Last week, I posted about how a gay parent at my son’s preschool helped me to understand more about gender identity. (Click here for a refresher.) I decided to continue the series by interviewing one of my close friends, Susan Stewart.
She is the owner of a totally awesome store, Strapping Fit, in Sacramento. We grew up together in Palm Springs and I’ll keep it one hundred, I never knew she was gay until she came out (well after high school).
Sit back as she shares her experiences growing up gay in then-conservative Palm Springs, what she really thinks about the lesbian stereotypes, and why if there’s dessert available, there’s no need for dinner.
For those who don’t know you, introduce yourself!
My name is Susan Stewart, I am the owner of a gender queer clothing line called Strapping Fit; I make menswear inspired clothing for female body shapes. My clientele is mainly masculine women that identify as lesbians, but I also have a large trans male customer base and a few cisgendered men that have smaller builds.
I’ve known you forever (like 20+ years and only recently you came out, at least to me). When was the defining moment in your life when you said, ‘This is me, this is who I am, this is my truth, and you will deal.’
I waited until after high school to “come out” just for the simple fact that I grew up in a very conservative Catholic family. I knew I was gay long before I told my family, but I always had it in the back of my mind that I would make sure I was self-sustained before I “let the cat out of the bag”. I think a lot of young kids fears are that they will be disowned by their families and friends… I had a really tough abusive childhood so I wasn’t really worried about being disowned, but I was worried about being kicked out of the house.
I was lucky enough to land an amazing job right out of high school at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood; it was a very empowering time for me. I was far from my conservative home in Palm Springs (which you touch on in the next question) I was making pretty good money, living on my own, taking care of myself, meeting new liberal people who shared my thoughts on the world, and surprisingly enough reconnected with a friend from high school that was living in Los Angeles and kind of on the same path as me.
He graduated the year prior and was living in Studio City, and we ended up running into each other at an Art Museum (I’m not going to say his name because that’s his journey and story to tell) but we went out to dinner that night, and then back to his apartment (get your mind out of the gutter) and he just bluntly asked me if I was dating any girls. I paused and looked at him. He said “you’re gay, right?” At that point I hadn’t even said it out loud to myself.
I looked at him and just started to cry and said “yeah I’m gay” I was 18 years old. It wasn’t until about three years later when I was 21 years old that I came out to my parents, and at that point I was very open about who I was. My mother cried, but told me that she didn’t care if I was green, she would always love me. My father said he already knew, but was just waiting for me to tell him.
Looking back at how long we’ve known each other, I never thought you were gay. I guess it wasn’t something anyone talked about (and this is the 90’s here). How was it like growing up back then and keeping that big secret?
For those who aren’t aware, Palm Springs, CA was not the liberal, gay-friendly, Coachella-loving city it is now. It was actually quite – and some parts it still is – very conservative.
Yeah, its funny that people alway assume that Palm Springs was always this liberal place, when it was incredibly conservative growing up. I knew I was gay the same time most of the rest of our class knew they were straight… puberty, like junior high. The thing about me, was that I was never “girly” so the fact that I was also a lesbian freaked me out. All you want to do in middle school and high school is survive the social battlefield; so my coping mechanism was always humor. Thank God, I have a good sense of humor.
Boys were never interested in the “funny girl” it was way too intimidating… and the funny person is never the sexy one, you’re goofy and silly. I honestly just kept myself as busy as I possibly could with sports and art and after school clubs, so that I didn’t have time for boys and dating. It was really hard. I had crushes on girls, I was jealous of people who went to dances and parties, I would have loved to have a girlfriend; but I knew in our super conservative town that would have been impossible. Being gay during that time of my life, was really painful; I couldn’t get out of high school and Palm Springs fast enough.
Lesbians tend to be classified as either ‘lipstick’ or ‘butch/stud.’ How do you feel about the stereotypes?
This one always bothered me, and I am so happy that the world is starting to understand that things are on a spectrum. There is a lot of grey in this black and white world and of course in sexuality and gender. I was never feminine, but honestly I was never really masculine; I’ve always felt I was somewhere right in the middle and when someone would call me butch or referred to me as “the guy” in a relationship it always made me feel weird. I’m Susan.
I spoke to you a little about gender identity and how it’s become more fluid over the years and throughout different generations. I was quite surprised when you said it’s even a relatively new concept in the LGBTQ community. Can you elaborate on that?
The LGBTQ community is just a bunch of humans. Humans have a really hard time accepting things that they don’t understand, and don’t apply to them. I think we have all been put in a box for so long, that the idea that you can be a myriad of things sometimes freaks people out.
There are a lot of people in the queer community who don’t like Bisexuals because they feel like they are dancing between homosexuality and heteronormity, so to now have this movement in gender where once butch lesbians are now trans men, for example, a lot of the community sees it as them turning their backs on homosexuals… when in actuality they are just living their truth. It takes a really open heart and mind to accept differences, in any community.
I have a lot of transgendered friends and they are going through very hard times, having to “come out” again. Having to explain themselves to the straight world and the queer world. It’s not an easy road, and to have their community turn their backs on them is hard to watch.
Have you ever had anyone be confused by your appearance? For example, you do wear makeup but you dress in masculine clothing. How do you deal with that?
Little kids on a daily basis ask me if I’m a boy or a girl, because it’s black and white to them. I just use it as a teaching moment and tell them that I’m a girl, and that some girls cut their hair short and wear bow ties and some boys like makeup and glitter and that’s totally cool.
I haven’t had any adults confuse me for a man since I was younger; again I just use humor and make fun of the situation to lighten things up, because 9 out of 10 times they are more humiliated than me. I’m super comfortable with who I am. My heart hurts when people judge me before they meet me, but I’ve always felt that one of my purposes on this planet was to open minds, and spread a little laughter on tense situations.
What are some things, as a LGBTQ ally, should I be aware of? I know a lot of people consider themselves allies but when it comes to walking the walk, sometimes, it’s crickets.
I think with any community of people, disabled, LGBTQ, Africian American, Hispanic; they are the experts. They are walking in their skin, empathy is great, but open heart and mind is the way to approach all people. With our current administration in the White house, I think it’s important for all of us allies to be there when it counts. There are a lot of communities under attack and I think we need to show up , and not turn our backs on each other when it’s not our fight.
Looking back at your life up until now, what is the one event you could say, ‘Hmm…I probably should’ve thought about that one a bit more.’ It could be any event. It’s not necessarily a regret; it could also be a triumph. But what is something that happened that makes you wonder, ‘I probably should’ve thought that one through…’
The only event that I really regret, was leaving Paramount Pictures. I was young and exhausted working 60 plus hours at a “grown-up” job and I just left the industry and Los Angeles without a care in the world and returned to Palm Springs. I wish I had thought that one through a little longer, because that part of my life put me back into a situation where I was back in a very conservative town, and in a very straight male dominated world in the golf industry. BUT honestly, everything I’ve done in life has brought me to the place I am now and I am so freaking happy it’s hard to think I would want it any other way.
What advice can you give to everyone regarding gender identity, sexuality, and just the ever-changing scope of it all?
The magical thing about people is that we are complex and gender and sexuality shouldn’t be so stringent. If we can open our hearts and minds to the fact that not everyone thinks and acts like you, it’ll be a better world. “Accept who you are, unless you’re a serial Killer” – Ellen Degeneres
Fun time! Name five fun facts about you.
Five Fun Facts:
- I started playing golf at age six and became a teaching professional in my 20’s.
- I can do a really good New Yawk Accent, thanks to being raised by mommy from the block “da bronx.”
- I have a crazy sweet tooth and have ordered dessert for dinner on many occasions.
- I know all the lyrics to “the humpty dance” and Ice Cube’s “today was a good day.”
- I’m allergic to everything… you could literally kill me with a shrimp cocktail.
Thank you so much to my good friend, Susan, for being so open and candid.
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To visit Strapping Fit’s website, click here.
(All of the merchandise photos are actual items located at the Strapping Store. If you’re in the Sacramento area, go check her out!)