Queer Enough?

Milkwater writer-director Morgan Ingari interrogates her identity as queer given her current relationship with a cisgendered heterosexual man.

When I wrote the first draft of my recently released surrogacy dramedy, Milkwater, I was a 19-year-old college sophomore. In its early iteration, the movie followed a young woman who signs up to be a surrogate through an agency and then must figure out what to do when the intended parents die unexpectedly. At that point, I was living as a mostly closeted queer person – I’d been close to coming out within the safe parameters of a gay relationship / frequent hookup in high school, but when that ended, I retreated into a string of heterosexual dalliances. I felt unable to face the weight of carrying a queer identity by myself.

I left my surrogacy script abandoned in a pile of other dead-end film school assignments for almost a decade (surely alongside an essay or two about Breathless that I don’t have the self-esteem to revisit), until I pulled it out again a couple years ago. When I came back to Milkwater, I knew I had to reimagine what the film would be, not least because I’d done my research about surrogacy law and learned that contracts have built-in clauses surrounding the death of intended parents. Although I was still deeply compelled by the idea of surrogacy, I wasn’t exactly titillated by the idea of writing a legal pregnancy drama. I’d also been living out as a queer person for eight years, and been through two serious relationships and a few casual flings exclusively with women and non-binary people. After almost a decade of only dating women and non-binary folx, I’d assumed I’d surely be having kids within the context of a queer relationship. If you asked me to identify myself during that time period, I would unilaterally reply “queer” – while I didn’t feel that my past relationships with men had been inauthentic or abusive or lies, I also felt like it was unlikely I’d ever find the same romantic or sexual connection with a man, or the same degree of compatibility, as I had with women. In all of my brief dalliances with dating apps, I only ticked “interested in women.”

Writer-director Morgan Ingari on the set of Milkwater.

I’ve always wanted kids – I’ve always wanted to physically carry a child, and I’ve always wanted to be a mom. I am well aware that even within a heterosexual relationship, these things aren’t guaranteed, but they become inarguably more difficult in queer life. It didn’t particularly help that when I first came out to someone close to me, they, perhaps naively, queried, “But I thought you always wanted children?” I get it – a generation ago, far fewer queer couples had the option to embark on the journey of parenthood. The only couple within the many queer people in my parents’ friend group who have children are about two decades younger than them. But the comment needled at my worst fears and anxieties.

Over time, I went on my own journey with my queerness as it relates to prospective parenthood. I grew truly excited about the liberation that creating a family outside of straight convention affords. You get to decide! You can build whatever family dynamic you – or you and your partner – deem best for you. Anonymous sperm donation, open sperm donation, and having a child with a friend all of a sudden provide a world of possibilities that I gradually came to see as particularly beautiful – as a gift. As someone for whom chosen family has played a huge role in my life, I’ve always subscribed to the idea that there’s no such thing as “too much love” for a child. I evolved to be really, genuinely excited at the prospect of having a biological child with one of my best friends, who is a gay man. It’s something we discussed many times in the hypothetical.

Patrick Breen and Molly Bernard in Milkwater.

And then, suddenly, I found myself in a relationship with a heterosexual cisgendered man. Even from the jump, I never really questioned whether or not the two of us were compatible or a good fit – in fact, it was remarkable to me how well we gelled. However, I immediately felt what I can only describe as an acute sense of dread over losing my queer identity. I know, and truly believe, that pansexual and bisexual people are just as queer as anyone else in the LGBTQIA+ community, and should not be expected to conquer some gauntlet of proving their queerness. But, as someone who existed in the inner sanctum of lesbian life in New York for my entire adult life, I have heard my fair share of biphobic sentiment. Normally it doesn’t persist past the point of eye-roll-y comments about women who say they’re queer but have never actually dated a woman, but I have heard more than a few lesbian friends say they’d never date a bisexual woman. When I entered into my first real queer relationship in college, a close lesbian friend told me, “I still think you’ll end up with a man, eventually.” I have found myself dreading the inevitable conversation over drinks where I must tell her that is, indeed, the case. I know I’ll feel ashamed, like a poser, like I’m proving her right – like I was never queer enough.

As someone who has always dated people who are masculine of center, I understand the place of hurt that some of this wariness (and sometimes vitriol) comes from. Lifetimes of being the dirty little secret enacts generational trauma. Generations of loving gay relationships being cast aside in favor of fitting into cultural norms predictably create the narrative that bisexual women will “choose” a male partner for sake of ease. I, personally, feel more at sea now. I’ve spent the past decade insisting on my queerness – that it is a joyful thing, and fuck anyone who thinks otherwise. I’ve strained relationships, both personal and professional, by refusing to couch or downplay my sexual orientation or my romantic relationships. None of that has changed, but the realization that being seen with a man invites assumptions about who I am as a person – assumptions that are opposite of the ones I garnered until now. When you’re a woman who is seen with a female partner, you make a statement to the world. That statement is one that terrified me as a child and I grew to really enjoy making – “Look at this love, look at this life: it is worthy, it is good, it is normal.”

Morgan Ingari with actor Molly Bernard during the filming of Milkwater.

As for Milkwater, it would be ignorant and offensive for me to not acknowledge that the general ease of creating families within straight relationships is a privilege many queer people don’t have. I now find myself pausing when asked why I wrote this movie in interviews – the truth is, I wrote this movie because I was sure I would never have biological children with a partner, and I wanted to explore that. That is no longer the case. It doesn’t change my identity as a queer person, but it does change the way I’m viewed in the world, and the choices that are now afforded me in creating a family. I struggle with the right words: “As I queer person, I always … knew? … assumed? … thought? that a third person would be involved in the creation of a child in my life.” All of that is still true, but it sounds disingenuous to me now, and I worry about being the person who capitalizes on queer pain while enjoying the benefits of straight privilege.

Now, the optics of my partnership don’t make a statement for me – I have to make it myself. And sometimes when a queer woman in a heterosexual-presenting relationship insists over and over and over that she is queer, that that is important, it can come across as needy, or whiny. Like you’re asking the queer community itself to validate your queerness, a task that isn’t fair or appropriate to ask of anyone. It can be exhausting enough to live in the world as a queer person, so placating the insecurities of worried bisexuals doesn’t really seem like a fair ask. And yet I find myself desperately wanting that reassurance. However, I know that it needs to come from myself and not from other people. And if previously I was relying on just the mere fact of being in a gay relationship to do the talking for me, maybe I was being a lazy participant in my own community and my own ethos.

Molly Bernard in Milkwater.

I ultimately don’t know where this leaves me. I have faced both acceptance of and discomfort about my new relationship with my queer friends. Some queer women and non-binary people have chosen to keep men in general at arm’s length, for legitimate reasons surrounding trauma and abuse. I recognize that now being close to me means being around a guy sometimes (a very nice one, albeit, but the existence of kind men doesn’t undo the trauma the terrible ones inflict – as a victim of sexual assault, this is something I feel in my own bones).

I don’t think I’ll ever stop making movies about queer people – those stories are the most important and compelling to me as a person, and represent the only life I’ve really lived. Assuming my life continues within a seemingly heterosexual relationship, I worry I’ll drift further from having a “claim” to those stories, despite the fact that I won’t ever stop being queer. I think that’s something I’ll need to consistently check in with – both with myself, and with others. And yet the very first nascent inklings of myself as a sexual being are scribbled all over the pages of my fifth grade journals – deep angst and confusion and pain over only having crushes on other girls. That anguish stains my childhood and early adulthood more than probably anything else. That will always be a deep and sore part of myself, even if I stay with my current partner forever. And in that way, being queer feels encoded in my DNA and colors every lens I see through – in film and in life.

Despite the early pain, I think the deepest part of me is selfishly scared I’ll lose, is the joy of being queer. I desperately hope I’m still welcome at the queer dance party nights, at Pride, and, most importantly, in intimate circles of queer people. I have so much anxiety (largely self-manufactured) over being that straight woman who brings her straight friends to the drag bar and sucks the air out of the room for everyone else. I tell myself I wasn’t like that when I only dated women, so why would I suddenly become this particular type of nightmare human?

Morgan Ingari during the shooting of Milkwater.

As time goes on, this spiral of thinking will dull; ultimately, when you enter into a family, your identity becomes more wrapped up in the role you play to the people around you and less in your identity to the world. That choice is one people living in openly queer relationships often do not have, but life still settles into its specificities and personal routines. Presumably, even if I had children in the context of a queer relationship, I’d see myself as a “mother” and not a “gay mother,” just like I see myself as a “filmmaker” and not a “queer filmmaker.” Ultimately, the thing that lets me most readily accept my current relationship with a man is the life I’ve lived as a queer person. I’m lucky enough to be a part of a community that takes gender, sexuality and gender roles a little less seriously. There’s a sense of humor about it all that is surely borne out of violence and oppression. But I will always be a better partner to anyone I’m with because I’ve learned that the expectations of gender and sexual expression asked of us by the patriarchy are all ridiculous and stupid and damaging, and the gift of loving someone and being loved by them is so much more important than any of the minutiae. What a gift to enter into any relationship relieved of the responsibility of giving a shit about who’s supposed to cook and do the dishes and express emotion and grill the burgers. I’d never be in a happy relationship with this particular man if I hadn’t already learned to live as my silly, loud, emotional, analytical, queer self.

And I’d never be the filmmaker I aspire to be either. Living as a queer person has made me a kinder and more empathetic director to my cast and crew. It’s made me realize that emotional health is more important than getting 17 takes of the same shot, just so it’s “perfect.” It’s made me someone who believes that care and love and vulnerability are way more important than making movies – which I think is what makes me (hopefully) good at making movies. Maybe that’s all the insight I’ll ever have into what it means to live this particular existence, but I think I’ll eventually be at peace with that.

Morgan Ingari is a Brooklyn-based queer writer/director, originally from Boston. Her debut feature, Milkwater, about a directionless twenty-something who rashly decides to become a surrogate and egg donor for an older gay man she meets in a bar, is out now on digital to rent or to buy. It stars Molly Bernard, Patrick Breen and Robin de Jesús. Morgan graduated from Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Film & Television in 2013 and served as head writer for a political satire site called Runt of the Web. She has directed over 30 pieces of short-form content, and a short she wrote in 2017 called Tell Me Twice played a multiple short film festivals.