Beyond Chasing Fluency: Exploring the Interplay among Intersectional Identities

When one of the directors of the school district I work for asked me to “speak up more” during meetings, I got defensive. At one meeting, he even forgot I was there and skipped over me when it was my turn to present. I’m a quiet person, but I speak with intention. As a school-based speech-language pathologist, I say what I want to say at staff meetings: Nothing more.

I wish I had the language to describe what happened to me during these meetings . These were microaggressions that invalidated my intersectional identities as a first-generation Filipino-American, a queer man, and a stutterer. My communication style was pathologized. Although Asian Americans are not a monolithic entity, many were raised in a collectivist culture where family comes first. Every intention and action were rooted in familial preservation, and obedience was valued over speaking up. So, when you’re asking me why I’m so quiet and suggesting I be more verbal, you’re also asking me to assimilate to the dominant White culture —  to leave my cultural baggage out of it. Although our mainstream culture places heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, and White folks as our collective default, I’ve created a space for myself to exist unabashedly with the support from friends who are also part of these minoritized, intersectional communities.

As a child of Filipinx immigrants who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 70s, my siblings and I were the product of the American Dream. My knowledge of my ancestral history is severely lacking beyond my parents, which is largely due to the erasure of Filipinx history from over 400 years of White colonialism in social, political, and economic spaces. Because of this, I’m a monolingual English speaker who can only communicate with his parents on a basic conversational level. I wasn’t taught Tagalog in order to ensure that I’d fully assimilate into American culture; this created an additional communication barrier with my parents on top of stuttering. My parents pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to prove their Americanness by learning English, working graveyard shifts, sending my siblings and I to private Catholic school, and buying track housing in a Bay Area suburb. The only caveat is that my skin is brown. I recall an incident when I worked as a server where a customer assumed I was foreign-born and asked me where I was from. He then proceeded to guess my ethnicity like it was a game. My response was short: “I was born here.” But he persisted, “No, where are you from from?” I sighed, and I begrudgingly shared that my parents were from the Philippines. Moments like these are sobering reminders that I don’t belong while living a transitory existence between two disparate cultures that don’t feel like home.

Although I’m grateful for the opportunities my parents gave me by uprooting their entire lives for the sake of their children, the oppressive systems of racism, ableism, and heterosexism constantly threaten otherness. No matter how much I feigned fluency, or how much I prayed the gay away, or how much papaya soap I used to lighten my brown skin, the threat was always present. I was chasing fluency, heteronormativity, and whiteness, all while desperately filling up space that wasn’t built for me.

That was the American Dream prescribed to my family.

Intersectional identities are dependent on each other and can either amplify or attempt to cancel each other out. My stuttering and queer identities have a much better relationship with each other than they both do with my cultural identity. My cultural and religious upbringing, which is steeped in colonial mentality, invalidated my identities as a queer stutterer. Christianity was introduced to the Philippines during Spanish colonial rule as early as the 16th century and is still currently the dominant religion among Filipinx diasporic communities. My family’s fundamental Catholic values denied my existence as a queer disabled person. Disability and queerness are seen as a burden in some Filipinx families, and many parents often blame themselves, convinced that God is teaching them a lesson for some ill-doing they did in the past. This perpetuates a shame-based family dynamic that centers the feelings of the parent, and these feelings of shame and guilt are passed down to the next generation. It was this intergenerational trauma that cultivated my internalized homophobia, which took years for me to unpack. For a long time, I believed coming out as gay was a selfish act, and I felt the need to suppress my own sexual liberation to preserve my relationship with my family. Conditional love was what I knew, and I thought being queer and being a stutterer existed separately from being loved.

Passing Twice (PT), an informal network of queer and trans folx who stutter, created a safe space for me to stutter unapologetically and live fiercely as a queer man. This wouldn’t be possible without the meaningful connections I’ve made through the PT community, as well as the handful of friends I’ve made in the Bay Area. I needed to shift the blame and burden from the individual level to the systemic level. Every time I substituted a word for the sake of fluency, every time I tried to lower my voice to be straight-passing, and every time I tried to stay indoors during sunny days out of fear of darkening my skin were purely for the sake of self-preservation. This is how I survived. This is how my family survived. We learned and adapted to these rules that were imposed on us. Whether I was actively aware of it, the self-hatred, shame, and guilt I was carrying was born from systems of oppression rooted in White supremacy.

The residual effects of White colonialism and its influence on intergenerational trauma results in burdens that present themselves the moment we are born. Unlearning these burdens is a lifelong practice and will continue to be as long as these systems are in place. It includes setting boundaries for myself that will need to be reminded and enforced over and over again. And when my patience or energy is depleted, I know I can seek help from those who I love. Sure, we may be born with burdens that we carry, but we have the choice not to carry them. My burdens were a Teflon shield that gave me a false sense of protection. True liberation occurs when you can let go of that shield and allow yourself the permission to take up space unconditionally.

By Matt Maxion

Matt Maxion is a school-based speech-language pathologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He loves to bake, play video games, and run during his free time.