Friday, January 4, 2013

New Year's Advice to Young People Struggling with Questions about Sexual Orientation: You Are Not the Problem and You Count

Christmas came, and the year has turned, and something is on my heart to share. As I noted on Christmas day, the holiday times--the church-and-family-oriented holiday times--can be rough for gay and lesbian family members (and, certainly, for others living alone or demeaned by family). Holiday times can be times of turmoil and pain for younger LGBTQ people, and when the turmoil and pain attached to family gatherings are reinforced by homophobic religious pontificating, as they were this year in the Catholic context, the assault on the psyches of young gay or gender-questioning people struggling to find their way in the world can be acute.

What I'd like to do now is share some hard-earned wisdom with younger LGBTQ folks--though I suspect this blog is read mostly by people of mature age like my own! Still, most of us know and love people who are gay, some of them younger people, and perhaps some of these insights will make their way eventually to ears that will benefit from hearing them. 

First, I want you to know that you are not alone. And that many others understand what you're walking through. I understand because my partner Steve and I are pointedly excluded from "all-family" gatherings, including such gatherings at the holiday time. And so I know what it feels like to be told you're not family--that you aren't worth anything--when the family gathers around a family table for a holy celebration.

It hurts.

And at holiday times, the hurt is harder to ignore. I spend most of my days and weeks pretending that I don't care that my family members who live in the same city in which I live hold "all-family" gatherings, announce them as such on Facebook, and don't invite us to these events. Most of the time, I can shrug off the pain we feel about this, after we have done everything possible for these very same family members for many years, hosting Christmas dinners for years at our house, taking one of the family members in to live with us for half a year when she needed our hospitality.

I tell myself that it's their loss that they choose to repay our love in this conspicuously ugly way, by shunning and excluding us and never informing us of any fault that has earned such treatment. I also tell myself that they ultimately harm themselves far more than they harm either of us, since they demean and dehumanize themselves by repaying love with exclusion and hospitality and support with ingratitude.

But at holiday times, memories of this kind of pain do definitely have a way of returning like some old ache in a once-fractured bone that torments us on a rainy cold day. In my case, the memories came back over the holiday season by way of one sleepless night after another, with debilitating days following the sleepless nights and tearing decisively away at my sense of self-worth.

When I learned that a cousin for whose mother we've done a great deal for a number of years came to town, took part along with his mother in the "family" gatherings from which Steve and I were excluded, and never once contacted us, the disappointment (and anger) grew more pronounced. Steve and I have long noticed that the younger family members to whom we have given much over the years and who now shun and demean us do everything possible to keep in touch with this particular cousin while never maintaining contact with us.

And we've noticed why they do this. This cousin is tall, handsome, wealthy, very successful as a top-level executive in business, and decidedly heterosexual. He's their kind of guy. He moves in power circles and has power friends. And did I say he's heterosexual? Though they pay lip-service to inclusion and affirmation of gay family members, their universe of values revolves strongly around rigid gender notes, along with the notion that heterosexual is normal and desirable, and that wealth, fame, and good looks are better than their counterparts.

What they value, they keep and hold close to their bosoms. What they don't value, they discard. It's simple, stark, and they don't mind a bit showing these values to their gay elder and his partner by acts  (and words) of gross, overt rejection.

So I understand. I understand what some younger gay and lesbian folks struggle with at holiday times. I understand at least a little bit--though everyone's situation is different. As conservatives like to say, I understand because I have skin in the game. Even as an aging gay man who has some degree of independence and security and might be thought to have transcended pain, I still know what it's like to be put through the mill and have my old heart broken solely because I am gay--and to be given signals that my aging humanity doesn't count for much, even in the eyes of family members to whom I've shown consistent love and to whom I've given much over many years.

And so to younger folks struggling to accept your sexual orientation: I want you to know that you count. The ultimate effect of this kind of behavior aimed at us by our families, by social institutions, by the media, by peers, teachers, religious groups, etc., is to corrode our sense that we're worth anything. It's to inform us hat we're worthless just because we're gay.

This is precisely the message these folks want to give us. It's precisely why they're enacting exclusion. It's what they want us to feel.

And so my hard-earned wisdom: in these dramas of ritual exclusion that rip at your life, you are not the bad guy. You are not the problem. In my struggle for many years to affirm who I am as a gay man, to live as a gay man, to be publicly known as a gay man, to live with the consequences of that public self-affirmation, if I have learned one piece of bedrock wisdom on which I consider my entire life to be founded, it's this: no one in the world can rob me of the self-worth I've worked exceedingly hard to claim. In my deepest self, I know that I count, if only to myself, and I cling to my determination to remember that I count, no matter what others try to communicate to me about myself and my self-worth.

And so after years of living to claim that bedrock sense of self-worth, I'm here to tell others, especially young people struggling to find yourselves and to affirm yourselves, that you can and will come to that same bedrock sense about who you are and your place in the scheme of things if you keep moving with clear eyes towards it. I say with "clear eyes," because you absolutely have to keep your eyes trained on that goal in a world in which there will be very many fellow human beings who are intent on deflecting you from that goal. (Listen to lesbian poet Mary Oliver's excruciatingly insightful poem "The Journey" in this stunning video rendition by Glenda Miles.)

And, unfortunately, not a few of those fellow human beings will be your own family members and, if you're religiously affiliated, members of your religious community. To achieve your goal, to find the bedrock wisdom that you count, the bedrock foundation on which a healthy human life must be founded, you must very deliberately choose to stop your ears to the voices of one person or group after another, even of your own family members or of powerful religious groups, when those voices tell you that you are the problem. That you are the bad guy.

Not only are you not the bad guy, but they aren't worth it. They aren't worth your pain, your sleepless nights, your tears, above all, your sense of self-loathing and your sense that your life doesn't count. That your family and religious community and the world at large might be a better place if you weren't in them.

You matter. You count. Your life has infinite value, and the world is a far better place because you are in it, with your unique gifts and your ability to love. If you don't believe me, then listen to someone who can describe the painful journey to gay self-affirmation and gay self-worth with far more humor and verve than I can: listen to David Sedaris read his masterful (and hilarious and poignant) essay "I Like Guys" from his book Naked (you need to hear all five segments to get the whole story).

Or listen to the funny, heartfelt, wry, wise, pain-transcending testimony of thousands of other gay and lesbian folks and friends of gay and lesbian folks at Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project. But you know who not to listen to? The pope. Thousands of hate-mongering televangelists and preachers. Family members who don't cherish you. Even quite a few gay folks whose real game is all about spreading their own sense of shame about themselves to others who are gay . . . . 

Did I say something about not listening to the pope?

My little bit of hard-earned wisdom for the new year, for what it's worth . . . . And may it help at least one person struggling somewhere in the world to find her or his feet in a world too often designed to break the hearts of those who are different.

The photo is a photo of Steve and me holding our pups Valentine and Crispen, Christmas, 2007, at a family gathering we hosted in our house. A nephew is sitting on the stairs above us.

No comments: