What Does it Really Mean to Fit In?

by CAROLINE CUNNINGHAM

There’s a sort of loneliness you get used to after years of never fitting in. When you’ve grown up more comfortable around adults than around your peers; when you’ve gone through every group of loners, outcasts and weirdos and been the outcast, the loner, the weirdo even among them. You look for explanations that make you feel less broken and alone: Maybe you’re just an introvert; Those shallow brats wouldn’t understand Jane Austen anyway. You come to grips with the fact that band geeks, choir kids, 4.0-ers, and sci-fi fanatics are all in their way associated with the mainstream. You get involved with the queer kids and after a couple friendships and one long-term romance gone terribly awry, you realize the queer kids have their own conformist stamp too. There’s a hierarchy, and they may not be at the top, but they’re all somewhere in it. And it doesn’t seem that you are.

This was me the winter I was seventeen. I had dropped out of school with a 3.4 GPA after a long, harrowing experience of harassment from teachers, a school counselor, administrators - and one fellow student whom I had thought was a loyal friend. I was struggling to figure out how I would succeed in the labor industry now that I couldn’t seem to follow a career path based in academia. I had known I would go to college and get a doctorate in aerospace or newspaper comics since I was a small child, and now I was a high school dropout. I was even more isolated than previously, with my few friends all in school, and to compound matters my mother and I moved out of the house and into my grandparents’ for a month following a violent incident with my stepfather. My grandparents live in a gated community within walking distance of just about nowhere, and I couldn’t drive. The cabin fever I developed was overwhelming.

There’s a hierarchy, and they may not be at the top, but they’re all somewhere in it. And it doesn’t seem that you are.

Somewhere in this miasma of loneliness and frustration, I met Quinn, and I got a job. My mother put me in touch with a woman who sold jewelry Avon- or Mary Kay-style; that is, you bought a kit, set up an account on the company website, and from then on were essentially self-employed. There was no interview required, no directives of any kind to follow, no training, and it required exactly the autonomy and contact with people that I lacked. You can imagine it was a big flop - and to be honest, I hated the idea of being a salesperson. It wasn’t that I felt I was being dishonest. It was that everybody and her shih tzu thought I was. After a particularly heinous party where a comment on Nicki Minaj and sex positivity led to a guest ranting about the evils of feminism and then crying about her manifold encounters with sexism (an experience that was equally bewildering and completely, overwhelmingly repulsive) - a party whose host kept declaiming that she never wore jewelry anyway, and was merely looking to generously give me business - I simply ran out of steam.

That April, just before I turned eighteen, I got to visit my sister in Arizona. She was working on her Master’s in vocal performance, and had landed a role as the first of the Queen of the Night’s three ladies in the University of Arizona’s production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. I had seen her a year before in a production of La Clemenza di Tito and cried all over my silk dress (actually a present from her) during “Ah, Perdona al Primo Affetto” - even though she was wearing a wig that looked a lot like a massive blonde brain. But Die Zauberflöte was something else. The three ladies’ towering blonde-and-pink hair, the Queen of the Night’s massive rhinestone-encrusted petticoat, Papageno’s feather mohawk - it was simply a spectacle. An enormous, gaudy, unapologetic, in a certain sense, devotional spectacle. A glorious sacrifice to the gods of beauty. I knew it. I knew it looking at my sister, and seeing her presence and command of the stage. I was going to sing. I had to sing.

(Here’s a good video of “Ah, Perdona”)

The next few months were slow going. I found a voice teacher. I applied for my high school’s running start program to finish out my last semester. I learned from a university advisor that the advisors from my high school hadn’t exactly given us the right information - I could attend college with a GED. More importantly, I could attend classes  as a non-matriculated student before getting my GED and being accepted to the program. With all my GECers taken care of by AP tests, I was able to dive right into the music program fall quarter. By the end of September, I was a high school dropout, in college, studying music. It was like having a whole new identity, and even better, a direction. I was gonna be a singer, an idea that on its own simply thrilled me in a way that the thought of being a scientist or even an author never had.

***

I came out as queer when I was fifteen, and as trans the summer before my senior year.

I came out as queer when I was fifteen, and as trans the summer before my senior year. But until I dropped out of school I didn’t engage much with specifically queer spaces. I met Quinn on my first foray into this foreign social group - at a social held by my local queer youth center. I’d come with friends, but they’d abandoned me for their own relationship drama within minutes. Quinn and his friend Jamie were the first friendly faces I saw - and they seemed a little out of place too. We stuck together for the rest of the evening.

Quinn and I got into a relationship pretty quickly, but I always felt somehow off center around him, a feeling I didn’t even identify until after we broke up. That social was the only queer youth event I attended until about a year and a half later, when my partner Rowan and I attended the center’s “Queer Prom.” I knew Quinn would probably be there, along with his whole entourage. But even ignoring that, I knew I’d feel a little out of place among the pastel undercuts, menswear, and mass of gaudy rainbow accessories.

All the feelings I remembered from my days as an outcast rushed in: the simultaneous sensations of invisibility and exposure, the desperation to attach myself

Boy howdy, did I feel out of place. I had felt classy and attractive in my white sundress before I stepped into the darkened room, festooned with balloons and crowded with hyperactive teenagers. Now I felt thirty. All the feelings I remembered from my days as an outcast rushed in: the simultaneous sensations of invisibility and exposure, the desperation to attach myself to Rowan (who, in a short red prom dress and galaxy combat boots, fit much more easily into the group) before fey was completely drawn from me into a crowd of more comfortable, better-dressed, successfully-conforming strangers. It was a hard few hours, until the photos. We did a silly pose, then a sultry one. A week later we were emailed conclusive proof that we are a real, genuine cute couple: quirky. Unique. Compatible. It struck me that although Rowan fit better with the other queer kids than I did, I had no trouble fitting with Rowan - it struck me later that I hadn’t fit with Quinn; Quinn who had always made me feel out of place the way these strangers did; Quinn whom I had gradually realized was abusive.

When you’ve been isolated for years - when you’ve gotten used to loneliness - you don’t really understand what brings people together. Every group whose mechanics I’d seen up close used the same shortcut, some superficial commonality that distinguished them from others much more than it connected them to each other. They were miserable and elitist at the same time, seeing themselves as outcasts while they carefully restricted access to the group. This was what Quinn had in common with the people he surrounded himself with - things like pastel hair, an anime obsession, a blanket hatred of anything associated with Christianity. What drew Rowan and I together had been similar; a sort of angry geekery that recoiled from makeup, pop music, and smartphones. But we’ve stayed together for six years, through abusive relationships that isolated us, through confusion and anger and crises of faith, because we are deep thinkers and protectors of the weak. Because we know and respect each other. Because we have trusted, confronted, and protected each other for years. We belong together, in the end, because we are two different people each of whom truly appreciates the uniqueness of the other.

***

We gather to make music.

At school, I’m a member of two choirs. They’re diverse groups. Not every member likes every other member. There are tensions and conflicts. I’ve been embroiled in a few myself.

But we gather to make music. In rehearsal, in performance, it’s irrelevant whether the person next to me is self-righteous or gossipy or makes crass jokes. What matters is that we are working towards a common goal. I do my part. I trust the other singers to do theirs - even if I would never trust them with anything else. It’s strangely freeing to see that I can have boundaries within a community after years of expecting intimacy from every interaction. After years of identifying myself by whatever group I was a part of, I just don’t have the heart to call myself a “choir kid” the way I used to be a band kid or a geek. Keeping myself safe and sane means keeping my autonomy. But at the same time, as a singer (and there is no question that I identify myself as a singer), my place is in the choir. As I’ve learned, grown, and simply been around, I’ve come to be indispensable.

(This is a gorgeous song that I’ve had the pleasure of singing with the EWU symphonic choir: “The Coolin,” the third in a series by Samuel Barber called “Reincarnations”)

The knowledge that I belong somewhere, that I’m good at what I do, and that people respect what I have to contribute, is like a high.

In other groups I’ve belonged to, I have never felt indispensable. In my desperation to belong, I never did anything that set me apart. In my desperation to maintain my individuality, I never accepted the constraints of the group. I’ve mentioned that I used to tell myself I was an introvert: let me say now that I am not. I am the noseyest, noisiest, PDA-iest, let’s-be-friends-iest, overshare-iest extrovert in probably the galaxy. I am constantly communicating even if no one is around. I exaggerate my reactions to everything hoping that the humor of it will put people at ease. I make silly faces at you from across the room, I bounce up and down when I’m happy, and I see silence as an invitation to say whatever is on my mind. The choir director wants to know who will try a solo: my hand is already in the air. I get songs so ingrained in my mind that I just might start singing along with the tenors if the sopranos are on a rest - without even noticing. The knowledge that I belong somewhere, that I’m good at what I do, and that people respect what I have to contribute, is like a high. The same goes for the energy of a group of people all working together to produce something beautiful - and let me tell you, you can tell when it isn’t there, too. A choir that doesn’t appreciate the piece they’re learning is about as sorry a sight as a cat in the rain.

Learning to love yourself is an incredibly difficult process in a world that tells us self-respect is vanity and confidence is arrogance. Even knowing who you are (or want to be!) in the first place isn’t easy when you have an endless palette of pretty much the same options set before you. You have to think outside the box. But as I’ve gotten to know and appreciate myself, I’ve been able to share myself with others. In giving myself permission to do whatever it takes to be most honest and most real, I’ve set myself apart and at the same time, I’ve found where I belong - and never looked back at where I don’t.

***

Caroline “Keio” Cunningham is working on a BM in vocal performance at Eastern Washington University, where fly is a member of the EWU Symphonic Choir and Collegians, a vocal jazz group. In flights free time fly writes, draws, and paints. Fly is currently in the process of writing the next great American novel, to be published whenever fly has the time - probably at the end of a longstanding opera career.

**Some names in this essay have been changed by the author out of respect for privacy**