"I like to look at how people work together when they are put into
stressful situations, when life stops being cozy"
stressful situations, when life stops being cozy"
– Jeanette Winterson –
A friend of mine recently said, "when you are queer, you have more empathy because you have already been through more than most people just to accept yourself."
What she meant is that gay, transgender and other queer people have usually been on a journey to discover, learn and accept who they are before they even get to where your average, happy-go-lucky straight guy or gal is through conforming naturally with normative social influence – that is, 'the influence of other people that leads us to conform in order to be liked and accepted by them' (Aronson, Wilson & Akert, 2005) – which they happen to do much more easily just by being themselves.
"When you are queer, you have more empathy because you have already been through more than most people just to accept yourself"
Before they even leave their house to walk down the street, then, a queer person has discovered they are profoundly different from what they are expected to be, accepted that they are different and learned what it means to be different, for both good and bad.
Think about what that really means for a moment.
Small talk is another forced opportunity to out yourself (something that is so big some people never have the courage to do it) or, at best, a new opportunity to tell a lie. Even if you are 'out' as queer, it is still an awkward subject that will come up again and again with every new friend, interviewer, interviewee, colleague, manager... And so on through every network of humans you ever connect with.
A lunch with your extended family is a farce in which your sister is asked about, and congratulated on, the newest Prince Charming while you sit quietly in the corner, picking paint off the side of an old wooden table.
A walk to the bus is a torrent of verbal of abuse, a heavy fist to the eye or a thick kick in the ribs.
All of this, a possibility – and reality for so many – before you are even at the same level as average Joe, remember. It teaches you a world of compassion, insight and comprehension that some people never have the opportunity to even comprehend.*
Small talk becomes another forced opportunity to out yourself
Eventually us gays just get over it and stop caring what people think. But take a moment to imagine what living with this fundamental difference really means. It means before you even have to worry about being different in a way a 'normal' straight person might – like the way you speak, the way you style your hair or what colour skin were born with – you still don't fall into line of what you 'should' be. In a society that quietly demands you wear similar clothes to everybody else ("stand out, but not too much"), prepare your body as close to perfection as you can to meet the 'right' man or woman to marry, and be as friendly-yet-successful an all-rounder as you can before planning your career around when you raise a family of two relaxed, but high-achieving children, you are already a huge step behind. But at the same time, it teaches you a set of invaluable lessons in acceptance, survival and how to really think.
Some people reading this will start to be saying, "Yes, but it's different now, being gay isn't that hard; get over it!" Of course I agree with this to a certain extent: I can live with my girlfriend and introduce her to all my friends and family, and even walk down the street holding her hand without causing too much of a stir – but I am privileged; many are not.
I am privileged; many are not
And while I am writing this from my home in Sydney, the largest city of the last English-speaking developed country not to have legalised gay marriage, I can't help thinking how important it is for people to not say "it's different now, the battle is won; get on with it." While I and other queer people have had to learn myself in a more profound way than someone who more naturally complies with the norm, the leader of this country won't even allow a free vote in parliament to legalise gay marriage. It makes for a powerfully complex symbol of repression. The whole picture isn't marriage itself, of course. It's choice and fairness. People shouldn't be penalised for being themselves and for loving the people they love. It's as simple as that. Experiencing this kind of discrimination first hand is as profound a lesson as anyone will learn in a lifetime. Anyway, Australia will get there. It's just a matter of time (and saying 'adios!' to a certain Liberal party leader, no doubt).
Experiencing this kind of discrimination first hand is as profound a lesson as anyone will learn in a lifetime
It's a desire to live as normally as possible that drives us. When you realise you're queer, you don't feel different. It's like when somebody asks you how it feels to turn 30. It doesn't feel like anything in particular. It's after making the realisation that you're queer that you feel it. The force with which external forces push you into questioning every ounce of your being is crushing. And then you rebuild and emerge stronger than ever.
I am a gay identical twin and when I was interviewed by Gay Star News recently, I was asked if I find it weird when people start bringing DNA into the gay debate. Of course I do. "It’s funny, people don’t say ‘you’re born fancying tanned men, let’s do a test’ or ‘it’s in your genetics to fancy ginger haired men, that’s why you married Mike!" is how I responded.
But it got me thinking: when will being attracted to the same sex – or indeed identifying as gender queer – become part of Aronson, Wilson & Akert's normative social influence I have already mentioned? The answer is: when we have enough role models – role models who have the empathy of the profound experience of learning themselves deeply simply to exist in society – to make 'queer' the new norm. People are doing wonderful things every day to make this look more and more possible – we're just not quite there yet.
* This statement is not supposed to negate the hundreds of straight people I have met that are unendingly supportive, inspiringly empathetic and endlessly intelligent to the hopes and dreams of the queer community
Read further thoughts of mine on this subject on The Debrief and Gay Star News.
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