Sparrows and Penguins

(or, An Anonymous Guest Blogger Stops By)

Imagine that you’re a sparrow, living in a family of sparrows in a town of sparrows in a world of sparrows.

But you’re kind of a shitty sparrow. Kind of the worst sparrow, actually.

You can’t fly. You’ve been to doctors who have prescribed medicine to help with flying. But you still can’t. You try every day, and every day you fail and this thing which all the other sparrows tell you is critical.

For a while, you stop trying. Failing every day just wore you down and you couldn’t do it anymore, so you stopped trying to fly. It was nice in some ways, but you felt guilty because you weren’t raised to give up. It made a rift with your family. Flying is an important activity that sparrow families do together. Isn’t your family important to you? Don’t they deserve for you to at least make the effort?

So since it’s nothing medically wrong with you, you go to a therapist, who diagnoses you with a phobia of flying. You work on overcoming your fear. You’re lucky, your family is very accepting of mental illness (other sparrows are not so lucky, and it hurts your heart to think about that). They appreciate and admire how hard you’re working. They try to include you, so instead of getting together and flying, sometimes they get together and all sit in their nests. That sort of sucks too, but it’s a definite improvement.

You continue to try, and fail, to fly. You try harder. You try as hard as you can. Sometimes you can’t even make yourself flap your wings, it’s just such pointless bullshit and you feel like you’ll never succeed. Sometimes you go up on a chair and jump off and flap real hard and go splat anyway.

Sometimes mean birds make fun of you because you’re a terrible screw-up.

For 26 years, this is what your life is.

One day, almost out of nowhere, as an afterthought, an aside, something barely worth mentioning because it is so obvious, a doctor says, “by the way, you’re a penguin.”

Holy shit. You’re not a failure. You’re a penguin. You’re not lazy or stupid or weak. You don’t have messed up values. You’re a penguin. You have always been a penguin.

There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re a beautiful penguin. The most perfect penguin. But it’s just a fact, penguins can’t fly.

Now when you’re with you’re sparrow friends and they’re all sitting in nests, you sit in a bucket of ice. Mostly you bring your own. Some bird restaurants are really accommodating and will bring you a bucket of ice to sit in. Sometimes mean birds give you shit about your bucket, but it doesn’t hurt as much as it did before, because you know you’re a penguin and you’re just exactly what a penguin is meant to be.

You give yourself permission to stop trying to fly. Not failing all the time improves your mood and overall function. You finally feel confident declining when invited to flying outings. You don’t waste the energy feeling guilty about it.

You love your family of sparrows, but you also find a whole community of penguins to love too. Things you thought were just you, like preferring fish to bird seed, things you thought you were totally alone in and wrong for, are common and accepted. Some are even admired. Your new penguin friends think your flippers and chubby penguin belly are lovely. You bond over how and when you discovered you loved swimming.

Knowing you’re a penguin means knowing where you fit in a world you never felt like you fit into. It means all the things penguins can’t do, it’s not a personal failing when you can’t do them. You’re not supposed to be able to. You can do other things instead. Sparrows are actually quite poor swimmers. You feel good about the things you excel at.

This is why I think labels are important. This is why I think “we’re all birds, let’s focus on our similarities instead of our differences” is harmful. This is how my autism diagnosis was like breathing, after holding my breath for 26 years.

Picture by @unfortunatelytheartblog.

when the fog clears and you realize what your disorder has made you do, it can hit hard. it’s okay to be sad and mourn for the time you lost. but eventually it’s time to accept what’s happened, forgive yourself, and move on. you’re not that person anymore.

Be Yourself

‘To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself. When you are born a lotus flower, be a beautiful lotus flower, don’t try to be a magnolia flower. If you crave acceptance and recognition and try to change yourself to fit what other people want you to be, you will suffer all your life. True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself.’

- Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power.

Most of my life has been spent trying to shrink myself. Trying to become smaller. Quieter. Less sensitive. Less opinionated. Less needy. Less me. Because I didn’t want to be a burden. I didn’t want to be too much or push people away. I wanted people to like me. I wanted to be cared for and valued. I wanted to be wanted. So for years, I sacrificed myself for the sake of making other people happy. And for years, I suffered. But I’m tired of suffering, and I’m done shrinking. It’s not my job to change who I am in order to become someone else’s idea of a worthwhile human being. I am worthwhile. Not because other people think I am, but because I exist, and therefore I matter. My thoughts matter. My feelings matter. My voice matters. And with or without anyone’s permission or approval, I will continue to be who I am and speak my truth. Even if it makes people angry. Even if it makes them uncomfortable. Even if they choose to leave. I refuse to shrink. I choose to take up space. I choose to honor my feelings. I choose to give myself permission to get my needs met. I choose to make self-care a priority. I choose me.
—  Daniell Koepke
Thoughts From a Tumblr Mom

By Tumblr user slowdissolve

My name’s Ann, I’m almost 48, and I live in a small town in the Midwest USA. I’ve been married 18 years, have two teenage children, and I’m bisexual.

I grew up in a small, religious, traditional area. I don’t say conservative, because it was the 1970’s, and I went to a tiny Catholic school run by the Sisters of St. Francis, which was and is a pretty progressive group of women. I seriously considered the convent for myself for many years.

The 1980’s arrived when I was in junior high, and the AIDS crisis was beginning as I entered high school. People did not come out. It was simply a thing one did not do. Gay people were the butt of jokes and lived in cities. I knew that I was different: I dressed in a butchy way, cut my hair short, didn’t wear makeup. I didn’t date, mostly because the small dating pool of boys was put off by my physical appearance (though fat wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker) and my intellect (which was). I had no clue if any of the other girls I knew at the time were attracted to other girls. They showed no sign of interest in me.

I had the good fortune to go to an Ivy League school. Yale was known in the League as the “gay Ivy”, and it was a transformative and positive experience. I met openly gay men for the first time. I don’t quite know why I didn’t meet any lesbians, but that may be because they were already paired off before I got a chance to meet them. I came out to my friends there as queer in my senior year, and it was very positive. By that time I’d realized that I’d been having crushes on other women. But at that point it might have been just a bit too late.

The most prominently out group on campus was gay men, and most gay content came from them. The AIDS crisis was an enormous factor in this visibility, and their writing and artwork was often sad, frightened, or militant because of this. The social climate of the outside world had not yet changed to be accepting.

What lesbian content I’d been exposed to was pornography created for a male gaze. It did not appeal to me. I was put off by it; I was out, but not comfortable being out anywhere but at school, and when I graduated, I went back in the closet. I knew that it was not a choice to be gay, but since I was bisexual I could still pass for straight and attempt a relationship with men after I graduated. I believed I could suppress my attractions.

In the few years between college and meeting my husband, the Internet did not have the reach it has today, and I simply didn’t know where to find other women like me. Finally I got internet access, and that’s where I met my husband. We are still happily married.

Being attracted to and married to a person of another gender didn’t end my attraction to my own gender. I hid those feelings and that part of my identity. I did tell my husband I was bi, but I’ve kept my marriage promise.

Seventeen years later, in 2016, I was sick of Facebook, and I decided to open a tumblr account because a college friend had been part of its creation. I had no idea what I’d find there.

Suddenly I was exposed to a deluge of artwork and fiction and meta discussion about all the things that interested me. My kids and I had very much enjoyed the Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: Legend of Korra series, and I was surprised and pleased when I heard in the news that the lead character, Korra, was canon bisexual. So when I joined tumblr and found an entire community of people who enjoyed it so much they created new fan-driven content for it, I was at once delighted, enthralled, and at home.

I realized very quickly that much of the content was adult-themed; but though technically pornographic, it bore little resemblance to the videos I’d seen throughout my life. It had a completely different quality, because it had been created for and by women attracted to other women. It was gentler, sweeter, more affectionate. It was still very much sexual content, but it did not objectify women in the way that I had always seen before. It was incredibly easy to identify with the characters, and positively, and the fan works explored literature and artistic themes with queer characters where one would typically find straight characters.

My eyes were opened. Having married a man, I knew little about what my life might have been like if I’d been born 20 years later. Now I understood what I’d missed. It’s a great regret; a deep sadness that I can’t change, through no one’s fault.

At the same time, now I could enjoy things with a much more genuine feeling of fulfillment and identify much more closely with characters. I made friends in the fandom. They’re all younger than me, but sometimes I’m a mother they never had. I found nonbinary and trans kids and learned about their issues in a way I’d never known. I learned and learned and learned.

I found other fandoms, as well, and heard about movies and shows that I would never thought to watch before. All touched me in a way I never felt before.

I started creating art of my own. I’d received a degree in art 25 years before; now I was finally using it and making things I enjoyed and was deeply proud of. I had FUN making this art, which had been too rare an experience otherwise. My skills as an artist continue to improve as a result.

Recently, I started writing fan fiction. Taking two older characters from The Legend of Korra, I believe I have found a niche. I am able to write and draw women much like myself in age and temperament, with a perspective unlike that of younger writers. I’ve allowed myself to feel emotions in those characters that I have been unable to feel in my own life because of my circumstances. And I’ve received some wonderful praise for what I’ve written, and that is the most amazing feeling. To make believable something that I’ve never experienced personally is astonishing.

I can’t understate the importance of fan works to my acceptance of myself as a bisexual woman, even though I have come to that acceptance later in my life. I hope the content that I’ve created will be found by women like me, a little older, a little late to the game. And I hope it makes them feel as much better about themselves as it has made me.


This essay was submitted to the @aroomoftheirown​ project, a blog and zine that seeks document the myriad of ways in which LGBT content creators and fandom participants use fanworks as a celebration of their identities and to force popular mainstream media to reflect their lived experiences by collecting essays, comics, and interviews documenting how LGBT members of fandom use their various talents to carve out a space for themselves in mainstream fiction and to explore their identities in a relatively safe space.

The blog that will accept submissions on a consistent basis and the eventual goal is to compile a selection of the pieces into a zine or a series of zines, the proceeds of which will go to the Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline

To learn more or submit to the project, click here.

Anna 🌻
Stop shrinking yourself in order to be loved by others. Stop thinking that you need to change in order to be worthy of kindness and attention. You’re betraying yourself. Stop doing the exact things to yourself that hurt you so much when others are doing them to you. Pause for a second and notice this crazy rush you’re constantly in, trying to finally “get there”, to finally meet “him” or “her”. To finally arrive in this life you’ve made up in your head, your “real life”. The only real life you’ll ever have is the one you’re living right now. I know there’s lots of pain at the moment that you’re trying to outgrow, there’s many things you want to change, including yourself, including the last. There is no way to change the past and there is no need to change yourself. Don’t forget to breathe, don’t forget to distance yourself from this inner judgmental chatter. Things are okay, and very soon you’ll be able to feel that again.

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There are about 9 months difference between these two pictures, and yet I have changed so much. I used to hate myself, wear a face mask to hide my face and put a filter on the picture in the hope it would look better. But this past year I’ve been trying to love myself more, grow more confident. I don’t wear that mask anymore, I use less filters on pictures (this one by example doesn’t have one), .. I feel a lot happier than I did before. I’m not yet that happy with myself, there are still a lot of things i want to change about myself. But I will learn to accept that and I hope everyone does. You are all beautiful on your own way. Thank you for existing.

In patriarchal culture men are not allowed to simply be who they are and glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.
—  Bell Hooks, The Will to Change: Men and Masculinity
How Fred Astaire made me feel okay with being a pig

Ever since I can remember, I was a messy eater. Almost every time I sit down to eat, I manage to spill juice on the table, drop a potato on the floor, or splash tomato sauce all over my shirt. And before you judge me too hard, I’d like to point out that I consider myself to have fairly good table manners. I don’t stick my tongue out when I put food into my mouth, I don’t bite down on the fork when sliding it out again, I don’t talk while I eat, I don’t make any annoying sounds. I sit neatly and upright, with both hands on the table. I just spill, I’m a spiller. You can basically tell by my shirt what I just had for lunch.

And I have this habit of saying “Fred Astaire would never do that!” or “This would never happen to Fred Astaire!” whenever somebody does something stupid or uncool, including myself. Because I think he’s the coolest and the best and I look up to him and I want to be like him. So whenever I would have a meal and I’d spill something, I would get so mad at myself, because I really want to be a neat person, but there it’d be again: Soup all over my new T-shirt. And I’d put myself down and go: “This would never happen to Fred Astaire!” You’re a pig, you’re horrible, you’re a horrible person. And also a pig!

And then one day I got myself Fred Astaire’s autobiography, “Steps in Time”, and I started reading. And already in the first chapter he takes this image of the sophisticated, elegant and debonaire—he hated that word, by the way—Astaire and just crushes it by revealing everything that is supposedly wrong with him. This is wrong, and that is wrong, “I tell you, I’m a very annoying guy”, he says. That was his thing, he was a very self-deprecating man. And would you believe it, amongst his confessions he admits that whenever he sits down to eat, he makes a big mess. Yup, Fred Astaire was a spiller. A pig just like me.

I will never forget how much that made me laugh. It felt oddly comforting, too. And ever since that day, whenever I make a big old mess during dinner, I don’t scold myself anymore, I don’t put myself down, I don’t call myself names. When it happens now, I say to myself: “This totally would have happened to Fred Astaire, too!”, and I have to smile, because I like how in that moment something that I’ve always considered a flaw makes me feel so connected to this man that I love and admire so much.

©AI