by Saffron Douglas
Editor’s Note: What follows are three pieces that offer up three different glimpses into Featured Artist Saffron Douglas’s exploration of queerness as an ever-evolving term, one that many within and outside of the LGBTQ community at times co-opt without fully understanding its complexities.
Read excerpts from each piece below, but be sure to click “Read in Full” to experience each essay in its entirety. All images courtesy Saff Douglas, photography by Cody Soape.
I. Strawberry Kabob
In 2007, I had just freshly graduated from high school. I was a year ahead of my class and had put in the extra work due to acute boredom — one of the few times that apathy led me to do more work rather than less. Academics came easily to me, and while I was my spritely self with my few close friends, I was all but silent with the rest of the students around me, just as they were to me. Through that silence, though, I perceived a palpable tension I created simply by existing, and perhaps it was this more than the apathy that I was trying to escape.
Being visible never felt like a choice I was making. It was a riptide urge surging from somewhere deep within my subconsciousness with an inevitability beyond even the outer edges of my perception. At that young age, I wasn’t self-aware enough to question my compulsion to swish.
That fall I was sixteen, and I started attending Tarrant County Community College. In my too-small thrift store tees and hand-snipped skintight jeans, I stomped a little bolder and a little faster down the hallways than I ever had back in high school. The campus was filled with nice moms who looked out for me in my lab class and younger people whose staring ranged from clearly unabashed to nervous and weakly veiled.
Unlike my experience in high school, this was the first time in my life where I noticed being noticed without the requisite buildup of tension. I even began to intentionally reroute my walks to pass through more populated areas or through buildings I didn’t really need to be in so that I could feel more eyes on me. I made wake, and for this brief sunny moment in time, gained only reward.
Midway through the fall semester, I was fully seventeen, experiencing what most people my age probably started to feel years before in high school: invincibility. I skipped my 8 a.m. English class almost every week (which would become my first failure), I was acing everything else, and I spoke up in my classes — especially in my labs with the nice moms. And in the flow of my first dose of real adult confidence, I began to catch sight of someone else like me.
He wore a bright green track jacket which, at the height of the Abercrombie and American Eagle fashion age, made me melt. His hair was long, black, and straight, and over the span of a week, I noticed him so much that I wondered how I hadn’t seen him before. On any given day, I’d linger in the library to be seen by my fellow library-goers while I idled away with my homework.
On one of these days while I was lingering, Green Jacket came into the library with his moody, downcast eyes draped by straight black hair that looked touchably soft. He was a fast walker, and after rounding the library to grab the book he needed, he stopped by the checkout desk and then started toward the exit. Fortunately, I was about done staring at my unfinished homework, and so I made my way to the same exit, hoping the universe might choreograph an accidental meet-cute between us.
As I happened to be heading to my car at the same time as him, I began to notice the tension building in the space between our bodies as he noticed me behind him. I felt heat prickle under my skin and my heart beat flutter as I suddenly realized I had no idea how to do what I was about to do. We stepped out into the chill, overcast air of the south lot. He not-so-smoothly turned his head in my direction as if to look at something in the distance, but I felt his eyes flick over me more than once, cueing absolutely every single sweat gland in my body to purge. I came to the panicked conclusion that I just wasn’t a first move kind of girl so I let our paths split in the lot as he headed toward his car and I headed toward mine. I crumbled and buzzed in my blue-ish purple Ford Taurus with six cylinders, a CD player, and pink furry dice hanging off the rearview mirror.
Later that same week, I was having an uneventful day: I attended my classes, perform-studied in the library, and took my long walking routes, this time not to be seen, but to try to catch sight of Green Jacket. He wasn’t in any of his usual spots so I headed to my car parked in the same south lot as before. At that age, any small disappointment felt like complete and universal rejection, and so it was with all of the forces of the world against me that I climbed into my Taurus.
As I sat down and stuck my key into the ignition, I happened to look up. I paused. There on my windshield, tucked securely underneath a busted windshield wiper, was the familiar rainbow glimmer of a burned CD in a bright sour-apple green jewel case.
Key still in the ignition, I climbed out the door to grab the case and brought it in. Cracking the case open, I took out a torn bit of paper that had a tracklist on one side with bands like Duran Duran, The National, and what I can only remember as a bunch of white man names I didn’t recognize but would later pretend to adore. On the other side was a short note that said something like, “I’ve seen you around campus, I know it’s creepy that I saw the car you drive but I wanted to talk to you…I think you’re really cute and I think you have noticed me too.” At the bottom of the letter was his name, Brady, and under that, his phone number.
Tom of Finland, known for his caricature-like depictions of gay male bodies and sexuality, rose to prominence at a time when gay men decided they could benefit from a re-branding. The straight monoculture in the 60s was still in it first moments of even acknowledging the societal binary of Straight and Gay and, as is echoed today (though much less so), gay men were seen uniformly as sissies.
Around this time when the sexuality binary began its spread through our language and morality-sphere, assimilationistic gay men began calling themselves “Gay” rather than “Queer” as they had done in earlier decades. “Queer” insinuated that there was something inherently different about men who loved and fucked other men. The rejection of this label would last into the early 90s, when it would reemerge as an identifier for those of other genders and/or other sexualities who interact with the political and social world in radical ways.
Tom of Finland was a surrealist illustrator with a fixation on cartoonishly gargantuan dick bulges stretching perfectly tailored denim or leather pants and hyper-masculine dude-fucking. The (white) men in his drawings were hairy-chested and overflowing with muscles, aggressively impressing the point that being gay didn’t mean being soft and feminine, it meant being an alpha male inside another alpha male.
III. Heard them coming, Saw them enter
Fred is magical. I met them at a turning point in my emotional and mental health when I began to feel like a person again. I had just moved back to my hometown in Texas, and one night, while I was dancing for my absolute life at a small hotel party, they passed by me in an enormous fur coat. I knew them from Instagram and reflexively reached my hand out to get their attention before they were gone.
As they turned toward me, I noticed the rings on every finger, the low-hanging necklaces, and the blue velvet chunky-heeled boots. I gawked to them about their ensemble and they briefly explained to me that it was just their daily armor. There, in the middle of the dance floor surrounded by moving bodies, we paused there understanding each other.
It’s rare for me to find someone so similar to myself. We are both slight-statured with long brown curls, impeccable style (though I will always aspire to their level on this), and big non-binary energy.
A month later, Fred and I went to the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth’s Cultural District, just a mile or two away from the famous stock yards that give us our nickname, Cowtown. Fred had already been through the exhibit just before I got there. It was called “Disappearing,” and they gave me a tour through what they had seen, guiding me through the context of the artists’ work and respective lives. In between telling me about pieces in the exhibit, they asked me questions about my recent travels and my early life. With fellow queers, the early life always comes up, as it’s usually our first available common ground.
No matter where I go, I will always come out of me. I may flow freely from myself or I may topple dams I build in my own way, but one way or another I will always emerge lilting through doorways, billowing skirt in the wind, stomping through hallways with cute boys and moms who are nice to me, or leaving trails of flower petals down subway steps on blocks where people have promised to kill me.
It’s unclear when exactly it happened, but somewhere along the way to this moment, I became my biggest indulgence. That feels like innocence, though, in a way I’ve only recently come to understand it. Whereas vulnerability feels like a directive force of control, the innocence it takes to live visibly as yourself, to evolve the language of identities, and to survive creatively feels like an atmosphere you choose to live under, and it takes a will of absolute stone.
Saffron Douglas is an artist currently living in their hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. They studied ballet and contemporary forms of dance and composition at the University of North Texas. Though the world of professional dance proved dissatisfying for them after a demystifying tour of Nigeria and Germany, their years of education in the moving body have informed and influenced their other artistic practices. Through a deep understanding of how a body collaborates with gravity, Saff works to find a sense of lyricism and flow within written works, ceramic sculptures, and body healing modalities. Saff continues to pursue dance for love and pleasure and hopes that all of these practices will one day merge into singular happenings.
Featured photo collage images courtesy of Saff Douglas, photography by Cody Soape.