What follows is an essay I wrote this past weekend. It's completely off topic for this blog, nothing whatsoever to do with knitting, knitters, fibre arts or craft. It does, I believe, have relevance to every person who may happen upon this blog at any point in time. You see, we all hurt, at some point in our lives, we all hurt to the point of utter devastation. Each of us has said or done something to someone else, however unintentional, that caused them embarassment, shame, humiliation or sadness. Each of us has also been on the receiving end of that sort of action. I would appreciate your time, and kindly expressed thoughts should you wish to share them. Knitting content will resume next time. Thank you.
It isn’t easy being green…
Recently I was told that a student of mine, from only 5 years or so ago, killed himself. By now he should have finished high school, and been nearing the end of his first year of design school in Vancouver. I worked with this young man when he was in junior high school, all three years. He was a kid like lots of others. Athletic, good-looking, friends with lots of girls but accepted by the boys because of his sports skills. He struggled in school, battling a learning disability that made every day a chore. He was talented though, really talented. That kid could draw! I used to wonder if he’d be an artist, and hope that he would end up in some creative field that would let his talents shine. Design school would have been perfect.
I knew he was gay, perhaps before he did. It wasn’t something I ever spoke to him about. I just knew and did my best to accept and encourage him. He wasn’t the first boy I’ve watched go through that journey of self-discovery in my classroom. As it happened, there were two that year and there have been many others.
Sometimes it works out that a young man is so secure in himself, so resilient, so well supported, and so accepted within his family and by close friends that it doesn’t occur to him to hide who he is in the first place. That is a very rare individual indeed. The world is his for the taking, just as it should be.
The thing is, developing awareness of one’s sexuality is the same for everyone – homosexual or heterosexual. It is true that in so many places one is acceptable, and the other is not. Despite the growing trend of lesbianism among under 30’s, North America in general, and Calgary in particular, remains a bastion of intolerance and bigotry. Stereotypes abound, and are reinforced by mass media. Special interest groups, particularly the alphabet soup groups (LGBTQ, lesbian gay bisexual transgendered queer), contribute in their own way to intolerance and misinformation by mixing sexual orientation with gender divergence and by promoting their agenda which inevitably excludes the moderate majority. The inclusion, by some groups, of the term “queer” has got to be the most ironic example of self-directed bigotry I’ve seen. Calling someone “queer” should get you punched in the mouth just as surely as using the “N” word should. It’s pejorative and I haven’t a clue why some members of that community choose to embrace it. Perhaps it’s a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them” and “F” for “fag” will be the next letter added to the alphabet soup of non-heterosexual descriptors.
I don’t understand the choice to die. Even when I found myself at the bottom of a very deep, very dark pit of despair armed with nothing by self-flagellation and surrounded by grief I wanted to sleep, not die. I wanted to sleep until the sun came back out, but I still wanted to see the sun.
As a girl, growing up in Calgary, I thought I knew what it was like to be bullied. I was smarter than the vast majority of my peers. I was successful in school; I could read, write, and spell, even if math was my mortal enemy at that time. Teachers loved me. I was a sponge and always willing/desperate to please. On the other hand, I was socially awkward, had no athletic skill whatsoever, and I was fat. I knew I was fat. My father promised regularly to take me shopping at Calgary Tent and Awning. He thought it was a joke, but it always sounded like “you’re too fat and unacceptable to even deserve real clothes, and if it wasn’t for your mother, you wouldn’t get them.” Kids are like vultures: they sense the dying inside. So are lots of adults.
All of us, every single one, has played a role in picking on someone, making them feel small, wanting to put someone in their place and keep them there. We have been bullies, victims and bystanders by turn throughout our lives. It’s enshrined in our culture from the jokes we read and repeat, to the way our industrialized educational system is structured, and the resulting systematic marginalization of people who fall outside the norm. It is so pervasive that most people have no idea it even exists. The vast majority of people are so connected, so plugged into the matrix that freedom of choice is merely a concept not a reality. The vast majority will happily stay plugged in and will live their lives under the illusion that they’ve been in control when the reality is that they have been used, from birth to death, by mass media and the priorities of our industrialized economy. Neither of those places actually wants anyone to have real freedom of choice. Their ability to sell us whatever they tell us we want is what drives the economy. We have given up our individuality, if we had it in the first place, and conform to consume. Those that don’t are punished.
I was bullied as an individual by other individuals. Despite the pain I endured, it was limited in scope. Truthfully, I did more damage to myself by continuing to repeat and embellish the lies started by others than the bullies ever did. Comparing my experience to the daily torture inflicted on someone who is trying to live an authentic, self-directed life is nonsense. A gang of little girls called me names. That young gay man, whom I knew as a sensitive, artistic, talented and hopeful adolescent, was systematically tortured on a daily basis by the society surrounding him. For him, there were no safe places to go, no relief from the snide comments, sniggering, dirty looks and outright gay-bashing. For him, there was no hope for sunshine. I don’t want to understand his choice to die, because it makes me so ashamed of my existence as part of the society that left him no viable choice.
Every day I know the person closest to me struggles to get dressed in the morning and to go out into the world. He is an intelligent, athletic, handsome, middle-aged, professional man who is very well respected in his field. He is also gender divergent. The challenge is to find a way to be authentic, while still conforming enough to the expectations of society to make himself acceptable and draw the least possible amount of attention. He is always well within the bounds of decency, more so than many of the young men and women I see in the mall displaying acres of breast or wearing their jeans belted around their thighs. He also isn’t pretending to be something or someone he isn’t. He is a man, without pretense otherwise, who happens to wear the clothing that the marketing establishment decided only women should wear as he goes about his daily business. Most days he wears a pair of flattering slacks, a button down shirt over a t-shirt, and a cardigan. On the surface there is absolutely nothing to distinguish him from any other man in that office. That is, until someone looks a little closer. Close enough to notice that the fabric and cut of his trousers are different, or to see that the buttons on his shirt do up the other way, or to notice the curve of breast filling in the line of his sweater. At work there are strictly enforced rules of conduct that protect him from ridicule. It helps that he is so very good at what he does that everyone at his level and up are more than willing not to notice anything different. As long as he toes the line closely enough, he’s reasonably safe from obvious ridicule.
Out in public is a completely different experience. There, the response from society is to do a double take, point fingers, laugh and say something nasty just loud enough for him to hear. I have seen people shush their children, turn around for a better look, and actually burst into laughter. I have stared down more than one rude person, almost daring them to say out loud what they’re laughing at so that I can expose their bigotry to the light of day. That would make a scene though, and attract even more attention, and ultimately result in even more rolling eyes, clucking tongues and running commentary.
It isn’t easy being green… being different… being on the outside. The choice is to give up oneself and fit in by pretending to be like everyone else (which feels like dying), or accept oneself and know that our culture is incapable of including someone who lives outside the norm (which feels dark and utterly hopeless). It’s the same unbearable choice that led to my student’s death, and many others like him. It’s the daily experience of someone I love. His words pushed me to write today, and I hope they will push you to act with compassion from now on.
“Our society is so rigidly intolerant of anybody who dare not fit the social norms mass media promotes, that people do desperate things because there is no escape from it. I can relate to daily ridicule, disdain and downright mean people who somehow feel better about themselves by ruining someone's life. They think nothing of a rude comment or hurtful stare, but people who are on the receiving end of that everyday get that from literally 1,000's of people over time and no longer see any light or hope in this world.... Only crushed dreams, hurt, and hopelessness. The next time any of you reading this feel the need to point, stare, laugh, or otherwise mock someone because they're different than you.... Just DON'T, those people are likely just trying to get through their day without being made to feel ashamed and worthless.”
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion” The Dalai Lama