"Other" by Default

Written Thursday, December 26, 2019

This is one of those thoughts that, somehow, your brain manages to assemble while asleep - and, while it may seem like you just got up for a quick midnight snack, what you really needed to be awake for was to write this stuff down. Because it's important.


It's probably pretty apparent at this point on this site that I'm fairly unusual. I have proudly worn the label "queer" for some time now, but there is a larger and more powerful label that I have repeatedly worked at owning for most of my adult life:




I was raised overseas. Discovering the idea of "third culture" phenomena in my young adulthood was a huge revelation to me, and it ultimately proved deeply healing. It explained so much of my struggle to find identity, community, and belonging. Without spending too much time on the details, "third culture" is basically the inevitable outcome of being "born in" one culture and being raised in a second. Kids in that kind of scenario inevitably feel alien to both cultures on some level. Host country can, as it did for me, become far more of a true "home" than the "passport" country.

Citizenship has always felt strange to me. I was surrounded by peers, as a kid, who had been born outside the United States (or other countries of "origin") and therefore held dual citizenships. I had known this was a possibility for maybe two hours in my young life before becoming jealous and, frankly, somewhat resentful of my own US citizenship. I was already trying to cling to my otherness as a more powerful, resonant identity.

Growing up, I found myself other in more ways over time - my refusal to conform to the religious ideologies around me; my cultural incongruence and strange insistence on speaking multiple languages (sometimes to try and teach them to other people, but often just to be cryptic and a generally incorrigible teenager); my fascination with computers and electronic technology. I was fortunate, in that sense, to be fairly introverted, because I spent a lot of time alone.

The friends I made were not numerous, but the friendships were unbelievably deep. We connected, every single time, over being the weird ones. We were the nerds, the geeks, the social outcasts, the culturally inept or simply too different.

I eventually discovered Hunter S. Thompson and immediately fell in love with a quote of his, about one of his characters: "too weird to live, too rare to die."

With the benefit of many years of hindsight, I've found another category of other which has connected me to people deeply over the years: and that, quite simply, can be called queer.

It's not really a secret that the label "queer" is controversial. And I think there are many reasons for that, but to me, the term is well on its way to being reclaimed from the slur it has often been, and the hateful intent behind it can certainly be replaced with a healthier - even healing - sentiment.

I have long been fascinated by etymology, as a way to trace the lineage of words, and understand their intent and connotations beyond what a typical dictionary entry can capture. The literal lineage of the word "queer" is - prior to its political weaponization - easily summarized as a phrase: "well, that's kind of different!"

Queer to me began as a simple line in the sand: gender and sexual identity. The gender binary and the entire social construct of gender are things I've spent much of the past year deconstructing and reassembling in my mind. Sexual orientation was certainly one of the older connotations of the word that I've had to try and wrap my lesbian brain around, and being a child of the 80's, "gay" was a slur I heard far too often growing up.

But as I dismantled all this in my head, "queer" rapidly became so much more; there are relationship structures that are "kind of different." There are personality quirks, cultural elements, behavioral patterns - so much of being human is fodder for that exact reaction:

"Well, that's kind of different!"

There is a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from my youth that has always tickled the part of me that is fascinated by linguistics. The titular characters have a brief but amusing discussion about "verbing" - the practice of taking a word that is not usually considered a verb, and making it one.

As Calvin famously observes, "verbing weirds language."

Nothing - absolutely nothing - says "let's weird up our language" to me like reclamation. Let's make it kind of different! Make it our own. And so, early this year, I internally started referring to the process of reclamation as "queering."

And, again, it didn't stop there. Why bother limiting it to reclamation? So much of queer culture is about developing identity - finding what works, for each of us, and in our own myriad combinations of intersectionality, creating something for ourselves.

In early September 2019, in a small community I like to hang out in, I posted a thought that has become increasingly dear to me:

i dream of a world where people can come together, share a chuckle about our similarities, and get on with the good bit - where we revel in our differences.

So, that's the context - the setup, if you will. Here's the fun part.


Let's start by running with the current idea of "other" - something which makes us different, sets us apart. A reason that - for many - we could be considered separate; a reason to treat us badly, perhaps, or to be shunned, isolated, alienated. Maybe it's simply different, but generally, it has a bad connotation.


But here's the thing: people are not isolated. Isolation is, universally, recognized as a brutal, inhumane, and even evil thing to impose on a human being. Sometimes we choose isolation - and, as a longtime introvert, I get it. But "queer" and "other" communities have a powerful and consistent theme: we find each other. It may take an excruciatingly long time; it may be a hard fight. But we find each other, as often and as best we can - often by nothing more than blind instinct.


And we stick together, our little pockets of other, trying not to feel so alone.


Star Wars is in the zeitgeist right now, and The Rise of Skywalker has a quote that I feel is powerfully resonant here. No matter what kind of enemy you might be up against, just remember this: "they" win by making you think you're alone.


So here's the logical part. Let's go back to the actual denotational semantics of the word "other." If you have two things, you can say you have one, and the other. If you have more than two things, you have one, and all the others. Any time there is something not-in-isolation, there are others.


Individual people can be isolated - by choice, by coincidence, by coercion. But it's patently false to assert that people are in isolation. The planet is crawling with literally billions of us.


Since we're being somewhat intellectual about this, let's grab some mathematics. Combinatorics gives us a powerful tool for computing how many combinations of something can be arranged. So, here's a fun exercise. (Check my math, please; it's 4 AM and I'm winging this.)


A common example is selecting 5 cards from a deck of 52 cards. The formula is messy and a pain to do by hand, but the number of unique 5-card hands you can draw from a "standard" deck of 52 cards is 2,598,960.


There are about 12,000 people in the small "city" area I live in (crammed inside a larger urban area, of course). So, let's say we want to gather 20 people from that population. How many ways can we form a group?


The notation in combinatorics is nCr where n is our population (12,000) and r is the number of elements we want to combine (20). The number is given by (12000!) / (20!)(11,980!) which is, according to a few online calculators I used to cross-check this:




That is the number of unique ways in which 12,000 humans can form groups of 20 individuals.


Think about that for a moment. Please, genuinely, do your best. It is an incomprehensible number and well beyond the threshold of what human intuition is equipped to handle.


When you've recovered, proceed carefully. It gets worse.


Try that math again, with one million humans to choose from. Form a party of 20. This is the largest I can get a web site to do for me, and the answer has 103 digits. It's literally incomprehensibly more than the upper-end estimate for the number of atoms in the known universe.


One more leap: 7.7 billion people, estimated as of this year, live on this planet.


How many ways, do you suppose, can we form groups of 20, with over seven and a half billion individuals to choose from?


And now it's time for the punch line.


Pick any subject relevant to, say, intersectional feminism, or social justice, or being - well - "other." Anything that makes you feel different, feel alone, feel ostracized. Something you had to "come out" as being, doing, feeling, believing - whatever. Something that sets you apart. Makes you different.


Every single person, in all space and time, is unique. No matter how tiny, there is something that makes you even just a tiny bit different.


How many of those do you have?


How many people do you know who can share at least one of those things?


Can you think of anything that you consider part of yourself that qualifies as "other", and also imagine that maybe 20 people on the planet share it? (Perhaps you already know those people - fans of a cult classic film, members of a club, maybe just a family of some kind - or perhaps you don't know any, but simply hope that they're out there.)


Seven and a half billion of us. Countless ways to be unique. If we all formed groups of 20...


"Other" is not abnormal. "Other" is not rare. "Other" is not an aberration, a flaw, a reason for isolation. There are far more ways to be "other" and still be together than there are ways to be "normal."


Normativity is poison. Here's your antidote.


Other is the fucking default.


Don't fill in the blank of your life as a "please specify." Demand that everyone else justify why they think they are "normal."


We're all other to every other person already. Own it. You deserve it.


Form groups. 20 is an arbitrary number. We have larger, and smaller, intersections available. Link up. Find the rest of the revolution, in whatever pockets of otherness you want to own.


Let's go queer the world.