"She wanted to be normal. We both did": Why gender, sexuality, and desire matter

You can love without boundaries, right or wrong, girl or boy. I tell my story for Gwen Araujo, who no longer can


Daisy Hernández
October 18, 2014 10:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir"

The teenagers file into the classroom, an army of baggy jeans and stiff hair, acrylic nails and cell phones. They number at least thirty, maybe forty. Their teacher is forcing them to be here, because a community organization has sent me to talk to them about what it means to be a part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. The idea is that the more contact young people have with queers, the less likely they will be to hate us or worse.

“I’m bisexual,” I start. “It’s like you like vanilla and chocolate ice cream, but not at the same time.” I score a few smiles and half of a laugh, the kind you get when the joke was that bad. The boys in the front pause from scanning their cell phones.

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As I talk, photographs of my life migrate around the classroom: aunties gathered around me at a birthday cake, my mother beaming next to me at college graduation. The boys hand the photos off like baseball cards they already own; the girls cradle them with the tips of their nails, careful to not leave any kind of mancha.

A girl raises her hand. She’s at the back of the room and reminds me of myself when I was in high school (the big earrings, the acrylic uñas, the long hair tucked behind her ear). She asks, “Do you want to marry a guy or a girl?”

I want to tell her: “Girlfriend, I’d be happy to meet someone I like as much as my cat.” But I can’t say that, because these are teenagers. They are impressionable. They’re young. If I give them the wrong response, they might beat up a queer kid one day or not come out of the closet themselves. “For me, gender doesn’t matter,” I announce, painfully cheerful. “I’m attracted to who the person is on the inside.”

The moment the words are out of my mouth, I cringe. What I have said is bullshit and the girl knows it and I know it and so does everyone else in the room. It does matter—gender, sexuality, desire, all of it. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be here talking about it, and Gwen Araujo would still be alive.

*

Looking at pictures of Gwen, it is her eyes you notice first. Dark and almost arrogant, her eyes seem to leave behind the rest of her, as if the face and body are expendable and all that matters are the verses inscribed in pupils and irises, false eyelashes and arched eyebrows.

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But the shape of a poem counts and the body, too, so in 2004, I traveled to the small town outside of San Francisco, where Gwen had grown up. I was writing a magazine article about her life and what had happened before and after. The facts were these: Gwen had been born in 1985 to a Chicana mother. She had been born a boy. The flat chest, the flaccid penis, the narrow hips—these were not body parts to Gwen but chapters in a book that made her cry.

She tried to defy the narrative of her body like so many before her. She wore pearls as a child. I can imagine her like that, her brown face smiling, her skinny shoulders pushed back, the pearls gleaming from her neck. She’s waltzing through the kitchen, a Chicano son in pearls, wanting the women who love her—her mother, her sister—to approve of her.

Later, as a teenager, Gwen applied mascara and eyeliner and eye shadow. She grew her hair, wore it in a bob. She painted her nails. She borrowed her mother’s peasant blouse. The question of “Do you want to marry a girl or a boy?” was for Gwen “Are you a girl or a boy?”

*

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One of the first times I realize you can love people the same way the sky in Cuba looks—without the interruptions of skyscrapers, without the boundaries of right and wrong, girl and boy—it is because people are dying.

It is 1989. I’m in eighth grade and the science teacher is subjecting us to another lesson about AIDS. For the last year or two, it’s been this way. Maybe it hasn’t gone on that long, but it does feel that whenever we walk into our science class at St. John the Baptist School, the teacher has written the words “AIDS” vertically on the blackboard and what the acronym stands for: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

It is no small task to talk about HIV and AIDS in a Catholic school, and our science teacher sticks to the facts: the virus wreaks havoc on the immune system, you can’t get it from being in a room with a person who has it, and scientists think it started with monkeys in Africa. We know, however, that the virus has to do with gay people and not having your clothes on, but we can’t ask our science teacher about that. It would embarrass her and us, and we have to see her every weekday, which is why God invented substitute teachers.

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We march into homeroom one day to discover a teacher who doesn’t have white or even gray hair. Miss Substitute tells us she sometimes teaches at the public school. This is code for: You are now free to talk with me about sex, because I come from the public school, which is godless.

A hand shoots up. “How do women get AIDS? They’re not gay.”

Miss Sub leans back on the desk, folds her hands in front of her. The muscles in her face don’t move, not even her eyebrows. Her voice is matter-of-fact, as if she were discussing manicures, the secrets to avoiding smudges of candy-red nail polish, the need to file in one direction. “A woman can be in a relationship with a man who has AIDS,” she answers.

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“But doesn’t he get it from a guy?” one of my classmates asks.

“Yes.”

I sit near the front of the class, confused. She’s forgotten a step. She’s laid down the first strip of nail polish but not applied the base. She’s forgotten that a person has to choose. Boy. Girl. A choice has to be made.

A hand rises, my hand perhaps. “How can he get it from a man if he’s with a woman?”

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“Let’s say Anthony here—” She points to the Italian boy with curly hair. “He’s with John, who has AIDS.” She points to the Yugoslavian boy with thick, straight hair. “Anthony is married to Geralen” She means my best friend, who’s from the Philippines. “So Anthony gets AIDS from John, and then Geralen contracts it from Anthony.”

The class erupts into a cacophony of “John and Anthony are gay!” and “Geralen’s with two guys!” but I wave my hand frantically. “What do you mean if Anthony’s with John but also with Geralen?” I ask, incredulous. “He can be with both?”

“Yes.”

Anthony’s and John’s faces have turned into pink carnations, and John is threatening to beat up the name callers, while Geralen is covering her eyes and saying, “Aw-my-God,” as the girls giggle. But I have fallen into a desperate silence, stunned by the news. You can be with both.

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Grown women looked at Gwen and they leaned into the only narrative they knew about boys who carry purses: he’s gay. A therapist told Gwen’s mom that the child would outgrow this story, as if it were simply a matter of lifting Gwen from one book and placing her in another.

Instead, the day came when Gwen and her mother were both in pajamas, in bed, talking. Gwen was a teenager already, and she explained to her mother that she was a girl. She felt like a girl, not a boy. She was not a sestina. She was a prose poem.

After tears and resistance, Gwen’s mother took her to the mall. They had faldas to buy, lipsticks to test. If her mother was able to change her story, it was because she had been schooled in Marianismo, the Latina narrative that tus bebés are the North Star. They come before your misgivings, your sadness, even before God.

Gwen and her mother left the Church because there in the pews, with that screeching narrative of the Bible, people refused to accept a different story about Gwen.

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*

Some of my friends, oftentimes the ones that harbored forbidden crushes in eighth grade, are curious about me. “Did you think you were a lesbian then?” they ask. “Didn’t you realize you liked girls?”

Generally speaking, gay people come out of the closet, straight people walk around the closet, and bisexuals have to be told to look for the closet. We are too preoccupied with shifting.

There isn’t a good verb for what begins happening to me in college. Yes, I am meeting lesbians, but I am not one of them. I still find men attractive; it is that I am thinking of women in a new way. It is as if I am learning that I can shift my weight from one leg to the other, that I have a second leg. Kissing women is like discovering a new limb.

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At twenty-four, I am eager to share my findings about bisexuality with everyone, including a woman with a mane of curly hair who picks me up at a bar in Provincetown. After a few hours of clumsy sex, while still lying naked in bed with her, I decide it’s important to tell her that I’m bisexual. She listens patiently, then closes her eyes, and sighs, “Why can’t I meet a normal lesbian?”

I smile sympathetically. As much as she wants to date a normal lesbian, I would like to be one, not a lesbian but normal, the kind of story where you know what’s going to happen next.

*

Normal. That’s why I keep coming back to Gwen. She wanted to be normal. We both did.

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Or: I keep coming back to her, because she grew up queer and brown in a small town like I did. Narrow sidewalks, poor white kids down the block.

Or: I keep coming back to her because of the two men she met one day, Michael and José. They wanted a story that would keep them safe.

Or: I keep coming back hoping the story will turn out better this time, because now I will have new words, better words, stronger words. I will salvage some piece of her life and hold it up to the sky.

Or: I keep coming back because of what she said at the end.

*

Arlene is the first grown-up queer I know. She’s a women’s studies professor at my college and she was married to a man once, but when we meet, she’s partnered with a cute butch who tells good jokes. I don’t know if Arlene identifies as a bisexual. What I do know is that I can tell her my secret.

It’s evening, maybe a Sunday. I’m commuting to college from my parents’ and sharing a room with my sister. She has the top bunk bed; I have the bottom. The frame is made of thick boards so wide that the light never reaches the bottom bunk. Sometimes in the middle of the day, I crawl into my bed with my journal as if it’s a bunker, and my mother or the aunties pass by and don’t even see me.

Tonight, I have the room to myself. I’m crouched in my bunker with the cordless phone in my hand, and I am near enemy territory. I haven’t told my family yet or any of my friends or even my sister. I am in one country and Arlene is in another, and I need to reach her, because silence is a terrible war to wage against anyone, especially yourself. I have to be quick though. I only have one chance to call Arlene, who in all actuality probably lives about twenty miles from me.

I don’t remember now how I started, only that I told her, “I’m attracted to girls,” and then I waited, and she said something kind and told me her own story and I felt less alone. When we said good-bye, I scooted out of the bunker. The coast was clear. I was safe, and I put the cordless phone back on its base.

*

We don’t know if Gwen called Paul or if she even knew him. But maybe she did. Maybe she applied eye shadow and tried on her mother’s falda and considered telling Paul.

A skinny gay man, Paul lived in the same town as Gwen, and late one night, his phone did ring. It was a boy in town. He needed to talk. He was gay and he wanted to kill himself. What should he do?

The phone rang another night. A girl in town was pregnant. What should she do?

Paul didn’t know how the kids found his number, but they knew that he was gay, and he figured that they contacted him because they believed, like I did in eighth grade, that being gay had something to do with sex.

The young men Gwen met—Michael, José—they would not have called Paul. The stories of their lives were intact.

*

The movie theater in the Hudson Valley only has two bathrooms: ladies’ and gentlemen’s. I’m in the former; my date, whom I’ll call Ezra, is in the latter. He’s transgender, female-to-male, but without the surgeries. The first time I saw him was at a girls’ college. He was on a sofa, and I had to look twice. Was that a girl? A boy? I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. Do you want to marry a girl or a boy? Both. Neither. I don’t know. I want to be normal, but right now, I can only think about curling up next to Ezra and his heart-shaped lips and munching on popcorn.

In the bathroom, I pull out a tube of black-raspberry lipstick, but when I look in the mirror, my mind leaps into the men’s bathroom. It occurs to me that they have found Ezra out. He thinks he can pass, but that’s not always true. Sometimes, he’ll be walking down the street, dressed like he is now in a polo shirt and jeans, and someone spots the curve of his chest, the softness in his chin. They sneer, “Dyke” or another word, and he hurries along.

A woman starts washing her hands at the sink next to me, and I try to focus on my lipstick, but my mind is now stationed in the men’s bathroom. They have detected that under the polo shirt Ezra’s breasts are bound to his chest with an Ace bandage. They’ve noticed that he’s using a stall to pee. They have pushed him against the wall and cracked his wire-rim glasses.

I throw the lipstick in my bag and rush past the woman with her clean hands and out to the crowded lobby. Ezra is not there. The snack counter is crowded with women and yelping children. The air’s singed with artificial butter. Teenagers traipse by, cackling.

The door to the men’s bathroom is silent, unmoving. Should I rush in? How many would there be? Where is he?

He’s here. I turn around, and Ezra is marching up to me with his right arm around a tub of popcorn so large it could hold a newborn. He’s carrying a super-sized soda in his left hand. “They had a deal,” he grins.

I nod and say I can see that. I make a joke and eat my tears and chide myself for making up stories that scare me.

My favorite story from the Bible is about Noah’s ark. The doves and the rabbits, the owls and tigers—all of them are paired up by gender (one boy, one girl) and true loves (one boy, one girl). All of them are saved from the teeth of the flood.

Gwen must have known the story, too. She turned to her mother one day and asked, “Where does God have a place for people like me?”

*

In my hometown, there was a little girl who scared me. She was seven or eight when I first met her. I was already eighteen and working at the public library near my house. She would come up to the library counter in the summer, the grime marking her pale face like gray tattoos. The dirt swept across her cheek bones and curved below her pale eyes and dug into her nose, and I stared at those hieroglyphs and wondered if it was true what the women said, that the girl with the dirt tattoos would grow up to get knocked up. The Biblical imperative of “one boy, one girl” would be, for her, “one girl, many boys.”

Some of the white women at the public library may have been mothers and grandmothers and churchgoers, but they usually pursed their lips when that little girl strolled into the library, as if a fat roach had snuck under the door. It didn’t matter that she was white like them. The dirt tattoos on her face and her bony arms were a coded message that she and her family were poor and were not going to be saved in a flood or a hurricane or at any point in this life, and that the possibility of the same happening to us was why we hated her so much and why the older, white women glared at her. If I didn’t want to turn out like her and her family, I had to be deliberate about who I fell in love with. I want to be clear here then. I intended to date a man, a bio man, a regular man. Instead I met Alejandro, which isn’t his real name but is the one we have agreed to for this story.

*

For the months we dated, I worried about Ezra’s safety and after we broke up, I felt a hesitation when I heard from him, as though the bad news might come later. But the only news that arrived was that he had returned to his female name and to female pronouns, and he was happily partnered with a woman and joyfully parenting.

Alejandro is relieved to hear about Ezra on our first date. He is FTM himself (female-to-male), and he usually doesn’t tell women that until after he’s known them a few weeks, because, as he says, “If they like me, it shouldn’t matter what’s in my pants.” Sometimes, the women continue seeing him. Sometimes, they don’t. They are uniformly shocked though, because Alejandro looks like he played football in high school. He is six feet tall and has a broad chest and thick, glossy hair. The testosterone has granted him the voice of a Mexican singing rancheras. He’s had top surgery, and all the cards in his wallet bear the weight of the letter M. He drives a truck built for blizzard conditions, and the only way I can get into it is by climbing up the side and pulling myself into the cushioned leather seat.

On the street and at the supermercado, no one suspects us. Alejandro is not trans and I’m not bi. We’re simply another assimilated Mexican American couple, shopping for Spanish olives and jabbing the stupid alarm in the air to find where we left the car in the Whole Foods parking lot. I love that he doesn’t look anything like me, but that he feels like me. He’s a prose poem; I’m a vignette. He knows what it’s like to live with both genders; I know what it’s like to love the two. Being with him, I feel at home. The story doesn’t have to make sense.

I don’t worry about him in public bathrooms, but one weekend, I discover that it’s impossible to hurry him out of hotel bathrooms.

It’s a Sunday morning. It’s the morning after. We’re at a hotel with high-thread-count bedsheets because Alejandro had bonus points and likes room service. Some of the red roses are still in the vase. The others are in the trash since we plucked off the petals last night and threw them all over the bed, pretending a tornado had rolled through the room. We are packed to go now, but when I walk into the bathroom, Alejandro is picking up our dirty towels and wiping the sink.

“What are you doing?” I ask, a little alarmed. “We have to check out.”

“I don’t like leaving a mess,” he says, bunching up the towels into a single pile on the countersink. I’m about to tell him that  maybe he’s OCD, but then he adds: “My grandma cleaned bathrooms, you know?”

I do. Tía Dora scrubbed kitchen counters and the inside of toilets for a white couple down the shore in the summers. Now, Alejandro leaves a five-dollar bill next to the television and a thank-you note.

It’s tempting to tell him that a bio man wouldn’t do this. Men don’t notice women’s work, and if they do, they don’t feel guilty about it. In general. I’m speaking in generalities. But instead, I kiss him, and we waltz through the hotel lobby without anyone looking at us twice. One boy, one girl.

*

Men did not wonder if Gwen had been born a girl. José Merel didn’t and neither did Michael Magidson. They both liked her. They liked kissing her and touching her, and they wanted more of her.

It was 2002. Gwen was seventeen already. José and Michael were in their early twenties. José knew he was normal. He drank beer. He liked girls. He had played football in high school. But in October of that year, José was worried. Michael, too. They were comparing notes, because Gwen, who had told them her name was Lida, had not allowed either of them to touch her down there. She would also not take her shirt off at a party when they told her to, and the notion that a young woman would draw a boundary, that she would say, “This is a poem you cannot read,” was suspect.

A friend made the suggestion. He was a college boy. Maybe Gwen wasn’t a girl. Maybe she was a boy. Maybe that’s why she was off limits. The friend had heard a story like that once. It was queer, but it could happen.

*

The Germans are probably responsible for the word queer, but I prefer to believe it was the Scots, because they had a poet who used the word in a sixteenth-century version of playing the dozens.

Back then, the Scots called the game “flyting,” which meant a poetic arguing, and as with the dozens, the men would take turns at finding the most lyrical and humorous ways of insulting each other. They were considered poets, these Scottish men, and entertainers too, and language was not a collection of words but acres of soil tilled for alliterations, metaphors, and images to be slung at opponents. It was an insult at the time to tell a man his mother was the devil.

Around 1508, the Scottish poet, William Dunbar, squared off against his archenemy and called the man a “queir clerk.” To be “queir” was to be off-center, to traverse or move across, to be anything but straight and normal.

Gwen planned to be a makeup artist in Hollywood. She would smudge concealer on musicians and dab glitter gloss on actors’ lips. She would wake up, Monday through Friday, and give people the faces they wanted the world to see.

Even though they looked nothing alike, Gwen reminds me of the little girl with the dirt tattoos from my neighborhood. They were both vulnerable and despised, but it also takes a certain kind of spirit to negotiate a world that wants to kill whatever may be soft and precious and alive.

Some days, the little girl would linger by the library counter and watch me scan books into the computer. She’d flash me a smile and tell me about her triumphs. They went a bit like this:

She had climbed a fence that warned “No Trespassers.” She’d procured chewing gum with only a penny. She had escaped the neighbor’s dog, the one with the pointy teeth and long growl. I don’t know what happened to her, but I need to believe she was spared.

*

Michael wanted Gwen to prove it. José did, too. Prove you’re a girl.

They are at José’s house. It’s a party. It’s supposed to be a party. Their friends, Jaron Nabors and Jay Casares, are also there. This will be fun. Just prove it.

When she saw the turn the story was taking, Gwen tried to walk out of the house. She would have been afraid, of course, terrified perhaps, but probably also certain that she would leave. After all, it was a party. José’s brother, Paul, was there and his girlfriend, too. She was just a few years older than Gwen. Nicole. She would make sure that Gwen was safe.

There’s a game on the boardwalk down the shore in Jersey that I loved to play as a child. It’s a machine the shape of a large box with holes on the lid the size of a grown man’s fist. For two quarters, mechanical moles pop up from the huecos, some quickly, others dawdling. To win points, you have to lift the soft rubber hammer and smack the moles in the face.

This isn’t easy. The moment you hit one mole, another flies out, often from farther away. By the time the machine gives a little shake, because the game is over, you are sweating and not breathing right. The hammer is heavy in your hands and your forearms burn and you are wild-eyed and high.

I loved that game. It was like you could take everything in life that was not wanted, that upset you or terrified you, and shove it underground.

*

Gwen is alone in the bathroom.

Michael barges in to feel her up, but she refuses, and he’s startled somehow. He retreats. The woman at the party, Nicole, says she will do it. In the bathroom, she puts her hand up Gwen’s skirt, then runs into the hallway screaming, and the bathroom is no longer a bathroom. It is a tiled cage.

Michael drags Gwen out into the living room. He punches her in the face. He chokes her. José starts crying that he isn’t gay. He isn’t. He can’t be. He grabs a kitchen skillet and slams it against Gwen’s head. She’s bleeding now. She’s begging them to stop.“No, please don’t, I have a family,” she cries.

The woman has left with her boyfriend. Two of the men, Jay and Jaron, appear with shovels. Michael punches Gwen again, and this time, she slumps to the floor and goes silent. In the garage, Michael or José, perhaps both, perhaps the other two as well, one of them or all of them, they tie a rope around Gwen’s neck. One of them pulls on the rope, then they throw her into the back of their truck. They’ve wrapped her in a comforter.

They bury Gwen in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The grave is shallow.

*

Gwen’s words: No, please don’t, I have a family. In the most terrifying of moments, she reached for that epic placed in the hands of so many Chicanas and Colombianas and Dominicanas, and Greeks and Romans and Africans: I have family, I have a tribe, I belong.

Gwen had a family who loved her, who expected her home. Her mother would later say she knew something was wrong that night because “She always called, always.” Gwen had family, who if she was hurt, would hurt as well. People who cared about the story of her life. She thought Michael and José would understand this, but they had just lost their own story.

Before they murdered her, José buried his dark face in his hands and cried, “I’m not gay.” The other woman in the house, Nicole, rushed to his side. “You still look like the football player I knew you as,” she told him.

*

The lawyers arrived later, much like the writers: to construct another story.

The abogados insisted that it was, if not justifiable, at least understandable that a group of young hetero men would murder when they discovered themselves with a fractured narrative. Transpanic, they called it, insisting that any reasonable person would have done as Michael and José did, any reasonable person would have killed the girl, the brown girl, the poor girl. It would have been normal.

*

At the San Francisco Opera House, Alejandro fidgets in his seat, twisting to his right and left, as if he were at a baseball game.

“Aren’t these seats great?”

They are. We have a clear view of the stage. He’s in a tux.

I’m in a silky black dress. It’s the first time either of us has seen an opera.

Later, back home, Alejandro will trust me with the needle. I will sit on the edge of the sofa and replay the instructional YouTube video three times. “I want to be sure I’m doing this right,” I say, holding the needle up in the air like a pistol. I will tell him again that I don’t think he needs testosterone. He already has a beard and a deep voice. He can pass. The women in my family suspect nothing, and neither does anyone else.

“Enough,” he says. “Do it already.” And I tip the needle toward his body.

Excerpted from "A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir" by Daisy Hernández, (Beacon Press, 2014). Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.


Daisy Hernández

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