Published on December 7th, 2023 | by Kat Vaino


Platonically Queered: Friendship Beyond Borders

I was a little boy named Katie with a penchant for wearing gumboots in swamps in a small agricultural town in Western Canada. I loved catching frogs and laying on the grass and sinking into the soil while watching the glinting and glimmering of poplar tree leaves dancing against the sunlight as caterpillars curled edges of leaves to begin the process of un-becoming in their cocoon; and I too cocooned in this world with the smell of grass against my bowl-cut hair; freckles splattered across my nose and chubby cheeks. It was the ’80s—no one knew where kids were—and so childhood was a practice of being invisible, hanging onto creaking barn doors, popping BB guns at pop cans, screaming into the night at coyotes, and burying the parts of myself that created tension when I walked into the doors of my home, the tension when I snuggled my girlfriends a little too long. 

In the mid 1990s a child psychologist labeled me as an angry teenager after a suicide attempt, but the anger in me was a righteous anger, which was misunderstood for teenage angst and depression. The psychologist was an incompetent old white man who seemed more interested in the dust settling on his desk rather than hearing what I was actually saying underneath what I was saying. I was pressurized from the inside; trying to erase myself to belong to a system that bullied those who seemed other until otherness became a place to celebrate; but this escaped my youth. I grew faster than others and soon felt the heaviness of outgrowing what was socially acceptable for the height of a girl, and so I held yet another brick in my pocket of not fitting; not fitting into girl, into size, shape, or gender. At some point during a drama class in 10th grade I realized I could keep pretending into the role of girl until I even believed it—and so I did; one of my greatest adaptations. I grew my hair long, again, and distanced myself from who I was, to become someone who could find belonging, safety, and love. But life brought out my queer in ways I couldn’t hide; in my longing to be closer to my friends, a longing to have skin melt into each other, knowing a soul deeply soothed me, bodies piled into each other like slithering snakes tangled until you cannot decipher who is who. My hidden queer would creep in from the dark, an unquenchable desire to love deeper; love beyond borders where friendship meets lover, where lover meets friend, where holding space between the heat of thoughts in soul-filled conversations becomes a burst of light into the knowing of myself; through orgasm; through laughter, through sweat, through tears, and none of these experiences could clearly define if it went too far, and to whose body my touch might ignite or be ignited; it pooled into a gathering place for pleasure. In my nakedness, unclothed, ungendered, I was free. My freedom cost me and the debt was a new label: slut.

My body then transcended timelines; from baby to boy, from boy to girl, from girl to woman, and from woman to mother; slowly over months from conception to creation I became something beyond human, “for a minute I lost myself” (Karma Police, Radiohead). I eroded into an unknowable being who grew a transportation device from the heavens to my hips and a living being and I met there at the place where life touches death; birth as one of the places life edges death where we tear away from existing and rather we are the space for another to erupt into beingness, and to be tethered to the anchor of divinity from within my hips to a person who would grow looking to me; me. This was confronting, a bit much, really. From one moment I was a boy with snakes and sticky hair, and then suddenly a baby boy with blue eyes suckled my breast in their mouth and drank me in; my body satiated; my body nourished; my body was divinity enacted.

I cursed the newness of the first-latch for each subsequent baby in the following years as I birthed my second and third; it sent an electrical pulse to my uterus which then forced contractions, forced after labor pains that screamed at me like 10cm dilation-transition, and there was no transcending that transition; it made me growl from my navel to the base of my spine and cut an edge in the oxytocin I was trying to drink in; the midwife checked my pelvis as I lay hunched over in pain on a mattress in my living room, minutes after leaving the birthing pool, she was looking for tears in my vulva. My family celebrated another life; I shook with love and pain, the trauma of feeling my pelvis almost rip from my body and crack open to make room for another; and I had yet to make room for myself. There is a glorification of birth, but the glory is that it is bloody and raw, it is unruly and untamed; from chaos emerges the miraculous, and birth is a vessel that travels from human to parent; in-between the worlds lies a solo human, the human before emerging as mother, into a person who lives with responsibility for another if they step up to the opportunity; not all do. This is ungendered; and motherhood is an ungendered opportunity to love and take on responsibility for others; to encapsulate mother energy and offer it to those who need it is trans. We transcend what we become what we are called to be, beyond words and cultural identity.

As my children grew, I began to look for the room for myself; between the teething, breastfeeding, nipples half bitten off, diaper changes, and acquiescing to the life I had made for myself where I forgot myself; right in that nook is where I was finding myself. An old familiar feeling returned, the feeling of emergence, forgotten life-force wanting to erupt into existence, a consciousness buried in a little boy who never got to find his voice; and here in front of me now were two little boys and a little girl from my body who needed my protection. The next decade we would survive: survive abuse, survive divorce, survive many diagnoses, survive being cast aside, to be again in the realm of other; to be a single mom who is not a mom, to be single in a country away from the one I was born.

Sitting at my kitchen table in my early 30’s, alone, babies in bed, staring hopelessly at a stack of divorce papers no one would dare to help me understand, I turned to wine. The wine helped me leave for a long time as I sat in a life I couldn’t fully live in; it poured heavy in the glass of my life that had overfilled with a practice of turning away. Moms group turned away from me, the yoga community turned away from me, my family turned away from me, “what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here” (Creep, Radiohead). I had made myself a girl, I had made myself a wife, I had made myself a mother, I had given myself away to belong to this world and there I sat; a pretty boy—alone.

“Don’t leave my high, don’t leave my dry” (High and Dry, Radiohead). After years of early morning headaches, running far and fast away from myself, I woke up to the resolution of being sick enough of my own bullshit to turn away from the wine and face the grief; to sit in the cocoon and unbecome; the dissolving years. The years of tears and grief, the years where I slowly started to name outside myself the words: boy, trans, genderqueer, nonbinary; the years where I began to understand society will crush you into conformity and kick you while you are down; to be cast aside into the untethering of culture by ostracization through singledom, the wild beast, single parenting single-doom. It’s discombobulating going from celebrated peer to predatory single human. It’s a strange feeling to be loved one moment when considered “taken” which is to really be “owned” in society, and then in mere moments the same people who once celebrated you consider you a threat. At first I thought I was a threat because they thought I might try to take their husbands, but this was misguided, the real threat is that if I reveal how I got free of the abuse, the tyranny, and the torment of playing into the hands of patriarchal dynamics I confront the same issues others are facing within their relationships; the thing they do not want to confront or reveal because then they too stand the chance of being cast into the lowly abyss of single-mom-gremlin; free and yet stuck in a new realm of impossibility. 

It came as no surprise in the middle of my divorce, as one of my dear friends was dying of brain cancer, that once again people turned away from that too; turned to anger and erasure, unable to access the well of empathy that is living within all of us; but death too, is confronting and painful; and people run and drink and hide from feeling the fulness of it—but not Julie. Julie met her death holding the hand of divinity; she was unapologetically queer in a Mennonite Christian family who loved her but did not accept her and believed she would go to hell; not all of them, but enough that it made me feel stabby and want to cut a bitch—bitch is ungendered, of course; but to feel anger to this level, too, is unladylike. I wanted to shelter Julie in my shoulders, I wanted to hold her in my bosom and let her drink my let-down, nourish her cells, help her be strong again, allow the same life sustaining mechanism of my breast to provide life-giving sustenance into her body; like little love warrior cells kicking brain cancer’s ass; and so I flew into Canada, mid-divorce, mid-ostracized beast, to carry Julie. 

When I landed in Canada the cancer was spiraling me closer; drawing me from Oakland to Abbotsford; and she had woken up from a coma and asked me when I was coming. I booked my flight that same day and a miracle happened. She was moved from the hospital to home, she was lucid, speaking, but unable to walk. I arrived with tears in my eyes and saw immediately I was not alone in the grief, trying to reckon with how cruel life can be; how could life choose this person? This good, kind, queer, loving human whose giggle still reverberates a hymn in my heart. She looked at me, she giggled, and so began the days of carrying. All the height I grew into, my strong shoulders, were made to hold this; to carry this love and this pain. Over the next few days, I would carry Julie everywhere I could, I washed her, and we laughed at the humility of what it meant to be dying, how we need each other for so much. She had food in her teeth and earwax in her ears and I thought how quickly these parts of our living add up and need tending to, how even brushing a loved one’s hair is an offering; how to turn towards another’s body in its dying is to turn towards it in its living; that what is living changes and transitions into the next place of being—and being is also returning. Julie walked me home to her death, she held my heart in her own faith so I could face her death, and she did it with her funny giggle that makes the night sky brighter, she cleansed her community in a concession of faith journeying to her own ending, which was her offering to all who would turn towards it. Julie gave us the gift of her life. She still does. She is in my fingers helping me write my hurt into pages; she’s in my heart reminding me despite the pain that this is all a gift, to have faith beyond my own comprehension; and that there is always room for joy. I wish I could kiss her face one more time. 

Photo by Jude Infantini on Unsplash

Each year as her passing-date approaches I ascend into the mountain and find her there; she dances around me as dragonfly and sparrow, she leads me as wolf, she is a guiding force that shook away the edges of a life that held residual accumulation of past iterations. Her essence is instilled in the way I nourish my children, the way the flecks of my humanity which participate in ego begin to melt away as I resolve myself to know the preciousness of loving a person exactly as they are. Parenting can be the ultimate gate keeping; or it can set you free. Standing back and witnessing babies grow into children, then into adolescents, has been a consolidation with my own missing pieces of childhood where I felt hidden and other, and now I have the healing of loving my own children; in fact my children have shown me the acceptance I yearned for in my years of hidden identity. 

My gender journey has been a journey of grieving and a reconciliation of pieces broken off and re-imagined. To be mother, uncle, parent, friend, lover, dude, guy, woman, folk, human, these are all parts of me on a self-partnered journey where I have laid an offering to myself of autonomous growth with unhindered love. I am rooted in my own queerness that holds all the varying truths of living in a world that both celebrates other and eradicates other—depending on where you live; and I live in this body, in its giant sized glory, in its indiscreet pleasure, in its power—to transcend to the next most honest, most true thing that I will become, “everything in its right place” (Everything in Its Right Place, Radiohead).

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

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About the Author

Kat Vaino is a writer and poet working in equitable education through Disability Support Services at Diablo Valley College.  They are Canadian born genderqueer mutha of three children, based in California. Kat holds degrees in both English & Social Justice and is working towards their B.A. in Ethnic Studies at CSUEB. You can connect with them on Instagram @KatVaino.

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