We met over a mural.
The Cowboy Pastor had painted what he believed was an historical rendition of a Comanche conversion story on a wall on West Alameda Street: a Spaniard on horseback sparing a kneeling and penitent Native's life. As the public forum raged on about what the past looked like and to whom, the Cowboy Pastor's wife stormed out, yelling that we were picking on her husband because he was white. Others might have considered the mural innocuous, even celebratory, but to those of us speaking against it, it was yet another gross attempt at normalizing the violence of colonization in public space.
I didn't know it yet, but that bitter cold night where words were as incisive as knives, and where truth and history were a battleground, I met my queer community. In the mixed crowd, I saw the person who eventually became my girlfriend and the other brown femmes and dykes who would welcome me into their circle and, in the process, reintroduce me to New Mexico. I remember feeling a sense of curiosity about them—who were they?
Until that point, I'd lived thousands of miles away for many years and had only just returned home. I felt, in returning, like both a guest and a veteran, a sense of belonging that resided between my "here self" and my "East Coast self." But even in that liminal state, I was convinced I knew this place, convinced that writing about New Mexico from afar had brought me closer. I wasn't wrong. But I wasn't exactly right either. I hadn't really known this place, or myself, until meeting them. Until that night. Until our many outings. And until we built our campfires, both real and metaphorical, around which to share our queerness.
We circled our tents around that one campfire in Pilar, where everyone brought one or several dogs, talking into the night and eating s'mores on gluten-free graham crackers. We knew our neighbors probably thought we were too loud, or too much, our laughter on some decibel level of its own. There, and floating down the Rio Grande in tubes, on bike rides under the shadow of the monumental sandstone walls of Chaco Canyon, or atop a hill in Glorieta roasting hot dogs, I learned and am still learning what it means to feel at home in myself, and in New Mexico. How to be both vulnerable and strong and to really feel the radicalism of investing in self care. Not the self care sold on Instagram, the kind that has become commodified and packaged as a hashtag, but the care of the self that is political, as Audre Lorde once wrote. Our campfires, wherever we are, whether tables at restaurants, backyards, or cars on long drives, were and still are places of congregation, reflection and politicization.
Around the campfire at Elephant Butte, we set up the biggest back-of-the-truck buffet there ever was. We laughed and talked shit and laughed some more. There, and on the hikes up in Hyde Park, or switchbacking along the side of Sun Mountain, I learned that queerness can look all sorts of ways. That one does not need to be white to enjoy the outdoors in Santa Fe, even if there's always a sideways glance from the white hikers, like an open question mark asking us whether we belong. I learned that our being together, our full expression of selfhood, sometimes frightens and offends others, because—like at the bowling alley that one time for my birthday—we didn't abide by their politics of respectability, a covenant inscribed in whiteness, and were handily kicked out.
I've learned more here, in my queer community, than in the halls of academia, where identity politics have always been theoretical, and where liberalism is code for status quo. The campfires we've built are invitations to gather and process, to constantly, with humor and love, make sense of our own intersections, and of all the selves we inhabit. Where we wonder aloud in sometimes-confused/still-processing garble how to take back our bodies from the grips of mens' gazes or why white supremacy has infiltrated our own behaviors, words and ways of being in the world. It's where we hold up mirrors to see all our selves and make them into wholes.
That first night I wondered who they were. And now, knowing them, I'm understanding who I am, too.