by Kathleen Livingston
I was there most weekends—in from the south suburbs called “downriver” by the locals—the baby dyke with the shaggy DIY haircut and the worn-in boots. Safe hang-out space is everything to the young and queer. Busses came, young people piled out of cars, and everyone squeezed down a too-thin hallway at the Youth Empowerment Program, or YEP Night. The weekend drop-in center at the LGBT community center, Affirmations—that’s where I spent my queer youth.
The community center building was a two-story, brown brick converted apartment building in Ferndale, Michigan. The building itself was not ideal—structurally inaccessible to community members with physical disabilities—doorways too narrow, several flights of steep stairs. All the furniture was borrowed, threadbare, and could have used a good wash. On each of the three floors, there were rotted floorboards, underneath age-old carpeting, which was covered in tread and filth, and bordered by thick, crown molding, painted forest green.
Even though the organization didn’t house people overnight, for some of us the Center was a home, a sanctuary away from homophobic, transphobic, and racist bullies, away from the constant battles at home and school. On a Friday or Saturday night, seventy or eighty people’s bodies crowded out underneath the awning on the brick patio at the back door on Troy street, waiting to be let in.
Two basement rooms, B1 and B2, on the 9 Mile side, were reserved for youth on weekends. The dance room was painted deep mauve, and occasionally we would create a mural on one wall, then paint over it and start again. The game room had pool and a foosball table, cupboards full of donated craft supplies, and places to sit and talk.
The feminist bookstore next door was called A Woman’s Prerogative. I’d come in the back door, past the wall of slogan stickers and rainbow gear, stroll nonchalant past the beautiful fat femme behind the counter with the short bangs and the rad chest tattoos who looked like she stepped right out of a Riot Grrrl zine. The bookstore had built-in shelves painted purple along each wall and a semi-private nook with silicone dildos, vibrators shaped like rabbit ears, and lightweight paddles that I had to touch, breathing like a butterfly was caught in my throat. I’d sit on the floor cross-legged and read the stories I couldn’t afford to buy, cover-to-cover.
The front door had chimes and baubles that jingled when customers came in. The message board was tacked with posters of loud-mouthed women with finely muscled shoulders and guitars. There weren’t classifieds like at Just 4 Us, the men’s bookstore down the street— “seeking straight-acting gay males. No fats, no fems” —but if there had been, mine would have read: “seeking a big, fat woman with strong hands and an open mind.”
Just out to myself, I was trying to take everything in. I took to being a dyke like I take to everything else—obsessively, fully, with that kind of stubborn, fearless vulnerability available only in youth. I opened myself, emptied myself out for women who didn’t deserve to know me like that. I chased women who didn’t want me back. I thought it was love every damn time.
That bookstore is gone now, like so many of our gathering spaces, but their sign was still there the last time I checked, across the alleyway with a mural of a neighborly street scene, next door to the community center where so many LGBTQ youth in the Detroit area grew up. Every once in awhile, the feeling of refuge will return to my body and remind me of what it feels like to be there, in community space. I like to think of this feeling of refuge, or shelter, as a resource, accessible even though the YEP Night I knew no longer is.
Let’s just say my family of origin didn’t throw me a coming out party. My brother’s basement hardcore band rattled the windows and the floor the night I told my parents. They played right through the whole ordeal, occasionally punctuating our altercation upstairs with theatrical screams. For a long time, I couldn’t make a story out of the incident.
Is this love, this rage and ruin? I scrawled in my journal, then cut out the words to put in a zine. That’s how the experience of losing my family and home felt for a long time, zine-like, made out of gaps, certain parts scratched out with sharpie, floating images only.
A hand reaches up to touch my head, beaten to a raised knot.
Their mouths form the words, “Everything you have is ours.”
There is nothing left of home to take with me, I thought, with my teenage brain, so I left and was gone for the next ten years. That’s just counting the years of being physically gone.
Justice and I met at YEP Night and became friends because we were both on the run. Justice wore baggy army pants, neon candy kid bracelets, and a studded belt. I wore my hair shorn and my boy jeans baggy, though my walk betrayed my femme-ness, and a tight t-shirt with an iron-on DYKE patch on the front, just in case my signal wasn’t clear.
We would meet at the drop-in center on Friday and Saturday nights in the basement of the old building, sit near each other in the folding chairs on the perimeter of the dance room, avoiding eye contact and tuning out the noise until one of us got up the nerve. We shared radical politics, a mutual adoration of 90s folk-punk music, and an explosive reaction to being touched without being asked first. We shared poetry, September birthdays, and sometimes dinner.
I’d been in limbo ever since my family didn’t take the whole lesbian thing so well. I was uprooted. Justice would disappear for months at a time, hitching rides around the country, chasing warmer weather. We had the kind of relationship common in drop-in center culture—unlikely, but it worked because of the shared community space. We did not talk about our pasts, or our physical scars. We did not cry, hold hands, or touch. We told stories. We talked in the clipped sentences of drop-in center relationships and tried not to reveal too much because revealing too much was making yourself vulnerable, and who knows who you can really trust.
Around this time is when I started to wear boots. They were 8-holes with inch-thick soles, those round laces that grip tightly when you tie them and stay put. I feel a certain way when laced up. Not safe, exactly. I feel secure when laced up, when double knotted. I feel supported.
Lacing a boot is a process, a ritual I used to keep at bay the rising terror of being queer and femme in this mean world. This is how I lace a boot—slip the left one on first. Wriggle your toes. Grasp the laces at the second hole and pull them snug. Not tight, snug. Wiggle your foot. Tap your heel on the ground. Hook your forefinger underneath each lace. X marks the spot. Pull gently with a ‘come here’ motion. I do it by feel—lace my boots, find the erotic in the everyday.
Wearing boots is one of the pleasures of queer femme life, one of the ways I read as femme. The act still puts me in that euphoric head-space, makes my body feel present and grounded. I liked the way boots made me walk—half shuffle, half stomp. That, and you never know when you might need to run.
“You could get a lot for those boots,” a significantly more street smart acquaintance challenged once when cash was tight. A suggestion ripe with meaning: you soft thing, what do you know about struggling?
One night when Justice came back from traveling, we drove down Woodward to Detroit’s Westside in a borrowed car. Neither of us had slept in a long time, though not for lack of trying. If we did, we slept only the thin, nauseating sleep of people who are traumatized, tossing and turning, sleepless mind-racing, waking drenched in a cold sweat, sick on sensations or memories.
I drove and Justice rested their forehead on the cool car window, blew smoke rings, looked out at the sky and said, “Do you know what it’s like to be a traveler?”
I watched the streetlights down Woodward pass and disappear. I thought about the word traveler for a long time. A hopeful word, implying a choice, while homeless, runaway, in transition, at-risk, suggest a lack. “Nah,” I sighed gruffly, fully inhabiting the sorrow of someone who has lived in Michigan her whole life, yet can no longer go home. “I don’t know what that feels like.” Choice is when you have a bunch of options, like a buffet, and you spread them out in front of you and say, yes, that one. Choice isn’t desperate or terrified.
When I remember the drop-in center, it is frozen in time. Summer. You can almost see the heat rising from the basement windows of B1 and B2. The repetitive sound of house music pounds from the dance room’s too-small speakers. People from the ball scene are voguing, j-setting, or walking runway, dancing hard, soaked clear through with sweat. The attitude in here is strong tonight.
A group of straight people tries to peer in from street-level to see what the party is about, but someone snaps the curtains shut with a flick of their wrist: “The zoo is down the road!”
A group of Gay-Straight Alliance kids are gossiping about school. People in the game room are playing an endless game of pool or watching a movie on a donated VCR. Youth activists are designing and facilitating programs. The artsy ones are making a collage. There are too many people to breathe comfortably inside. People step outside the back door on the Troy St. side periodically, cooling off under blue-white streetlights.
Whenever I write about the feeling of home, I slip into that familiar freeze. It is so hard to let go of old places. When I pick up my pen, I am back there on Woodward, a major vein connecting Detroit with the northern suburbs. I watch the streetlights pass and disappear. I think: fight or flee, kid, except I am frozen. The community center space and the bookstore, those places whose rhythms were once so familiar, no longer exist.
The former community center building is re-done with a new paint job and wood floors, and B1 and B2 are home to a psychic and a candle shop. The exterior is the same, but the place of refuge inside is gone. The Youth Program is still there, in the new community center building down the street. The new place has new carpet, new cupboards, doors that lock, and a flat screen TV. The drop-in center still meets on Friday and Saturday nights in the basement rooms, but now that we’ve aged out and moved on, few people remember our names.
Leaving home is a hard thing. How do I stay present and not keep myself stuck in that place? When I try, I am back there, on that folding chair with Justice, looking down at boot-clad feet on well-tread, Berber carpet of indeterminate color. I’m here, but there.
I am trying to be here now. I am so far away from the kid I was then. Looking back at her there, sitting cross-legged on that basement folding chair, round-faced and terrified, feels like looking at someone else. When it was time to move on, I laced each eight-holed boot tight, planted my feet square on the ground.
Now I have my own place, a little rented house with a flower garden outside. We call it “the original tiny house.” Slowly, I have learned to let go. I painted the fence purple in the side yard and made an altar there. Every year in autumn, I dig a path back through the wild raspberries that have spread. I leave a memory there, on the mossy ground, and let the air and the moisture curl its edges.
I stopped sleeping with my boots on, always on the ready to run. When tears come, I let them. I know at least one resting place, at least one sanctuary. I believe in at least one thing bigger than myself—spirit, friendship, and the temporary certainty of my feet on the earth and my hands in the dirt. People still disappoint me and I disappoint myself. I try not to dwell on unanswerable questions, or invent a seamless story from what can only be felt. When the world tries to tell us community and chosen family are not real, ignore them. We find them, or we make them out of the scraps that other people throw away.
Kathleen Livingston is a queer femme storyteller, community-based artist, and teacher. Her writing is published in Writing Networks for Social Justice, Third Coast, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Peitho, Harlot, A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (2nd ed), Crazy Wisdom Community Journal, Visible: A Femmethology, and in her contemporary circus blog, (defiantcircusarts.com) and zines (self-care #1-3 and how to come back). She works as an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric & Writing at Michigan State University, where she teaches courses on writing and consent.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 3 · November 2017
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