Advice

Paper Maps: An Essay About Finding Your Way

by Kristin Russo


I moved to New York City when I was nineteen. I’m not sure that there’s ever been a place that sparkled and shone quite as much as NYC did for me that year, teeming with tangles of dirty streets, angry, honking cabs, and an endless array of scuttling rodents. I’d dreamed of this for years. Finally, it was all mine.

When I first arrived, I rented a tiny room in a hostel on the Upper West Side. My room had everything I needed: a twin bed, a desk, a mini-fridge, a heating pipe (which would burst a few weeks after I moved in, soaking all of my belongings and my brand-new forty-pound laptop), a sink, and a closet with three hangers. I shared a bathroom and a kitchen with five strangers who lived in my hallway.

At the time, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in theater at Marymount Manhattan College. Marymount was on East Seventy-First Street, and my hostel was on West Ninety-Fourth Street. I studied the subway map (a paper map! I actually had a paper subway map!) to determine the best route between my new home and my new school. If I took the 2 train south to Times Square, I could transfer to the S train that would shuttle me across to Grand Central Station. Once there, I could transfer to the 4 train, one stop up to Fifty-Ninth Street and then transfer one more time to the 6 train to Sixty-Eighth. Boom. Four trains, no problem. This was city life. Yes!

I took those four trains twice a day. Not to brag, but I also learned how to get down to the NYU dorms at the South Street Seaport, where my then-girlfriend lived. (She was my very first girlfriend, and she was a great girlfriend. She let me smoke her cigarettes, wear her clothes, and borrow her wonderful CD mixes for my Discman-accompanied commutes.) One fateful day, I left her dorm and headed to catch the 4 train (another added bonus of staying at her place was that it only required two trains). I was wearing my favorite pair of overalls, which incidentally belonged to her and had legs that were wide enough to fit around my whole body. As I pushed through the subway trestle, I saw my train pull into the station. It had apparently only taken me three months of city living to begin to have the mind of a New Yorker, because my first instinct was to run as fast as I could to catch that train. And so, I ran.

And then, I fell.

Well… I almost fell. Truthfully, it would have been much better had I just fallen. Instead, my right foot caught in the wide swath of denim that surrounded it, and as I descended, I caught myself on the side of my left foot… and broke it.

Three months into moving to NYC, in the freezing November cold, I broke my goddamn foot.

I didn’t immediately know I’d broken it, but I did know that I was in a massive amount of pain. Not too much pain, however, to continue my now one-legged sprint to catch that train. And I did! I caught the train! No one cheered for me, but now that I understand the spirit of NYC a bit better, I’m certain they were all cheering on the inside. Once on the train and in the wake of this very real, very extreme pain, I lost awareness of what was and wasn’t acceptable train behavior. I dropped my bags in the middle of the train floor, I took off my giant winter coat, dropped it next to my bags, and I stared at my foot. That’s all I did. I just stared at my foot, sweating with pain, brow furrowed, with my belongings all around me on the subway floor. I stared at it all the way to Forty-Second Street, scooped up my things, and hobbled across the platform to transfer to the 6 train, dropped them once more on the subway floor, stared at my foot until we got to Sixty-Eighth Street, and then somehow walked, on my freshly broken foot, to my acting class. It took me almost thirty minutes to walk three street blocks and one avenue. For reference, that’s less than half a mile.

As you might expect, upon my arrival to class, my professor immediately told me to go to the walk-in clinic down the street. After x-rays, I was given a blue canvas boot and a pair of crutches, and I hobbled my way to an indulgent taxi ride back to my hostel.

In case you are unfamiliar with NYC winters, I will let you know that they are cold, they are icy, they are dirty, and they are entirely unforgiving— and all that with two working feet. I want to also remind you that my commute, up until this point, included about eight trains per day, and each of those came with ample walking and many stairs. I couldn’t get up and down stairs much at all, and certainly not when they were covered in icy slush. Suddenly, canvas boot and all, I couldn’t get anywhere.

Until, that is, I revisited my subway map and learned that NYC, in addition to its sprawling subway system, also has buses. Who. Knew. I learned (via my paper map) that just a few steps from my door was a crosstown bus that, on the regular, traveled right through Central Park to the east side. I’d been taking four trains this whole time when I could have taken just one bus? This was the first moment where the NYC I thought I knew laughed directly in my face before playfully tousling my hair. You see, NYC isn’t shy about breaking a person, bones and all, in a gesture of the warmest welcome.

I’ve now been in this city for fifteen years. I know almost every subway line and bus route that exists in nearly every borough. I traverse it with the same ease that I brush my teeth or climb into my bed. That moment, fifteen years ago in lower Manhattan, was the first of many moments (they really never stop) where I was forced to readjust, recalibrate, and further question the city, and world, around me. I had many other pivotal moments in those first few years— some with only a handful of subway passengers as my witness, and others where the whole world watched my city in confusion and wonder.

We all, inevitably, break our metaphoric (or in my case, literal) feet. Am I glad that I broke my foot? Not really. Am I glad that it made me recalibrate, readjust, and continue to question? You’d better believe I am. I needed to learn, just as we all do, that there is always more than one route on that paper map.

Oh, hey! This is a piece I wrote for the essay collection called Freshman Year of Life : Essays That Tell the Truth About Work, Home, and Love After College. I am in some pretty wonderful company, alongside writers such as Ashley Ford, Shannon Keating, and Mara Wilson. You should check it out!

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"I moved to a new city in the Fall and started dating a lady. This is my first romantic/queer relationship! She is much older than me. l I met her entire family for the holidays after 1 month of dating! She wanted me to define "us" shortly after and texts me/wants to see me everyday. I've told her I needed space but she'd bombard me with texts like "You don't care, why are you with me, you're too young, I'm just your entertainment, etc." She also yells a lot. It stresses me out! What should I do?"

Question submitted by Anonymous

Kristin Says:

This is not a healthy relationship and this is not an appropriate or respectful way to treat someone, END OF STORY.

Since this is your first queer/romantic relationship, I need you to know something important: There are oh-so-many humans out there who will NOT yell at you all the time, who will be able to hear you when you express YOUR needs, and who will have the ability to treat you the way you deserve to be treated. This person you are dating is obviously struggling with some deep-seated insecurities surrounding commitment – which is understandable and even surmountable with time and work, but something that she needs to work on without dragging you through it and disrespecting you during the process.

In my opinion, you should do one of two things:

1. Break up with her. I truthfully think that, given what you’ve said here, this person is not going to be able to hear what you need enough to work on themselves while in a relationship. Explain that you are not in the same place, and that it would not be good for either of you to continue further. If she will not let this drop and the situation escalates, leave the conversation. If necessary, block her phone, block her socials. Make it a clean break – this situation desperately calls for that kind of action.

2. Explain yourself and try one more time. If you think that I’ve read this too harshly and you want to try a longer-arc approach, make plans to have dinner in a public place. At dinner, explain to her that you are not ready for the level of commitment she is after, and that you need for things to either slow down considerably, or for things to end. If she yells at you, tells you that you are wrong, or implies in any way that you cannot both need space and also care about her, that is when you end things and refer to suggestion #1. If she listens to you and is willing to work & step back a bit, etc, then you can give it a shot… but BE VIGILANT. Giving you space means she is actually going to give you space, not just say she will give you space and then berate you any time you actually take it.

Listen. Relationships of any kind, regardless of age, age difference, or anything else, require respect and communication. What you are saying here can be pared down to: My girlfriend does not listen to how I feel, does not consider what I need, and does not respect me as a person. That is all I ever need to hear to say: end it. You deserve better.

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Women's March: A Reflection

by Kristin Russo

In eighth grade I discovered the musical Hair and watched it over and over and over again, blasting the soundtrack from my bedroom at full volume (sorry Mom and Dad). I became endlessly fascinated with the protests against the Vietnam War & the many civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s, and wished desperately that I had been born earlier so I could have been a part of those crowds myself, demanding justice, demanding equality, and marching shoulder to shoulder with thousands in demonstrations for peace.

I didn’t know exactly what I was wishing for, of course, since along with that fiery passion of a movement comes its counterpart: horrible racism, war, and unspeakable inequality for so very many. I also didn’t realize, at the time, that my white, middle-class upbringing shielded me from the fact that those very same inequities were still at work in this country, still holding tight all around me, and that there were loud, angry, passionate, and incredible fighters still gathering, still protesting, still demanding that their voices be heard.

In the last two decades, I have come out and grown up as a queer woman. I have worked alongside thousands of people in efforts to bring equality, awareness, and change. In doing so I have also learned more about my own privilege, about pervasive, systemic racism, about the effects of sexism, ableism, transphobia, Islamophobia. I have learned what it feels like to be treated differently and to have rights taken away based on who or how I love. That work, and that ever-evolving awareness, echoed many of the sentiments of that 1960s activism I so admired.

On January 21, 2017, though, I marched in a protest for the very first time. My fear of crowds finally met its match with the horrors I continue to see unfold in my country. I stood in a sea 750,000 people deep in downtown Los Angeles. I screamed and shouted: I am here, I am full of fire and life, I will not stand for the inequalities and injustices that still exist.

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Millions of people stood up yesterday and screamed those same words. Together, we challenged the world to listen. The inequities, the sexism, the racism, the homophobia, the transphobia, all of it is being doused with gasoline by a new administration that does not include the interests or rights of millions of its citizens.

As I stood with my wife, with my sister, my family, I realized: I was there. I was in the pictures I had seen all those years ago. I was right in the middle of that moving sea of protest. My wish, both powerfully and devastatingly, had come true.

To those who still have yet to listen: I am not going to stop shouting. I ask you to please think about the fact that millions of people are all, in unison, telling you that we are facing danger, that we demand better, that we need you to step up. If that isn’t worthy of your deep, concerted consideration and engagement, then I ask you one more thing: what ever will be?

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"I am queer and Muslim, and I am overwhelmed by how to move forward, especially right now, days before our presidential inauguration. I am scared, and I don't know how to help myself, and how to help my communities."

- Question submitted by Anonymous

Aaminah Khan Says:

I, too, am queer and Muslim, which is another way of saying that there aren’t many places where I feel like I belong. The US, and especially the deep South, had already felt hostile to me pre-election. In the state of Louisiana, where I lived for two and a half years, police were still arresting people under our (unconstitutional) anti-sodomy laws as recently as 2014. I’m out online and almost everywhere else – but while I lived in the US, I wasn’t out at work, because I lived in one of 28 US states that still allow employers to fire people for being gay. The local attitude toward Muslims was similarly horrifying; anti-Muslim rhetoric played on FOX News everywhere from hospital waiting rooms to chain restaurants. Pre-election, I had already felt an overwhelming pressure to try to hide the aspects of my identity that might get me fired, ostracised or worse; I didn’t talk about my religion or cultural heritage often, and I kept any relationships I had with people other than men quiet. I thought that by doing this, I could keep myself safe, even if it did make me feel like a coward a lot of time.

Post-election, even that didn’t feel like enough to keep me safe any more.

The reports of hate crimes had already started filtering in on social media as I got to work the morning after the election. Many of my students were from the Middle East, and I wondered how many of them would have to bear the brunt of this newly-validated bigotry in the coming weeks. I had flashbacks to my own experiences after 9/11, when people had screamed obscenities at my family and me from their cars, thrown things at our house and vandalised the local mosque – but this time would be worse, because not only did people feel like they had an excuse to attack anyone who looked sufficiently foreign, they had a President-Elect who would and did back them up when they did. It was difficult to look my students in the eye and tell them everything was going to be all right when I didn’t believe it myself, so I didn’t. Instead, I told them to be safe, and prayed that they would be. I felt powerless to do anything else.

I didn’t voice my other fears to them – that this would mean the end for marriage equality, for LGBT workforce protections, that this would mean that people I knew and loved would be hurt, even killed, by people who now felt like they had a presidential mandate to rid the country of queer and trans people. I kept quiet because I knew that while my students – just like many people of colour around the country – feared for their futures in Trump’s America, a lot of them were also conservatives who didn’t particularly like queer or trans people any more than Trump voters did. It felt like even more cowardice, but as I’ve told many young LGBT people of faith in the past, being out and proud should never come before one’s personal safety and security. Choosing when and where to be out, just like choosing when and where to be openly religious, is part of the series of tough personal decisions we have to make in order to ensure our continued survival.

Navigating the dual identities of religiousness and queerness often feels like walking a tightrope. How much do you tell your family about your sexuality? How much do you tell your friends about your religion? It’s a precarious balancing act, and post-election, the wind is picking up and someone’s started shaking the rope; keeping that balance is getting harder and harder. Do I seek comfort in my faith, knowing that many members of my community couldn’t care less if trans people are denied healthcare or gay people are denied inheritance and marriage rights, or do I organise more actively with my fellow queer and trans people, knowing that they see my religious identity as an offensive eccentricity at best and a harmful liability at worst? Neither community feels like home, because both of them implicitly reject or disapprove of at least one part of me – and what is home, if not a place where all of you belongs?

Internally, I am entirely at peace with being both queer and Muslim, and I am lucky enough to know a small community of similar LGBT people of faith around the world on whom I can rely for comfort and support. But there are too few of us, and we are spread very, very thin – and sometimes, talking to friends on the other side of the world doesn’t feel like enough. I want to be able to share in the grief, mourning and consolation happening in the communities around me – want to be at the mosque, at the gay bar, offering strength and support of my own to people I love, people like me. But I don’t know how to without compromising at least one part of myself, and every time I have to do that – every time I have to hide my relationships with women or pretend I’m not really that religious – it hurts, both because I feel like I’m being forced to lie to people I love, and because I feel like I’m lying to myself. I don’t think there’s any easy solution to that problem.

So here’s what I suggest to young queer and trans people of faith who write to me for advice: be out where you can, find allies where you can, do the work you feel capable of doing – but most of all, don’t be ashamed to put your safety first. These days, I try not to beat myself up too much for needing to compromise, for not talking about girls with my mother’s friends and not praying audibly in public. When I have the energy for it, I try to do work that bridges the gulf between LGBT and faith communities – writing pieces like this one, participating in workshops and dialogues about the intersections between queerness and religion, talking about LGBT issues with my students – but sometimes I don’t have the energy, and I’m slowly learning that that’s okay. No one person can do it all at once. Sometimes I need to retreat and lick my wounds for a while, and sometimes I need to bite my tongue to ensure my personal safety. I won’t pretend it feels good, but it keeps me alive to fight another day.

The good news is that we’re not in this fight alone. Around the world, LGBT people of faith are making strides bringing their communities together, and each time an imam comes out or a priest speaks up for marriage equality, it makes it easier for us to start having those conversations with our loved ones. When I feel particularly alone in this struggle, I think of my friends and loved ones around the world who are doing this work with me – speaking in mosques; starting interfaith and LGBT dialogues; writing radical and inclusive reinterpretations of faith; attending pride marches in their hijabs, unapologetic. They are sources of strength and encouragement both at the times when I feel capable of confronting community prejudices head-on and the times when I know I need to stay silent. They provide a framework for having tough conversations with loved ones as well as a reminder that the conversations are worth having.

I don’t spend every moment of every day working or fighting because that’s not sustainable, but when I do, it’s with the knowledge that I am part of a new kind of community, one that is global and growing, a community with whom I can stand in proud solidarity. In short, by working to navigate the spaces between queerness and faith, I have finally found the place where I belong.

Learn more about Aaminah Khan here on our contributors page, and follow her on Twitter! So much gratitude to Arlan Hamilton, who sponsored this post as a part of our ongoing POC Writers’ Fund initiative.

Also check out our resource list specifically for LGBTQ Muslim youth, curated as a part of Longest Days, Sacred Nights!

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“how can I surely know I am gay? like everyone is saying that they have known it since they were little kids, but can you figure out later that you somehow happen to love women? I told my mother about my feelings because I believed that she would help me with it but she said to me that, she knew me and I cant like women because I didnt obviously like girls when I was a little kid. does it really make sense? I am really confused, I dont think I am faking my feelings but what if she is right?”

- Question submitted by Anonymous

Kristin Says:

Your mom is wrong.

Want to know how I know? I know because I am pretty flippin’ gay (specifically a queer bisexual cisgender lady married to a queer cisgender lady, if you really want to know the particulars), and I didn’t have any awareness whatsoever of being anything except tiny Kristin Russo when I was tiny Kristin Russo.

When I was 4 ½ I met a boy named Peter and he was 4 ½ too, and I thought that was the most lovely thing I had ever heard and so we told our parents we were boyfriend and girlfriend and then wrote each other pen-pal letters for a few years. In middle school I had real, heart-stopping crushes on boys and I also adored my very best friend in the whole wide world who was a girl. When she moved from New York to Ohio it was as though all of our limbs were being ripped from our bodies. You know?! In tenth grade I kissed some girls on “dares,” and was like “Oooooh boy, I sure don’t think I am gay… that was a GRAND EXPERIMENT, though!” Then, when I was a senior in high school I kissed one more girl and I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach and I was like “OH WAIT OH SHOOT OH MY I AM SO GAY FOR THIS GIRL AHHHH.”

You can read some of what happened after that when it came to coming out to my family here, but my larger point is that while I can go back and see some deep connections that I made with other girls (like my BFF in middle school) and perhaps overlay some “Oh maybe I should have known something then” logic… I didn’t know then. I didn’t know at all! I wasn’t sitting up at night thinking, “Oh but if only my BFF would kiss me someday, wouldn’t that be swell?!” I didn’t want to kiss her! I just wanted to be her very best friend forever!!

Some people know from a young age, sure. They feel different, they have crushes that are clear, and they might do things that make their parents or family think, “She is gonna be gay.” (Which SPOILER ALERT is pretty problematic bc you cannot tell a person’s sexuality by watching their behavior alone, duh.) Some people might be able to say, “Well, my name is Tina and I am a lesbian, I have known forever, it is clear as day,” and then slap a big rainbow sticker on their laptop. That is super great for Tina! GO TINA.

However, there are a whole ton of people who, like me (and you!), navigate through our sexuality in a more complicated (and sometimes confusing) manner. You might not ever feel like you know who you will be forever, and that is okay. You might not feel like you know exactly how you feel right now, and that is also okay. What you are saying is that you might find girls attractive, and you don’t have a label for those feelings yet. THAT. IS. OKAY. That is great! That means you know something super rad about yourself, and it means that maybe you will explore those feelings with people as time goes on. That exploration might teach you even more about yourself – what you like, what you don’t – and help you in better understanding your identity.

You aren’t faking your feelings. If you were smushing down those feelings and not talking about them or acknowledging them at all, that would be really tricky, and might make you “fake” certain feelings (like forcing yourself to date a boy so you don’t have to think so much about your crushes on girls, for example). If you are curious or interested or super into the idea of dating a girl someday, that isn’t fake! Even if you someday date a girl or kiss a girl and think, “Welp, I didn’t like that after all,” those feelings still weren’t fake!! They were just feelings that changed over time.

It is okay to tell your mom you don’t have a word for yourself yet (and that you might not ever). It is okay to tell your mom that not all gay people “always knew” who they were. It is okay to tell your mom that what you need right now is her support and love as you work to understand yourself better, and that you would really love to keep an open dialogue with her as you figure things out more.

Here is a video where I talk a bit more about my own journey with my sexuality, and here is another video I made with my own mom about our coming out process together.

Coming out to ourselves and other people can be really confusing sometimes, and that is totally, completely okay.

All my love to you and your mom, and I hope 2017 brings you a whole bunch of new questions, new answers, and maybe even a girlfriend WHO KNOWS.

xo

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