I see my life reflected the most in Longleaf Pines.
Sometimes the intersections of my identities make me feel like I am surrounded by heat on all sides. Like there is nowhere to go and nothing to do but burn to the ground. But in these moments, that I feel will incinerate me, growth is ignited.
I am from the Deep South where moonshine is fermented and barbecue is synonymous with birthday parties and also where homophobia is tradition and Christianity is synonymous with law. As a child, I knew I was different. Girls did not invite me to sleepovers, and I resonated with my Queer cousins on an incomprehensible level. This is where the fire started.
I struggled internally with feelings I lacked a name for until fifth grade when I had my first girlfriend. Nothing had ever felt so natural before. Something told eleven-year-old me that this would stop the burning. But my feelings of glee and safety were short-lived as I was not prepared for what would happen next. I was called names. My peers deemed my actions unholy.
I felt this undeniable heat in my chest, and the social alienation and condemnation encircling me fueled my internalized homophobia. Throughout middle school, I tried to sell myself the lie that liking girls was all in my head. I struggled with eating issues which worsened when I ran cross country. I spent the summer before my freshman year crying, conflicted as to how much of myself I should be in high school.
Freshman me was out but sheepish. During my sophomore year, I decided to join an abolitionist grassroots organization, Carolina Youth Action Project. By then, I treated my sexuality like an accessory, something worn only occasionally. I walked into my Youth Action Alliance interview, and there was a Transgender flag hung on the wall, pronoun pins in a bucket, and Zami by Audre Lorde on a bookshelf: a Queer safe space. The fire quelled as I let my guard down and queerness out.
I walked into my first YAA meeting, and again the smothering heat around me gradually dulled. During the group introductions, I looked about me and the fire was gone. I was no longer burning alive. In the CYAP space, survival was not my main priority, living was. Interwoven in political education were lessons on how to plant seeds of self-love in a world that equates queerness with weeds.
My most life-changing CYAP expedition was going to the Creating Change Conference, a national LGBT conference in Detroit. I was overwhelmed the first day because I had never been surrounded by so many people like me. I cried after one lesbian panel. There were older Black couples that I saw my future self in. After meeting them, I realized that my insecure sense of self needed to be burned down before anything beautiful within could blossom in its place.
Ballroom culture is prevalent in Detroit, and so naturally there was a ball one night of the conference. The voguing and trophies reminded me of “Paris is Burning” because it was where I first saw such an empowering presentation of Black queerness. There were Black bodies on stage sweating and smiling profusely, voguing unapologetically, and loving every second of it. This atmosphere inflamed me because it inspired me to create my own narrative.
I came out as Genderqueer at the beginning of my senior year. Younger me would be so happy to see that I have burgeoned into someone who is comfortable in their own skin. Someone who is not ablaze anymore. I have immersed myself in a community who has planted seeds within me that will grow forever. The fires are out. I am now free.
Longleaf Pines: the trees that need to be surrounded by fiery destruction before they can sprout seeds, kindling growth.