Quick note: I really wanted to do a good job with this post, but I have been feeling under the weather lately. It probably isn’t the best time to write this, but I haven’t written in so long I had to now with some free time. I believe I’ll still get my point across, even if it’s poorly done.
When I was in high school, I was afraid of everything. I know, I look back on most of my life with a nostalgia that is completely false, believing a lot of times of my life to be much better than they were at the time, but I remember high school. I was quiet, shy, much like I am today. I played sports, and I didn’t have a problem (that I remember) with anyone really in school. I was completely forgettable, and that was by design.
I remember in high school being terrified of anyone talking about me. I was terrified of anyone knowing whether or not I liked a girl; I was terrified of any girl liking me. It was irrational, and looking back on it now it seems very silly and ridiculous, but at the time it felt like the most natural thing to do because high school was my world. I was terrified of being made fun of, being ridiculed. It affected everything about my time in high school – I didn’t play sports with any confidence because I didn’t want to fail and be embarrassed, and I never dated any girls because I didn’t want anyone to make fun of me for the girl I was dating, even if she was pretty or popular.
My high school experience was one of the most common experiences of all – I didn’t want to stand out, I desperately wanted to stay in.
I succeeded, for the most part, even if I lost out on a lot of opportunities to have fun and experience things I should have experienced. I was safe, and that was good for me.
I tried my best not to make fun of anyone in high school, though I know I did before that. It is something I regretted, even at the time. I knew how much it would hurt me if someone did that to me, so I did my best to avoid doing it to anyone else, even if it was the easiest and most effective way to be funny to other people (aka. “cool”) while also keeping attention away from me. Trying to be cool for people I haven’t thought about for almost ten years now…
I did fail though. I didn’t make fun of people, but that didn’t stop me from laughing when other people, even my friends, made fun of someone else. My friends and I would make fun of each other, and that’s fine, because we all knew it was for fun. When I saw, or heard, other people being made fun of for laughs, or being made fun of maliciously, I never stood up, never fought against it. I laughed with the crowd, or I looked away. In either case, I failed at that, and that is something I still regret today.
One of the simplest, and therefore most common names we called kids in our high school then was “fag”. Either that, or we called them “gay”. I avoided it; I laughed at it. I used the words myself. It was one of the easiest ways to ostracize someone, and it was funny, even if it wasn’t true. I am straight, and in high school some people thought I was gay because I never dated any girls. I vehemently defended myself. Being labeled as “gay” was one of the worst insults a person could receive, we all thought. Being “gay” was also one of the worst ways to stand out.
What is my point with this long, uninteresting, completely common high school story? I’ve been thinking about my high school time recently this past month, as all avenues of thought had been bringing me to this point. Jason Collins recently came out as the first active gay male athlete in any of the major sports in America. My girlfriend had recently been watching a lot of ‘Draw my Life’ videos on YouTube, and watched a couple from some people who were gay. A couple of years ago, I read Fun Home, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel for a class in college that I enjoyed thoroughly. I thought about all these different situations, and my own experience growing up, as my stepmom reacted to me about the Jason Collins story:
“Why is this a big deal? Why does it matter what he is? What difference does it make?”
Besides the simple point that no one had done this before him should serve as hint enough, I thought about all these stories. I didn’t answer her, because I hate discussion with my family. It never resolves, and everyone just gets loud.
I have tried, for the past month, to re-imagine myself in high school. I have tried to imagine myself as who I was in high school, exactly as it happened, but with one dramatic difference. I tried to imagine being Alison Bechdel. I tried to imagine being the people from YouTube. I tried to imagine being deathly afraid of being different, of being labeled a “fag”. I knew what it was to be afraid of being made fun of, being an outcast. That was easy to remember.
What wasn’t easy to imagine was being terribly afraid of being different, being afraid of being the one thing everyone would seem to hate me for being; and yet, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to like girls. I couldn’t bring myself to be “normal” in this world I was forced to be in. Every day, I would have to deny everything about me; about who I am. Just so I wouldn’t be destroyed by the rest of the “normal” people. Every day, living in a place that would never accept me if they knew me – if only I could escape.
I tried to imagine being a young person in high school who is gay. I tried to imagine being a person in this world who is gay. A person living in a world where it is still acceptable to be cast out. A person living in a world where it is alright to live in some places and be yourself, but not every place. A person living in a world where you think something is wrong with you because you aren’t like other people, and for a lot of people who you are isn’t right.
How confusing it must be. How unfair it must be. How cruel it must be to be gay in this world we live in right now – especially when you are young. I wish I could understand this; I wish, if I ever do, to understand it as a younger man.
Being gay has never been wrong, but that is impossible to explain to someone who is gay and has had to live in this world.
My stepmom asked why it mattered that Jason Collins came out. Why do we have to know what he is. That who he is doesn’t have any bearing on his profession, nor does it have any bearing on our lives and our perception of him. She did not say this in this exact way, but this is what she was intending.
And maybe yes, she is technically correct. Yes, it has no affiliation with his profession. Yes, it shouldn’t change our perception of him. And of course no, she is not correct that this didn’t matter. That coming out, by any person who is gay, doesn’t matter.
In offices and workplaces around the country, it is illegal to ask questions of sexual preference. There are anti-harassment laws in place. There are reasons for both these laws, and they are obvious: to protect against discrimination of homosexuals, and harassment of them in all workplaces. They are still in effect today, because they are still necessary. They have also not been repealed for a reason.
It may be illegal to make discriminatory jokes or insults in the workplace because it is against the law, but that doesn’t mean that that discrimination is gone. It is gone because it is illegal for it to be present. Almost like the army preferred with homosexuals not too long ago, and the boy scouts do to this day. What my stepmom doesn’t, and all people who make that argument against the importance of coming out do not understand, is that just because the discrimination and excommunication of homosexuals has been legislated out of your daily life, doesn’t mean the discrimination and hatred against them is gone, out of people’s hearts.
I mentioned I played sports before also to make this point – though I played on the most amateur level, I know that a locker room is not an office space. I know a little about what happens in a locker room. I know (as most people should) that locker rooms in professional sports do not fall under the same anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws that govern where the rest of us work. A locker room in high school is the same as a locker room in professional sports, only with larger people. The jokes, the slander, and the prejudice, I’m certain, are all quite prevalent in those locker rooms. All the athletes who are fortunate enough to make it to the professional level come to view the locker room as a second home. Another sanctuary away from the real world. One of maybe two places where they could be who they are, and say what they mean. Their homes and their locker room are their only places of safety. I can only imagine it, but: if I was gay, and in the locker rooms I was in in high school, I would never feel more like an outcast in any other place.
For those professional athletes who are gay, it is not an office space they have to face. It is not a place filled with people they may or may not like and/or never care to, who are legally obligated not to hate them. A locker room is always described as a “family”, where the men inside are “brothers”. Some (hopefully all) will accept a member of their family as gay. Some (unfortunately, as I have seen in my family) will inevitably not be so accepting. And, when they aren’t, there is no law telling them they have to, in that locker room.
I have tried for over a month to put myself in the frame of mind as someone who is young, and doesn’t understand yet why they are gay; someone who is older, more mature, knows they are gay, but are afraid to let others know; someone who is gay, and is willing to let the world know, even to great undeserved ridicule. The mere reaction to Jason Collins’s decision should have been enough to answer my stepmom’s questions for her, but we know better anyway.
I have only tried to understand what it is like to be gay for a month, and it is relentlessly daunting; I can’t even imagine what this world is like for someone who is gay. For my part, I apologize for the rest of this world, and for my inability as a younger man to be stronger, and understand.