Oral History and Feminist Knowledge Production

Feminism as a Queer Woman: The Story of Community and Resistance

On November 6, 2019 our Skype conversation began tentatively and nervously for both of us, having not spoken since the end of high school. The initial lag of the internet seemed to mirror our nervousness, but when I finally started recording both seemed to fade away. As our conversation moved towards two old classmates catching up about our college experiences, we were able to share a laugh about how we both still keep up with our favorite teacher from high school, and traded back and forth admiration for her. Kailey’s more conversational, upbeat, and fast-paced tone seemed to carry through the entirety of our interview even as we touched on topics of her sexual discrimination, and reached a fever pitch when she had the opportunity to talk about her unconditional love for rugby (“I don’t know what I don’t like about it. I love everything!”) 

This utter confidence with which she talked about her experience was actually one of the reasons I wanted to interview Kailey in the first place. Having both gone to the same high school in conservative upstate New York, we both, from extremely different perspectives, noticed and experienced the lack of diversity within our school. During this time, Kailey came out as queer, and was one of the only openly gay students in the almost 1200 person student body. Again, from opposing perspectives, we both witnessed our peers and teachers talk explicity and openly about Kailey’s sexuality. However, in the face of being “othered” by this hetero-normative institution and feeling pressure to represent the whole LQBTQ community due to being “the main gay one,” she completely and unapologetically embraced her sexuality, her activism, and herself. 

I began the interview by asking broader questions in hopes of letting Kailey take control of the interview and shift the interview to the narratives that she wished to highlight. I was concerned about projecting certain themes of what I, coming into the interview, felt would be important, as I already assumed that Kailey’s sexuality was going to be a large part of her feminist identity. The central experiences of her life and early formative years were indeed shaped by her sexuality, especially through her intersecting and opposing identities of being queer and being religious. Her forced coming out by her church group and subsequent internal battle of her not wanting to be gay explicitly changed not only how she viewed herself, but further shaped the communities and ways of helping others that she later would come to embrace. While Kailey’s sexuality and process of coming out as queer was extremely important to her, and held a disproportionate weight in the interview, I found that her everyday resistance and definition of herself as a “helper,” while not as thoroughly referenced, seemed to also contribute to her feminist consciousness formation. 

Our conversation began with Kailey recounting her childhood. She first detailed how she came from a military family, which caused her to have to move around to 8 different places, never truly feeling at home anywhere. However, she did find that the constant change in scenery strengthened and reinforced her family’s bond, as family was “the one consistent thing” in her life. She later detailed how this sense of community and acceptance of her identity from her parents helped her when her sense of self was uprooted because of her devotion to church. She pivoted to talking about religion and, with amusement, recalled the ways in which her early years were so shaped by Christianity that her dream was to be a missionary. She says:

I came from a very religious background. My parents are very conservative Christians, um, so I grew up wanting to be a missionary and I grew up like loving church. Like I would bring my bible I would like...I was obsessed, I was obsessed.

Her early ideologies seemed to be shaped through this lens of religion, which detailed to her who she could be, and who it was acceptable to become. For religious organizations especially, “normative understandings of sexuality (and gender) are central, organizing principles” designed to “preserve [their] hegemonic ordering” (Browne and Nash 5). This was no different for Kailey’s church, which, in order to preserve the normative ways of understanding, and to preserve ways of self-identity through contrasts to the “other,” they deemed “heterosexuality as the good, normal, and natural form of sexual expression,” and framed it in direct juxtaposition with homosexuality (Ingraham 2). This seriously influenced her construction of self, as she learned to understand her identity and the world in terms of these contrasts. And was also the reason that, when she started liking her best friend, she tried to suppress her attraction and “didn’t want to be gay at all.” This confusion and self-rejection is seen as she is forced to tell her story to her church group. She says:    

One of these girls talked about how she was bisexual and she forced herself to not be bisexual and then I started talking to her and I was like ‘how can I force myself to not be gay’? Like I don’t want to be gay at all and I tried praying away my gayness for a really long time, um, it was prolly like a month of two of trying to do that and it was really bad. It affected my mental health a lot and it was not good at all and I just, I had to get to a point where I was like okay, like, I’m gay. Like there’s nothing I can do. I tried I really tried it's just not happening, it’s not going away.

Her two month, daily attempts to “pray away [her] gayness” reveal a deep internalization of the dichotomy of homosexuality as bad and heterosexuality as good and normal. This further displays how inextricably linked her religious experience was to her initial identity formation, and the intertwinedness of her construction of self and her religious identity. When she came out as queer, she had to reconcile her two intersecting, yet clashing identities of her religiousness and her sexuality, and underwent a constant battle to reject the way in which she had previously understood herself.

Kailey often referenced back to her process of coming out as queer and it seemed to me the major turning point in the way she viewed the world and saw herself as a feminist. 

"My coming out process, like it very much determined like I am gay. It kind of also made me want to go into activism too because I just felt like I was going through so much struggle, and I wanted to help other kids when they end up going through that same exact struggle because it was just so hard for me that I don’t want it to be that hard for everyone else. I know that it’s probably even harder for trans kids or like other people like that, my experience isn’t even really that bad, like I wasn’t kicked out of my house. Nothing really that bad happened to me it was just hard having to deal with that. It was hard having to deal with the fact that I was gay."

Kailey’s details how her constant battle with her intersecting identities and resistance to her previous religious ideologies explicitly contribute to a new construction of a feminist consciousness with her identity and experiences as a queer woman at the forefront, contributing to her passion for activism. She states that through reading about being queer and feminist identity, becoming more politically active, and deciding to major in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, she was able to further embrace and learn about feminism in order to develop new and shifted ideas of what it meant for her to be a feminist. 

Our conversation then shifted to talking about her high school experience. She described how our high school had both a “complete lack of diversity” and a “complete lack of talk of diversity,” which accentuated her identity to the point that she felt like many people knew her solely because she was gay. She gave an example of how when she started dating her first girlfriend it was the “talk of all the teachers,” when at the same time, there were many heterosexual relationships that were never talked about in the same way. Despite this, Kailey positively talked about Queensbury, citing the proximity to nature and her close knit group of friends as reasons she enjoyed it. She also talked about the ways in which she further developed her activism throughout high school, as for her International Baccalaureate project she organized a cabaret centered around the theme of acceptance of identity, where she ended up raising close to $3000 for the LQBTQ non-profit GLSTN. However, even this act of inclusivity and self empowerment was met with resistance from the administration of the school.

"I would try to book the auditorium and I would have it booked..like a month beforehand I had it booked. There was this time where Mr. Switzer wouldn’t let me go into the auditorium because he said that he had it reserved for something and I was like.. I booked this months in advance. He was like well you're not even gonna get 100 people to come to it, like it’s not even that big. Nothing is going to happen from it."

This complete lack of awareness or care about LQBTQ issues permeated into a lack of awareness about any diversity issues at all. And despite her friends completely embracing her for her identity, the school system as a whole, with its heteronormative and masculine values, seemed to want to “other” Kailey in a similar, perhaps less overt, way to her church group. 

Fortunately, Kailey talked about how SUNY New Paltz, the college that she attends now as a junior, is very openly accepting of difference and is queer friendly. She recounted how she started off her freshman year living in an LQBTQ house, and through the accepting community of the campus, was able to further get involved in activist opportunities. Specifically, Kailey details her position as treasurer and future president of New Paltz Pride, an organization that has put on events such as Trans Day Remembrance, to honor trans people who have died in the last year and to talk about ways to reduce violence on campus for trans and queer folks, as well as Pride week and drag shows. The true community aspect of New Paltz seemed to allow Kailey to fully embrace her activism, as she is not being held back by an administration that did not value her. Furthermore, Kailey talked a lot about her love for rugby and the way that she felt a true sense of community with her teammates because they did not view her as queer, or specifically for her identity like students in high school did, but was just viewed as a teammate.  

"I'm also like in the rugby group on campus too. I’m a rugby player and we’re all queer on that too, basically there is like 3 straight people but it’s really cool because I feel like its a group of queer women but we are not there to be queer. We are there to play rugby. But its nice to normalize being queer and you can hang out with queer people and it doesn’t have to be queer all the time. Like we don’t have to be talking about our queerness we can just be like lets play some sports you know, so it's fun."

This theme of community stood out to me throughout the interview, as through every stage of her life Kailey not only embraced her different communities but constantly committed herself to helping them. I feel like these two themes of duty to community and the self prescribed notion of herself as a “caretaker” are essential to Kailey’s feminist consciousness formation. Her inclination is to constantly help others and her outlet is the communities which she has been apart of and is apart of today. Through her early desire to be a missionary, her constant support and strength for her family, her cabaret focused on self-empowerment which raised money for LQBTQ students in high schools, and her current activism on campus, she constantly embraces the role of helping her communities. 

While struggling with her identity after being told by her church group that she did not belong and that she had a “broken soul,” her first reaction was to use her own struggle to uplift and fight for other people who have gone through, and will go through similar experiences to her. Her extreme struggle with being marginalized from her religion and her high school allowed her to reject these communities that did not accept her, to find new communities like her queer family, her friends, and her rugby team through which she can channel her unbelievable ability to help others. Her core value as a caretaker and helper is a significant constant in her life, as while many of her other values shifted when she came out as queer, helping others remained. This seems to be essential to her definition of feminism. 

"Feminism is for me personally it’s..its anti-racist, its anti-ableist, its anti-imperialist, like it's all of these things because we have to be fighting for every single person."

The other constant theme I found throughout this interview, while rarely explicitly mentioned, was Kailey’s role in everyday continuous resistance. She talked openly about her rejection and resistance to her homophobic church group, and also detailed the discrimination she faced from our high school principal as he dismissed her cabaret as unimportant and openly tried to take the auditorium away from her. However, it was Kailey’s own dismissal of certain ways that she was marginalized that stood out most to me. When asking Kailey to do this interview, I had a specific memory of her discrimination from the school in the back of my mind, as having partly witnessed it, I never forgot it. During the last presidential election, when tensions were high between students due to the unabashed and loud support for Trump from particular students sporting MAGA hats, Kailey came into school with a Make America Gay Again hat, and was stopped as she entered and told to take it off as it was considered to be a distraction. As she came into our spanish class and told our professor about it, I was truly astounded by the openness with which the administration of our school simply did not value or respect anyone who did not fall within their white, hegemonic, and masculine values. As a straight white male, this high school accepted and embraced my identity which caused me to view this act of discrimination as monumental and never forgot it.

This caused me to question whether I should bring this up in the interview. In feminist oral history specifically, the interviewer “must recognize [their] own influence in the interview process and make a concerted effort to maintain a balance between what [they] think is important and what the women [they] are interviewing think was important about their own lives” (Gluck 6). As Kailey did not bring this specific instance up herself and I prompted her to, I clearly overemphasized its importance. This was further confirmed when I detailed my remembrance of the story, and was met with a reply of “yeah that did happen,” but “it wasn’t that bad.” However, it was not that I misremembered or romanticized a more discriminatory version of the story, it was simply that having faced constant marginalization throughout her life, and constantly resisting, this specific instance was something she put to the back of her mind, demonstrating that for marginalized people resistance rarely takes the form of a big action. It is a daily reality. This reveals to me the persistence and dailyness of feminist struggle, and of Kailey’s resistance in particular. As Kailey has demonstrated, that’s what her feminism is: everyday acts of resistance in pursuit of living out truth as a queer woman in society.

Works Cited

Browne, Kath, and Catherine J. Nash. “Queer Methods and Methodologies.” Queer Methods and Methodologies, 2016, pp. 1–24.

Gluck, Sherna. “What's so Special about Women? Women's Oral History.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 1977, p. 3.

Ingraham, Chrys. Thinking Straight The Power, Promise and Paradox of Heterosexuality. Routledge, 2013.

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