What is "Tough"?

When I was 19 and had just come out of the closet, I associated “tough” with a look. It was big boots, spiked hair, tattoos and the obligatory grimace. When I dressed this way and walked out in the world with my “tough” on, I felt good. Tough was the equivalent of strong. It was durable. So, if someone slammed a door on my finger, I’d never cry out and I didn’t need a band-aid. I was fine. No problem. No one could mess with me.

Living partnered with women until I was 33 years old, I experienced “tough” on many more levels. There was so much strength required to endure a world that would return the grimace at our hand-holding, our tomboy jeans and cropped locks, but most notably, our relaxed resistance to stereotypically feminine appearance or behaviours, such as shaving or wearing make-up, or flimsy handshakes and demure voices. You’d be surprised how many people take these kinds of choices personally as though unshaven shins are direct attacks to their individual comfort.

But this was just on the outside. I also watched many members of my community don a type of “tough” housed permanently in their skin. It came from having been rejected by family or friends for their sexuality, having spoken out against sensitive topics like teen suicide or incest and fought backlash for it, or having the fortitude to fight for their same sex spouses’ equal rights in the workplace, etc. While I have been outspoken in my career about many of these important topics, I have not had to thicken my skin as a result of personal experience. I let my skin grow thick in solidarity; I was one of the lucky ones. But, I was mad about it all too. Anger is like a callous on your finger; it’s a form of protection against repetitive injury.

When I met Guo Jian and came out about my love for him to family and friends, I discovered a softer toughness that I didn’t even know existed. I’m not saying my callouses wore off, but I am saying that I unveiled a toughness somewhere under them that I didn’t know I’d had—that we all have. This toughness comes from a gentler place where there are no spikes or big boots, grimaces or angry voices. It’s like a rolling out of breath from under one’s skin—no matter how thick it has become—or like a billow of cloud that we don’t realize has been cushioning our very cells, our central spirit, our beating hearts. Then there’s a release of that cloud or an exhalation of that breath. It’s a letting.

Forcing ourselves to admit a truth even when it makes us uncomfortable, and accepting that this truth doesn’t make us less ideal as people, especially the people we thought we were—this is a special kind of “tough.” In fact, admitting such truths makes us more of who we actually are, which is the ultimate goal in our development as human beings.

Why must we be who we thought we were when our thoughts are often fallible? Sometimes we make mistakes in our own self-predictions.

No one could have been more surprised than I was when I met and fell in love with a man who came from across the world. But in that experience, I learned that sometimes men cross the paths of women who never thought they’d end up with men… and then they’re in love and married and then they’re mothers and expecting their second child. In other words, sometimes truth just tumbles forth.

So here I am.

I write about this (and will continue to do so) because I am “out and proud” about my life in all ways. As a self-identified tough queer, I’ve realized that my identity doesn’t disqualify such a love, even if it wasn’t something I imagined for myself.

A woman came up to me after a performance this past month and said, “I knew you in another life, back when you were playing at women’s festivals maybe eight or ten years ago!” I know she meant that she knew me long before China and Guo Jian and babies, but I paused and then chose my words carefully.

“Well, it’s true that my life has been an adventure and taken me on many different journeys, but it’s still the same life and I’m happy to run into you again at another juncture!” I said to her, cheerily. She smiled and agreed. She turned up at a second of my regional events this season, too. It was nice to see her return to the audience and be happy about it.

The thing is: I’m still here. I’m still me. Queer and proud, still performing music, all while in a partnership with a man. I may not be scheduled at any women’s festivals in the near future, but I’m not living a life or a series of truths that contradict that possibility. I breathe deeply knowing that these things are all simultaneously true.

And all of that has been tough to understand for many people, I know, but it’s made me tougher to live it out loud and proud—tougher than I ever knew I could be.

So, when Guo Jian bumps his finger, gets a minor scratch and officially can’t lift another thing because he’s in “great pain” and must immediately be fetched a band-aid to wrap around his injured digit while he’s whining and jumping around like a popping kernel of corn, I usually sigh. Okay, I always sigh. (I’ll admit that truth too!) I also occasionally make fun of him and call him a “poor baby with a boo-boo.”

There’s a gender stereotype that men are tough, women are gentle (a dichotomous misnomer that flies in the face of this blog’s very thesis: that toughness can be gentle, soft in its strength and strong in its softness) but, I have to acknowledge, this man I married doesn’t seem to understand even the most basic, stereotypical meaning of “tough”! And, there’s something refreshing in that too. Everyone in this world lays claim to one’s own diversity of existence. Guo Jian’s and my different life journeys have made us into very different people, making our unlikely convergence that much more special.

So, with that perspective, I usually go and get the poor thing a band-aid.

And additionally, when he complains about all my personality quirks (which we all know are seen as flaws when the people we love are irritated with us!), I know I can just smile, give him a fake grimace, and say, in English:

“Tough Luck!”

Because now, more than ever, I know, deep down, that no one can mess with me, no matter what.

Not even him—the man I love.

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