Autostraddle Stories // The In-Between Spaces of Being Queer and Biracial

Memphis Tennessee Skyline

Being a lesbian in the South sometimes feels like being invisible.

Or at least, it’s not the first thing people notice about me, if they notice at all.

I get the question, “Where are you from?” a lot, and by now, I know the shorthand. If I feel like being a smart-ass, which is always, I’ll answer, “Memphis,” but then I usually get a sigh and a follow-up, “No, where are you from?” with a knowing glance. If I feel like diving into actual asshole territory I’ll say, “Oh, you mean why am I brown? My dad’s from Iran.”

But maybe that’s just my passing privilege. My alternative lifestyle haircut isn’t overtly masculine, and my clothes fall on the feminine side of androgynous. My girlfriend and I don’t hold hands in public because she came of age when Matthew Shepherd was ended by beasts. I didn’t, so I get frustrated with her sometimes.

We were drawn to each other’s otherness. She calls herself a halfbreed; I call myself a halfie. She’s half-white and half-Filipino. I’m half-white and half-Iranian. Persian. Whatever. I’m ambiguous about it.

It’s a little odd that I first began to fall in love with my Southern identity somewhere else. There was a semester in Vermont, the coldest thing I’d ever known. I made mistakes that could have cost me extremities, like clearing two feet of snow off my car with bare hands in -30 degree weather. It took a long time to regain sensation in my fingers.

There was a lot of time spent alone in the cafeteria guzzling sweet tea and inhaling grits, the first time I’d really tried either. I immediately loved them. I missed sticky, humid summers so much I started daydreaming about sweat, about the kind of heat that crawls into your chest and presses down on you like a soggy blanket. Memphis summers always hit triple digits. When I got pneumonia I just soldiered through, determined to suffer through the shit that Vermont brought. Maybe everyone coughed up blood every winter here.

In my defense, I didn’t know it was pneumonia.

It’s hard to know how I feel about my queer identity when there are so many other ones to parse through.

I make it sound like I hated Vermont — I didn’t. It was so beautiful my teeth hurt, every day. I woke up in my standard issue, twin, extra-long dorm bed and looked out the window at a mountaintop and evergreen trees, bone white snow spread in every direction. I was something different for those months, my jagged edges smoothed by the brightness of light that only exists reflected off of snow.

It’s hard to know how I feel about my queer identity when there are so many other ones to parse through. I’m not Persian enough to hang with the Persians, even the halfies like me. My dad never taught me Farsi. I’m not white or Southern enough to avoid getting asked where I’m from periodically, or for folks to refrain from commenting on how “exotic” I look. I’m still figuring out what it means to be a lesbian, though mostly it’s like being Atlas all your life and then having that colossus tumble off your shoulders. What does being the queer, atheist, Southerner daughter of an Iranian Muslim immigrant and a Catholic mid-westerner look like, anyway?

Turns out, it looks a lot like being a Southerner in Vermont and an outsider in Tennessee, being something to someone but never quite right — just a little off. Coming into my queerness late in life wasn’t hard, or even weird, but the most natural thing in the world. I’ve occupied liminal spaces all my life: finally the in-betweens started to make sense. 

Susanne Salehi is a queer feminist grant writer who lives in Memphis, Tennessee. She also writes for Women Write About Comics and is pursuing her MFA at the Sewanee School of Letters. You can find her posting too many pictures of her cats on Instagram and Facebook.