For my last birthday, David bought me a game. I love games. It’s called Las Escaleras—The Ladders—created by Pico Pao, a Spanish artist collective that makes simple handmade games. Las Escaleras is a set of 16 wooden ladders —each 4 1/2” tall—that are shaped like the ladders David and I see in the apple orchards in the Hudson Valley. That is, ladders that are wider at the bottom than at the top to allow them to rest easily against trees. The idea of Las Escaleras is to interlace the ladders one into another in precarious configurations without the structure losing balance.
In the instructions, the Pico Pao artists explain that, “ladders are the symbol of paradise lost. They attract us because they allow us to attain unreachable heights. We can play to construct—putting scaffolds in the air, moving in all directions, always with the danger of falling. They engage us with risk, trepidation, and the desire to get far off the ground, afterwards observing the path taken.”
Las Escaleras is not a difficult game. It’s easy to create mildly complex structures that seem sturdy and precarious at the same time—the way the artists see ladders as passageways to greater heights but also as inviting risk and danger. To me, however, the game represents something more substantial than sticks of wood crafted to bring pleasure. Las Escaleras embodies the queer path that so many of us have had to navigate in our lives and our careers because the straight paths were blocked.
This was certainly true for me. I’ve arrived at the place I am today along a queer path. As I look to the future, I see that despite my accomplishments the path forward is still unclear. At times it appears closed off, and at others the navigation is so frustrating that I think it's better just to quit. But this queer path I’m on has made me resilient and tough and tenacious.
If you’ve read this blog before—or if you know me or my other writings—you know that I come from a family of businessmen and women for whom art was at best a folly. I was an artistic kid for whom the thought of being a businessman was deadly. As a teenager, however, I wasn’t strong enough to resist the pressure to become a businessman, so I acquiesced and got a bachelor degree in accounting.
In my late 20s—once I moved away from my hometown and its influence—I decided to return to school to get a degree in English literature. I quickly found out that the best programs were closed to me because admission’s officers only saw the accountant in me and not my potential as an intellectual.
I did get a masters degree in the humanities—an English literature adjacent program—at NYU. After my masters, I thought I had the credentials to pursue a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature. Again, admission’s officers saw me only as a businessman with a vanity graduate degree and not as a serious scholar.
I did get my doctoral degree in Renaissance literature from Stony Brook University, but only after I was accepted because of a fluke in the admission's process—at the last minute a matriculated student dropped out and the wife of the graduate program director picked my application at random. After my degree, I received tenure at a local university, published a book, and became a Dean.
Last year, I went back to school to get my MFA in creative writing from Bennington College—I graduated in January of 2017. When some of my colleagues found out that I had done this they were surprised. One professor told me that he thought I was just a bean counter, and had no idea I had a creative practice.
On the job market, headhunters contact me because I’m the non-traditional candidate with a mixture of business acumen, administrative experience, and multiple degrees in art and the humanities. But in the handful of jobs I've applied for, I always end up being the bridesmaid. Small liberal arts colleges say no to me because I didn’t get my degrees from small liberal arts colleges. Research institutions say no to me because I’ve never worked in a research institution. Recently, I was a finalist for the director of a museum. They liked my nontraditional background—they needed someone to balance their budget and manage their fractured personnel. In the end, they offered the position to someone who was a curator with limited administrative experience, the same kind of candidate they’ve hired twice before, both of whom failed spectacularly.
I don’t look like most people in my field—or related fields—because I did not come up the way others had. I didn’t arrive to where I am today along the path most people take. As an intellectual, my degrees look like a hodgepodge of somewhat related interests rather than the result of a curious mind. My late degree in writing reads like a midlife crisis rather than the culmination of decades worth of practice and experimentation. And my administrative career is restricted by search committees who cannot see that the nontraditional paths I’ve taken are an asset rather than a liability.
I don’t think the paths that have been closed to me are directly related to my sexuality. (I don’t think the museum, for instance, chose the straight-white male with a young family over me because I’m queer—although that thought swirls around in the back of my head.) Instead, the queer paths that I’ve had to take are a result of the conflict between the familiar and the different.
As a boy I saw how all of my siblings and everyone I knew were firmly set on the path of a professional career, and that I was expected to follow them because it was the only path anyone recognized. I also knew that I didn’t want to go in that direction, but I had no mentor to point me in another way. I had to find my own way. I had to create my own path.
I felt the same kind of difference because of my sexuality. I knew (or assumed) that my siblings and everyone around me were straight. I also knew that they assumed I was straight only because being straight was the default, the familiar, the norm. In the same way that I had no mentor to show me a different way of life other than that of a businessman, I also had no one to explain to me what it meant to be queer, or to be different. So, I had to find my own way. I had to create my own paths and imagine a different kind of life.
I have lived my life, that is, along a queer trajectory that barred me from many roads, but which also opened up a whole knew array of possibilities. This queer path has lead me to a life that I could never have imagined as a kid. A life filled with art and intellectualism and love.
But still, when I run into the same obstacles; i.e., people and institutions and bureaucracies that are only comfortable with the familiar, it’s frustrating. I want to shake them and tell them that the familiar is not always the best way to go. I want to assure them that there is nothing frightening about being different, or in embracing difference. I want to show them that those of us who’ve arrived via the queer path have a wealth of experiences and skills that others don’t.
As with the game Las Escaleras, I want to teach them that there are a million different ways to interlace those ladders to create a structure that may look perilous but is instead incredibly stable, a passageway that may look risky but one that can also take us to “unreachable heights.”