The Feminist of Oz

by Portly Dyke

Portly Dyke lives in Washington State, although part of her heart will always be in Kansas.  You can find her regularly writing at her home blog, Mad Woman at Play.


I am one of those who, when told “Well, if you don’t like it, why don’t you just move?” – did.

I was born in Kansas in 1956. I was raised in tiny-to-small towns there, came out to myself as a lesbian in 1968, had my first sexual relationship with a woman in 1975, and didn’t move away from my home state until 1979, a little more than a year after I finished college.

When I arrived in Portland, Oregon at age 23, the most common thing I would hear from people when I told them where I’d grown up was: “Kansas – really? Like Dorothy?”

I didn’t come out to my parents (still living in Kansas) for another three years. Actually, I didn’t even come out to my parents – I came out to my Mom, because my Dad decided on a nap precisely at the moment I’d been steeling myself for all week (I’d managed to put it off until the last day of their visit with me in PDX). She told him later – probably on the flight home.

My parents are unusual Kansans – lifelong Democrats in a sea of Republicans — two school teachers who were fairly vocal about issues of social justice when I was growing up (in a, polite, Midwestern way, of course) – and their initial reception of my news was a steady acceptance, although they weren’t exactly thrilled.

I provide all this backstory for context – because in this post, context is everything.

When I was growing up, I was always considered a bit of a radical.

I was a “tomboy.”

I was emotionally-expressive, despite having been brought up in a family of stoic Germans and Swedes whose idea of “having a big fight” was not speaking a single word to one another during the two-hour drive home from Grandma and Grandpa’s.

I was honest, impassioned, and outspoken.

If anyone had given me a succinct definition of the word “feminism,” I would surely have identified as feminist long before I read my first copy of Ms. Magazine.

IOW, by Midwestern standards of my era, I was completely inappropriate – way the fuck out on the fringe — even before you started sifting in my sexual orientation.

When I arrived on the West Coast, my first “big-city” stop was San Francisco. I was travelling with Kevin, the man who had been my Queer Big Brother since I was 16 (oh, if only Queer Big Brothers/Sisters had actually existed!). He had “escaped” the Midwest some years earlier, and flew back to Kansas in the summer of ‘79 to make the drive West with me.

Our host in the “City of Freedom” was Michael – another old college friend and escapee.

For the next week, Michael and Kevin danced me down the yellow brick road that was the Castro District at the shank end of its heyday.

They took great delight in watching me gawk at the sheer plentitude of people like me – no, not even people like me – people who made my “radicalism” look utterly mainstream – perhaps even slightly conservative. Getting my first glimpse of the ocean (ever) paled in comparison.

When Kevin whisked me off to our final destination, I’m sure I had that Toto- I-don’t-think-we’re-in-Kansas-anymore look on my face.

OK – so you’re probably thinking I’m stepping on the Oz pedal a little too heavily, right?

After all, when you move to a place where no one knows you – where you have no context or history to weigh you down – there is always a certain amount of giddiness involved. Then, too, there was the fresh-faced enthusiasm (and drama) of being 23 years old and truly setting out into the world on my own – that alone can create a flood of the same endorphins involved with falling in love.

As I’ve looked back on that period of my life, I think that I minimized my own experience using just such explanations, but recently, I’ve been brought to new awareness of the fact that the world I live in now really does feel like a separate world than the one I grew up in, and moved away from.

Some of that has to do with the simple passage of time and actual progress that has been made in the areas of equal rights, social justice, and cultural attitudes over the past 30+ years – but some of it has to do with cultural differences that still exist in various geographical areas.

Two stories brought this home to me recently:

Two Days Ago: I’m on the phone with my 86-year-old Father (who still lives in KS) and we’re talking about the upcoming election. I say that I think a lot of progressives have just gotten tired of arguing about things and that they will simply, quietly vote in November – so I don’t have any worries about Romney winning. My Dad says, quietly, almost wistfully: “Well, you live in a different world.”

A Couple of Years Ago: My uncle and his partner came to visit, and we were sitting in a local Bistro, talking about politics and personal freedom. The partner said: “Well, yes, but this (indicating where I live) isn’t the real world. It’s very different when you’re surrounded by Packer’s fans.”

I’ll admit – that one threw me for loop. For me, this is the “real world” – it’s my world. But that conversation has given me much food for thought over the past years – about politics, and mechanisms of social change, and the basic nature of what “reality” is.

Yada-yada-yada – let me get to the point.

In retrospect, I think that, when I arrived on the West Coast, I wasn’t actually a feminist. At least not as I define what it means to “be a feminist” now.

Yes, I wanted to be able to do as I pleased, and not be bound by social strictures dictated by gender roles and cultural judgments about my sexuality – but I see now that I wanted all that to “just go away.”

My departure from the Midwest was a “going away from” – not a “going toward” – and I see how the relative freedom of moving to a region that was more liberal was just that: relative.

In the beginning, things that my new West Coast friends found appalling didn’t seem to have the same effect on me. I realize now that they were sensitive to subtle levels of misogyny, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, able-ism, etc. that I barely perceived — in fact, I remember thinking of them as “thin-skinned” at the time.

And that’s an important metaphor – that “thin skin.” You see, I arrived in Oregon with a very thick skin.

In truth, I’m not sure I would have survived my years in 1960-70’s Kansas as a young queer woman if I hadn’t developed that covering.

Where/when I grew up, confronting the taunts or abuses of misogynists or homophobes could get you hurt – or worse. You learned to let certain things roll off your back, while simultaneously absorbing the lessons of what to do/not do to avoid becoming a target in the future.

Of course, in the beginning, before you learned these things, you would experience pain – until you developed spiritual calluses that allowed you to ignore (or pretend to ignore) such things.

Calluses can be problematic, though.

Yes, they develop naturally – usually to protect areas of your body that are subjected again and again and again to unusual wear and tear – but they also reduce sensitivity. Sometimes they get so big and thick that they actually cut off the flow of blood to important areas of your person – like your brain, or your emotions – or your very being.

Thankfully, if you leave off with the wear and tear, then soak the callus (Pacific NW=RAIN FTW!), and gently grind the old, dead, skin away, eventually you get back to the place where your skin meets the world directly once again.

The downside of this is that you can now feel.

The upside of this is that, if you’re living in an area where there is generally a much higher degree of sensitivity toward certain social issues (in the PNW, queer and women’s rights, yes – equality for people of color, not so much ☹ ), it’s likely that your daily life will not buffet you so constantly that you need to re-develop those calluses.

And, again — the downside of this is that you can feel – so the little pokes and prods that you used to “not notice” can become almost as painful as they were at age eleven.

(I’m all over the place with this post, and I’m very aware of that – but guess what? Intersectionality, babeez!)

My new friends seemed to vacillate between considering me slightly “exotic” (“Hey, this is Carol/Portly – she’s from Kansas!”) and regarding me as slightly backward (“Well, after all, she is from Kansas, you know.”)

Like Dorothy, I discovered that the cost of running away from something can be very high.

I still have contact with my family, but when I visit, it’s very clear that I am Weird Aunt Portly, who ran away from home in the late 70’s and has strange ideas that must stem from life on the Left Coast. Always a bit of an outsider, my relocation provided my family with a convenient box to file me in.

In a way, this makes it much easier to discount me if I attempt to confront misogynist or homophobic things I observe or experience during said visit – after all, I’m from that “Different World” – I have forfeited authority to speak about life in their “real” world.

This is the dreadful Catch 22 that is never fleshed out when someone offers the “simple” advice of “just move, then” – what they are really suggesting is: “Stay here and put up with it or leave here and lose all authority to change it.”

And I don’t contest that – when I’m speaking with a friend or loved one who lives in a more conservative area, I’m always aware that actions that might be safe and simple “out here” might be neither “back there.”

 

Let me return to something I wrote before: Even though my more conservative friends “back home” would have probably thought of me as a feminist, I don’t think that I was really a feminist in 1979.

If I’m honest with myself, I think that, at that point, I actually simply hated being a woman – and held a certain amount of unexamined contempt for other women just because they were women, as well (which is kind of a big deal for a supposedly woman-loving woman).

That is the “going away from” that I spoke about earlier – unfortunately, my attempted escape not only swept the Wicked Witch of Internalized Misogyny along with me, but failed to crush her upon landing.

It took decades for me to develop what I consider to be a real feminist perspective – this involved simultaneously learning to delight in my womanhood and discovering that living in a female body didn’t absolutely define who I was.

I had mentors and helpers all along that crooked road, but never found the wizard who could disappear all my problems – the best help I got came from scarecrows talking theory, tin-women finding their hearts, and one particular lioness in search of the perfect roar.

As my calluses sloughed off, I found that the new world that I’d considered so liberated had its own brands of bigotry hidden beneath a sort of progressive snobbery – that people around me could use the But I-Live-In-Oregon- I’m-A-Liberal Stamp to gloss over all kinds of subtle and overt prejudice and unexamined privilege.

I saw, too, that my friends’ view of my “exoticism” as “the friend from Kansas” was often nestled in a comfortable (for them) layer of superiority. Some new acquaintances would tut sympathetically when they learned where I’d grown up – others would kind of congratulate me on being “so advanced” for someone hailing from the Midwest. And I’ll admit it – in the beginning, I played on that, and enjoyed it, congratulating myself for “having the brains to get out” – I joked about having been “born in the Midwest due to a metaphysical inner-ear infection.”

Now, though, I find that I seem to gravitate to other exported or remaining Midwesterners – my partner and the majority of my dearest friends are either from the Midwest, or still living there – and among them are some of the fiercest feminist and queer-rights activists I’ve ever known.

Last Summer, I went back to visit a dear friend in the Chicagoland area, and then down to Kansas to visit my folks. In the past, preparing for such visits would bring up a bevy of quandaries for me. In summer, whether to shave my legs so as to decrease staring in the grocery store. At Christmas, how short I should cut my hair, since I might be going to church with mom and dad.

This time, I just went as I was. Part of this had to do with my first stop on the trip; to visit my amazing feminist friend. It wasn’t conscious, but somewhere inside me, I think I figured “If she can live there full time and keep being who she is, I can visit and do the same.”

And I did. I went with my hairy legs and my butchy do, and had a wonderful time. Amazingly, the most notable feminist moment I had was initiated by my father. We were at the lumberyard (I was repairing their deck) and my dad noted how the man behind the counter was directing all his answers to dad, even though I was the one ordering the stuff – until, that is, I used the term “board feet,” at which he began talking directly to me. I had completely missed it, but my dad noticed, and mentioned it to me after we left.

“I think it was because you’re a woman,” he said.

I recall that I responded: “Yeah, well, when I worked in the trades, I got pretty used to that.”

(See? Just different calluses.)

Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain.

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6 Responses to “The Feminist of Oz”

  1. Quinalla

    I haven’t moved completely out of the MIdwest, but I went from a very conservative area to a liberal-leaning area and this really speaks to me. The callouses, OMG perfect metaphor, I feel so raw now because I too have slowly gotten rid of a lot of mine, even though like you I still have some of them because of my profession. And the moving away allowing other people to put you in that “oh-they-live-in-weird-liberal-town” box, yup been there too. Thanks so much for your piece!

  2. Tawny

    Oh my god I identify with this so hard. I had that same thick skin for all of that, and I still kind of do to a certain degree. It’s coming off but I still find myself thinking “They’re old white men; what do you expect?” about national outrage issues.

  3. Melissa McEwan

    This is such a beautiful post, Portly. Thank you so, so much for writing it.

  4. itchbay

    Yes, this. So much this. I grew up in Louisiana in the 70s. Now I live on the Left Coast, and forget that what it’s like for people still there is VERY different from how it is here.

    Thank you for this post.

  5. Kathy

    Thank you for writing this. I live in a blue dot in an otherwise red state, and I’m further ensconced in my liberal bubble of friends and family. I still feel the pressure to move though it’s just not feasible now.

  6. TheDeviantE

    Portly, I wanted to thank you for this.
    I was raised in New England, and just moved out to the PNW (last year). My partner and are adamant that we won’t ever move to a place that doesn’t at least recognize our marriage. And… I feel a lot of contradictory emotions around these things. I want to be “strong,” and if I was “strong” I’d live where callouses are needed because dammit, I grew up in NE where spiritual masochism, (along with the “understanding” that something isn’t good unless it involves sacrifice and suffering) continues to thrive, and perhaps even more than most I picked that up as a child. But my partner and I most probably couldn’t manage it. I don’t *WANT* to have to spend all my time on guard and anxious. I DO want to live in a goddamn bubble where I’m not constantly bombarded with what bullshit Fox is peddling this week. I LIKE feeling like if someone is casually bigoted I can with relative ease replace them in my friend circle.

    Basically part of me thinks I’m “weak.” But I’m also pretty fuckin’ annoyed that people ANYWHERE would need to subject themselves to swallowed outrage, or the slow erosion of their sensibilities; the callouses. You shouldn’t have had to leave home, and I shouldn’t have to feel guilty that I’m not willing to be a “once more into the breach” radical vanguard.

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