As a multi-hyphenate artist, I have spent much of my life contending with the illusion of a single-path life. In order to live as many lives as possible, I even decided the best way to ensure my happiness would be to become an actor. It didn’t take me long to find out that due to my ample body I was likely only going to get given one type of role, woman-who-doesn’t-look-the-way-the-industry-expects-women-to-look-and-is-therfore-a-joke. Despite my best efforts to go after a career in acting with everything I had, there were so many more things I wanted to do other than play a disgruntled woman in a phone-service commercial.
I make visual art, I perform drag, I love helping other people make art. And then there’s my life’s great romance with language. I believe in words, their power, their failings and how we use them to tell stories, change minds, and connect each other. And I love to write them. I’m not special in my penchant for spinning many plates. Every single one of us is complicated and multi-faceted. For some of us, it’s business, activism, parenthood, gardening, pickling, dancing, eating, making ships in a bottle. So while I looked to acting to liberate me from being reduced to a single story it started to choke and even limit my view of myself. I defined myself as a performer and everything else was simply a side note. If I was not acting or doing something in support of my acting career I was wasting my time. I believed that if you wanted to do something it had to be your sole, unyielding focus.
I had always struggled to dissect who I am from what I do. And I have also had one million different jobs that seemingly have nothing to do with art. I’ve been a cheesemonger, a chef, a nanny, a housekeeper, an assistant, a manager, a data entry analyst, and a dog walker to name a few. All of those things paid my bills when I was trying to knock down the gates around those paid acting jobs. And yet when people asked me back then, who are you, what do you do? I would feel deep shame about the answers. An actor? No one was paying me to do it. An artist? I made art in secret. A dog walker? I hated walking people’s dogs but it’s what I did.
I learned early on, from having to choose and defend my subjects in school, to identify with my work as a performer or an artist. This approach then lead to a habit of with identifying with anything that could be deemed work. I was the dog-walker, the cheesemonger, the data-entry monkey.
When you go to university you decide what you are going to focus on and you become the person pursuing a degree in that subject, with the expectation that you will go on to create a career and in turn an identity around that subject. We are delivered stories of the “greats” in our field to keep us going in those early days. These stories of success inevitably include a myopic focus on a single goal. But when you live this, when you attempt to shut out the noise of your complexity you starve yourself of yourself. You suffocate your beautiful intricacies.
This tightening of identity spread to my gender and sexuality too. As I tried harder and harder to fit into the “woman” role, I found it more and more difficult to express my identity as a queer woman. I now proudly identify as queer or bi, but then I felt like I was always trying to pass. I would want to be read as straight in straight worlds or gay in queer spaces because these were singular identities that I felt people could understand. Letting go of my identity as an actor or performer or comedian I freed myself to start doing drag. This then led to being out as queer on stage and in turn out in the world. By opting out of a story I was telling about who I was, I was able to live my truth.
I think about all this pressure. The pressure to define oneself. To choose a path and stick to it. To decide, I am this, this is who I am. I wonder how we got here. It can be really useful to have shorthand to communicate. What is your name? Where are you from? Where do you live? What language do you speak? What pronouns do you prefer? What is your job? These are questions with helpful answers for navigating respectful dialogue. But when we start to limit people to their answers we veer into territory where we don’t allow any of this to be malleable. When we start demanding that people pick something and stick to it we limit that person's potential growth.
There is an ideal set out by generations that came before mine. My parents are baby boomers. If you take a look at their lives from afar you see a man and a woman, married, with two children. Both with careers in one field with a steady progression toward something that can easily be recognized as “success”. This is the kind of narrative that stops people in my generation feeling like they can explore the edges of who they are. But if you get up close to any person’s life you start to see the details. And often the details betray the narrative used to keep us in place. Looking closely at the details of my parents' lives, features begin to emerge of two people who have explored many different paths. They have made big leaps leading to enormous wins and devastating failures. They have switched paths again and again and again, using the lessons from each to enrich the journey on the next.
So while I was spending so much time trying to keep to the path that “made the most sense” for me I wasn’t taking into account the stories of the people I admire most. And anyone who tries to sell you a story of a straight path from birth to death is leaving all the best stuff out.
It’s one thing to talk through the steps, analyze the whys and whats of the limiting expectations placed on us by demanding these singular identities. But it’s another thing to truly let go and an embrace the multiplicity of identity. You get to self-determine. I am reminded of the old question successful women get asked to an infuriating degree, “Is it possible to have it all?” In my mind, I don’t see why we are trying to "have it all" when we already have so much, we already are so much.
It took me a while but I now find myself exploring many paths, simultaneously. I make art but I use words, image, performance, films to tell my stories. I also do a ton of things that have nothing to do with art making and they are as much a part of who I am as the art I make. I identify with my multitudes rather than forcing myself into a singular, easy to swallow, idea. I am a million different things and let me tell you, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had! And I haven’t exploded into a million pieces, gone broke, or collapsed from exhaustion. Quite the opposite, my life is full of color, texture, and light. And if anyone is confused by me, I don’t give a fuck, I’m not here for them, I’m here for all the multi-hyphenates.