Chelle Hope is a writer who is, regrettably, finding less time for being idle these days as the demand for attention from her inner voice grows louder and more urgent. As a lesbian with disabilities, she is interested in how identity informs how we see ourselves and others. In this week’s guest blog, she talks about identity and the value in standing out from the crowd.
Following a transfer from Wellington to Hawkes Bay Hospital, I moved back from city to town nearly six years ago now. Though I grew up here, it was a real culture shock. I still don’t feel I fit this place at all. I never knew what it felt like to fit in until I left home, so I guess it’s no big surprise to me I feel the same now I’m back.
I recently spent some time back in Wellington. Despite feeling I was home from the moment my parents dropped me off at my hostel for my first year of university, I have a complicated relationship with the place now. Visiting Wellington in the years since I’ve been away, I always felt like I was coming home. My heart broke when I left. I was completely head over heels for all of it and I didn’t know how I was going to carry on outside of the capital’s boundaries. I felt my identity was tied inextricably with the place and I fitted in. Now though, I’ve got kind of used to standing out in a smaller town and I’ve begun to value myself as a person outside of the norm. I’m very comfortable with who I am this time around. I think Wellington helped me a great deal in that regard. I finally felt I was going home when I got on the plane bound for Napier at the end of my short holiday.
I stand out not only because of my wheelchair but also because I tend to style myself in an androgynous way. I say style, I mean jeans and t-shirt with the addition, on a cold day, of a sweatshirt or jersey. There are plenty of women who dress similarly but I also wear my hair very short and don’t wear jewellery or makeup. I look like a certain kind of lesbian, which is fine and good because I am a certain kind of lesbian. I’m a lesbian who likes to be comfortable. I tell you, guy’s clothes are a revelation. They are so much more comfortable and, regardless of what the label says, you can wash them however you damn well please and everything will be fine.*
In all seriousness, I don’t feel I have much of a choice in standing out. I’ve tried wearing more feminine clothing, I’ve tried wearing make-up, I’ve tried wearing jewellery. I don’t feel like me when I’m wearing all of that stuff. I feel like I’m playing dress up. I’m pretty sure if I tried wearing a dress or skirt now, I would feel as if I were wearing drag. I like being a woman but I also like expressing my masculine side. Actually, it’s not about ‘like’. It’s a choice between being comfortable in my own skin or not.
It goes without saying, I can do precisely nothing about standing out because of my disability. Most of the time that doesn’t bother me, though I would say I have an easier time accepting my sexuality than my disability and a lot of that is down to how I choose to present myself and how much choice I have in the matter.
My disability and my sexuality and my gender are all amplified to the extreme now I’m no longer living in Wellington. I could be a bit anonymous in the city, though if I wanted to stand out, I could. I spent a while in my 20s wearing sort of post-punk garb; leather jacket, facial piercings and spiky hair that was alternately, purple and black, blue, green, and bright copper. I loved how I looked. I’ve always been a bit vain, despite my obvious physical disabilities. Conversely, if I felt like it, I could blend into the crowd. ‘The crowd’ in cities tends to be so diverse now, it doesn’t matter if you look different because there are a whole lot of other people who look different as well and when all these different people are thrown together, nobody stands out too much. Unless you are really trying to and there’s plenty of scope for that.
Growing up outside of a city, it’s very easy to feel your differences are exclusive to you, that you are the only one. It can be a very lonely feeling. I feel it still, now I’m back to where I started. That feeling of isolation is tempered though with the knowledge there are others out there like me and no matter how different I am to those around me, if I speak long enough and listen intently enough to anyone, we might just find common ground. The discovery that we’re not as different as we might have imagined is a powerful inroad to understanding and acceptance of oneself and others.
The biggest surprise for me following my weekend away is that while I enjoyed the trip, I really looked forward to coming home. One of the best things about moving back to my home town has been, though I feel and look different to most of the people around me, I’ve learnt to enjoy that difference. Standing out is a valuable gift that I might not have recognised if I’d stayed where I was.
*I take no responsibility for the outcome if you follow this advice. You should never blindly follow the advice of a blogger.