Entering the Unreal World: On Queerness, Graduation, and Taking Cameron Esposito’s “Save Yourself” on Tour During the Pandemic

Cameron Esposito grew up gay and Catholic on the outskirts of Chicago. I grew up gay in the Salvation Army on an island in Malaysia. These experiences are not interchangeable, but they do hurt in the same places. Which is why I started taking Cameron’s memoir, Save Yourself, on tour.

The “Little Gay Book Tour” — which is an Instagram account I run and a fun appropriation of the LGBT acronym — started the day I was supposed to see Cameron on her book tour. This also happened to be the day I received my copy of Save Yourself in the mail. I’d already listened to the audiobook twice, too impatient to wait the four days it took for the physical copy to arrive. I loved hearing her narrate so much that my disappointment over not getting to hear her read in person doubled overnight. Disappointment and empathy, because I’d seen her on the verge of tears in an IG Live shortly after announcing her book tour’s cancellation due to COVID-19. It must have been crushing — and not in the standup sense — to have poured so much of herself into this memoir, only to be denied the celebration of its publication. In true Christian-savior-complex manner, I immediately felt the need to make it better.

But how does a broke, burnt-out college student cheer up an iconic Dyke to Watch Out For, pioneer of the lesbian side mullet? The answer: Take pictures of her memoir “on tour” at various outdoor venues. Link these pictures to deeply personal reflections on queerness and religion. Slowly expand the scope of your captions to include themes such as science fiction, family, and loss. Repeat daily, until you unexpectedly get called on to ask a question during one of her Zoom book panels. Be delighted to see a smile light up her face when she realizes you’re the person behind the Little Gay Book Tour account.

Mission accomplished. The book could stop “touring” now. But it didn’t. Nearly three months after I made my first post, I’m still finding new places for the book to visit every day.

When I made that first post, I knew Cameron would see it, simply because that was the crucial promotional phase for the book launch, and she was interacting with everything she was tagged in. I half-jokingly said I’d do it again tomorrow if she liked it.

And she did like the post. But that’s not what sent me back outside with the book the next day. In my search for more “tour venues,” I’d stumbled upon what I needed most at that point in time: the space to process the end of my college journey, along with a way to reclaim some queerness for myself in this pandemic.

The Salvation Army is many things, and “LGBTQ+-friendly” is not one of them. You probably already know this. It’s been true for as long as the organization has existed, which is 155 years.

My parents are Christian converts, just like every churchgoer I know in their generation or older. Christianity in Malaysia — as in many places around the world — is part of the fraught legacy of colonization, and it’s still commonly viewed as a “white people’s religion.” It stands in opposition to Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, which are largely inherited. These religions encapsulate a great deal of ethnic culture and traditions, which do not carry over in conversion to Christianity. In addition, the Salvation Army conducts all its operations in English. This in itself is not necessarily unusual in Malaysia — another part of said fraught legacy is that English is widely spoken in everyday life — but what is unusual about the Salvation Army is that, unlike other local churches, the evangelical material used almost exclusively features white people. Our pastor and others in charge of regional administration were Malaysian, but the higher-ranking church officials were all white. The faces on the front pages of The War Cry were unfailingly blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Growing up, I was aware that this was uncommon to see in an Asian country, but it took reading Cameron’s memoir for me to realize just how much the Salvation Army had contributed to my internalization of whiteness and the English language as being, somehow, superior.

God was good, and the church was good, and the church was led by white people, and English was the language of the white people and the church. And, of course, the church thought queerness was a sin. As a child oblivious to the broader mechanisms at play, it wasn’t hard to conflate all of these things, so God = church = whiteness = English-speaking = no homo. As I grew increasingly aware of my queerness, I became fixated on white media. I refused to learn my mother tongue in a desperate attempt to remain good in the face of my perceived failure. The disparity of being Chinese and not knowing the language or culture associated with that identity fissured the crack between me and my ethnicity into a broad chasm. My shame took on the shape of my country, and I couldn’t wait to leave it behind.

Ironically, going to college in a very white country helped to dismantle that whole construct. White supremacy, as it turns out, is far more difficult to miss when it is blatant and rampant, as opposed to the subtle hooks the Salvation Army sank into my young, supple, raised-among-zero-white-people flesh. But that line of thinking wasn’t completely unraveled until I read Save Yourself. In the chapter titled “Gotta Have Faith, Faith, Faith,” Cameron presents the hypocrisy of sunbathing on a stretch of church-owned beach that most Jamaicans don’t have access to, while on a solidarity trip meant to help Jamaicans in need. That’s when it clicked: that’s what the Salvation Army had done in my country, too. The beach was a metaphor for my ethnic heritage, and I had blamed myself for driving the wedge between us instead of the white hands wielding the mallet.

Because I am ethnically Chinese, I would have been raised in Buddhism, had my parents not converted. Growing up, the first and only out lesbian at my school was Chinese and Buddhist, too. My other Chinese Buddhist classmates were largely accepting of her. I am happy for her in that regard, and I appreciate that those classmates were pretty queer-friendly. But I do feel a sense of loss in knowing that that is something I could have had. That, maybe, there could have been two out lesbians at my school, if I had been raised in a more tolerant faith, with another tongue in which to express how I felt about girls.

Leaving for college meant a displacement from both the Salvation Army and my close-knit, small-town Chinese community. Free from the judgment I felt as a gay, estranged Chinese Christian in Malaysia, I was able to reconnect with my ethnic identity in America. I tried ancestral worship for the first time, offering food and bowing to the ghost of my grandmother. I listened to old Mandarin and Hokkien songs I’d forgotten I knew how to sing. I wrote bilingual poetry, shared Malaysian food with my friends. Before we went on our first date, I invited a girl to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with me, where she tried dumplings and lit fish-shaped lanterns for the first time.

It’s not perfect, of course: my Mandarin is still atrocious, and I consistently buy the wrong kind of joss sticks. But I feel the tectonic plates within me shifting, bringing the edges of the chasm closer with every day that I try, and fail, and laugh, and try again.

While college gave me the space to be alone in my Malaysian Chinese-ness, it also surrounded me immediately with queer community. This turned out to be freeing in an equal, opposite way. There were were visibly queer and trans people all over campus, and these people were able to date and talk about their dates with an openness I never even imagined possible before I got here. It forced me to confront the reality of my own queerness, and led me to realize another truth I might have continued to hide from alone.

In Save Yourself, there is a chapter titled “Having a Body,” and it’s about exactly what the title states. In it, Cameron opens up about her struggle with disordered eating and body image, which only started to change in college, once she was surrounded by people trying new things and not really caring about how or what they were eating. Now, my struggle with body image involves gender dysphoria, which is a completely different issue. But so much of the self-loathing Cameron describes is profoundly familiar, even though it manifested in us in a different ways. As she was starving herself through her teenage years, I was cutting lines into my arms to try and release some of the gross, overstuffed feeling of growing curves. Where she obsessively counted her ribs and looked at her tummy, I developed a hunch to avoid having to see my swelling chest. She enjoyed the attention her new body brought her; I shielded myself in ill-fitting clothing to stave off the onslaught of “young lady” and “woman” that my pubescent figure attracted. The age at which this began for both of us is the same: eleven, when she went on her first diet, and I lost more and more of myself in my own reflection every day.

Like her, college is when this finally started to change for me. For the first time in my life, I met other trans and nonbinary people, who used a variety of pronouns, wore whatever the fuck they wanted, and fucked whoever they wanted, as long as the other party wanted them, too. These people saw me struggling and promptly intervened. In my first semester, a friend gently asked if I was sure I was a girl. In my second, a different friend nudged me towards using they/them pronouns. When I chose a new name, my classmates immediately made the switch without fuss or fanfare. None of my professors or bosses at my on-campus jobs questioned the awful clothing choices I made as I was trying to find a style that felt right. Undoing the thought patterns and behaviors associated with internalized transphobia took — and still takes — a whole lot of work, and I couldn’t have done it if not for the community that carried me when I couldn’t support myself.

By the time COVID-19 hit, I’d grown used to having these people around me. I’d come to rely on them just being there, so I could see them and surround myself with them when I didn’t want to be alone. Then stay-at-home orders went into effect, and everyone who had someplace to return to was sent back there. The community I’d come to take for granted disappeared overnight. It was a cruel shift in the graduation timeline, having to deal with the bitter loss without the sweetness of actually being done with school to balance it out.

Save Yourself was just coming out at this time, and I clung to it like a lifeline. By participating in the hype surrounding the book’s release, I was able, to an extent, to return to living in queer community. I received messages from people who felt like my IG posts really spoke to them. I saw their faces at Cameron’s Zoom standup sets, and heard their voices during her book panel Q&As. I joined the Discord group that started in the chat section of those panels, and, though I’m as inactive there as I was in the queer organizations on campus, it just feels good to be surrounded by queer folks again.

It’s not the same, of course: I can’t make eye contact through the screen the way I used to across the campus lawn, or see the cool nod of recognition reciprocated when I’m only doing it at someone’s selfie. But I know that, if I truly need it, these are people I can turn to for support. And I will take all the support I can get right now, as I navigate post-graduation life in a still-ongoing-pandemic world.

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about graduation: all of that pomp and circumstance serves a purpose beyond posing for countless unflattering photos that your extended family will tag you in on Facebook. The ceremony fosters solemnity and nostalgia, encouraging self-reflection as well as an acceptance of the end. Having helped to make graduation happen for the three class years before me, I am confident in saying that my Zoom graduation just didn’t cut it. The cognitive dissonance of already being apart from your friends, but also having been in online classes and virtual hangouts with them, makes it feel like you have already said goodbye — and yet, like you will never have to, because they’re still there. It’s a strange, surreal limbo to exist in. It’s the opposite of the closure graduation is meant to provide.

This limbo is heightened for me because I continue to live right next to campus, in the one-bedroom apartment I’ve rented since sophomore year. Two months ago, when classes moved online and the dorms officially closed, I gained three housemates in the span of about a week. It was a big adjustment for all of us. My new friends are, to the best of our knowledge, straight and cis, and, while I know they’re accepting of my identities, it was lonely to suddenly find myself a minority in my own space. They seem to relate to me best as fellow womxn, which — while still true of me as a nonbinary person — can be difficult to live with. There are days when I am misgendered one time too many. There are days when the walls seem to close in around me, so full of our collective anxiety and sadness at being separated from the people we love in this crisis.

There is no way to be productive when this happens. So, I put on my mask, pick up my camera and copy of Save Yourself, and go for a walk.

I typically don’t know what I want my book tour photos to be. Sometimes, I have a specific image in mind: irises to talk about van Gogh, a former stable for a convoluted gay metaphor involving horses. More often, though, I only think about what I want to say as I’m walking. Free from the cramped confines of the apartment, without the distraction of small talk thanks to social distancing, I am able to feel in a way that just isn’t possible when I’m surrounded by others. Feeling leads to thought, which leads to reflection, which leads to consideration of the ways in which experience and identity and circumstance intersect. I weave these threads into my caption, and look for something along the way that connects with what I’m presenting. Pose the book in front of it, and click! I have my post for the day.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. There is only so much wisdom I can find within myself at 22; some days, I just want to gripe about modernist poetry, or write terrible lesbian erotica based on scandalous plant labels. Sometimes, I take more photos to save for days when I can’t or won’t go outside, and those captions tend to be less inspired, as they’re not necessarily related to what I’m feeling in the moment.

Sometimes, I struggle to edit a particularly personal story down to 2,200 characters. Other times, I am unable to form a single sentence. Always, I am conscious of the fact that what began as an attempt to cheer Cameron up has rapidly morphed into a selfish means of grieving.

As I wander the college grounds, I find myself reminiscing, with all of the solemnity and nostalgia Zoom graduation failed to evoke. Logically, I know that I am barred from entering the buildings out of concern for public health, but it feels like it could just as easily be because I am no longer a student here. My daily walks put me in the perfect headspace to reflect on how this place has shaped my personal growth. I marvel at how lucky I am to have come here, and mourn the last months I was supposed to spend in these halls. Because I know these thoughts will have to become an IG caption, I am encouraged to find some greater meaning to the pain and sadness I feel. My daily posts serve the same function as those unflattering graduation photos, in that hitting “Share” results in a visible reminder of what I’ve accomplished.

In the time since I started the Little Gay Book Tour, I’ve walked the same paths across campus more times than I can count. I will walk them many more in the days to come. But there is a lightness to my step now that wasn’t there before. Caption by caption, post by post, I’ve processed and let go of my college years. What was once limbo is now more like waiting patiently for the pearly gates to open with a vaccine.

Walking past the old stone buildings, the outline of Save Yourself thumps rhythmically against my shoulder blades. I feel its gentle weight in my backpack and think, Yeah, I loved it here. But where can I go next?

One of the many reasons I find myself returning again and again to Save Yourself is because the years of Cameron’s life that she writes about in this book are the years I’m currently living out. Her words provide a reassurance that it is totally fine to not know what I’m doing, to try and fail and hope and, somewhere along the way, find the people who will become my chosen family.

Graduation was when I planned to start coming out to my birth family, and I’d meticulously crafted a strategy for easing them into it. I hoped the jet lag from flying halfway across the world would make them, if not more accepting, then at least more receptive.

COVID-19 forced me to delay these plans. Coming out is difficult enough without trying to do it over FaceTime with a twelve-hour time difference, and I owe it to myself as much as I do to them to come out in person. But this adds a layer of stifling insecurity to life post-graduation, trapped between wanting to be openly out in job applications and not knowing if I can do so without continued financial support from my parents. The fear for my safety that Cameron describes having felt after her own coming out shadows me throughout the day. That, combined with other concerns for the state of the world and the general despair of the pandemic, makes it difficult not to just curl up in a ball and will myself into an unresponsive state.

But the world keeps turning, and I can only angst in fetal position for so long. I edit my resume and anguish over cover letters, and I send them out, and I frown at the increasing number of hiring freezes nationwide. I pet my cat, and boil pasta in bulk for myself and my housemates. I read. I write. I walk out onto the campus of the college I’m no longer a part of, armed, as always, with my camera and copy of Save Yourself.

In this time of uncertainty, I hold onto what I know to be true: I am a survivor, constantly learning and growing. I’ve begun to heal from my time in the Salvation Army. I struggled for years with my queer and nonbinary identities, but, thanks to the people I found at college, I’ve emerged even stronger because of it.

I have no idea how my family will react to my coming out. I have no idea how I can make a living as both an out queer person and an immigrant in this current sociopolitical hellscape. What I do know is that Cameron’s memoir has given me a framework through which I’ve come to better understand my own experiences, and that the community surrounding her work has given me a place I can call home.

I started the Little Gay Book Tour because I wanted to make things just a little bit better. And I did. Though it remains more deeply rooted in my own experience than ever, the IG account has grown beyond myself. It’s touched the lives of others. It’s made Cameron smile.

As I step out into this unreal, pandemic-social uprising-recession world, I know I don’t have to face tomorrow alone. Though I’m separated from her by the page, Cameron’s younger self provides me with a form of companionship, and I’ll carry her with me wherever I go.

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