Why I'm Not Very Proud About My History with my Gay Friend
I grew up a cisgender heterosexual woman in a rural community in Southwestern Ontario, Canada in the 1970s and 80s. At the time some of my friends in high school didn't identify as male or female or they weren't attracted to boys in our class like I was, or they identified as male yet were attracted to the boys in our class (like I was). I didn't think much about this and didn't consider them as less than or as outsiders, however, I also didn't encourage them to talk about their experiences--if they so desired--of living in a largely white, Christian, heteronormative society where people brought blue (if it was a boy) and pink (if it was a girl) outfits to baby showers. Where every spot of difference in the schoolyard was beaten out of you until you learned to act like other boys or girls.
I never considered that my friends were forced to identify as whatever others decided their gender and orientation were in order to fit in. That they had no choice but to hide their lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer (or other) identities from pretty much everyone they came into contact with for fear of being shamed, bullied, or worse.
I recall a gay friend in high school chastizing me because I talked about Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde going to prison due to the fact that he liked to have sex with boys. His eyes were full of anger and he could barely look at me when he said, "No, Lissa, it's because he was a homosexual that he went to prison."
Here I was with the best group of friends I'd known since my alienating first years of high school, and I had no clue about my privilege as a cisgender woman who liked boys. I thought I was an "outcast" and wore that badge proudly, yet I knew very little about what that word meant. I argued with my friend that he must be mistaken. How could someone possibly go to prison for homosexuality? Yes, I was that naive.
Two years later I took a gap year and ended up in Paris at Oscar Wilde's tombstone. I thought back to my friend from high school and his words that pierced through my hazy ignorance. When I arrived at Wilde's tombstone a man was kneeling in front of it, his back to me. He spoke in an American accent as I approached, and, not turning his head to look at me, he said: "Isn't it beautiful?" I answered, "Yes, it is." His voice trembled, dropping off.
Getting closer, I read the epitaph: "And alien tears will fill for him Pity's long-broken urn, For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn."
The words are from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his last work before he died. Wilde would spend two years of hard labour at London’s Reading Gaol, where he remained until his release in 1897. His health declined in prison and continued until his death three years later at the age of 46. The poem is about an execution that took place while he was imprisoned there, but of course, one can't help but think he's speaking about his own execution, both metaphorical and real, at the hands of the society he lived in.
As a cisgender heterosexual woman, I can enter a public washroom without feeling threatened; I can blend in and not be stared at for my gender expression; I can flirt without fearing rejection due to my sexual orientation; If I go to the hospital and need urgent care, I don't need to worry about not being treated due to my gender; I won't be called out on the street as a sex worker; I can easily find mentors who share my identity; I can assume that everyone who meets me isn't misled by my identity; I can purchase clothes that match my identity; my identity is represented on all forms I have ever filled in and will fill in; I don't have to keep educating people because they don't recognize my identity.
And so I think about that time, and all the inroads that LGBTQ communities have made since the 1980s, yet about how there's still social stigma and groups who equate being gay with mental illness. There are still many young people just like my friend who may not feel safe about coming out to friends or family, to coworkers.
Who don't have role models to tell them that they're alright, that how they are is just the way they should be.
And if I were to go back in time and encounter my 16-year-old self, I'd say to her exactly what I say to people I encounter from time to time who don't get the big deal about Pride Month: WAKE THE FUCK UP (OR SHUT THE FUCK UP)!!! Also, HAPPY PRIDE MONTH!!!!!!