Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Selfish, Broken, or Trouble

One time a man came to my door and asked to talk to my husband. He was perhaps in his mid fifties? He had gray stubble and an impressive beer gut and held forth with the confidence of a boy about to climb into his tree fort. I stood in the door, nervous. When I said there wasn't a husband here right now he asked to talk to my mother, Mrs. Woginrich.

Confused, I asked what he wanted. I was 28 and had not owned the property very long. I didn't know why this complete stranger knew my name or why he thought my mother (who lives hours away in Pennsylvania) was visiting me right now? He balked when I said it was just me here. This wasn't the correct anwser.

He eventually explained he was looking for permission to hunt on my land. Since someone recently bought the property he needed to talk to the Jenna Woginrich listed on the tax map. It was a woman's name so he assumed it was an older lady, a wife or widow, not a twenty-something in ripped jeans and bare feet.

I explained that I was the owner of this property and neither my mother or any sort of Mr. Woginrich lived here. I was the one hunting the property now and two is a crowd on six acres. He left after that, disgruntled and dazed.

That was the first of many times people would act uncomfortable around me when they found out I lived alone on a farm on purpose. I've been asked by neighbors, strangers, road crews, and bar patrons the same question for years: who is my husband?

When I explain I don't have one - everything changes. When straight men find out I'm alone they either take a step closer or a step back, but never remain in place. I am not claimed and therefore fair game to chase or a distasteful thing that should be avoided. Either way, I am not safe.

When straight women find out they change their tone. Almost 90% of the time it's a faux you-go-girl-approval masking their discomfort. I don't take it personally, but it is as loud as a stop sign. I am not claimed and therefore undesirable for partnership or a possible threat to their marriage. Either way, I am not safe.

For women residing in small farm towns the correct anwser to who are you? is daughter, wife, or mother. This is an unwritten, but well-understood rule. If a woman isn't one of those things she is either selfish, broken, or trouble. Someone either purposely avoiding the adult responsibilities of marriage and motherhood or someone not fit to fill them.

This unwanted caution is not loud. No one goes out of their way to be unkind. There is a veneer of politeness out here that is necessary in rural places. You don't need to know who the person plowing your driveway voted for or sleeps with as much as you need snow removed. But the unspoken assumption is women my age should be straight, married, and raising a family. Not doing those things waves warning flags and every year the flags wave harder.

Which is wildly aggravating because if I was a 27-year-old man who moved here from out of town, bought land, started farming, wrote books, paid taxes and never showed up on a police scanner—I would practically be voted in the new mayor. But I'm not. I'm a 36-year-old woman alone on a mountain with animals. I'm one step away from neighborhood kids telling each other I'm a witch and daring to knock on my door at Halloween.

So I own it. I don't want a husband or children and I'm okay with being alone. I would prefer to be in a relationship, but that seems pretty unlikely anytime soon. I have twice as many Twitter followers as there are people in my town - which, in case you were wondering, is the perfect algorithm for not getting laid.

Being a public figure in a small town is one thing. Being a single, newly-out, woman in a small town is another. There are things people do now they didn't used to do.

I drive a big ol' red pickup with a rainbow decal on it and everyone knows what that means. I'm damn proud of the work it took to put that sticker on my truck. Happy to let others know (who may not feel comfortable being out) I'm here. I'm here as your neighbor, as your farmer, as a fellow homeowner, as a friend, whatever. But I'm here. Reactions were mixed.

Small things started to happen. Not just because of that sticker, but because word gets around in a small town like fog on a cold night. People that used to wave when I drove by stopped waving. Women at red lights go out of their way to avoid eye contact with me, as if looking a gay woman in the wild will be met with a leer? Men blatantly stare like a hyena is driving a truck. No one paid attention to me before that sticker. I used to be a part of the background and now I'm one of "them."

Conversations changed. People that used to always joke about "new single men they met" do not talk about "new single women they met" the same way. Once I came out all joking about dating and sex shut off. It's not that they are upset, not at all. I think people aren't sure how to joke around anymore when identities change (to them). This quiet tension breeds a hissing caution that screams YOU ARE DIFFERENT NOW.

I am well aware that careful distance isn't homophobia and I'm not saying it is. My sexuality has very little to do with people's general wariness of me. Mostly I am avoided because I am single and past the age most women are partnered up. I think being a woman alone is far more off-putting than being gay.

I don't know what to say to this? I'm not single because I want to be. I'm single because I haven't met someone I love that loves me back. Pretty much the reason anyone is single. But when you're single for a long time in a little town; that is where the broken comes in. I must be alone because something is wrong with me. That, or I am something to be avoided altogether. So I am.

Which makes me so much more anxious around strangers now. I don't know how they feel about me when they find out I'm not partnered, that I run a farm alone, that it's not successful. I worry just existing in the same space will be seen as aggressive.

I avoid talking to other single women at all costs. I am afraid that anything I do or say will be seen as hitting on them, any sort of kindness or compliment or eye contact will be rejected, that I disgust them. They terrify me.  I never used to be afraid of people when I didn't want them to love me.

It's primal, lizard-brain, reactionary thinking. I know this. We all know this. So much of this is subconscious and never with ill-intent. No one means to ignore or distance themselves from women that don't make us inherently comfortable, that do not fill a social role. But that doesn't mean it isn't happening and it isn't isolating.

I moved out here to follow my dream of being a farmer and to find a safe place to hide from the person I knew I wasn't ready to be yet. I threw myself into sheep and horses, hawks and arrows because I needed a distraction from who I was, which was alone. And as long as I'm a part of this social primate species that lives in packs and hunts by daylight - I'll be considered an outsider for a very long time. At least in this place where belonging to a tribe's social placeholder is more important than any bumper sticker or tax bracket.

I'm okay with this. I'm fine with people keeping me at a distance. I'm fine keeping my distance from them. But to pretend it isn't exhausting is a lie. Everywhere I go I know people that look me directly in the face and smile think I am selfish, broken, or trouble. Eventually it changes you. It makes you more afraid and more bold at the same time. It makes you wistful and defensive. It makes you hopeful and lonely. It makes you someone who thinks women are avoiding eye contact at red lights when the truth is you're too afraid to look.