Life at the Margins: Reflections on Oppression
Part 1: Past the Outskirts of Possibility
This series is going to be different from the rest of what I will write here. I am writing this five-part series as a project for PrideBuzz to share some of the life lessons I have come to see about the intersectionality of oppression, and how that empowers and informs me as I navigate some of the finer points of our family life. And I admit, my knowledge and ideas are in constant question, and thus flux, as I continue to grow into the ever-evolving roles I play in life.
The arc of this series will follow my life, and I aim to write for this weekly, in tandem with my more normal focus [on bringing the words of people about their experiences of race and racism to white audiences, with the goal of empowering white communities to know how to discuss and address racism from within our own communities (#chug-a-plug)]. First, what I learned growing up gay and white in a very white state, and a punitively Christian country. That will be the topic of this post, and since it comes from such a white place, there really isn’t a good place for voices of color in this installment.
As a side note, as this story progresses I will include the published words of people of color wherever I see an opportunity to do so. The point of this series is that there is an intersectionality to oppression that has come more and more into focus for me as I have become the gay parent of an amazing, incredible, perfectly hilarious child of color. Okay, okay, I won’t gush… much. Yet.
There were only ever, only occasionally, only at most a few (directly related) people of color in the periphery of my early life. I wish I could tell you it was otherwise. They were nearly completely absent, except from the books I read later in my adolescence, and as much as I loved reading Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, and Maya Angelou, their suffering never fully resonated with me in the snowfield of my formative years, and the reason was that I was able (with nominal success) to mask my homosexuality throughout my life, and the idea of being able to be oppressed by my physical appearance was simply alien to me. I could conform. And I did conform.
To not conform, of course, was to be an outsider. I am white, born of white, and born in a white area. My race could never really mark me. But being born someone who “chose to be gay”? Now, that was a breach of community standards.
As I conformed, and hid myself (very noisily), I listened.
What I heard was that people of color were lazy. And that people of color were, well, that horrific, racist slur that I can rarely bring myself to even write, even in the most scholastic and academic writing – let alone in a personal essay like this. And I heard that none of them had fathers out of prison, and that slavery had been good for them, and that they were ruining the country, and that they were stealing jobs from white people in a bizarre description of reverse-racism that, like Bigfoot, has never managed to really be captured in the wild or substantiated in the data.
But I didn’t have anything to counteract that rhetoric. I didn’t have solid access to the internet, because I had a few older siblings. I didn’t think it was true, but I also didn’t actively think it was false. It was just stuff people said. I didn’t know if it was true, but I never had any curiosity about it, because people of color were planted firmly outside the realm of my personal reality except, until Middle/High School, for a single mixed-race classmate in my first grade class– who then actually and literally moved to Botswana. That’s where black people were, for me: in Africa, or else on another planet altogether.
Eventually, in the tenth grade, I was finally introduced to the Harlem Renaissance and to black authors. There came in me a new stirring of compassion and sympathy, naïvely understood sympathy, steeped in youthful idealism, as I read some works from some authors in the Harlem Renaissance, in conjunction with a very detailed study of the social changes going on in that period with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. My public school had an amazing humanities course that focused on the US, pre-conception to WWII. The year culminated in this subject, and it stuck with me throughout the summer and into the next year. And right on up to this very instant, I suppose.
What I learned, growing up with the knowledge from a young age that I was gay– and that, moreover, I must make every effort to hide my homosexuality until I found a means to cure it– was that people are going to judge me for who I am. I knew that people would think the awful things, that I heard them say so many times of other gay people, of me if my shame were ever discovered. I knew I had been born unacceptable, and that there was a huge part of me that I needed to smash, and crush, and tear, and disfigure, and starve. And believe me, I tried. I suffered myself so profoundly, and I knew all the while that I would likely still be found so detestable to God that he would cast my already-broken soul from heaven.
I could hide from my friends, my family, and my country (and intended to) but I could not hide from God. Not Jehovah, the Almighty. And after all, Jesus had not died for me.
Luckily for me, as I grew and I heard more religious anti-LGBT sentiment, in the face of the growing digital world takeover, I was able to start to question some of the internalized homophobia I felt. Google and Yahoo! Instant Messenger helped me make sense of my life by allowing me to systematically discredit my faith with the awesome power of massive amounts of aggregated intelligence and human connection. Eventually I was able to disrobe myself of, and to discard, the yoke of God for my gentler, vaguer, lowercase ideologies.
I had the knowledge confirmed and reconfirmed; that is, that stereotypes are not truth.
I admit that I became enamored of learning. Acquiring scholastic understanding was my escape, my reprieve from the isolating, cold ache of being gay where you’re not welcome (which, as it turns out, is almost everywhere). I became desperate for college, and heard of a scholarship that I could get if I outperformed everyone else in my year. That became my nearly single focus, except for the constant overlay of denying and hiding that neglected, growing portion of my humanity, calling out to be seen and loved. I am somewhat proud to admit that I managed to get my scholarship and knew that I had a framework for escape. The more-than-average amount of luck that ended up going into this is worth mentioning, but there were also many, many hundreds of hours of studying, doing homework, writing and rewriting essays, and generally engaging in the continual, consuming neurosis that is the pursuit of perpetual perfection.
But I really didn’t have any cause, or any time, to become active in a social sense. And I had no time or bandwidth to be proactive about anything at all. I was poor, and white, and everyone nearby was white. No one was oppressing anyone I knew because of their skin. I wasn’t active for gay rights, because I didn’t come out until I left my tiny, agrarian hometown for the laughable, laudable, Bernie-Sanders-hometown, “big city” of Burlington, VT. It was Queer Capital, USA as far as I was concerned. I came out almost immediately after moving out of my childhood home, knowing in the depths of my soul that I would never really return to this family, or call on them for any real or enduring support again. This nest had never really been equally mine, and I could only ever be welcomed for what I wasn’t. I moved out a week or so after graduating high school. I gloved into an apartment with some friends, got full time work for the summer, and waited for college.
But I did know one thing, still, despite forming an identity through my childhood only to immediately discard it as I catapulted myself into self-sustaining adulthood. I knew that truth was worth investigating, and that no one should be judged by the opinion of others. People misunderstood other people. I had been, and continue to be, misunderstood because of my gay identity. I have been accused of “playing house” and of being intrinsically unfit to parent. But that’s something for a later chapter of this series. We will get there, but at this point I am only 18 and freshly free of the closet. My days of dating women, and feeling disgusted with myself for engaging in a charade that I had to perform to avoid feeling disgusted with myself, were so recently over. I found I could breathe in, on the Central Green of campus, and really let my lungs expand. I imagined the chilling effect of Lake Champlain’s water on the air as cooling and soothing my soul as I grew into a place where, I felt, I could be more of myself.
There were still expressions and sentiments of homophobia around me, even as things improved. I remember crying hot, joyful tears alone in my dorm, watching live as Vermont legalized same-sex marriage. My whole life I thought that even if I were ever able to come out, I would never have a husband. Another new possibility opened up to me. And then, shortly afterward I had a third realization: I realized it was technically possible to bring a child into an LGBT family. Through several means. I thought it might have to involve some technical, legal deception (though I would never have agreed to lie to the birth parents/mother, I would happily lie to the government about my orientation if it could mean experiencing the joys and trials of parenthood. It isn’t a lie if they make you tell it, after all).
Well, I did find that special someone. We met when I was freshly 19, and he just a few years older. We knew what we had was special, and we knew we had something real. What we didn’t know, of course, was how to make something enduring. We had no models for same-sex relationships, only the remembered vitriol toward us and the lurid whispers of how sex-crazed we were supposed to be. So, without a guide or anyone to talk to about how to form a successful same-sex partnership (we knew we were headed toward marriage long before we spoke of it), we simply tried, and continue to try, to find our way.
Outside of our relationship, and on the whole, things were looking better for gay people. Still being hazed, and attacked, and assaulted, and effeminized/caricaturized by the media, and demonized by most churches and all conservative media, yeah. But legally things were okay. Ish. In a few areas. If you didn’t look too long or hard at the laws. Maybe just find that special someone and work remotely from a cabin in the woods. Retreat, hide from the society that hated us. These predominantly Christian societies have sought to exterminate us in some form or another for the last two millennia. They learn nothing from the fact that we arise in every generation. They care nothing for the fact that we are a normal and harmless percentage of every human population, so maybe we could or should just sit that out and let them hate on us all on their own.
Of course, this isolationist resolve could never last. I could never be okay with doing nothing to create a world where no one has to grow up and feel as I did. Where no one has to feel so desperate to be seen and so terrified of the same. It a cruel paradox I grew up in, just outside the realm of what “civilized” society could accept. And this framework, this background and history, continues to inform and to empower me, even and especially as I study to try to learn about race and the issues this nation/culture experiences with race and racism. My hunger to understand has grown from scholastic understanding alone, to something deeper. Something more human. The thirst for knowledge sustained me in my late teenage years, but into my early twenties I started to need to hear from other perspectives to help me understand my knowledge in the context of broader truths and other, diverse experiences of life, and humanity, and America. This expanded appetite for deeper learning continues to remind me to engage, and to listen, and to discern, whenever I can.
So, with our wedding vows still ringing in my ears, we began to think about parenthood a few years earlier than either of us had planned, and I continued to learn about the places where racism and homophobia meet, and where they do not. But, that’s a story for part two of this series.
Thank you so much for hanging in there for this one. I hope it was interesting, but it is hard for me to gauge that for myself, since I am obviously so close to the matter.
Stay engaged and stay woke,