A couple of years ago, Bent Alaska announced a LGBTQ panel at University of Alaska Anchorage, an institution of which I am both an employee & an alumna. So on April 1, 2009, I attended the panel which held in the Consortium Library just upstairs from my department. After I got home that night, I even started drafting a blog post about it. Then I forgot all about it…until I discovered it hidden away amongst my old drafts.
This post is that post, completed.
Some of the discussion at that two-years-ago panel revolved around improving the kind of support that LGBTQ students, faculty, & staff receive at UAA, whether through the existing student organization The Family, or institutionally through expanding the Women’s Studies Program (which sponsored the event) to be a Women’s and Gender Studies Program; through other institutional means at UAA or the University of Alaska statewide, such as a nondiscrimination policy; or through strengthening the connections between the university LGBTQ & the larger Anchorage LGBTQ community, including ally organizations like Anchorage PFLAG.
(Just a few weeks ago, the UA Board of Regents finally passed a policy on February 18, 2011 which added sexual orientation to the University of Alaska’s nondiscrimination policy. It is as yet unclear whether the Regents intend this policy to also cover gender identity/expression.)
But there was also a lot of discussion about the whole gender identity/expression and sexual orientation thing, and how we had variously experienced it. We had gay folks, lesbian folks, male-to-female and female-to-male transfolk, a Samoan fa’afafine alum, a PFLAG mother of a lesbian, another mother of a daughter who might actually be her son (i.e., trans). We had students, a couple of staff members including me, a faculty member, and a number of people from the community. We had various ages from college student age all the way to people in their 50s and 60s.
What really stuck out for me was the common experience most of us (all except the “allies”) had of pushing through to be ourselves in the face of huge pressure to conform to other people’s expectations about how we should dress, how we should act, who we should love, how we should be defined in arbitrary cultural ways by the genitals we were born with. How painful it was to not be accepted simply for who we were and are.
Well, sure— I’ve lived through plenty of that myself. It’s just (usually) not quite so visceral to me anymore because it’s been many years since I came out, and I’ve been openly lesbian for most of that time.
But damned if I don’t remember the pressure to wear dresses that I never felt comfortable in, to be “feminine.” Or the fear I felt as a sophomore in college when an acquaintance wanted to talk with me about being lesbian and I frantically counted the very few friends who knew about me — who told her?
As I wrote in another post in 2009, shortly after the veto of the Anchorage equal rights ordinance AO-64, about coming out when I was in college,
It was scary, it was painful, & it was a slow long job to learn who I could or could not trust with this important aspect of who I am. And as hateful as the “Truth is Not Hate” hate speech that we heard constantly spewed from the mouths of red-shirted ordinance opponents over the course of the summer, the sentiments they expressed were not so different from the conventional wisdom of the majority of my peers in the East Coast women’s liberal arts college I attended from 1977 to 1981. Yes: the same college that Hillary Rodham Clinton attended, a supposed bastion of liberalism.
Sitting in that meeting, I was sent back into those memories, and began to feel worse. In April 2009, when I started writing this post, I was just coming out of a lengthy period in the cave — the cave being my name for one of the varieties of “depression” (or sometimes plain old despair) I sometimes experience. The cave is probably why I didn’t finish the post at the time: I was afraid I’d go back into it. I was coming face to face, for the first time in a long time, with how deeply I was scarred by all that shit of a lifetime in homophobia-land, all the fear and distrust I had for the people around me simply because of who and what I was.
As far as I’ve come along from the all of that, I still have the scars. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve struggled with despair/depression off & on all my adult life — actually, dating back to my last couple of years of high school. For almost as long, I’ve tried to figure out what it was about, where it came from. There are other strands in my background that I can point to — most prominently, the effect on my mother, and through her me, of her having grown up with an alcoholic father — but the effect of growing up in a society that actively hated my difference, well… its hard to measure exactly. But it’s there.
And it goes far beyond me. How many friends have I had who’ve suffered similarly because the church, or their family, or their friends, or some combination of all of the above and then some, has been unable or unwilling to accept them on their own terms?
Bob, a coparticipant of mine in a high school enrichment program at University of Wyoming who, at age 17, jumped to his death from the 9th floor of White Hall, after having reportedly being harassed by other participants about being a “faggot.” My friend in college who was raped after a male visitor to our campus learned she was a lesbian. My friend up here in Alaska who at age 20 was gang-raped by eight men in his Army unit, then further raped with a broken bottle, for no other reason than that he was gay. Other friends and acquaintances who have gotten lost in drugs or booze, like my namesake Melissa who died of a heroin overdose in July 1983 just a few months after I arrived in Alaska. Other friends or acquaintances who have attempted, or succeeded with, suicide — at least two women in the Anchorage lesbian community that I can think of off the top of my head, and undoubtedly more. Other people I never knew but might have, had they not been murdered, like Raymond Barker, murdered by Charles Cole and Matthew Decker in April 1985; Oscar Jackson, murdered by William M. Justice in December 1984; or Peter Dispirito, murdered in August 1974 by Gary Lee Starbard, who received a sentence of just one year for — in the judge’s words — the “unfortunate accident — incident” that led to his victim’s death. (Dispirito is still remembered through a public service award bestowed annually by the Imperial Court of All Alaska.) By circumstance, this post follows the publication last night on Bent Alaska of Johnathan Jones’ post on the death of his foster sister by suicide. I share, we all share, his grief.
Self-hatred: it’s harm at the very center of us.
And it doesn’t only enter us due to overt acts of hatred against us, or even from hatred at all. I’d say in fact that the most common harm any human faces — the one that most harmed me — come from people who care about us. People who, well-intended, attempt to pressure and coerce us to behave according to arbitrary standards, rather than according to our integrity, our selfhoods as human beings. Strip away all the warnings about God’s commandments or What will Grandma and Grandpa, our friends, the neighbors, your schoolmates, the people at church think? — strip way all the reassurances that We’re saying this because we love you and It’s in your best interests: in the final analysis, it’s the harm that says: Your own account of yourself is meaningless; your feelings don’t count; you don’t count.
Who does not despair, violated in that way in the very core of who we are?
But if the harm is at our center, then so is the cure. The foundational step towards finding a way for myself that didn’t involve killing myself or hating myself was coming out and accepting and loving myself as a lesbian. I was 19 when I did that, a sophomore at Wellesley College. It took me a few years after that, but that first foundation ultimately gave me the strength to give up self-hatred altogether.
Love others as you love yourself. But first: love yourself. Trust yourself. Respect yourself. Walk easy in your skin. Let no one convince you to do otherwise.