It has taken me quite a while to wrap my head around the phrase “out and proud”. I always used to think of being gay as something that was a natural part of you, so that being proud of it made just about as much sense to me as being proud of having blue eyes. Recent events, however, have given me a bit more insight.
After over a year and a half of shifting from straight to bi to gay and back again, last month I decided I am, after all, gay. Luckily for me, unlike many people struggling with their sexuality, my friends and family have been completely supportive of me. They have not, however, always known exactly what to say, and their responses to me sharing the news with them are one of the funnier things to have come out of this experience. For example, my mum responded with: “Ah well, I still have two other shots at having grandchildren”. When I told my dad that I had decided that I was, after all, definitely gay, he changed the subject fairly quickly. When I questioned him on this, he explained that it was only because he didn’t have much more to say on the matter, except “I agree”. But my favourite response of all was from one of my more conservative close friends: “A few years ago I wouldn’t have known what to say… but now I’m just really, really happy for you.” This all left me feeling fairly optimistic, if not a bit bemused, about the situation. Everyone I cared about had responded well. Sometimes in a slightly laughable way, sometimes with a few words of wisdom, but on the whole I felt pretty supported.
However, despite all of this, I find myself increasingly feeling that I am part of a group who are very much marginalised by society as a whole. We know that gay and lesbian teens are the highest risk group for suicide, and are more likely to become homeless than their heterosexual peers. I am not saying that being homosexual was the only factor causing these people to take their own lives or feel that they had to leave their homes.
However, I think it is vitally important for society to recognize the role of persecution based on sexuality in these issues. As someone who identifies as gay themselves, it is a small step to go from recognizing the persecution others face to feeling that to come out to the people around me would be to risk facing such persecution myself.
Thus, while I have been able to open up to friends and family who I have known and trusted for years, I find it much harder to tell people whose stance on homosexuality I am not already fairly sure of. After breaking things off with the guy I was seeing I decided that from that point forth I was going to be completely openly gay. However, less than a week later, I found myself vaguely saying that things hadn’t worked out when the topic of love lives came up with a group of girls from my course, one of whom I had yet to come out to.
One of the reasons I find this so hard is that I feel strangers automatically assume that everyone they come across will be straight. Even the phrase “coming out” reinforces the idea of straight until proven otherwise. Far more worryingly, some people still seem to assume most people will hold the same homophobic views they do. The worst thing I have ever had said to me on this topic was by a woman I have only met once, whom I am sure assumed I and everyone else she was talking to was straight.
I met this woman last year when I was on my gap year, working in a women’s clothing store to save up some money for overseas travel. I had been helping one customer for about twenty minutes. It was a long and complicated transaction which gave her plenty of time to tell me her views on immigration, Tony Abbot, marriage equality and the rights of same-sex couples to adopt. In short, a fair portion of the list of subjects I would usually avoid talking about with customers, or with anyone in my workplace.
After a range of bizarre comments (“And now Tony Abbot’s sister is gay all women suddenly love him.” Um, no, actually she has spoken out against his policy…) she moved on to the topic of whether same sex couples should legally be able to adopt.
“Well, I have no problem with them marrying, they can do whatever they want, but I don’t think they should bring kids into it.” My co-worker and I kept our faces in a polite pose that neither spoke of agreement or disagreement. A classic in the customer assistance handbook. “We all know that when the little boy turns five and his dick pops up and he goes to his dads to explain it they’ll invite him into their bed on a Sunday morning and say ‘here son, we’ll tell you all about it.’”
Shocked by the sudden vulgarity and absolute wrongness of her statement, I didn’t respond. By this time my co-worker had taken over the transaction (this women was a regular and notoriously difficult customer) and so I was able to move away under the pretence of tidying racks, and try to avoid bursting into tears.
At first I was horrified that someone could come into my workplace and feel they could say whatever they wanted to me. I have often felt angry at the inequality of the customer-retail assistant relationship, in which the customer can say whatever they want to you and must still be treated with respect. I was also angry that this woman clearly assumed that most people would agree with her view and that she felt it was an acceptable thing to say to anyone, let alone to strangers in a public space. Lastly, I was upset with myself for not having the courage to say something to her. Since then I’ve gone over many possible responses in my head, from “I’m happy to continue helping you but I’m going to have to ask you to either choose a more appropriate subject matter or leave the store” to the more inflammatory, but also far more satisfying “what exactly are you trying to imply about my Dads?”
My point is that there are many people who go around assuming that the people they interact with are straight, that their homophobic views are normal and acceptable, and that they have the right to share them with anyone they meet. But I wonder if part of the reason these people think it is acceptable to say things like that is because they have never been called out on it before. I am not in any way saying that the blame lies with the bystander. But I do think the best way to show someone their behaviour is unacceptable is by not accepting it.
So now I have a deeper understanding of the difficulties so many people face in coming out and being openly gay or lesbian. I have incredible respect for those people who have already achieved this, and empathy for those who, like myself, have struggled with this step. I still believe that differences in sexuality are as natural as differences in eye colour. The step to being open about one’s sexuality, however, continues to require courage. By making your sexuality visible, you immediately defy people’s view that everyone around them is straight, as well as challenging the stereotypes and prejudices they may hold. At the same time, you lend a little courage to those who are still struggling to take the plunge. And that is certainly something to be proud about.