comfortable than most, keeping one foot in each world while occupying the space in between them.
This sensation of being out of place, whilst still feeling a sort of belonging, was one that I experienced again this past weekend when celebrating Pride in Los Angeles. Although I had been to other parades in both Madison and Long Beach, this year was my first time partaking in the festival, which I did as a member of the bi social club, ambi. Of course, working ambi’s booth gave me a unique vantage point of the festival, which brought with it a different set of experiences than enjoyed by those who were simply attending it. However, as I walked through the stalls while we were setting up, and later when observing the crowd from the booth, once again, I was overcome by that familiar feeling of belonging, or belonging with a difference.
Prior to setting foot in the festival that day, I had been briefed about its lack of bi visibility; however, I did not fully grasp the weight of this reality until I experienced it for myself. Even before entering the festival, I started to feel self-conscious, suddenly questioning whether I was queer enough, as I walked by groups of young people in a wide array of attention-grabbing outfits. I, myself, had on an ensemble that was strikingly similar to the one I was wearing the day I got my first tattoo, although this time it was my shirt that was white and my booty shorts were blue.
Standing in line with a girlfriend, I found myself wondering if the guys behind us were questioning our right to be there, particularly after, in conversation with her, I made reference to us both having boyfriends. Even though I was well aware that straight folks were also welcome at Pride, social media had been flooded the last couple weeks with messages essentially cautioning them to remain on the sidelines. Although there were also a number of voices reminding everyone that us bi folks were still bi even when part of a heterosexual couple, I felt acutely aware that this recognition was likely to be in the minority.
Once through the line and inside the festival, I was immediately overwhelmed by its size, both in terms of people in attendance and the number of booths handing out swag to them. However, despite the wide variety of vendors and issues represented through the over one hundred Pride booths there that weekend, ambi was the only specifically bi-focused organization in the entire venue. This was Pride, I knew, where part of the whole point was to come together as a community, and to exist for a few days in a space where no one had to feel judged or marginalized for their sexuality. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice the occasional eye roll or off color comment made in reference to bi folks by those who passed by, which only served to reaffirm my sense that my belonging here too, was somehow limited.
Happily, my experience of the parade the next day was far less marginalizing. In contrast to the festival crowd, which gave the impression of being overtly comprised of young gay, lesbian and trans folks in their early twenties, parade attendees seemed to cover a much broader swath of the queer spectrum. Families and seniors and teenagers were all out repping bi colors that day, and many joined me in running under the giant bi flag near the end of our float. Notably, ambi was still the only entry in the parade that was specifically targeted at bi representation, which underscores the important issue of how much more work still needs to be done. However, for me personally, I still felt so happy and content in this moment, because the experience gave me a much stronger sense of belonging and community.