My buddy cancelled dinner. She messaged me last night and said, ‘I just realised I have a dinner tomorrow night.’ I thought, ‘Yes, with me.’ But obviously she was referring to a different dinner. That’s ok, I can go to my Buddhist class tonight and tomorrow I will go to the shrink and talk about my feelings of insignificance, which I would have done anyway. It helps to have fresh examples.
There’s no shortage, because things like this happen quite a bit. Most of my friends are middle-aged and they are busy people with responsibilities. Energy levels also aren’t what they used to be. One of the popular excuses is ‘I’m tired from work’. This would be annoying if my response wasn’t one of relief: phew, so am I. But more often it’s something to do with the kids or the partner, neither of which I have. Generally their priorities look like this:
3. Family of origin
5. Close/old friends
7. Mid-range/work friends/exercise
That’s a lot to juggle, especially when your job takes up most of the week. And it’s prone to the wrecking ball of health problems – yours or someone else’s - which can erupt at any time shoot straight to the top of the charts.
It’s depressing, of course, to rate so lowly on that scale and hence the visits to the shrink. It’s also difficult to separate those feelings of insignificance from the larger question of: how did this happen? How did I miss that freight train of normativity that rumbles through all our lives? Was I asleep when it stopped at the key stations of Partner, Kids, and House?
It’s not like I wasn’t trying. On the contrary, for thirty years my earnest wish, ambition, and expectation was to obtain a seat on that train. Much of my energy was directed toward that goal and I organised my life around that expectation. The complication of queerness was just an inconvenience of scheduling. Most of my friends faced the same obstacle but they still got a seat on the train. I missed out. I failed. Let’s not beat about the bush, because that’s what happened.
Not everyone will agree, of course. One of the key principles of being queer or a feminist or even just vaguely left is that you are supposed to be very critical of this normative package. Sometimes people remind me of this if I express feelings of inadequacy, disappointment or grief. Such reminders, I’ve noticed, usually come from heterosexual people. They seem to feel that they were forced to board the train and had little choice about where it stopped.
I find that it’s best not to speak about these feelings or indeed, any of the things that my life so conspicuously lacks. Unfortunately that doesn’t stop other people from bringing them up, usually in the form of unsolicited advice or questions. These can be summarised as a single question: why not? Why don’t you have these things that everyone, queer or otherwise, really wants? At least some of them? Why don’t you want them? Oh, you do? Well, why don’t you have them? What’s wrong with you??
Why don’t you have kids? This is my personal favourite, as it leads to the most bizarre contortions of logic or rationality. Like the twentysomething lesbians who assured me that ‘it’s not too late’ to have children – I guess they missed the biology class. Or the earnest suggestion (remarkably common) that I, as a single 48 year old genderqueer, would be an ideal candidate to adopt one of the 11 babies relinquished in NSW last year. Or the implication that I can’t have really wanted children if I wasn’t prepared to fly to Malawi to buy one.
Why don’t you have a partner? What’s interesting about this particular failure is that the more people know and like you, the harder they find it to accept. Strangers barely register if you don’t have a partner. Sometimes they throw in a condescending ‘Awww,’ but you’re just one of thousands. Friends, by contrast, like to offer suggestions. I’ve lost count of the number of people who were convinced that my failure to couple up was due to my refusal to join a lesbian book club. Disliking novels is, apparently, no barrier because everyone is just there for sex anyway. Over the years the suggestions have become more desperate. Recently a friend suggested I enter into a relationship with an ex who I am friendly with. In an approach that I call “skip to the end,” the fact that I am not attracted to her was considered no barrier. I’ve yet to apprise my ex of this plan for her future.
At the very least, why don’t you have a house? Not surprisingly, most of the people who ask this question don’t come from Sydney. Like the old friend from Melbourne who asked if I had ever considered buying a property and assured me that it would be no problem for ‘someone of your intelligence’. I must try this approach at auction. $750,000? $760,000? Would you accept $30k and some intelligence?
I have found that responding to these questions with honesty or sincere emotion does not work. It will not produce validation but more unsolicited, unhelpful advice. Likewise, responding with anger is not helpful. Sneering at drivel about multiple, fluid and de-centred sexualities from some monogamously-coupled lesbian with phrases like ‘fucking hypocrite’ will de-rail an otherwise pleasant brunch date. It’s really best to avoid the whole business and if they bring it up, try to shut it down as fast as possible.
Curiously, the easiest people to be around are often straight women. The same people, as it happens, who are critical of the whole marriage-and-kids construct. Their problems with the heterosexual package are always about their partner. Got a shitty partner - bugger! This package isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, sugar. Their lives are ridden with disappointment and an acute awareness of the roads that they could, and perhaps should, have taken.
Queers can be full of denial and judgement. Having had to try harder to get a place on the train, they find it hard to understand anyone who didn’t. It is not easy to acknowledge that every good choice you’ve made was accompanied by good luck or sometimes bad luck which still turned out ok but sometimes didn’t and that every bad choice was accompanied by good luck or often bad luck and every combination thereof. Sometimes we can’t even be sure if our choices were really our choices or not. To admit these things is to admit that we don’t have control over our own lives. And the fact is: we don’t. Some of us have a bit of control over some parts of our lives, sometimes, if we’re lucky. And our luck can change. And sometimes it does - perhaps mine will. But wouldn’t it be more fun to talk about all the things I could do instead?