Friday, October 29, 2010

It Will Get Better (My life is so much better than it was at my unattended birthday party.)

At first, I didn't think my experience was similar enough to others' to warrant sharing. After all, even if I was called a 'dyke' once or twice growing up, I didn't believe it was true, and so it didn't bother me. Try as I might, I can't recall who said it in what context. All I can remember is me thinking, "Whatever, they don't know me."

But I do have a story, and even if it's not similar to many that have already been told, maybe it's similar to someone who's struggling right now. I grew up in a large Catholic family in the South, where only 4 or 5 families in my entire school were Catholic. We were middle class, but some of my siblings were in college, so I wore hand-me-downs of generic-brand clothing. In kindergarten, I was made fun of by one girl because I wasn't wearing Osh Kosh B'gosh, though most people didn't care.

I was the only kid in my entire grade who went to the gifted school once a week. By third grade, I was a grade-wide outcast, one of the two kids that everyone else had free reign to pick on. One girl told me, "I only invited you to my birthday party because my mom made me; I threw your present away because you had touched it." Even though I invited all the girls of my class to my own birthday party, not a single person came.

I did have my siblings and a couple of friends in my neighborhood who went to different schools, and I tried to shrug it off -- I never let the bullies see me cry. I never even let myself cry about it alone. But after years of torment, I wondered whether there was something inherently wrong with me, if I was just unlikeable. When I moved at the beginning of sixth grade, I was scared that it would start all over again.

But it didn't. Somehow, in the wider world of middle school, I wasn't quite such an outcast. There were other gifted kids in the school, and normal kids who didn't care if I occasionally cracked a dorky joke. I joined a sports team, so I had my sports friends too.

By eighth grade, I even had the guts to stand up to a bully who was always putting down one or another of our mutual friends (usually the person who wasn't there). I told her that I didn't like the way she was always putting people down, and I didn't want to be around such a negative person, and I left our lunch table. It was a bit scary, but two friends followed me, and the next day, two more joined us at our new lunch table.

We had another confrontation in the locker room, where she tried to get physical with me, but I looked her right in the eye, firmly told her that she wasn't worth getting in trouble over, and then turned my back on her. Throughout the rest of that day, a number of other students thanked me for standing up to her; apparently she had quite a few victims.

I can't say I always managed to speak up when I saw someone being bullied. And sometimes the victims would laugh along with something I thought was cruel, and that made me think maybe they wouldn't want me to speak up for them. Laughing along or trying to ignore it won't make it stop. Bullies often don't feel good about themselves; they use putting you down to try to build themselves up. And many times others will pretend not to hear, or will even laugh along, because they're scared of becoming the new target.

But if you can try to show the bully that their methods reflect on them, not you, it might get them to stop. If it doesn't, talk to an adult. Ask for help. And keep asking until someone listens and helps. I never told an adult in elementary school; I was too embarrassed, too ashamed to admit I couldn't get along with my classmates. Bullies rely on that to keep going, so you have to be brave and speak up.

After hearing so many times that you're less than, you might start to believe it, but remind yourself that they're the one(s) with the problem, not you. And that you can prove that, once you're done having to be in the same place as them. Give yourself a chance to prove it.

Once you're an adult, you'll have a lot more freedom to choose who you spend your time around. You'll also be able to meet people with common interests, people who will love you just the way you are and appreciate all the unique qualities that make you you. It might take some time to find your place, but there really is a place for you. I know, because I have found my "place" -- several times, in fact, as I went to college, started work, went to grad school, and now as I'm about to start work again. And if dorky me who had not a single person show up to her birthday party in elementary school could find a place, anyone can.

Just a note: even if you're not the one being bullied, you can help stop bullying. Stand up to the bullies. It doesn't even have to be a direct confrontation; it can be as simple as rolling your eyes at your friend and saying "That's so dumb" or "That's not funny" and then talking about something else. This lets the victim know that not everyone thinks the way the bully does. Because when people watch silently, the victim is told that no one cares about them. But deep down, you do care, don't you? If you were to hear that something had happened to the victim, how would you feel? Don't let yourself wind up in that situation.

If even just commenting seems too scary, you can tell a trusted adult about the bullying. Most bullies time their attacks so that teachers remain unaware, and too often the victims are too intimidated to tell -- or even when they do tell, it becomes his word against the bully's. But as a witness, you can help the bullying to stop, and the bully need not know you were the one to tell. If you were the one being bullied, what would you want someone to do? Do that.

I was going to talk about how scary it can be for a Christian (or anyone who's been taught that homosexuality is wrong) to think they might not be straight, but how that can actually instead be the beginning of an incredible faith journey... but I'll save that for my next post. I plan to add a resources page with references that might be useful. You can find some resources related to bullying (for victims and for people who care) in my "It Gets Better" post for Spirit Day.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Confession: I'm not normal -- or am I?

This is difficult for me to talk about, but I have a confession to make. There's something about me that's a little different from most people.

1) My "preference" is estimated to occur in 3 to 20% of the population, and it is more common in males than females.

2) In cultures across the globe, since ancient times, my "preference" has been viewed as evil and unnatural.

3) There are some people -- even psychologists -- who believe that my "preference" is a choice, born of an inherent rebelliousness against societal norms.

4) Throughout history, people with my "preference" have been forced to adapt to the dominant "preference." Signs of my "preference" have been met with corporal and verbal punishments.

5) Every day, I have to deal with aspects of society that are set up to benefit the dominant "preference," while people with my "preference" are left at a disadvantage.

6) I've often been told that I'm a minority, and so I shouldn't expect people to accommodate me; instead I should just adapt to society and have the dominant "preference."

7) People that I meet just assume that I have the dominant "preference." When it's discovered that I don't, people often make a big deal out of it and tell me of all the other people they know with my "preference."

8) When I meet others with my "preference," we often commiserate with each other and share our experiences of being different. Sometimes, we're accused of "conspiring" or being "exclusionary," or we're told that our "preference" is "nothing to be proud of."

9) For centuries, scientists have studied my "preference" to determine its cause and to attempt to link it with a variety of physical and mental traits and diseases.

10) Current scientific evidence suggests that my "preference" developed in the womb, before I was even born. One theory links it to prenatal testosterone exposure.

Today, I shall announce to the world that I am not ashamed. Yes, I am different from the majority, but I am still "normal." I am simply left-handed.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

To come out or not to come out (or "to wuss out or not to wuss out")

I ended my last post with a bit of a cliffhanger: after writing down what I'd like to say when I decide to come out to my brother, I contemplated sending it. Before I share whether I sent it or not, let me tell you a little about my brother and his coming-out story.

There were signs that Simon was gay while we were growing up -- many of those stereotypical signs that really have nothing to do with sexuality. Simon has always been a sensitive soul, and he was a bit of a crybaby as a kid. I'd play with his G.I. Joes and Lego, while he was happy to play house or Barbies. In high school, people would make fun of guys in drama, or on the color guard, or who listened to Canadian Brass, and I'd say, "Hey, my brother does those things, and he has a girlfriend."

But once he was in college, there were more concrete signs, like the poster of shirtless Jim Morrison on his dorm-room wall. Sure, straight guys might have Doors posters, but not naked Doors posters. Then there was the time he wanted to go clubbing with friends during winter break. My dad looked up the club to make sure it was in an okay part of town -- and discovered it was a gay club. My brother swore up and down that he hadn't known.

During the spring semester of his junior year, Simon increasingly mentioned his friend Steve. During spring break, Steve came up and met my parents because he and Simon were going to share a two-bedroom apartment for their last year of college.

On April 1st (note, kids: this is probably the one day a year you should never come out), Simon sent an e-mail to all of his siblings, letting us know that he and Steve were a couple (he'd come out to our parents the night before). I got the e-mail while I was at work. It wasn't a shock, really. I'd already picked up that Steve was special to Simon. But my reaction to Simon's confirmation shocked me.

I cried. Part of it was hurt that he'd felt he couldn't tell me sooner, and empathy for all the times he'd struggled and maybe not had anyone he felt he could talk to. I knew there was more to it than that, but I could never let myself figure out the real reason I had cried.

Of course I never told Simon any of this. I e-mailed back and told him I loved him, thanked him for sharing with me, and said I was happy that he'd found someone special. When I called him that night, we didn't really talk about it at all. Later, yes, but that night, we danced around it -- just had a normal conversation, as if nothing had changed. And really, nothing had -- except he could more openly talk about all aspects of his life with me.

So here I was on the other side of the fence. Over the past year or so, Simon had said things here and there that let me know he at least suspected I wasn't straight -- at one point, he talked about my "future husband," then paused and corrected himself "or partner or significant other." I'd actually switched to gender-neutral pronouns for myself (about 4 years ago, before I was even willing to entertain the possibility of dating women), but I just kind of skated around the issue when Simon did. After that, I stopped getting hints from him.

I have wanted to tell Simon for a while; I've come so close so many times, but found it impossible to get the words out. And there's always been so much I've wanted to make sure I say. There have been only two concerns holding me back (besides not knowing how to say it): 1) I wanted to be absolutely sure -- after all, this isn't something you can take back. 2) I felt a little guilty asking him to keep my secret from the rest of the family when he'd had to keep his own for so many years.

Writing down my thoughts really helped; I worded it as if it were a letter I were going to send. I prefaced it with my concern #2 -- telling him I wanted to share something with him but didn't want the rest of the family to know, so he should stop reading if he wasn't okay with that. Then I told him not to read it at work, but not to worry because it was good news.

After the jump, I started with what had precipitated my decision to come out to him; I told him that I had not gone to the Pride event to support him so much as I did it to get to know people in my local LGBT community. I thanked him for his courage to be out, and let him know that I would not have been able to accept my own sexuality had I not had his and Steve's example of what a loving, same-sex relationship could be like.

I apologized for not coming out sooner, and explained some of the reasons why I couldn't. I did let Simon know that I planned to come out to the rest of the family once I was in a relationship. I confessed that I had cried when I'd read his coming-out e-mail, and explained that I thought it was partly out of jealousy and fear that I would never be able to know his happiness, that I'd never be able to accept myself.

After writing the letter, I took a few deep breaths. Was I really ready for him to know? Was I sure? Would I ever want to take this back? What if, after finally finding a woman, I discovered that I prefer men, after all? But I know this won't happen. Even if things don't work out with a woman, that just means she's not the right woman. Or even if I do find that 1 in a million guy that I'm attracted to, Simon would be able to understand. It wouldn't stop me from being attracted to women.

I sent the letter (by e-mail) and then left for a class. When I got home, I had two messages from Simon -- one by voice mail, and the other by e-mail (in case I didn't get the voice mail). He thanked me for sharing, told me he loved me, and assured me that he would keep it a secret until I was ready. When I called him back, it was eerily like our conversation after he'd come out -- we danced around the topic; it was like nothing had changed.

But I know something has changed, and we'll be closer now that I don't have to worry about "slipping up" anymore. Since I've come out to Simon, I've felt an incredible lightness. I know I can't go back, but I don't want to go back. I'm coasting down this hill now, and I think I'm starting to see the rainbow from under the clouds.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It Gets Better: but does wearing purple really help it to?

Note: this is a "breaking news" post to address current events. Regular posts will continue on Thursday according to the new schedule.

On Wednesday October 20th, people will wear purple for Spirit Day. According to GLAAD, "Spirit Day honors the teenagers who had taken their own lives in recent weeks. But just as importantly, it's also a way to show the hundreds of thousands of LGBT youth who face the same pressures and bullying, that there is a vast community of people who support them."

According to one Facebook event page (and there are several others), at least 1.3 million people will be wearing purple Wednesday. In addition to Spirit Day, many people who were bullied in their youth have offered testimonials to tell LGBTQ youth that "It Gets Better" (heck, there's even a Broadway song). There has also been increased media attention for the Trevor Project, which provides assistance to LGBTQ youth via a 24-hour crisis hotline (1-866-488-7386), an on-line community, and advocacy and educational resources.

But are these campaigns really helping youth? According to the New York Times, the Trevor Project has experienced "a 'great increase' in calls in the last month," and troubled LGBTQ youth have reached out to people who have shared their stories in the "It Gets Better" project. On the other hand, media coverage of suicides has been correlated with an increased number of subsequent suicides among members of the same vulnerable population as the original suicide, in what is known as the Werther Effect.

While there is some controversy about whether the Werther Effect is real (or just an example of the media looking for the "big story," i.e., just an increase in publicized suicides rather than actual suicides), it is a serious enough issue that the media needs to be cognizant of its potential effect. And yet a Google news search of "Werther Effect" (and related terms) revealed only one English-language story about media coverage's effect on subsequent suicide rates in the past month, and it was not related to the recent LGBTQ suicides.

With that being said, the responses have seemed appropriate: remembering and mourning those lost, but making sure they did not die in vain by using this opportunity to raise awareness and effect change. The Trevor Project and the "It Gets Better" Project both have the potential to reach many of the most isolated teens, assuming they have access to a phone or computer that they can use safely and confidentially.

Bullying of all kinds has been increasing over the last decade, as has teen suicide. And the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth has been much higher than that of other teens for decades, due to bullying, family pressure, and lack of support. Sadly, the publicized suicides are just the tip of the iceberg. During these past few weeks, other LGBTQ youth have committed suicide, but their deaths have escaped the public consciousness. The difference is that these kids faced relentless bullying that precipitated their deaths, and their families have stood up and said, "Enough is enough."

Bullying of LGBTQ youth has risen dramatically lately; 85% have been harassed and 61% don't feel safe at school. I've read (conservative) articles that link this to the push for marriage equality, ENDA, and an end to DADT. To some extent, that's true. When some bigots feel like their backs are against the wall and others will finally be given equal rights, their hate turns into vitriolic attacks. And others who agree with them on the issues don't have the spine to stand up and say that their behavior is wrong.

This happened during the Civil Rights Era, when too many whites stood silently while a few terrorized activists' families. I've seen troubling wall posts on Facebook Spirit Day event pages: threats of violence against anyone who wears purple tomorrow, and others who "won't wear purple because I don't support homosexuals' choices." I find the latter just as disturbing as the former because they're giving tacit approval to the bullies; their message just as clearly states, "You aren't worthy of being treated like a human being."

LGBTQ youth are particularly vulnerable to bullying because many have an utter lack of support network. Sometimes they face verbal and physical abuse or even abandonment by their families. Many preachers, while maybe saying "Hate the sin; love the sinner" also spew bile every Sunday about "deviants" and "perverts," making the "love" part of their message seem like mere lip service. Too often, schools ignore bullying.

It's true that it will get better, and that in general, people are becoming more open-minded. But for the LGBTQ youth who are being bullied today, it's not enough to say "wait until you're out of school." We need to make sure our schools are safe places now.

I think that of the three campaigns, Spirit Day has the most potential to reach youth where they are, in their schools. Seeing peers and teachers wearing purple will indicate where they can go for help or advice or just to talk. But Spirit Day is just a single day; we need permanent changes in our schools.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network provides resources to help schools create safe spaces for LGBTQ students. If you're a parent, a student, a teacher, an alumnus, speak up! Ask what the school is currently doing, and provide information on what else they can do. Volunteer your time; be part of the solution.

My friend who teaches at a rural high school in the South has been trying to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school for years. The principal has told him, "I just don't think this community is ready for that yet." My friend is frustrated because to him, that just shows how much a GSA is needed. My friend was himself harassed by students a few years ago. The administration handled it appropriately, but if students feel that they can harass a teacher in the classroom, how much bullying of students is going on in secret?

There are signs of progress at my friend's school, however. The school is participating in Spirit Day, though they are only calling it "Bullying Prevention Day." But in this digital age, I suspect students are aware of what the day really is about. And discussions are underway again about the GSA (there are students who are asking for one, too).

Opponents of LGBT rights are highly vocal and mobilized. Actual LGBT people are a minority. We need allies -- or even non-allies, just people who don't want to see kids bullied for any reason -- to speak up, and demand that schools step up and protect our kids.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

On a roll -- the Coming Out Snowball

In the past few weeks, I've managed to come out to several different people. I already talked about coming out to my on-line friend Kim here. Recently, I had a friend visiting from out of town, Rita, and she mentioned that she had no gaydar because even though she was open-minded, she just hadn't hung out with very many gay people so far. Right now, she's in medical school in the South, so there just aren't a lot of openly gay people in her town.

She told me how one of her classmates, when she asked for a ride home, said "Sure, but my boyfriend will be driving," and she replied, "That's cool; I didn't know you were seeing anyone," but inside she was thinking, "Man, how could I not have realized." Rita said she just never really thinks about others' sexuality because it's no big deal; it doesn't affect her, and she doesn't want to assume anything based on stereotypes -- but really, she just never even thinks about it enough to pick up on "stereotypes."

So a little while later in our conversation, she said "Well, you're straight..." (in preface to a comment about how people can be tolerant or something), and I somehow managed to pipe up "Actually, I'm not." She wasn't bluffing when she said it was no big deal to her -- she didn't even bat an eyelash as she said, "Okay, you're not," and went right on making her point.

Because my housemate was having a party that night, Rita and I shared my double bed (which we'd done in the past at hotels), and she didn't seem weirded out by that at all. If I'd had to predict her reaction, this is pretty much what I would have expected, though I was surprised she didn't have many gay friends.

The second person I came out to was Chris, a guy who had just joined the reading group I myself joined not too long ago (and attended a NOM counter-protest with members of). I had failed to come out to anyone at the counter-protest; I hadn't denied my sexuality, but I just hadn't found an opportunity to say one way or the other.

The reading group participated in a Pride event, so I went along, as did Chris. As the two of us walked back to our cars together, Chris asked me who in the group was gay, and then started listing the ones he knew. I told him I actually wasn't too sure -- I didn't assume someone was just because they had come to Pride or the counter-protest, so unless they mentioned their significant other, I really didn't know. But I did confirm the two couples that I knew. After a pause, I remembered to add, "and there's me."

Chris seemed a bit (a lot) surprised by my revelation. I guess it's not so important if gay guys and straight girls can't tell I'm gay, as long as lesbians can. Unfortunately, I suspect I don't cause a blip on anyone's gaydar (but that's a topic for another day).

Back on topic: to summarize, I have managed to come out to three different friends in as many weeks, in different ways. It does seem to get a bit easier each time. All three occurred before National Coming Out Day, and yet on NCOD, I was still beating myself up over not being ready to come out to my family, especially my brother.

My brother actually IM'ed me late in the evening on National Coming Out Day, and I really wanted to tell him, but I just couldn't work it into the conversation before he had to go. So yesterday I decided to write down everything I'd want to say to him, so maybe the next time I'd be more ready. Once it was written, I thought, "Well, why not just send it?"

I took a few deep breaths. Once you send something like that, it can never be taken back. Was I ready? Find out in my next post.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Coming out to a friend (follow-up to "Let me out of here already!")

I've heard that you'll know when the right time to come out to someone is. That if you want to, plan to, but fail to, you just weren't ready yet. The other night, I was chatting with my friends from an on-line forum, including Kim (whose view on homosexuality I talked about here).

Kim's been doing some on-line dating, and she's pretty good at converting a chat into a date. I've also been trying to meet people -- even just friends would be nice. So I was getting advice about this girl I was trying to chat up -- being very careful to leave out pronouns, or just say "someone." But as Kim asked me more questions, one of my responses used "her." I started to reword it, but after erasing it once, I rewrote it and sent. I just felt "to heck with this, why am I trying so hard to hide the truth?"

Kim replied, "By 'her' I hope you mean 'his'?" I replied, "Um, no." And she said, "Oh, didn't realize that." It got quiet for a bit, so I said, "Heh, I killed chat," but she reassured me that she was "just deciding how that changed things" (regarding the advice she was giving me).

The other two Christians were also in chat at the time. Jen (who already knew that I wasn't straight) shared a video that she'd been watching -- I'm not even sure she realized what I'd posted since she hadn't been participating in the conversation for a while. On the other hand, Beth had been taking part, but quickly posted that she'd been on Facebook, and then that she had to go for a while. As is common in chat, the conversation quickly changed directions after that, so I have no idea what Beth thinks about it.

Kim did private-message me, though, asking if I was bi or if she was misunderstanding things. I said, "Yeah, but leaning more towards women, actually; it's something I'm just starting to explore." Kim replied, "Pshaw, you were holding out on me!" so I explained a little about what I'd been through, and apologized for misleading her, saying "I didn't know how to bring it up when you assumed it was a guy."

She said, "It's all good, just caught me by surprise," and then she gave me some advice on the on-line dating thing (which totally didn't pan out because I'd already ruined it by putting myself in the "friend zone," as Kim called it, but next time I'll be able to avoid that thanks to her advice).

It feels good not to have to censor myself in chat anymore, and to know that even though Kim may not agree with my "choices" regarding who I'm dating, she'll still be supportive and give me advice. After our last conversation about sexuality, I had been a bit nervous, but I'm so glad I took the risk to come out.

Monday, October 11, 2010

National Coming Out Day

Today is National Coming Out Day. A day to proudly stand up and be counted. But today, I don't feel proud. I feel guilty. Not because of my sexual orientation, but because I'm still hiding in the closet. And it's not even that I'm in the closet, so much as why I'm still in the closet, if I'm really honest with myself.

Some friends tagged me in some gay-rights photos on Facebook. Just me, holding up a sign. That's nothing to be ashamed of. But what if my fellow youth group volunteers saw, and I was asked to stop working with the group because of it? Or what if my siblings saw and questioned me? I don't want to lie, but I'm waiting to come out to the family until I'm in a long-term relationship.

After all, that's what my brother did. That's what's reasonable, because it's when some of my siblings want to know. Besides, if I never find someone, then there's no point in putting them through all those emotions, right? But as I make friends locally, as I start to date, it becomes riskier that someone could slip up and out me on Facebook. And I know that finding out from a stranger would really hurt my family members.

Today, all someone did was tag me in an innocuous photo. But I freaked and deleted the notification from my wall. My brother still managed to see the picture, however. And then he re-posted it to his wall -- noting how much he appreciates my support. And that's when the guilt started.

I didn't attend the event for him, so much as I did it for me -- to get closer to new LGBT friends, to become more comfortable being "out" in my local community, to see what kind of community it is. I want to tell my brother, "I'm not your ally; I'm one of you." Honestly, I thought he knew (or at least suspected), but it's been a while since he's made an ambiguous comment.

On a day like today, I want to stand up and be counted. I want to post a message on Facebook proclaiming my orientation to the world. But the fear of others' reactions, the fear of being judged, and the worry that I'll be treated differently afterward hold me back. It's not consideration for others' feelings. It's fear. And so right now, I'm taking advantage of being closeted to enjoy the privileges of a straight person -- while trying to enter my local LGBT community and take advantage of the opportunities for friendship, dating, and solidarity that it offers.

Would they want me? I know I wouldn't want a friend who denied they knew me. But I also know that each member of the community has had to struggle with coming out, so if anyone would understand my turmoil, they would. But I'm a grown woman. How much longer, really, am I going to hide who I am from the world?

It took over ten years, but I've accepted my orientation as a part of the person God made me, as something to celebrate -- at least to myself. So why can't I share that with the world? Today, I won't be making any posts about National Coming Out Day on Facebook -- not until I actually have the guts to participate. My hats off to those who did.