What I Owe: Thoughts From A Straight Ally

In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, many of my LGBTQ friends and colleagues have expressed the importance of straight allies speaking up, offering support both private and public.

I (and by this ‘I’ mean me – a white, heterosexual, cisgender, married, middle aged woman with children) have been thinking a lot about this – realizing that because I surround myself with relatively like-minded and like-hearted people, the necessity of proclaiming my allegiances has often seemed unnecessary. Nope, say my queer friends. Now is the time. We need you.

13427729_10154158906796063_8991590348178422154_nIt feels too easy to say that ‘love is love’ and that of course we need to respect – through our behaviour and our laws – same-sex partnerships and gender neutral bathrooms. But to me, that implies that somehow we – the majority, the privileged – are granting the LGBTQ community something that has traditionally, rightfully, always been ours. It implies a magnanimity, a self-serving superiority I am not comfortable with. Because, in fact, it is me who owes the LGBTQ community – for a great many reasons.

In my first couple of years of university, I hung out at the edges of my small college’s theatre posse; I was shy, a closeted actress who would later come to understand that most closeted (read: self-conscious and mediocre) thespians are in fact writers. Inspired by M., an outrageous, joyful gay man, and a fixture of the school’s tiny underground pub who often performed monologues in drag at open mic nights, and S. a fierce feminist who did stand-up that imagined what Barbie would be like if she were a Greek-Canadian immigrant lesbian, I wrote a play about – here it comes! – my menstrual cycle! (I know: cringey Women’s Studies cliché. But please, be gentle in your judgments – it was the early 90s, I was 20 years old.) The play was called The Fur Gnome Phenomenon, and it was a two hander that consisted of me and my mischievous fur gnome (pheromone) – a creature who personified all the ways I felt my body’s rhythms and excretions had betrayed me – sparring on stage for 45 minutes. S. directed it. The fur gnome was played by a straight white man initially, and by a gay black man in subsequent performances. We put the show on in the Green Room in Toronto and then, when we were unlucky in our applications to Toronto’s two fringe festivals (successful entries are determined by lottery), in the Sudbury Fringe festival. For those of you not in the know, Sudbury is a town in Northern Ontario built on the nickel mining industry – not exactly a hotbed of progressive politics or ‘avant-garde’ culture. We performed in storefronts in a mall (the theme was theatre in unexpected places) to tiny audiences. What must those audience members have been thinking? What were we thinking? Never mind: I was buoyed and made brave by my compatriots.

Later, when I moved to Quebec to pursue an MA in creative writing, I had some of my best moments at the flat of my Montreal Mama Bears, two large, large-hearted women (a couple) who were studying social work with my roommate. I had not yet learned how to be domestic on my own (I’m still not sure I’ve learned) and I often felt unmoored. They made big pots of soup and gave hugs that felt like home. Guys, there was a lot of hummous. They had real furniture and cable TV. They were comfortable in their bodies. They were wicked – and often hilarious – singers and dancers.

When my social worker roommate moved away, a fellow student – gay, male, American – moved in. C. was lovely, but by that point I was deeply involved with my previous roommate’s former guitar teacher (again, I was young; it was Montreal), and the bulk of our interactions involved comparing notes re: our romantic liaisons. C. had a steady lover, more daring than he, and after a few months, they began frequenting gay clubs and swapping partners, doing things I fought hard to understand. There was something in the pure physicality of his interactions that I felt threatened by. My nice girl sensibilities were offended. I was challenged by his behaviour, and I worried about him. My mind was being pried open; I resisted. Still, I kept listening, and if C. ever noticed how bothered I was by his confessions, he never let on.

Last year, my friend M., the homo in drag from my undergrad theatre days, published a memoir, My Body Is Yours (see below for the rest of the letters in M.’s name).

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I loved this book. In it, Michael details how he spent many of his growing up years trying to be other than what he was – skinny, beautiful (not handsome), gay, the son of an alcoholic father. ‘I lived a great deal of my early childhood feeling like I was alone at the bottom of a deep well, shouting upwards, with nobody to peer over the lip and help.’ As he got older, he drank to cope, then quit drinking at the age of 27, shamed by behaviour that grew out of a night of bingeing. ‘But stripping my life of drinking didn’t eliminate compulsion, it just mutated into a bigger and better foe.’

He began cruising for sex to find human connection and a sense of community – then persisted due to an increasingly unhealthy dependence. There was a time when all of this would have made me squeamish but I trusted Michael’s voice so utterly, was so invested in his path to healing and happiness, that I took even the most graphic and visceral descriptions in my readerly stride. In fact, Michael’s frank accounts of his sexual encounters, the grace and candour with which he describes his feelings, names his OCD and depression, details his troubled relationship with his dying father – all of these conspired to make me feel it might be possible for me to write about my own struggles with mental illness, to face down the taboo thoughts that had haunted me when I was at my worst.

The book was nominated for a LAMBDA Literary Award (which recognizes the best of LGBTQ writing) and on my Facebook feed, Michael commented that he was ‘gay-famous’. ‘Gaymous’, another friend quipped. But why only gaymous, I wonder. This is a book that resonated with me so deeply – as a human who has lost a father and suffered from depression and OCD. And as a person who has been confronted with her own precepts about what it means to be a sexual being in the world. What the book did – and what all worthwhile books should do – is underline the importance of listening to each other’s stories, of celebrating our commonalities, but also of learning to live with the initial discomfort that may come from encountering difference.

cookie_thumb16 I went to the Toronto launch of My Body Is Yours with my sister, S. and another M. friend. Michael hosted the launch in drag, as Miss Cookie LaWhore; I hadn’t seen him in decades. ‘You look exactly the same!’ he exclaimed when he saw me. Maybe. (It is hard to disagree with a beautiful man wearing fantastic false eyelashes.) cookie_thumb11But I’m not the same. And that has a large part to do with M. and the other LGBTQ folk who have touched my life through the years.

I am now the mother of two girls, aged 4 and 7. The oldest likes wearing her hair short because it’s a pain to brush, but lately I can tell she feels pressure to look like the other long-haired girls in her class. The youngest has insisted, from the time she could talk, that she’s ‘not a boy or a girl, [she’s] an Eleanor!’ She likes trucks and Spiderman t-shirts and has been known to run around the house yelling, ‘I am the darkness! I will destroy you!’ Both kids have come home at various points with some pretty rigid ideas about what it ‘should’ mean to be a boy or a girl. My experience with feminists, LGBTQ peeps, and non-gender-conformists has given me both the strength and compassion to counter these notions.

I also work as a high school teacher. When I was in high school, in the late 1980s, a man was killed in Toronto’s High Park, beaten to death by a bunch of teenaged boys. My boyfriend at the time had a connection to the crime; he used to go to visit the mother of one of murderers – she was a family friend – while her son was in jail (I told a fictionalized version of this story in my collection Mad Hope). This personal link to a horrific news story has always haunted me, mostly because the incident, when it happened, was shrouded in such secrecy. My friends and I knew, on some level, that the man in the park was gay; it was suggested, although never openly, that there was something sordid in his reasons for being in the park in the first place. The murder was never, ever discussed in the classroom; if we knew anything about the circumstances surrounding it, we were to keep these details to ourselves, swallow them in hushed hallway conversations.

A few years ago, two students in my grade 12 English class were involved in a physical altercation. One had been bullying the other for being openly gay. The gay student (who had been kicked out of his house) had punched the bully in the face. The administrators invited PFLAG (an organization originally started in the US by a mother who insisted on supporting her gay son publicly) into my classroom to talk about what it means to grow up LGBTQ, to face heartbreaking adversity for simply being true to oneself. Talking about things doesn’t make them perfect. It makes them imperfect and difficult; the atmosphere in the room was uncomfortable, the bully unrepentant. But what a relief that the problem had been dragged out of the shadows, that an injustice had been acknowledged! Things are not as bad as they once were; things could be so much better.

When my husband and I became parents, he was suddenly faced with some of his own father’s missteps – his dad left when he was very young, was unreliable, absent. It is never easy when a parent rejects a child; it reverberates down through the years. We were forced to wrestle with notions of not only parental responsibility but also the demands that come with our society’s accepted view of the ‘masculine’. As partners and parents, our notions of gender roles within heterosexual relationships have changed over the years, but there are still expectations that hang around like drunken party guests; they interrupt at the wrong time then awkwardly refuse to leave the house. We enact patterns that are unhelpful, fall into models that should be obsolete. We’re working on it. Many people would like to position queer families as a threat to stability and contentment, but for me, the very presence of families that look and act and function differently is an invitation to envision happier, more equitable alternatives.

LGBTQ people – their art, their actions, their presence, their out-ness, have given me the courage to name and strengthen my convictions about gender and sexuality and activism and expression. I stand with the LGBTQ community because they have been victims, treated unjustly, with terrible ignorance, prejudice, and violence. And they deserve to walk freely in parks, kiss on street corners and dance in night clubs. But I stand with them also because they are role models and leaders. They have suffered so that I may grow and change. And for that, I owe them. Big time.

Peace,

HB

Photo on 2016-06-19 at 9.48 PM

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June 19th, 2016

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