Ya eres mujer.
You’re now a woman, my mother explained to me after I told her I got my first period.
In my 22 years of living, my parents have trained me for my future: I am to be a mother who can cook and clean and remain pristine for my husband. I am to remain a pure virgin. Remain ladylike.
But I am queer.
As a feminist and closeted bisexual daughter of traditional Mexican parents, me quedo terca. I remain stubborn in my effort to better my relationship with my parents.
My parents grew up on small ranches in Mexico. They raised cattle and chickens and grew corn to make bread and tortillas. The life they knew was simplified to homemaking and cleaning for the women, and paid manual labor for the men until they each met a partner to have their children with. This did not leave much room for ways of life beyond their patriarchal and heteronormative culture.
My parents did not study past the sixth grade. They never went to a university to learn about the things they do not know, and they did not have the opportunity to socialize with the diverse set of individuals that colleges bring together.
But as I interact more with the LGBTQ community, I find it increasingly difficult to engage with them. For instance, I have a gender nonbinary friend who prefers to be referred to by the pronouns “they,” “them” and “their.” However, there is no equivalent translation for me to use when introducing my friend to my Spanish-speaking parents.
Fortunately, I have come to realize that talking about gender and sexuality can be done with a shared commonality: art.
Art is a universal language, but the ways in which you read it can be very much up to interpretation. This is why I decided to use the “queering” perspective, which involves looking at things through a lens of sexuality and gender.
When my parents come visit me at UCLA, we take walks on campus. Sometimes we find our way inside the buildings.
In Kerckhoff Hall, it doesn’t take more than 20 steps to come across the artwork of undergraduate and graduate students displayed on walls that span back decades in UCLA’s history. One particular painting, titled “Purple and Green” by an undergraduate student, hangs across the wall from the Graduate Students Association office and depicts four figures. Two of them, a dyad of purple and green, are facing each other and seem physically engaged.
In this painting, my parents and I alike are able to determine the figures as normal humans interacting in couples. But something else stands out: One couple is beige and brown, while the other couple is green and purple.
Besides these few details, the painting is otherwise less elaborate. The background is blank, the figures have no hair and they are neither clearly male nor female. This draws to my mind the parallels with the LGBTQ community: One the outside we are all the same, on the inside we just deviate a little from what is common.
This piece of art allows for my queering eye to start a conversation with my parents about sexuality to someday help me explain to them that while I am attracted to both men and women, I am still the same daughter they raised.
Heading south from UCLA and east on Wilshire Boulevard, we visited the Hammer Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, both of which have featured art I have been able to queer into my relationship with my parents.
Barbara Kruger, a conceptual artist known for her image and text pieces and a professor in the UCLA art department, produces art on topics of societal hierarchy, identity and sexuality.
The Broad Contemporary Art Museum building at LACMA features a large word collage on the big red elevator with Kruger’s work: “lipstick, cars, shop, hand bag...” These words give me an opportunity to start another conversation.
My parents speak very little English and can read even less of it, but they can see the words staring back at them in a big, white font. They ask me to translate the script for them and therefore allow me to share my interpretation, along with subtle societal criticisms.
“Lipstick” es una barra de labios, I tell my mother. I explain to her that the artist put careful attention on the object and what implications it holds in my parents’ and my shared society here in the United States: how the lipstick, when taken out of the context of a gender binary, becomes genderless. I tell her that I made a friend in college who identifies as a man and likes to wear makeup.
Growing up, my parents trained me to fit into a box labeled “woman” and threw in other things I apparently needed: makeup, cooking skills, the proper information needed to use a washer or dryer and how to get stains out of our living room carpet. Skills that are based on the assumption that having them would enable me to provide for my future husband and family, never allowing the possibility that he could someday cook for me too – or that I might not even marry a man.
My parents did this to both me and my younger sister. My parents also had two boys, each raised in their own boxes labeled “man,” ensuring they knew how to complete yard work and change a car tire.
My parents did not allow these items to get into the wrong boxes. Or white labels to be green and purple.
But standing in front of Kruger’s work, we are able to openly discuss what a “car” is and what implications it has: When I am babysitting my nephew – their grandson – they now understand that while cars are cool, dolls are also an acceptable toy for him.
At the Hammer Museum, we viewed Frances Stark’s “UH-OH” exhibit featuring the artist’s personal Skype conversations with men she had intimate relationships with while abroad in France. The work is titled “From Sexual Attraction Can Be Born An Idea.”
Though not queer herself, her art does push the boundaries of taboo and the appropriate. “So my sex cam story came about when I noticed, in fact, that I was writing all the time without realizing it,” Stark says in a promotional video on the Hammer Museum website.
The artwork depicts digital caricatures of people who are naked except for underwear. They are set on a green background and read Stark’s Skype conversation scripts in computer-produced voices. These artistic choices make it very easy for viewers to interpret the work in a way that resonates with them and allows room for personal interpretation, such as in my case as a closeted bisexual.
Stark’s relationships were with younger men, forming an atypical story that urges more conversations about these different kinds of intimate dyads. My parents never talked to me about sex in my 22 years of life as their daughter. They did, however, tell me not to let myself get pregnant: No te vengas con tu domingo siete. But my young mind would think: But what about having safe sex and no babies? Or what about my sex life with the girls I had crushes on?
This installation allowed me to not only bring up sex as an adult to my parents, but also to discuss the variations in these intimacies, including same-sex relationships. While I have not been able to tell them about my interest in women, we can at least talk about lesbians in general.
I introduce them to the LGBTQ community without revealing my hidden identity directly. In doing so, we can objectively talk about the community’s struggles in families such as mine without the conversation becoming muted with the possible emotions that would come up during discussions with the unfamiliar.
Queer or not, I am their daughter and they brought me into this world. I am who I am. Exploring my potential realities and sexuality should be no less exciting for them as it is for me.