Chapter Sixteen

A feeling of spring-to-come was in the air Sunday. People were somewhat feisty at the support group.

"Yeh, and if we do that we'll be accused of promoting the queer agenda or something."

"Well, why the hell not!"

Everyone looked at the usually quiet Kay.

"Why not promote the queer agenda, or whatever the fuck they call it? Are we sick? Defective? Evil?" Kay glared around the circle. "If there's nothing wrong with us, then why shouldn't we promote our agenda?"

"If we do not speak for ourselves, others will feel free to put words in our mouths. And they do." said Emiko.

Isaac pulled at his right ear, thinking. "That's true. But what is our agenda?"

"Liberty, equality, polyfraternity?" said Tam, softly. Jami punched her gently in the shoulder.

"Hey, folks," said Zoe, stepping in as facilitator. "Isaac has asked a good question. If we have an agenda, what is it? What does it mean to be queer?"

"I wrote something about an agenda last summer." Carys thumbed through her notebook. "Here it is.

"Many people have suspected there is a hidden transgender agenda. You are correct. We hope to immerse everyone in high potency metaphysical concept solvent to strip away the social facade that keeps our souls in shadow and prevents us from interacting on the level of pure energy. When one day we cast aside our prejudices in a planetary embrace we will merge to give birth to a new sun and our love will shine to the edges of the universe and the ends of time!"

"Wow oh wow oh wow!" said Sandy.

"I understand," said Emiko, her eyes wide. "But that is perhaps too, too intellectual, for many people?"

"We don't really need new words," said Crystal. "Liberty and justice for all. Live free or die. Don't tread on me. And yes," nodding at Tam, "liberty, equality, fraternity."

"The founding fathers were so gay," said James, striking a pose with a limp wrist.

"The founding fathers were slave owners who wanted the freedom to keep their own profits," said Zoe.

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," mumbled Tam.

"Huh?"

"Oh," said Tam, "they're still running things. A few people with money, land and ill-treated involuntary employees." Tam looked at Zoe. "Not that I'm equating working for Burger Doodle with being a slave, but it's not a big step up from being an indentured servant."

Zoe nodded, "True, but we're getting side-tracked. Is there more to the queer agenda than the political ideals of the enlightenment?"

"Yes, and no," said Isaac. "As you pointed out, Zoe, a lot of that was about the middle class freeing themselves from the upper class and royalty. But the core ideas of individual freedom also date from that era. And a large part of the, sometimes imaginary, history of this country is about rugged individualism and free thinking."

"But not sexual liberty."

"No. It wasn't until recently that the women's movement tackled sexual freedom," said Kay.

"Men have actually lost some of their sexual freedom because of that, and the invention of homosexuality," said Isaac.

"Hey, your freedom to swing your dick ends pretty damn far away from me!" said Alyssa.

"Whoa!" cried Zoe.

"But it does come down to sex, doesn't it?" asked Crystal.

"Sure," said Kay. "What's wrong with that? What is more personal, more individual, than sex? Why should anyone but me have any control over how I feel about sex? Or how I present those feelings to other people? Or who, if anyone, I want to get naked with?"

"Sex and gender and sexuality," said Carys.

"It's obvious to us," said Jami, "but that's exactly what a lot of folks feel should not be under individual control."

"The way you say that, though, Jami," said James, "it's not necessarily a choice. I didn't choose to be male, or to be attracted to other males..." He stopped, glanced at Tam, at Carys, back at Jami, then looked thoughtful.

"It may not always be a choice," said Jami, quietly, "but as you all know, when you think about it, there are no clear lines here, about any of that. If you can sort out sex and gender and sexuality among me and Carys and Tam, you're a better man than me, James." Jami smiled.

"I'm sorry," said James. "Damn. I'm just being an idiot. I mean, Carys, sometimes I kind of stop a look at you out of the corner of my eye, and start to think—who's that?—before I catch myself. Arghh!" He put his hands over his face, but left two fingers apart to peek out through at Carys.

She smiled. "Thanks, James. That's cool. Not that I'm available, or interested."

"I think you're hot, James," said Kay.

"What?"

"As I keep trying to explain, I'm attracted to people, not genders. I'm attracted to you. If you decide you want to walk on the wild side, give me a holler some time, big guy."

"The wild side?"

"Well, if you're convinced that you're gay and it isn't your choice, then having a fling with me would be your wild side, wouldn't it?"

"Uh, yeh. It would. But it would make my parents happy."

"Which, folks, amazingly enough, brings us right back to the original question." said Zoe

"Being able to talk like this, question assumptions, it's queer," said Carys.

"It is all about religion," said Emiko, who had been paying close attention to the conversation from where she sat crosslegged on one sofa.

Zoe held up a hand for quiet. "Give Emiko a chance to get a few words in, guys."

"Thank you, Zoe. It comes down to religion. Any argument against talking like this, following one's own path, it always returns to religion. There is no logical or rational reason to be against queer people, or even to treat artists like shit."

Crystal let out a big sigh. "I'm afraid Emiko is right. No matter what people say, when you press them, it always ends up with an appeal to religion."

James nodded. "Yeh. When my mom and I had our big sit down and talk about this thing, she went on about not having children, being discriminated against, getting AIDs; all the usual stuff. All of which I had answers for. Then she started talking about the Bible and homosexuality being wrong. At that point I stopped her and said we'd just have to disagree. It wasn't a discussion from then on, it was a lecture on morals, her morals."

Emiko nodded vigorously. "Exactly. It becomes prescriptive morality, and that galls me. I'm an educated person. I'm smart. I look within myself as any wise person does and I find answers to my moral questions. When I do, I am not ashamed to make up my own mind and say that I have done so."

Several people were staring at Emiko. She noticed, and put a hand to her mouth. "Ooops. Cat jump out of bag."

Alyssa laughed. "Did you guys not know that Emiko is a linguistics major?"

"What?" said Zoe. "Emiko, explain yourself!"

"I am indeed a linguistics major. I can speak what people in the U.S. consider to be correct English. I can speak the so-called King's English. Plus seven or so other languages in addition to my native Japanese, all more or less fluently."

"You mean you've been toying with us?"

"Not exactly. Normally I speak Emiko language. It not have many words. Most economical." She laughed. "I just weird!"

"How long have you known this, Alyssa?" asked Carys.

"Only a couple of weeks. Emiko and I have been talking a lot. At first she always talked the way she usually does here. But when we get really involved in a subject, she begins to talk differently or go off in another language. When I noticed, she explained about her Emiko language." Alyssa looked at Emiko. "I think it's neat."

"I sorry, guys," said Emiko. "Everyone hate me?"

"Emiko," said Tam, "I think you're really queer."

"Oh, thank you! I most queer. Happy you notice!"

"Okay," said Zoe, "now that we've settled that, where the heck were we?"

"Moral determination," observed Isaac, "is not a very sexy rallying cry."

"M'aider! A moi! Au secours!" cried Tam.

"Mayday what?"

"Sorry. I've taken French since about the third grade. My brain is kind of..."

"...French-fried?" giggled Jami. "I'll have to try squirting ketchup on you."

"Kids!" yelled Zoe.

Tam glare-smiled at Jami. "M'aider is French for come to my aid. A corruption of that is the root of the term mayday."

"Geez," said Kay, "this group is so educational."

"So," said Carys, raising her voice, "what do we do? We know religion is a problem. Like, duh. What do we do about it?"

"It's not that simple, Carys. There are denominations that are inclusive of queer people," said Zoe.

"Of lesbian and gay people in monogamous or serially monogamous relationships, yes. Those of us on the fringes are still freaks."

"Change happens in stages. Gay marriage is an important step in securing legal rights and protections," said Zoe.

"Gay marriage is a cop out. Assimilationist crap. What good does it do me? Jami could probably have the sex on her birth certificate changed to M to match her chromosomes. Then we could get legally married. Do you actually believe we'd want to do that?" Carys was angry, glaring at Zoe.

"What do you suggest, Carys?"

"Anyone who loves another person should be able to form a stable relationship with whatever blessing government gives. I'd even go so far as to say there's nothing wrong with poly relationships."

Zoe locked eyes with Carys, then lowered her gaze. "I don't know, Carys. I guess I'm one of those conservative gay folks. Part of me says, 'right on,' about you becoming increasingly chummy with Tam, but another part of me says you're only asking for trouble. I mean, there's no way you can say that a three-way isn't a choice."

Carys looked at Zoe. No one else made a sound. "So liberty and justice for all doesn't include my being able to make choices?"

Zoe shook her head. "Of course you can make choices. And I'm not even saying that what you're doing is wrong, Carys, just that it is a choice. If it's over the line of what most people think is reasonable, then you can't expect them to support you in it."

"Zoe, I'm trying to figure out what you're saying," said Carys.

"You're putting down the efforts of people to legalize gay marriage, because it isn't going to do you any good. Do you seriously believe anyone is going to put effort into trying to legalize poly relationships?"

"Gee," said Jami, "that'd be almost as silly as trying to include gender identity in hate crime laws or the employment non-discrimination act. Anyone who chooses to express a gender other than the one indicated by the sex inscribed on their birth certificate simply should suffer the consequences."

"It's taken a long time and a lot of work to reach the point where most people even understand what you're talking about, Jami," said Zoe. "A lot of people do worry that gay marriage is opening the door to a whole lot of other things."

"Ah, the old slippery slope," said Tam.

"With straw man, couchant," added Emiko. Their attempt to lighten the mood failed.

"So I'm too queer? For what? The gay agenda? The queer agenda?" said Carys.

"You're sure not mainstream, girlfriend. You're pushing the boundaries."

"And why is that bad?"

"These are conservative times."

"Yes, they are. Aren't they." Carys fixed Zoe with her stare.

"If you like, Carys, I can step down as co-facilitator, and leave the group, too."

"Absolutely not!" said Carys, surprised. "I don't agree with you on this, obviously, but I support your right to have your own opinion, and to voice that opinion."

"Thank you."

"Uh, did anyone read The Lookout today?" asked Isaac.

Jumping on the excuse to change the topic, several people started talking. Carys sat back, thinking. Talk was sporadic for a while, then died out. People started to leave.

Carys stood up and walked over to Zoe, who was putting on her coat. "Zoe?"

"Carys?"

"I'm serious, Zoe. You're entitled to your opinion, and I respect your opinion. I'd be really, truly upset if you left the group." Carys stepped forward to hug Zoe. "Don't leave, please?"

"I won't," said Zoe, returning the hug. "I just wanted to speak my mind."

* * *

The people involved in the troupe said goodbye to the others, then went upstairs to the apartment. After tossing their coats and packs by the stair railing, everyone stood waiting for Carys, who was the last one up the stairs.

"Is it going to be okay, with Zoe?" asked Jami.

"I hope so. We'll see." She looked around. "So what do you other guys think, for real, about me and Jami and Tam? It's not like Jami and I are marrying her or anything. Exactly."

"Crystal and I are fine with it," said Sandy. "We've talked about polyamory, actually. We're scared about what's going to happen to us next year, whether we'll be able to stay together for college. We've talked about being with other people, but also staying together. If we can't be together during college, I don't want to be alone for four years, you know?" She held on to Crystal, putting her head on her shoulder, trying not to cry.

Emiko started singing the Garbage song, Queer, with its line, "queerest of the queer." She gave Carys a thumbs-up. "I with you guys all way."

"I'm kind of new to this, still," said Alyssa. "I've seen you three together, and it seems right. It doesn't have to be about sex. As for me and sex, well being raped for a first time experience has pretty much blotted out whatever it was I used to believe."

"Right," said Carys.

Alyssa was silent for a moment. "I've changed my mind about Michfest, too. I did feel safe there, but now that I know Jami and Carys and Tam, I just couldn't go again. The whole separatist thing seems creepy and wrong to me now.

"The marriage thing we talked about in group, that's about making rules, controlling people, whether it's governments or religions. I guess I'm in favor of letting people decide for themselves what to do."

"I think you very queer," said Emiko.

"From you, I will accept that," said Alyssa.

"Okay, one more question. Emiko?" said Carys. "Straw man, couchant? What the heck does that mean?"

"Ah! A straw man is a false or misleading construct in debate, used to shift the argument from the original point to something the opponent feels they can better attack. Couchant is French for crouching, as in a crouching lion in a coat of arms. Heraldry uses French for its basic terminology."

"A crouching straw man on a slippery slope?" said Carys. "Interesting concept."

"I feel a new skit coming on," said Jami.

"So, Carys, what plan have you?" asked Emiko.

"I have some ideas for performance pieces. And I have a few poems I'd like to work into this." Carys paused. "Poems that Kathy wrote," she said, softly.

Emiko looked at her. "Ah, new poems of Kathy!"

Carys nodded. "Kathy sent me some of her work. Exactly how it came to me and why it didn't arrive until recently is a long story, part of which needs to remain untold. I also haven't worked out exactly how to acknowledge that it's her work. So we may not use it immediately. I'm still thinking that through.

"I've been asking around about places to perform to get us started. I don't have it nailed down yet, but I think I can get us onto the calendar for the noon-time events at the Union on campus for mid-March."

"And I bet we can do something small and quiet at the high school," said Crystal. "I'll check with the GSA and see if there's any possibility of our doing something there. Probably not for a very large audience, maybe even just the GSA, but we need to get our feet wet, right?"

"Exactly what I'm thinking, Crystal," agreed Carys. "I don't want to go up before a possibly unreceptive audience until we feel good about working together."

"So how is this going to work, Carys?" asked Sandy. "Is a performance all planned out, or do we have a set of skits, songs, poetry, whatever and you call what we're doing as you see how it goes?"

"You're reading my mind, Sandy! We'd have a general plan going into a gig, but then we adapt it to fit the situation."

Emiko was looking at Sandy. "I not hear you talk so much before, Sandy. Smaller group your best?"

"Um, yeh. I pretty much know all of you guys, and I know what we're doing here. I'm not always quiet." She turned to Crystal. "Am I?"

Crystal rolled her eyes. "When it's just the two of us I can't get you to shut up."

Sandy started playing with Crystal's braids. "Yes you can."

Carys glanced at Jami and Tam, who were grinning at each other. This was such a different Sandy than they were all used to seeing!

"I'm so glad you feel comfortable here, Sandy," said Carys. "Are you okay performing?"

"Oh, yeh," she said, letting go of Crystal's hair and resting her arm on Crystal's leg. "I have a performance mode I go into."

"She really does," agreed Crystal. "Dress her up, put a bass guitar in her hands, and I think she could stand up to anything."

"I'm not sure we're always going to want to make a lot of noise," said Jami.

"No problem. We can use small amps, or go unplugged. I have an acoustic bass."

"Okay," said Carys, making a note. "Cool. Though I can certainly see us using a few songs and doing some sing-along stuff, I'm mostly thinking of you for live music to go along with whatever else we're doing. Can you two improvise the music?"

"I always improvise with Crystal," said Sandi. She laughed and ran her hand up Crystal's leg. Crystal swatted her hand and she stopped, still smiling. "But seriously, yes, we jam a lot. No problem."

"I the one not in relationship," pouted Emiko. "If I dance good, maybe someone notice me?"

"I'd say that's a safe bet," said Tam.

"I'm not in a relationship, either," said Alyssa. "Is it okay if we just concentrate on being friends?"

"You can dance?" asked Emiko.

"Yes, actually. And I do martial arts." said Alyssa.

"You now top friend!" said Emiko. "May I sit with you?"

"Um, sure." said Alyssa. Emiko quickly scooted next to her.

Carys looked at them. "Okay, so you two can dance. Crystal and Sandi are the musicians. Jami, Tam and I can do most of the performance, but it doesn't have to be only the three of us."

Emiko had been whispering with Alyssa. "We dance, we fight, maybe we sign. And I can be very silly," said Emiko.. "You have no idea how silly." She giggled quietly.

"How about you hand around those packets we printed?"

"Will do!" Jami stood up, went to the bedroom and returned with paper-clipped packets.

"Okay," said Carys. "Let's look through what I have." This is great, thought Carys. I hope we can continue to work this well together. I'm excited!

* * *

Jami's boss, Mr. Hoffman, and his photographer friend, Ezra, invited Jami, Carys and Tam to dinner and to see the current play at Riverfront on Thursday evening. Carys and Tam talked theater with Aaron Hoffman, who was something of a patron of Riverfront, rarely missing a play. Jami talked photography with Ezra, for whom she'd brought her portfolio into the store earlier that week.

"Absolutely, Jami" he had said, after taking time to slowly look at her work, "you have an eye, and you have talent."

"Thank you, sir."

He handed the portfolio back to her. "What are you going to do with this talent?"

Jami sighed. "I don't know. It hasn't been much more than a hobby for me, though you're not the first person to tell me that I have talent."

"You have had an exhibit, yes?"

"Yes. Ms. Steffani, the photography instructor for the arts camp where I met Carys, last spring, helped me arrange one."

"Your work was well received?"

"Yes. People said good things."

"Why the hesitation?"

"I just don't know what to do next. I know there are things I could learn if I went to school. I learn new things from studying what other photographers have done, and when I plan and shoot an essay, or try out a new technique."

"But you feel you are looking for something? You do not know what? Yes?"

Jami nodded.

"Good. That is what you should feel. You will never find for what you are looking. It is the looking, the chase, that will drive your creative career."

Jami looked at the old photographer. "You think I can have a creative career?"

"If you give photography your time and your love, yes."

"I would need to make photography my priority."

"Yes."

Jami thought for a moment. "It's not a decision I can make completely on my own. Carys and I have to find a path we can follow together. And I have other friends who are very important to me, who support me."

Ezra nodded. "I understand. When you decide, Aaron will know how to find me. I have contacts, mostly in New York City, some in other places. I will put in the good word for you."