The first time I experienced what we would now call thirst, I was watching Rocky Horror Picture Show; I was about ten and it was a life-changing event. (I’ve written about the scintillating experience for FANGRRLS.)
Experiencing that movie, I finally kind of understood what my older sister meant when she talked about finding a guy hot—or what Wayne and Garth meant when they said SCHWING! I also knew that while my sister’s attractions weren’t openly discussed or accepted by our parents, my interest in Dr. Frank-and-Furter and his sexcapades meant something much, much worse. My pre-pubescent self was so overwhelmed with the delight and horror at the sight of a person with a bulge and big red lips getting busy with Janet and Brad that I couldn’t even deal with the wider ramifications for years.
You see, when you’re queer, you learn early on that your sexual desires are abject, unwanted — something to be hidden away. You learn it in a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways before you even know you’ve learned it. For me, Sunday School and home did all the work of teaching me that no one would love the queerness in me and that I would be wise to hide it. I was nothing if not a good student and I learned the lesson quickly, burying my budding sexuality deep inside my heart.
The issue was only compounded by the fact of my perceived gender. If being queer made my sexuality unspeakable, being assigned female at birth made my sexuality the subject of constant surveillance. Being a tomboy protected me up to a point, but once I hit puberty, it was all fear and shame. So, I cut myself off from my attractions, my body, and others in any way that might be perceived as romantic. I went to the school dances, but I was the moody teenager wearing too much make-up standing in a corner feeling sorry for myself.
When I finally began to explore my sexuality — both in relation to myself and to others — in college, I was ecstatic and deeply confused. In addition to this internal reckoning, I found myself constantly harassed when I was out with other queer people — whether we were involved romantically or not. So, I slipped quietly back into the closet. The door was open and I could see out into the world, but I knew there would be no queer glory in my future.
But then I fell in love. I found myself suddenly unable to accept the closet, unable to accept hiding my love for fear of harassment I was being subjected to, anyway. I didn’t make it a big deal—in part because I was still dealing with my internalized oppressor—but I started holding my girlfriend’s hand in public and being open about my attractions.
In doing so, I realized the things that terrified me, the things that made me feel small and ashamed and lesser, the things that I tried desperately to hide—my sexuality, the sex I was having, and my thirst—were also what set me free.
My drunken, admittedly probably not very good, sexual experiences with my girlfriend and others didn’t just show me about the beauty of my sexuality — they allowed me to feel the full extent of my queerness and my body. This, in turn, became the grounds for embracing my own thirsty, sexual self.Thirst and romance, in general, get a reputation for being unserious, which is less than shocking when we consider both that the vast majority of romance consumers and creators are women and how our society views women and femininity. Thirst and romance are frequently imagined to be the flights of fancy of bored housewives, but in reality, thirst and romance have long been revolutionary and transgressive—both among queer communities and among feminists.
Thirst is a form of sexual agency, something that has been denied to people pushed to the margins of society — namely queer and nonbinary folks, women, and people of color. PoC who are also women and/or queer and nonbinary, of course, experience the most drastic denial of their sexual agency, as do disabled people and other groups who are multiply marginalized.
In reality, thirst doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. That’s why it’s kind of creepy when straight, white men talk about wanting to f*** a female celebrity, but when a bunch of nerds (I’m looking at us FANGRRLS) who are not male do the same, it takes on a revolutionary and transgressive flavor. The difference, of course, is that straight, white men live in a society created for them, one in which they have historically been able to express their sexuality — even to the detriment of the lives of others — while the rest of us have been divorced from our bodies and sexualities. We also happen to thirst with a lot more respect and concern for consent, BTW.
The validity of thirst has been undermined in order to maintain control of the "unruly" sexualities of marginalized groups. But thirst is so often what helps us understand ourselves, our bodies, and how to break down closet doors and other barriers.
As activist, doula, and author of the New York Times best-selling book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good adrienne maree brown says in an interview with Color Lines, “[Pleasure is] about pure aliveness and actually being present for the world around you.” Our current social structures prevent this from manifesting, particularly for those who have multiple oppressed identities, which is why we must center the pleasure of those most marginalized. How do we reclaim pleasure? brown suggests we use our sensual and sexual selves both as sites of healing and as sites of resistance. “Reclaiming our full erotic aliveness is a core piece in recovering from acts of oppression and marginalization.”
In addition to flipping the typical fantasy trope of the male fighter and the female healer, Roanhorse’s Sixth World Series brings to life a healthy romantic relationship that is mutually beneficial while also being sexual. “Native women don’t get a lot of romantic relationships. We don’t get to have boyfriends or girlfriends in a physical way,” says Roanhorse, who wants to change that lack of representation.
“I also wanted her to get the boy in the end because we don’t get that a lot. We don’t get to be soft,” added Roanhorse. “I wanted Native women to have that.”
Roanhorse’s comments illustrate the larger issue rather perfectly: For some of us, our romance, our thirst, our general desire to get busy and have a HEA (Happily Ever After), is a form of resistance.
For women to express sexual attraction is taboo and frequently met with rape threats. (Have you been on Twitter recently?) For queer and nonbinary people to be comfortable with our sexuality is to open ourselves up to ridicule and hatred and the sense that we are the nasty “perverts” we’ve been called for decades. For people of color to love their bodies and their sexuality is to risk being stereotyped, marginalized, sexually assaulted, and murdered. To be someone standing in more than one of these identities (and/or other marginalizations) is to be dangerously visible. We know this because we mourn the lives of the Black trans women who have been killed in 2019: Michelle Simone, Claire Legato, Ashanti Carmon, Dana Martin, and Muhlaysia Booker. Rest in power.
To know all of this and to decide to be thirsty, raunchy, romantic, sexual, sensual, visible, and unapologetic is to engage in creating science fiction, to borrow a concept from activist and author Walidah Imarisha. Her meaning, and by extension mine, is that any time we are imagining a different world—in this case, one where love is love and every person is free to feel pleasure alone and together—we lay the foundation for a better future. Our first job is to imagine, is to aspire, is to long, is to thirst. Our second is to create. Thus, our thirst makes way for our sexual liberation.