I’ve been holding onto this encounter for some time, unsure of the story I wanted it to tell.
Do I use it to highlight the limitations of our current system of mental health care, with its reliance on psychiatry and medication, and tell the story of how a man in suit-and-tie sat behind a large and stately desk and — after interrogating me for just over half an hour — passed inaccurate judgment in the form of a new-to-me DSM category and lifelong course of pharmaceutical intervention? Do I tell you how he dismissed every past diagnosis I’ve received from every past psychiatrist I’ve met (already a tangled web of contradictions) with a self-satisfied grin and a wafting of his fingers through the air, as if to say: “Pfft! Amateurs, the lot of them!”
I could make a good story telling it this way, full of juicy details like how he responded to my apprehensive “That sounds like a death sentence?” with a xeroxed copy of a newspaper article about the mood-enhancing benefits of exercise and instructions to follow-up with his office “if you think you need to.” (He didn’t quite say, “Take two jogs, and call me in the morning.” But he came close.)
Or do I frame this event as a fable about the challenges sexual minorities can face when their very existence is illegible to health care providers of any kind? How subtle changes in the way one poses questions about medical history or behaviors can either create welcoming space for patients/clients — or put them on the defensive, deciding just how important it is to assert an identity that may or may not have immediately-apparent relevance to the health condition under discussion? Each time it happens, patients must decide what is at stake if they stay silent — and if they even have the spoons that day to out themselves, yet again, to a person they may never see a second time. Because this issue seemed to be where the whole interaction with Dr. Asshat-Behind-the-Big-Desk completely left the rails.
At the very end of what had been a completely frustrating interaction — one that I experienced as both invalidating and invaliding — he turned back to his stack of forms to get a few final blanks filled. I’m assuming the blank in question had to do with relationship status/history and not sexual orientation, as he seemed pretty confident in his assumptions about the latter when he asked, “Have you dated any men since your divorce?”
“No.” I paused a moment. “No — nor any women either.”
I expected he would check himself, realize his mistake, and perhaps mutter some chagrined apology. In fact, I was aiming to cause chagrin — a little payback for this full-of-himself man who had first made me cry and then made me scared — and an acknowledgment of the heteronormative presumption he had made.
Yknow what I did not expect? His total spit-take. His shocked expression as he stared at me, then back at his forms, then back at me.
“But! But! But! You were MARRIED?! You like GIRLS, too??”
[Recounting this story now, over a year after it happened, I still pause at this point to rub my aching temples. Gaia and Zeus, give me strength. Cuz I think I’m ’bout to strangle the Asshat.]
Gentle reader, I didn’t strangle him.
I did, however, put on my sternest Professor Alice face. I draped myself in all the years of studying queer theory and analyzing sexual identities and performing literary close readings. I channeled some hard-core rage his direction.
And then I went on Facebook to talk about it.
He never did apologize. Or even seem to recognize the profundity of his own error. The conversation continued largely as a tussle over his bafflement at what to write on his form. He held his pen poised above the paper, looking at me with near-anguish in his confusion. [Let me pause here to say: if he’d given me the damn form to fill out myself at the beginning, I’d probably have just written down bi and been done with it. That’s a whole ‘nother story I see here to tell: the politics of how we name our own sexualities, and why.]
“I generally refer to myself as not-straight,” I finally offered. The pen remained clutched in mid-air. (Actually, I generally refer to myself as ‘monogamous’ — but I could picture that discussion ending with his brain dribbling out his ears.)
“You could just write down ‘queer.’ That’s another word I sometimes use.”
The anguished look continued unabated. “But — I thought — isn’t that just another word for ‘gay’? ‘We’re here, we’re queer’…?” His voice faded off.
I thought about going off again with a lecture about the politics of ACT UP and the confrontational transgressions represented by their chant. (“Do ya really think they picked ‘queer’ just cuz it’s easier to rhyme than ‘homosexual’?”)
I thought about how badly I wanted to get out of this man’s office.
I said, “Just put down ‘queer.'”
As I said, I have been holding onto this telling for a long time. For me, it is all of these stories, or some of these stories, or sometimes none — but other stories instead. So it is with tangled experiences. We each carry our own, and over the years the meanings we give to each retelling shift and adjust. Today I am telling this story because another blogger pointed out that last week was Bisexuality Awareness Week — or maybe because September 23 was Celebrate Bisexuality Day — and I felt inspired to talk about my own push-and-pull relationship with that term over the years. Yet that is not the story I today have written.
Perhaps I’ll tell the story of my wrestle with the terminology someday in the future. Perhaps I’ll reference this experience to do so. Perhaps not. There is always another story to tell.
In the meantime — Dr. Asshat — this chant’s for you:
Sometimes we’re queer.
Get prepared for that.
I believe I mentioned my Facebook friends are awesome?