There is a yearning I have as a queer person to be seen. Not noticed or ogled or stared at the way a person does when my androgyny makes them uncomfortable. Really seen–in the way that you see other people, acknowledge their humanity, and then go about your day. I want to be ignored like the rest of you.
A few months ago, I watched the show “Heartstopper” on Netflix. It’s about two high school boys (who play rugby!) entering into a romantic relationship. When I finished all of the episodes, I was a heap of shivering tears and snot. It wasn’t necessarily because I was happy for them. I mean, yeah, of course I was. It took me some distance and kleenex before I realized that through the entire show, I was just on edge waiting for The Bad Thing to happen. I mean, they get bullied, but they (and others) stand up for them and are ultimately okay. Eventually, they’re both out to everyone in their high school. The last episode, one of the boys came out to his mom. I started crying when he tried to start the conversation. I knew what was going to happen: yelling, tears, accusations, being told he couldn’t live there anymore. But. The mom was totally fine with it. She even told him she loved him and asked questions about the other boy. The Bad Thing never happened, but every time I recognized a possible situation for The Bad Thing, my body reacted to the perceived threat.
That’s when I really fucking lost it.
In my 25 years of being out, I’ve seen movies and shows which portray caricatures, stereotypes, and ultimately, queer people through a heteronormative lens. Ask any gay and they’ll tell you if you’re watching a show with a lesbian she will die at the end, and if she’s dating a bi girl, the girl will leave her for a cis man. There are websites which discuss the trope of “burying your gays” in film and television. When I was first out, I had to search hard to find movies with queer characters. When I did find myself in those films what I saw was me being raped, killed, ostracized, ignored, mocked, and maybe worst of all, utterly unhappy at the end (if I didn’t die in the second act). Queers generally aren’t allowed a happy ending. And our stories are fraught with trauma: getting kicked out of the house, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. Secrets. Lies. Closets.
This entire series of this show I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for The Bad Thing I’ve grown accustomed to seeing happen to queer people in television happen to these poor, cute little rugby boys. There is a time in the show when their relationship is secret, and the out kid has to be okay with seeing the other closeted kid. I was triggered. Not in the way that assholes use the word, but actually.
To me, being the one who is “out” in the relationship or situationship or whatever, means pain. When I was 21 my girlfriend wasn’t out to her friends. On her birthday, I brought her flowers, and we planned on spending the evening together-painting, watching The Big Lebowski, and drinking Red Stripe. But. Her friends called to tell her they were coming over. She told me I had to leave. At the time I had a shaved head and was wearing men’s tank tops and raggedy, long denim shorts I bought from Value Village. I mean, there was no way I was passing for straight. I should also mention the year was 2000. I pleaded with her to let me stay and just pretend to be her friend. She looked me up and down and said, “they’d know.” I said, “they’ll know about me, but they don’t have to know about you.”
“They’ll know,” she said.
So, she handed me the bouquet of flowers, and I sneaked out the back fire escape from her third floor apartment while they came in through the front.
I’m not lying to you.
In-between my marriage to the Awful One and my other very serious partnership, there was someone. You didn’t know. You couldn’t know. She came from money. And status. And a Baptist family. She went to the best schools. She’d never dated a girl before, but she’d always known, the way all of us know. I promised myself when I was younger that I’d never be with anyone again who wasn’t out. The best laid plans… And. Well. I loved her. And she loved me. But it was all in secret.
One day she flew back from visiting a friend and told me it was over (this was the final time; she’d tried to break it off at least 7 times before that). Because, you know, she just couldn’t anymore. She told me she’d never tell her parents because it would hurt them too much. She’d never tell her friends because it was hard. I was devastated. I mean, utterly gone. I had panic attacks. I became depressed. There was no one to talk to because no one really knew, except the one friend who did know and told me to get a therapist. What still haunts me about that woman is I was merely a ghost passing through her life, and I remain a character who lingers unnamed in her poetry.
This show, though, is utterly joyful. And when I found myself a confused mess at the end, I realized all the trauma that still exists for me. I realized at every turn I expected the worst for these kids because I’d experienced some of it, had heard most of it from friends I’ve met along the way, and I’ve seen the rest reflected back to me on the big screen.
That’s what you’ve seen, too, right? How many happy queer characters exist? How many queer characters do you know where their queerness ISN’T EVEN DISCUSSED because it’s normal and no one cares? When I see something like that, my brain misfires. How many queer characters do you know who do more than just act gay in the show?
As queer people, we have learned to hide. Some of us can shape-shift in circumstances which require it. Some of us don’t have that luxury. Even as someone who has been out for so long, I still find times when I try to make myself smaller to make others more comfortable. I’m still morphing into the person I am–each day moving farther away from who I was told I was, or who I pretended to be. I quit wearing dresses over a decade ago, but finally quit wearing women’s dress shirts when I lost my boobs. Those shirts, and some of the accompanying lady dress pants were a costume I put on so people wouldn’t automatically assume I was “the man.” By becoming who I am, I’m just getting sexier all the time. A lot of queer people in your life are wearing costumes. They are hiding behind clothes, hair, maybe some personality traits that aren’t fully theirs.
As queer people we are raised hearing things like: Don’t be proud of your gayness because it’s embarrassing. Don’t make people uncomfortable by saying it. When someone calls your wife or partner your “friend,” don’t you dare correct them because at least they’re not yelling homophobic slurs at you. At least you’re being tolerated. At least your grandpa isn’t alive to see this.
We are out here, being the least for you. The least likely to say how we’re feeling. The least likely to dress how we want. The least likely to show up to a family dinner because of the looks we get.
The least likely to survive our childhood.
We are the least. Yet, we are told we’re still asking for too much.