First of all, I am renaming Gay Pride Month. I am now calling it Gay Stamina Month. Everyone goes out twice as much, there are three times as many events. (The LGBT Bar Association had not one but FOUR pride events this month–that’s not even touching on the abundance of nightlife!)
And in the midst of this whirlwind of pride events and Real L Word people behind a velvet rope on exhibit at a nightclub, our community is rocked by the tragic and sudden loss of an incredible artist. Our friend Cheryl B. has passed away.
I knew Cheryl first as a poet and the performer behind Poetry vs. Comedy, but I didn’t really get to know her until she dated my friend Kelli Dunham. She was a remarkable person and their love story is dorky and awkward and tender and glorious. I loved that Cheryl could be both sarcastic and sweet, which is a difficult combination. She was also an incredibly talented writer, evident most recenltly in her fabulous blog chronicling her journey with cancer called WTF Cancer Diaries.
At Nerd Love with Cheryl, Diana Cage, Molly Dykeman and Kelli.
But mostly I knew that Cheryl really loved Kelli and she made Kelli very, very happy, which was the most important thing to me. I remember the first few times I saw her with Kelli I could tell how much she loved her. Sometimes when I go into people’s homes I can sense how much love there is and with Cheryl and Kelli it was palpable wherever they were. On stage being dorky and reenacting their first dates as the bears in the XTraNormal videos at Nerd Love in February, and in the hospital during visits. It was quiet and beautiful and shared glances and dedication to positive thinking and letters to hospital staff posted on their door about being responsible for the energy they brought into their space.
When Cheryl first got sick it was really shocking, and my heart leapt to Kelli and Cheryl. And I cried because it was so unfair, just like right now I am crying because it is so unfair that someone as loving, generous and wonderful as Kelli should have another loss like this.
This marks the third person I have known personally to pass away in the last three months, all under 46 years old. I am so shocked at how much loss my communities have experienced and grateful for how much love there is going around.
I am a person of faith but not religion. I had this beautiful image a couple of months ago after my friend V passed away of all of the beautiful women who are waiting for me beyond the veil or whatever you want to call the passage from this life. V was a Femme mentor to me–I knew her from afar the very first moment I laid eyes on her at Michfest. She was a beacon of Fat Femme adornment and I saw in her hope for myself. At the time I was so lost with my identity, with my body, I felt so isolated in the lesbian community and there V was, self-confident and strutting through a community she clearly belonged in.
Here is V atop the truck in the Femme Parade a couple of years ago. Our friend VA is next to her on the left.
We met personally years later and she eventually, and often, called me her fashion icon. I was flabbergasted–how could someone whose own fashion inspired my emergence from my self-hating shell call me an icon? It was some sort of circle of admiration bending over onto itself and it was beautiful.
V was so full of love and joy for life. She was tender with everyone. Here’s a confession: I was still so intimidated by V that I never once asked her to take a photo with me. I am a person who obsessively photo documents my life. I am always asking people to take photos with me.* But for some reason I kept being intimidated about asking V, I have no idea why. I guess I once put her on a pedestal and it was hard for me to take her off. Also, hence why I have taken over two months to write about her passing because I was waiting to be able to say something “perfect” even though I know better–I know there is no such thing as “perfect” expressions of love or grief.
So the day that V died I vowed never to let my intimidation stop me from taking photos ever again.
I remember the last NOLOSE conference I was hanging out by the pool and everyone else was in a workshop but V was floating in the pool near my ex-lover Luscious. I was talking to V and she asked if I would take her photo with her iphone floating there–she was so happy, she wanted to capture that moment. So I went to her room and got her iphone and took the photo and won’t forget the look on her face and how she soaked up that bit of life like a piece of bread in a bowl of soup. I wish I had that photo, too!
And another moment. V was a really talented quilter. She brought a quilt she made and displayed it at the worker craft fair and sat in front of it. It was yellow and now when I think of her I often think of that image of her in front of that quilt.
Last week marked one year since Luscious passed away. I realized I am not partial to remembering birthdays or anniversaries of death. I think about Luscious every day and actually have been thinking a lot about her lately anyway. And then when people on Facebook** started talking about it, there I was hit with Big Feelings. It’s as though I don’t like the pressure of the one day that is supposed to hurt more than others. Or one day where you have to feel it bigger, like the feelings aren’t already there or something. But then it is that day and it does feel bigger and you don’t know why.
Me and Luscious. Photo courtesy of Tanja Tiziana.
But that’s it. There are feelings and there are losses and shit is just sad. I used to be so afraid of grief and feeling sad. There was this time in my life where I made the decision to not be sad anymore. I spent most of my teenage years in this intense depression, mostly stemming from feeling very very bad about being fat. I read this book where the main character just hated herself and was miserable and I realized that I didn’t want to live that way anymore. That was the beginning of my life-long journey to love myself.
But what I unintentionally added to that was a judgment of myself about being sad. I worked hard to escape from feelings of sadness and grief. I learned how to rebound like a pro when I got dumped. I was so sad about my step-mom dying when I was 19 I couldn’t talk about her for three years without crying so I just didn’t talk about her. And she was and is one of the most important people to me. I learned how to not let myself feel sad. I learned how to cut people out and cut myself off from conflict when it hurt too bad.
I just read about Akhilandeshvari: The Goddess of Never Not Broken and it reminded me that all of the things I’ve gone through in my life are really important parts of my strength now. When I forget about that and when the sad, angering or frustrating things happen I fight against them because of the injustice.
Since last Fall I’ve been working really intently on healing losses from my childhood and my life. I had a devastating heartbreak and I didn’t try to romantically rebound for the first time since I started dating. I am learning how to grieve. How to really feel my feelings. How to trust my instincts. How to love myself through not feeling things “perfectly” and how being sad is really okay sometimes but that also gives me a huge impetus for joy in the little things. Being in the moment and present. Everything is temporary–and that’s the beauty. When you are sad it will pass. The crying jag in the car, it will be over. And it is so necessary.
I am sad at the loss all around. I think it is really unfair and I feel so much sadness for the partners and family and close friends of the people who have passed.
But I am in awe of all the love in these losses. I am so inspired by the love Kelli and Cheryl had for each other. I am so inspired by the love V had for everyone around her and the life she revelled in. I am comforted knowing that I loved Luscious as best and as broken as I possibly could and she loved me as best and as broken as she could during the time we had together.
And this is me, my process, my looking at the glass half-full. Because I’ve got just one wild and precious life and I choose to have a positive one, and see V in my spiritual posse of Femmes on the other side looking out for me and ready for me when my time comes.
And I felt this loss, and the heaviness and busy-ness of last week and all the disco floors and ceilings and too many repetitions of that terrible Katy Perry song and my instincts are telling me to take a break from Gay Stamina Month. I’m going away. Wednesday and Thursday it’s me, my dog Macy, and some alone time at my favorite beach. And I’ll be feeling my feelings, my grief and my joy and my awe and my love for women who inspire me.
And here are three things that have brought me great joy in the last two days.
Finding this photo I took in San Francisco while filming for Kelli Jean Drinkwater’s Fierce Fat Femmes documentary. I was doing a performance art piece in this donut shop. I love this photo.
*I think our queer and fat and otherwise different communities are beautiful and this is the vision of the world I want to capture. Mainstream culture gets the magazines and tv shows and news reports and I think we should get as much exposure as we can–hence my drive to create media that inspires self-love for all people, regardless of their differences.
**Facebook grieving still feels hard for me to participate in, but I still totally read all of the things people post about V, Luscious and now, sadly, Cheryl.
In May 2008 I discovered the queer hipster party circuit in Brooklyn and it revolutionized my New York nightlife experience.
I came of age shaking my ass at gay boy bars with my fag friends, one of the only dyke fag hags in the joint. Let's face it, a Femme loves a Fag.* And once I stopped trying to fit in at lesbian bars, because it never worked, I was generally annoyed at the bad music or lack of people dancing.
During its four year stint, Panty Ho's was an institution in queer nightlife. Located in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, a hive for hipsters, it definitely had the crowd of big plastic 80s eye glasses and ironic/unironic neon fashion. I walked in and was so excited to see a bunch of hot queers I didn't know, hear incredible dance music, and drink cheap booze. And while I felt excited about the social possibilities, I was also a little freaked out at the lack of body size diversity. It was clear to me that I was the fattest girl there by a long shot and one of only a smattering of Femmes.**
I am struggling today because someone I "knew" on the internet took their life. Mark Aguhar, who I knew as "CallOutQueen."* How did I "know" them? I cruised their blog. I appreciated their incisive wit. I appreciated their vanity and glitter. I loved their art. The juxtaposition of "Be ugly/Know Beauty" (this is a genius meditation, if you do that sort of thing). The swish of hair back and forth. Looking dressed when wearing nothing at all. Owning a brown, fat, genderqueer, femme, fag body. Absolute Femme realness at all times. Vulnerability. Stark honesty. Cutting honesty.
I wanted to tie up the loose ends about this because I don't like leaving a story hanging and also I want folks who are not using their government name on Facebook to know my story and get prepared.
I thought long and hard about whether or not to engage with Facebook ever again. On principle, I don't like that they require legal names or name authentication like this. But I have several friends who pointed out I've worked hard to get where I am and the body liberation work I do is best served by connecting with folks who I already know.
What I ended up submitting to Facebook on Monday night was a picture of my Driver's License, which has my government name, birthdate and photo like Facebook asked for. I submitted two supporting documents showing my name as Bevin Branlandingham.