Sunday, July 24, 2011

On insidiousness

"Stories go rancid inside you if you don't let them out." - Rachel Corrie

I've been thinking a lot about homophobia. My coming out experience has, for the most part, been very positive. But one thing in particular still gnaws at me. And I have to blog about it. I'll explain my reasons for doing so at the end of the post.

Anyway, my parents and friends have been overwhelmingly accepting of the fact that I'm gay; I'm very lucky. My grandparents, however, are blatantly homophobic. And I've realized that in some sick way, that's a blessing. Because others have been more insidious about it.

Like this one person I used to know. I still can't wrap my head around what she did or understand why she did it. I've tried to avoid her since October of 2009, when everything blew up in my face at a poetry reading she gave at a Saginaw coffee shop.

I met her in July of 2005 at a week-long seminar for young writers. She was an adjunct at the school hosting the seminar. Although she didn't teach a workshop that summer, she spent the week hanging out-- going to poetry readings and keynote speeches, that sort of thing. Her son was there as a student, and so was I.

She was thrilled that he and I hit it off. She liked me because I was a serious student, poet, and to top it all off, "really damn cute." I liked her at first, too. The closing lines of her poems made my breath catch. After the seminar ended, I devoured all of her poetry and modeled my own after it.

When I came out to her in October of 2009 (and I'll elaborate on that in a bit), she told me that she had first suspected I was gay two years prior, when I was eighteen. By that point in time, her son and I had broken up, but she was still holding out hope that we'd get back together. She thought that spending time with/money on me would increase the chances of that.

Obviously, it didn't work out that way. and, although I was unaware of it at the time, that's when she started trying to get me to come out to her. We got together several times; if she didn't say something blatantly homophobic, she'd at least talk incessantly about how much she wished that her son and I were still dating. She really seemed to take issue with the fact that someone as pretty as me didn't have a boyfriend.

Around that time, I realized just how conservative she was. She couldn't even differentiate between birth control and Plan B. Given the conservatism, homophobia, and the fact that she was my ex-boyfriend's mom, I told myself that if I could come out to her, then I could come out to anyone.

And on October 2, 2009, that finally happened, though not at all the way I would have wanted it to. She invited me over to her house for a few drinks before her poetry reading. I blacked out before I'd finished my second glass of wine. I can't help but suspect that she spiked it with something; I may only weigh 100 pounds, but I drink often enough to know how I feel after not even two glasses of wine. And blacked out certainly isn't it. I literally do not remember anything about the evening post wine consumption.

While we were drinking, she said all kinds of blatantly homophobic things, and I finally just blurted out, "I'm gay, so do me a favor and shut the fuck up." She grinned and said, "I knew it! I finally got you drunk enough to admit it!"

Well, that explains why she had brought me to Grand Rapids with her two months prior to visit a friend of hers who gave me lots of tequila and a makeover. "We tried to get you to admit it then," she told me. "But unfortunately, you just weren't drunk enough."

Yes, really. Oh, and the makeover? they chopped off my hair in an attempt to give me a more "butch" hairstyle.

And it gets worse.

After I came out to her, she brought me to the coffee shop where her poetry reading was to be held. (Never mind that I was already blacked out by that point.) According to what I saw on Facebook the next day, I stumbled through the door, announced to everyone that I was gay (because, as I mentioned, I'd told myself that if I could come out to her, I could come out to anyone), and spilled a cup of coffee on one of my best friends.

After an eventful ten minutes at the coffee shop, my ex-boyfriend's mom took me back to my apartment (but again, I have no memory of any of this), where, according to her, I threw up all over myself. She put me in the bathtub to wash me off. Her boyfriend, who was there with us, told me the next morning, "Obviously, you're a lesbian. While you two were in the bathroom, I looked through your bookshelf. Only lesbians own that many books on feminism."

It was an awful night.

I stayed in the closet for another year after that. Most of the people who were at the coffee shop that night didn't think I was really gay; they just assumed that I was sputtering randomness because I was drunk.

At the time, I was the editor-in-chief of the school art/literary magazine. And one of the people who happened to be at the coffee shop that night was my faculty adviser. He was furious because he felt responsible for me, and there I was, the head of a student organization, totally smashed and underage to boot. He cooled off quite a bit after he reminded himself that the reading wasn't an SVSU-sponsored event. But he still wasn't too pleased with me, and that didn't help me to feel any better about what had happened.

I wanted more than anything to forget about what had taken place that night. So I made a conscious decision to set my sexuality aside and instead focus my energy on what was happening at school. It was a terrible semester for reasons I don't want to get into right now, but suffice it to say that I often cite it as one of my main reasons for transferring schools. What most people don't know is that the incident I just described is another one of my biggest reasons for leaving. Even though my friends are all great people who didn't think any less of me after that night, it was still really hard to face everyone at school the following Monday.

My ex-boyfriend's mom thought the world of me until she realized that because of my sexual orientation, I'd never marry her son. And what's scary is that I didn't clue into that fact until a couple of months after that disastrous night at the coffee shop. I was too busy being angry with myself for saying something drunk that I really needed to say sober. So I failed to realize that what had happened that night wasn't my fault.

When the semester ended, she pulled the "I'm older than you" card, and lectured me about how irresponsible I'd been all semester (she, like anyone else who interacted with me at all that semester, knew that things hadn't gone well for me). She told me that if she could, she would ground me "until Jesus comes back." I don't remember how the conversation played out, exactly, but believe it or not, she somehow managed to convince me that I deserved to be punished. And after talking to her, I felt even worse about how the semester had gone (anyone who is aware of what I went through that semester knows that I already felt badly enough about things, and didn't need to feel any worse).

My friend Sarah sent me an email on New Year's Eve. It was two pages in length. (I know this because I printed it out-- it's one of the most beautiful/brave things I have ever read.) In it, she told me that although she didn't want to risk making me any angrier than I already was, she felt that, as someone who genuinely cared about my well-being, she had a responsibility to tell me something straight up. She told me that I wouldn't start to feel better about what had happened until I realized that although I had every right to be angry, I should not have directed my anger inward.

Only then did everything click into place.

Clearly, if my ex-boyfriend's mom is smart enough to get inside my head, know what makes me tick, and and figure out what makes me vulnerable/weak, then she's smart enough to know that she shouldn't have done that in the first place. And that's why I'm so furious with her. At least with my grandparents, I can chalk up their homophobia to ignorance and the way they were raised. But she knows better. And what hurts the most is that I have no idea why she did it.

What did she gain?

Even if writing this down won't get me any closer to understanding why it happened, I do hope that my sharing this will help others understand that it happened. And that this sort of thing happens all the time.

I've wanted to share this story for a long time. But I was afraid to. I'm still afraid of how people will react, honestly. Because certain people (namely those who were at the coffee shop that October night in 2009) will know exactly who I'm talking about.

But I didn't write this for them. It doesn't matter now why I suddenly felt as though I needed to move out of Saginaw ASAP. I left over a year ago-- it's long over. The last thing I want is pity; clearly, I've moved on. But what good will this experience do anyone if I bury it?

I wrote this for people who are facing discrimination, but like me, might not recognize it as such. I need to speak out about this, because what my ex-boyfriend's mom did was wrong; she got away with something that she shouldn't have. It took me a long time to realize that, though, because I never thought her capable of hurting me. What's so insidious about discrimination is that those who experience it are often tricked into thinking that it's their fault, or that it happens because something is "wrong" with them.

I was angry with myself for a long time. For what? Being myself? Drinking a glass and a half of wine before heading out to a poetry reading? What the hell did I do wrong?

And yet I live in a world where I'm still afraid of how people will react to this post. Which just tells me that I really ought to share it. Because I live in a world full of people who need to read it.

Last night, I was talking to my friend Victoria about this post. And she mentioned that the most important thing is to make sure that I do this entirely on my own terms. So, let's go back to that night in October of 2009 and do it my way: I'm sitting here with a six-pack of Bell's Oberon (I prefer beer to wine anyway). And I'm a little tipsy and definitely gay and quite comfortable with that and I own tons of books on feminism but so what and things are good.


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