Friday, April 5, 2013

The personal consequences of growing up queer

I just watched this video, the stories of LGBT seniors' lives :

Most people who meet me think I'm lucky to have escaped the prejudice of the world. I don't look damaged. I don't look like a victim. I don't behave—or write—that way.

But every year or two I wonder: who would I be, how might my life have turned out, if I hadn't grown up facing a strong wind and having to walk uphill?

Some years ago I had a conversation with a friend (she is still a friend; she will remain nameless) who thought that prejudice was a thing of the distant past, something for the history books that maybe only happened to a vague and shadowy group of Disadvantaged. I told her that, no, it happened a lot. It happened to me. She just couldn't accept it: I don't look or behave like a victim. I'm not a victim, I said. She asked me some questions.

This is a paraphrased transcript of our conversation.

Well, have you ever been physically injured because you're queer?
Yes. I was beaten by several men in a club and ended up in the emergency room with a broken nose, concussion, etc. Also, three men tried to burn the house down, and rape me to show me what I was missing. Oh, and someone threw a brick through my window (I got out of bed and cut my feet to ribbons). And two men shotgunned the bedroom window of the flat I'd just moved out of. And, well, the list, frankly, is almost endless. (Seriously, one day, when I have nothing better to do, I'll write it all down. I bet I could come up with more than a hundred incidents.)

Have you ever been denied education for being queer?
Yes. I had to give up my degree course because my parents wouldn't fund their part of the cost (this was in the UK before there were such things as student loans). "Why bother?" my mother said. "No one will give a lesbian a job, anyway." And the fact is, no one would give me a job.

Have you ever been denied benefits for being queer?
Yes. I had to fight for five years to be able to get my Green Card. It cost somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 (at a time when, between us, Kelley and I were earning less than $30,000 a year; we maxed out three credit cards). My case made new law. It took years to get free of the psychological stress (I had nightmares) and the burden of debt. If we had been legally married it would have been smooth and automatic and virtually free. In addition, I couldn't get health insurance on Kelley's employee ticket; this was before domestic partnership provisions. We were monumentally broke. I couldn't get a job. I was sick. I had no health insurance. All because I'm queer.

Have you been been denied access to healthcare for being queer?
Yes. A gynecologist once tried to refuse me a Pap smear. Also, once in a very scary health situation, Kelley was told she would have no say should anything go wrong. Fortunately, we could leave. We did. (Again, I could make a list.)

There were many other questions with the same basic thrust: Did I really have a hard time? And all my answers were the same: Yes, I really did; I have been harmed physically, mentally, emotionally, legally, financially.

I don't generally dwell on this. I am not a victim. I am not a pitiable figure. I choose—willfully, daily—to focus my energies on moving forward, on staying open, on interacting with the world as humanly as possible. I've seen what it does to those who get bitter and wary and overly defended. They retreat further and further from the mainstream. They become even more Othered. I honour activists who live in the war zone, and I understand those who retreat behind their fortress walls, but that's not my path. My choice is to remain as undefended as possible, to share—in person and through my work—how it feels to be me, to help others understand and empathise. To be human not Other.

Perhaps because so many of us have somehow managed to weather this tide of prejudice without visible damage it's easy for some to believe We're All Equal Now. We're not. Yes, as a class queers are becoming more politically significant. But those who argue (go listen again to the Supreme Court arguments about same-sex marriage) that we don't need to dismantle prejudicial legislation right now are wrong. Individuals can and do still have a very hard time. Anti-queer prejudice is real. The legal and therefore social issues involved in the fight for marriage equality go far beyond being able to have a fabulous wedding.

Anti-queer prejudice in most parts of the US and UK is less than it was, certainly. But many of us over a certain age carry scars that influence our interaction with the world. I am smart. I love my work. I have a partner I trust with my life and heart. I have a home. I have a community (I have several interconnected communities). I have a vocation. I have friends and family. In most ways I am lucky. I have a magnificent life. And still, sometimes, every few years, I wonder how it might have been. I wonder how the world will change when we have marriage equality and its concomitant rights. A change in the law will lead to even faster and deeper change in the culture. It will make life easier, safer, richer (literally and metaphorically). It might help some of us let down the barriers, just a little. And then, oh, the world will need to get ready. There will be such a flowering of human art and joy and innovation...

For me and millions of others, tens of millions still to be born, this is not an academic exercise.

This blog has moved. My blog now lives here: