Tammy Laforest: Mx. Bisexual RI 2017

Tammy Laforest

Tammy Laforest

[See Tammy Laforest as our pin-up: http://motifri.com/pin-up-tammy-laforest-mx-bisexual-2017/]

“It’s a gender-neutral word: it could mean genderless, it could mean girl, it could mean boy,” explains Tammy Laforest who in April was awarded the title “Mx. Bisexual Rhode Island 2017” by RI Pride‘s increasingly misnamed “Triple Crown” pageant (because it now awards more than three).

Laforest pronounces “Mx.” by spelling out “M-X.” (The most common pronunciation is as a word either with a short “i” like “mix,” popular in the US, or with a schwa like “mucks,” popular in Britain.) Although first appearing in 1977, the need for the gender-neutral honorific in English has been recognized only recently, adopted in Britain by government agencies in the past decade and included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015. It received some traction in the 1980s, proposed as a universal replacement for all other gender-specific terms (including “Mr.”), much as “Ms.” supplanted “Miss” and “Mrs.” in the 1970s to eliminate the antiquated fixation on marital status. In current usage, “Mx.” is usually chosen by people who identify as non-binary gender. As recently as 2015, RI Pride awarded the title “Miss/Mr. Bisexual,” only later adopting “Mx.”

Laforest identifies as cisgender female. “I’ve only had one person ask, ‘Oh, are you a boy?’”

The honorific coincides with her concern about bi-erasure, the tendency to see bisexuals as either straight within opposite-sex relationships or gay within same-sex relationships. Speaking of her own experience, Laforest said, “When you are dating a woman you’re recognized as a lesbian. When you are dating a man you’re not recognized at all. When I was married to a man the church didn’t recognize my bisexuality and they just saw me as a straight person because that’s how I seemed… I didn’t have much of a struggle and it would seem that I looked straight and had all the privileges of a straight life. Whereas people who have always dated the same sex who are bisexual and decide to date the opposite sex, are almost shunned or erased… because some people around them in the LGBT community no longer see them as someone who struggles…”

Her background was unusual, she acknowledges. “I got married at 18 and I was heavily involved in a small, Christian commune for five years… It was a significant part of my experience in my life. It gives me a unique view of the world and a connection to people that other people aren’t going to connect to, because everybody’s different. There’s quite a number of people like me and I’m glad I’m not in it anymore.” She empathizes with “a lot of people who have been kind of tricked into being there and feel the pain of coming out of it, and the betrayal like they were lied to. So it’s good to be able to comfort those people as they are going through the same journey as I did.”

“I would say that it was part of my becoming an adult and it didn’t end well but it did start well, as with groups like this. They were really nice people who were just a little demanding, and it was pretty damaging.” That religious environment was, in its own way, accepting of the particular choices she made. “I’ve always been bisexual, even since I was 15. My closest friends always knew… I got married really young, and even he knew… even the church knew. When you’re in the church, you can marry a man and still be bi and you’re ‘doing the right thing.’”

The man she married was her first boyfriend and she had two children with him. “I’m glad that I did come out of it because it was pretty toxic, but they were very supportive of me through my early mothering years, becoming an adult. I went there when I was 17 and I left five years later when I was 23. Those are the more difficult years of adulthood.”

The break with the church was not easy, but she describes it today as literally life or death. “I had, I guess, a nervous breakdown. I realized I was kind of lying to myself. I didn’t actually realize it at first. I went to my doctor and I said, ‘I’m having all of these things happen. My hands are shaking. I’m having severe back pain. I’m having so many nightmares. What’s going on? Can you fix me?’ She was like, ‘What’s in your life that’s really stressful?’ And I’m like, ‘Nothing, I have a great life.’ [laughs] Then I thought, ‘Maybe I do have stress.’ It’s funny how that tremor immediately went away as soon as I left the church.” The separation and divorce was amicable. “I left the church and my marriage did not survive my leaving the church, because the church itself kind of kept me in this, this – it kept us contained to the same values and morals and ideas of my then-husband. When I left, I questioned a lot of things, but he never really questioned things: we were no longer compatible. We were very happy, actually, to separate. It was the right thing to do, a huge relief to both of us, and we parent our children quite well separately, after some figuring it out.”

“I feel like a chapter closed last year. My divorce was final: my court day was in June, but three months later I got the paper. I’m still changing my name on things. Actually, it’s a slow process to change your name on every single thing that you’re associated with. I’m really glad to have my name back. I’m glad to close that chapter of my story and start over. It’s like I went back to being Tammy Laforest… I’m back to being Tammy Laforest again legally, and it’s beautiful, it’s all I wanted. I wanted to be Tammy Laforest again, I want to be myself, I wanted my old self back and all the previous associations with that. I was no longer going to be someone’s wife. This has nothing to do with the church, it has nothing to do with sexuality, it’s a matter of being in a marriage you don’t want to be in, and getting out of it was wonderful. I highly recommend it.”

After separating from the husband she married very young, Laforest said she had the chance to date for the first time in her life. “It was a really new and exciting time for me with lots of free dinners because I was broke.” Asked to describe a particularly bad date, she said, “I went out with this one guy who showed up and he was wearing the worst outfit. Not that I’m ever wearing nice outfits, but this was just so, it was the worst sneakers. The whole conversation, we didn’t agree on anything. I didn’t feel like he was going to take care of me at all. I paid for his dinner, he let me pay. And this is not feminist at all, I know, but I want someone to take care of me, that’s the type of person I am. I will do and pay for you and everything, but not if it doesn’t happen in the beginning like that. It’s a male-female thing. I’ve always preferred it to be that way.”

This led to the question, since she is very publicly bisexual, whether it was different dating men and women. With men, she laughed, “I’m not saying he should, but I won’t go out with him again” if he doesn’t pay. What about women? “No, I just fall madly in love with them. I want to be the one who pays for dinner, and I want to be the one who buys the flowers, and I want to open the door, because I know how I would want to be treated by a date, and I assume that she would like to be treated the same also, so I go out of my way to be the person that I always wanted my date to be. So far it has worked out for me. It feels really good to treat people that way.”

She was never “in the closet,” but becoming “Mx. Bisexual” has made her very public. “I do hold the title. I’m very confident about my sexuality… I just feel like, before I was walking through the world and no one knew, and now it’s on my Facebook profile. I wear a sash that says it and I’m in a parade.” But, she said, the most important change is her girlfriend, Jeana DeLaire. “I became more confident as soon as I found my girlfriend because she’s lovely and I wanted everyone to know her.” It’s Laforest’s first long-term relationship with a woman and the only partner she has lived with other than her ex-husband. “I’m very in love, it’s a wonderful feeling.”

Living together as a family is elating, she said. “I get so much pleasure out of cooking. That was probably the thing I missed the most during the year that I was single. I loved having someone who could sit down at home and I could cook for them. I could do that with the kids, but it didn’t make sense to do that very often because there would be too much food, it would go bad. One of the happiest things is that now I have that home life again.”

Her girlfriend and her ex-husband agree on one thing that Laforest finds amusing in retrospect. “I don’t see colors like other people. I don’t see blues and greens and blacks and browns the way other people do… I can’t tell differences between them, they all look the same. I can see some of them, sometimes I can, but I don’t know which ones I’m actually seeing. It took this relationship I’m in to realize that some of my clothes aren’t the colors I thought they were… because Jeana will ask, ‘What are you wearing?’” Did her husband ever notice this during their years of marriage? “Never,” she answered at first, but then allowed, “Well, maybe he did because we used to argue about it, but I didn’t realize I was wrong all the time.”

Laforest is primarily known as a musician, having released an album, Copper, and performing regularly under a number of affiliations, including with her own band The Dust Ruffles, with her girlfriend’s band Great Gale, and as a duo with her girlfriend as  Tammy & Jeana. The couple host a popular biweekly open mic at the News Café in Pawtucket. The Dust Ruffles and Tammy & Jeana are on the bill at the Countdown to Pride fundraising concert to be hosted by Laforest, June 7 at Dusk in PVD. Laforest will be hosting the acoustic stage at RI Pride, and the couple will also perform this summer at pride events in Boston and in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Both considered competing in the Triple Crown pageant. “My girlfriend and I both wanted to do it and we were trying to decide who was going to go first, and I said, ‘I’m older so you have to go second.’ [laughs] If I don’t do it this year, I’m not going to do it next year… I’m going to be an old woman, I’m turning 30 this year,” Laforest said. “I thought it would be a good time to make some friends, new friends. She already knows everybody, but I do not. So I figured, I might as well just jump right in.”

“I have stage fright, every single time I perform,” Laforest confessed. “I try to get there as far ahead of time as possible to set up and not have any nerves, and practice enough so I don’t have nerves. I turn on a persona as soon as I walk into a venue because, my usual self, I am shy and introverted and I don’t like to be around people, in general, and I like it to be quiet. I enjoy quiet spaces with no music.” She learned how to do that, she said, on the web. “I was part of an on-line community of bloggers at one point – the web site doesn’t even exist anymore – and I very much admired this one blogger who was very funny and always had a comment and put all these things in this blog, and in this chat community everyone wanted to be around her. I met her in person in New York City… and she was really quiet, calm and boring almost, and I was so bored. But I learned from her that one can turn on a personality, a persona, and put on an act when put into certain situations, so I decided if you can’t – there’s a saying ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ – so I decided to fake it ‘til I made it, and it’s really working for me.”

It doesn’t help that she suffers from congestive asthma, a difficult problem for a singer, where the chest tightens up and it becomes hard to breathe, but she keeps it under control by avoiding allergens, especially nuts and chocolate – a sensitivity she discovered when she was selling fondue chocolate for a living. “Now I don’t even have asthma anymore unless I’m eating junk food. I don’t even take Claritin anymore because I became allergic to it… I’m allergic to the tablet… I have no idea what it is, but I’m allergic to various white-coated pills, it’s really annoying but at least my body and kidneys now are medication-free.” Now that she knows what to avoid, she said, “I can go completely without any medications as long as I’m eating a very clean diet without grains, basically, and without any of the random things I’m allergic to… I made a list yesterday and it’s very long, and I’m much happier and so is everyone around me when I’m on a strict diet free of the allergens.”

“I started writing songs at the age of nine. I didn’t start playing an instrument for a while. I played the guitar at 15,” she said. “I had two children… and the church didn’t really encourage me to do my own music, so I had been an active performer and band leader. I had an album and everything before I met who would be my husband. Then it all kind of stopped when I decided to have children, and it bothered me but I wasn’t able to do those things. They weren’t really supportive of it in that [church] group of people. When I left that group of people, one of the first things I did was start going to open mics again and start playing.” Her children are now eight and ten. “I feel like I was just born a songwriter and I was always learning. It’s wild that I have one child who’s older than when I started and one who’s about to be that age…”

“I remember the first time I wrote a song. I had this melody in my head, and I wrote these words and they rhymed. I was tapping on my notebook with a pencil for a little beat. This is the song I wrote down, and I was like, ‘Mom! I wrote this!’ She said, ‘You didn’t write that.’ [laughs] I guess it seemed too advanced. I went to my 4th or 5th grade class at the time and said to the music teacher, ‘I wrote this song. Do you want to hear it?’ and I sang it. She said, ‘That’s really good. Sing it to the class.’ So I sang it to the class. I continued writing songs, but that was the first song. I sang in the 5th grade talent show, and it was one of the strangest moments of my life because I had been singing it in the rehearsals, so at the talent show all of the students knew the lyrics. I was like, ‘This is my song! That I wrote!’” The song itself made that happen, she said. “It was catchy enough for them to pick up the lyrics within two or three rehearsals. It was really a bizarre feeling to have an audience of my peers singing a song that I had written. It continues to be very strange when I hear my songs on the radio or I’m at a bar and it comes over the speakers in the room, and I think, ‘This is me!’” It still happens, she said. “My favorite is when my dad turned on the radio [station WHJY] at 11 at night and he heard me, and he was like, ‘Huh? HJY?’ He texted me.”

Laforest described her musical evolution: “My teenage years, which were me being a depressed, angsty teen. Then little bits of crushes and things like that. Then I stopped writing songs. During the church, I wasn’t writing songs. Then I fell into a depression as I decided to leave the church… My depression wrote the songs… they were heavily influenced by my state of mind. I left the church and I was very free and happy, and many of my songs after that were about leaving the church and being free, and after that many of my songs were about leaving my marriage.” Ironically, she said, “I haven’t written much recently because I think I’m actually too happy, and it’s making me stop writing for a bit.” She said she wrote only “very few” happy songs, but “I wrote at least a couple of hundred songs before I met my husband.”

In 7th grade, Laforest left school for Christmas vacation and never came back, she and her two sisters from then on being home-schooled by their mother. (She also has a much younger brother.) “I don’t have a diploma. I don’t have a college degree and I don’t have a GED. Yet I’ve been employable by so many different companies. People love having me as an employee. If I tried to apply to a corporate place, there would be no degree and they would just disregard me. I’ve been lucky enough to get into various agencies or situations because of my work experience… My resume is really nice, it says what I know. I don’t have a degree, but I’ve done a bunch of different courses relevant to jobs and things I felt like learning.” She should have earned a high school diploma, she said, but “I became a home-schooler right before the superintendent changed and they would no longer give diplomas to home-school students. They gave me a paper that allowed me to get into CCRI that just said, ‘she did something…’ I have got through life without these documents.” She is working on an Associate’s degree and hopes to test out of many of her remaining courses. “I get all As, I’ve never gotten anything less than an A in a college course, but it’s a huge struggle for me to sit still and get it done. I just can’t stand being in a classroom.”

She emphasized that she does not regret the way things turned out, especially her children, but said, “in hindsight, I would never have quit school because if I wasn’t socially awkward before, I currently am now. I never learned a lot of those things. I never went to prom. I probably would not have gotten married and had children so soon. I probably would have graduated college by now, if not many times. I probably would have been much further in my life. Perhaps even my music may have been further, because I didn’t have anybody like a strong friends group telling me, what was wrong and right or good and bad. I probably would have figured out my sexuality much sooner if I’d had the experience in high school.”

One thing Laforest has struggles with is labels. “In my explorations of my sexuality since leaving a marriage, I can’t say that I’m fully comfortable with the label ‘bisexual’ but it’s the closest thing I have. I’m not sure how I would identify if I had a whole bunch of words to choose from. I don’t feel the need to do that, it’s not my primary focus, but [laughs] at least for this year I need to be bisexual… Maybe I don’t care about the gender that I’m dating, maybe it’s more the person that I’m dating. Maybe I can be friends with some people, or sex partners, but maybe I don’t really care. Maybe I’m wondering about my own gender identity, which I’ve always identified as female, but maybe there’s some in-between there and I’ve never recognized it. Being in the community and exposed to all of the ranges and the politics and concepts that I’d never heard, it made me have to take a step back and wonder if this has a label, while at the same time thinking to myself it doesn’t really matter about the label. I just don’t restrict myself to any one gender, but ‘bisexual’ means that I restrict myself to two… But since I’m dating someone in a monogamous relationship, it doesn’t matter.”

“My childhood was my mother’s religious journey, through many different religions, in and out of different churches for various reasons, reading many books, coming to her own conclusions from her Catholic upbringing. Then I got into Christianity which would almost seem at that point in her life to be something that I shouldn’t have done, but she was supportive.” The attraction to the religious commune was simple, she said. “They gave me food. Dinners around the table… I was home-schooled in the woods, so it was just… my family, and they didn’t really talk to me that much, so I was pretty lonely. Then I went to this group of people who all lived together, and they had family dinners and they gave me food and were really nice and they talked to me. That’s how they pulled me in, and that’s how they get a lot of people into situations like that… I needed community, and it came in the form of religious community. And, though I questioned it regularly, I went along with it.” That was in the past, she said. “I no longer go to church because it makes me nervous, and I don’t actually need to be in a church because my slowly evolving spirituality doesn’t require groups. I don’t need to be in a group of people.”

Laforest’s children are her main motivation for going to college. “My partial Associate’s degree right now is the ‘Science Track D,’ that satisfies part of the chemistry or biology [Bachelor’s] degree at RIC… It’s basically pre-med, like a biology degree. I’m almost all the way through the degree, and I just have to finish it, which I’m going to do mostly so my kids can see that I did… A lot of me doing the pageant is so that my children can see that I did it, and see that they don’t need to be stuck in a marriage. I don’t want them to do that. I don’t want them to be kept small even though they’re very much in a religious community still with their dad. I want them to see that you can shine and you can be strong, and I can do it, because I don’t want them to be like me. I don’t want them to get stuck. I want them to see that there’s a whole world out there for them and that if their mom can do it, they can do it. That’s my real driving factor for getting it… So why would I need a degree? So my children can see that they don’t quit school and they keep going.”

Referencing the King Arthur legend and his supernaturally wise mentor, she said, “I sometimes wish I had a Merlin, my very own Merlin. I always wanted one and I never had one. Someone who would be like, ‘You have potential. Do these things to become this.’ I had be my own Merlin, but I don’t know what I don’t know. So I can’t say, ‘It would be really good for you at this point in your life to learn how to tune your guitar by ear because obviously you need ear training. If you had ear training, you would be this much further in your life.’ The only reason I learned music theory was because I had to do that requirement at CCRI.”

“I actually really enjoy math and science because you know the answer and that’s it, or you find the answer and that’s it. I’ve been told I’m the least-creative creative person. I might be a musician and a songwriter, and I can make lots and lots of music and be creative, but I like my walls plain… I like everything simple, black and white. I prefer science over art. I prefer math over writing. That seems to people really peculiar.”

She sees a strong connection between her non-musical education and her music. “My math brain is why I tend to write pop style. When I write a song it’s almost a math formula. The rhyming structure is a pattern: the beats and even the chords, they way they go from one to another, the structure of a song – A-B-A-B, whatever it is – is very mathematical. When I hear a song and it’s not correctly structured, which you rarely ever hear on the radio, it drives me insane. When I was in the church, for example, and there are a lot of songwriters in the church, I would be like, ‘No! You need to fix it! It’s not predictable by the audience!’ If you can’t have the audience predict what’s next, you don’t want your audiences singing along, but churches always sing along so write it to be predictable. That drives me crazy.” Challenged to give an example of such a well known musician or band, “On one side there’s annoying because it doesn’t fall into place correctly, but then there’s annoying because it’s too correct – like Nickelback – that’s so spot-on mathematical that it’s actually irritating.”

Laforest is quite conscious that her upbringing was unusual. “One time I was on a train coming from New York City, and while I was on this train and even in New York City, I had so many people saying, ‘You’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.’ And I’m like, “You’re in New York City! What are you talking about?!’ I think it’s because of my religious experiences and where I am within my own life and music and how young I was when I had children, and yet I’m not struggling – which is luck, really. I got really lucky how things fell into place for me.”

She sees her unusual upbringing as having been an opportunity for growth. “I’m a ‘Why not?’ type of person. Everyone’s going through life and they don’t see that there are opportunities there because they think they’re only supposed to do certain things if they’re ‘qualified’ to do so. And I’m just like, ‘Well, why not?’ Why not learn web design? Why not throw a fundraiser without any experience? Why can’t I just go to the library, pick up a book and learn how to do an entire field of work? Why can’t I do that? Why not? Because everybody else is like, ‘Well, I need a degree.’ No, you don’t: if you can do the work, you don’t need a degree. Why not go run in a pageant even though I’ve never run in a pageant before and nobody in the community knows me? Why not run despite that? Go for it, do the best I can. I just happened to win.”

All of this experience prepared her for the role of Mx. Bisexual at RI Pride. “It kind of forced me into a quick learning thing, like throwing someone in the water to learn how to swim. My fundraising experience, and actually all of my work experience of being on stage as a musician, was the perfect training for it.” Still, she said, “It’s not like anything else I’ve ever experienced. Very different. There are a lot of people who have been turned away by their families, have struggled because of their sexuality, who have not always had the freedoms that they have now, and still struggle…” She is well aware that she was fortunate, she said. “I can’t just waltz in as the girl who looked straight for 10 years. I have my family, my children, and I didn’t have to pay 50 grand to get them. I didn’t need to fight for it. I do have that privilege.”

Maturity gives her valuable perspective, she believes. “I think that between 21 and 23 you think you’re an adult, and you find that even though you’re done with school and you’re done with this and that, it’s not suddenly easy. You’re not suddenly handed a job. You’re not suddenly happy. Everybody says that you’re starting adulthood and then 23 happens and you think, ‘I haven’t reached anything. Nothing’s different. What is my life?’ That’s really difficult for some people, many people.” At 29, she said, “Most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m just winging it, and I feel that most adults are. The secret is, we’re all winging it… You hit 24 and you think, ‘I’m an adult now.” Then you hit 25 and you think, ‘We’re all pretending to be adults.’ We can stop pretending. I’m a mentor to people? This is ridiculous.”

Laforest’s day job is as the office administrator at a Jewish synagogue. “When I started working at the synagogue, I was married with children and I had the appearance of being a super-Christian in a way, and now the people at the synagogue laugh because they’re like, ‘Now you’re a rock-star lesbian!’ The synagogue is super-accepting. While they’re Modern Orthodox, their goal, part of their goals, is to bring feminism into the synagogue to make women have more of the things that the men have, to make it more accessible to them and to really fight for the rights of women, and I would say that’s their primary focus right now. At various times the rabbi has spoken for gay marriage and trans rights, and he’s spoken against conversion therapy and he has been really active in those things. So it was coincidental that I also entered as the secretly bisexual girl. So I’ve had great luck with that. Those things actually intersect more than my music does with Pride, so I’ve actually tried to bring them together by having my countdown event at Dusk, a not-gay venue but with some gay artists and some who are not, some who are trans and some who are not, which is really difficult because they do not know each other, despite Rhode Island being really small.”

She attributes her professional success, among other things, to attitude and approach. “Ultimately it comes down to that, ‘Why Not?’ I know what made me unhappy and I know what makes me happy, so why not? I might be an adult, but I can still read young adult novels. It may be breakfast time, but I can still eat an ice cream cone. Why not?” It has worked for her. “I got a job one day because I went to a job interview and I ordered dessert instead of lunch, and they were like, ‘WHAT?! You’re hired!’”

Speaking of her children, she said, “I think they’re very proud of me, and it’s very funny to hear ‘My mom won Mx. Bisexual!’ They hang out with me like it’s no big deal, it’s really funny. I think it was one of the highlights of their life when at the Motif [Music] Awards they asked me to announce. ‘My mom is up there!’ We had just done the AIDS Walk for Life the day before with the crown and sash, and that whole weekend any time I walked outside there was a camera… getting followed around by photographers. They just accepted it. ‘My mom’s on the radio, whatever.’ Pretty normal for them.”

Laforest and DeLaire recently celebrated their one-year anniversary together.

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