Virtual Book Tour: The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

by Shaker Peggy Sue, a badass queer femme by day and badass roller derby queer femme by night and holy crap she loves this book.

S. Bear Bergman is an inveterate storyteller and award winning playwright. Zie is also the author of Butch is a Noun, a seminal work about butchness that should be mandatory reading for any and everyone interested in gender identity. It also "…makes butchness accessible to those who are new to the concept, and makes gender outlaws of all stripes feel as though they have come home—if home is a place where everyone understands you and approves of your haircut."

Bear's latest work is called The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You. Another compilation of deeply meaningful and personal essays, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You tackles complex questions of gender, identity and the intersection of both with wit, gentle humor and pockets of great joy.

As a big fan of Shakesville (and an even bigger S. Bear Bergman fan), I'm delighted to offer up this interview where we talk about queerness, advice for cisgender people and capri pants.

Okay, let's get the identity part out there first. How do you identify?

These days, I mostly identify as overcommitted.

Not what you meant? Oh.

Relative to the topics of the book, I identify as butch, as transmasculine, and as queer. I also identify as Jewish (as a race, ethnicity, and religion), enabled/able-bodied, middle class, fat, and ballroom-dance lead.


Why does anyone identify as anything? Those are the things I am, or have come to understand myself to be, or how I wish to be seen in the world. They're also the labels I find most close to what I actually feel, or do. But I could go on for...well, for a while, describing exactly how some things work for me, or why, or what certain things mean to me, as I use them today.

Butch is a Noun was essays, as is The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You. Why essays?

I seem to do well in an essay format. I'm not a great fiction writer, except the occasional bit of smut, and I could probably do a cohesive book of nonfiction—memoir-style—but many of the things that eventually got into The Nearest Exit wouldn't have fit, because they're more academic. Plus memoir tends to be chronological, which I am not that great at. I think, at heart, I am an essayist (and like most essayists a bit of an egotist, since I clearly imagine that people will be interested in what I think about, oh, anything).

The title of Nearest Exit comes from an intense encounter with a seatmate on an airplane. Do you, as a queer and queerly gendered person, have suggestions for other queers on how to negotiate hostility from cis and/or non-queer people?

I'm not very good at it, is the problem. So I really hesitate to give advice. Usually what I do is act like kind of an ass, which doesn't seem to help anything. The best I am ever able to do, if we measure by the results, is "kill 'em with kindness" as my mother likes to say: I am so friendly, so helpful, so charming and so polite that they feel ashamed of themselves.

How about for cisgendered people when they have questions of people in the queer and/or trans community (or both)?

This is a very good question. It is a great question, because this is a thing that has been somewhat on my mind of late. I would like to suggest a few guidelines for straight people and/or cisgender people on the subject of When You Want To Learn More...

1. The best thing you can do is read. There are a lot of facts in books and on the internet, just waiting for you to learn them. There is no reason to start making your friends and acquaintances explain their lives to you when professionals have already covered the basics. Get all your facts from books or reputable websites.

1a. Don't complain that this is too much work. The nice people at PFLAG ( have published reading lists, FAQs, whatever.

2. Once you've done your homework, then you can think about asking your queer or trans friends questions about what you've learned, and how they experience it. That is, don't ask them about what something means (Why is Pride always in June?) but do ask about their experiences of it (Do you remember your very first Pride March?).

3. Don't assume all the stories will be awful, and don't look shocked if someone queer or trans is really pretty much fine. Though I've had family struggles and personal issues and a variety of other things, my life now is actually totally great. Be prepared to sympathize, but also be prepared to celebrate.

4. Remember that not everyone's experience or vocabulary are the same. We're all individuals, we all come from and move through different experience. Don't assume that because you and I had a long, flirty, informative lunch that you now know everything about all transpeople. Likewise, don't map what you know about some other transperson on to me. For example, I am fine for people to /know/ my first name but it's never okay to call me that. For some transfolks, their old name is a source of real pain. For some, they don't change their names at all. Don't assume. Can I say that again? Don't assume.

5. Figure out if the question you're asking is appropriate to how well you know someone. Would you ask someone else you know this well about their genitals? No? Then don't ask me about mine. Would you ask someone else, similarly, about the mechanics of having their kid? No? Then don't ask a queer or trans person the same question.

You write a lot about how your gender is rarely questioned these days, in part because of your male partner. How is that different from your life before him? Have you encountered negative opinions from the queer community because you have a male partner?

My partner isn't male, he's a transman. The difference is that male is a sex, and man is a gender. So is transman, which is how my fantastic transsexual husband identifies himself.

There have been some complex reactions to the changes in my life since Butch Is A Noun. I'm pleased that many people seem to understand that my changes don't have anything to do with them, and that I am /not/ suggesting that they will change, or that they won't—as ever, I'm just reporting how things went for me.

In the book, you reference your Judaism. How has and does your Jewishness influence your queerness? And vice versa?

I go into that, at some length, in the book—it's a complex question, and one that usually takes at least two chapters or 30 minutes to answer. I think I have to say "Read the book!" for this one.

I find your wonderful manners absolutely captivating. Who in the world taught you all that?

My parents started me off and laid a very good foundation. I was always a very polite kid, even if I was also perhaps slightly argumentative. I learned a lot from them, and my grandparents, about manners. As a teenager, I was taken in hand by a cadre of high femmes and drag queens who tuned me up further, teaching me how to make myself the best possible foil and frame for them.

Also, I think, I have a natural bent toward performativity, and a lot of stage training. These things also make me more attuned to the people around me, more likely to perform a little or create a space in which someone I admire can perform a little. Plus, let's not kid ourselves: it's fun! It's a lot of fun.

You wrote "As a girl child, I was never asked to be seen and not heard." How did your family react to your butchness? Your trans-ness?

They've reacted in various ways, over time. There was kind of a long slow grinding battle on certain subjects, like whether I would shave my legs—and some of that shit lasted for, literally, a decade. It was not always easy. But my family is very....well, communicative, even if we "communicate" at the top of our lungs, and at the same time that someone else is also trying to "communicate". But we don't hold things in. We fight about them, we say judgmental things, we make each other feel bad, we feel bad that we made each other feel bad, we apologize and make up, and then we do it all again.

It's not exactly a streamlined process, but it works. And now we mostly do well—certainly, they love me and support me, certainly they adore my husband. Have we moved entirely beyond the snotty comments about my haircut? No. Then again, when does any Jewish mother stop commenting on her kids' hair and clothes? Maybe I need to stop assigning it all to my gender.

You wrote "Gender is an a la carte" arrangement. Can you explain what that means to you?

I mean that it seems to me we have an idea, culturally, that you identify a gender and then you have to, must, on your honor, do every single thing the culture associates with that gender and none of the things it does not. That's a load of rubbish, but it's well-supported by the media, especially, so we believe in it like it were the truth. It's perfectly okay to do and be whatever you want, however much it may be a mix of gendered attributes.

Not as many people do this as want to, I think, because society doesn't really like it. It's confusing, and so people get all weird about it. But it's possible to just pick exactly what you want. You do not have to have whatever someone else thinks comes with your main dish.

Did I just create a gender metaphor in which the genitals are the main dish? Let's just keep going, shall we?

Do you really wear capris? Really?

Well. I wear 3/4 length shorts, sometimes. Man-pris. With nice leather slides and a linen shirt. Cute for a fat guy.

No, really, it is. Wait, PSue, where are you going?

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