Why Owning Our Differences Might Just Be The Thing That Unites Us

Life & Culture Editor
08.10.17

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Life has been exhausting lately, hasn’t it? Each day brings a crush of news so terrifying that you feel like you may just collapse under its weight. And it seems like every post you read, every article you click on opens with a running tally of things that have gone wrong and, because disaster apparently needs some inspiration, ideas for what might go wrong next. But there’s good news, too — if death and destruction are always on the horizon (and I’m not saying they are, but my RSS feed sure is) then you have no choice in the matter. You have to face the music head on. Now is the time that we must stand, swallow our fear, and be unapologetically ourselves.

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Let me tell you about myself: I’m gay. It’s not the most interesting thing about me — the fact that I once ran a hospice for mice is — but it’s the first thing many people notice. My mannerisms can be fey, my voice is high-pitched and nasal (“like a gay Barney,” a former manager once said), and when I am excited I’m taken to say “giiiiiiiiirl” in a way that my parents would have never approved of (I do this partly as an act of protest, because anything feminine was verboten when I was growing up). I live in San Francisco, so I don’t have to hide my sexuality, but as the son of immigrants who saw (reasonable) assimilation as the only way to get ahead, I’ve always struggled between whether it’s best to be myself or to melt into the background and let people think, “hey, this guy’s gay, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it. He’s okay.”

The day after the election, I sat in my therapist’s office discussing what the future would be like. For me, I saw things going one of two ways: either I would accept that life in America was even less safe for minority groups and retreat back, tone things down, or I would have to speak out even louder. “Really gay it up,” I told my therapist. “Not in a way that’s inauthentic, but in a way that I’ve been too afraid to be myself before for fear of judgment.” Once, when a student came up to me at the end of the semester and mumbled “you’ll be a great teacher once your stop with all the gay stuff,” I was ashamed for days, thinking about what exactly he had meant because the only gay stuff I’d done was mention my husband. Now, I told my therapist, a gay man himself, that episode seemed silly. I no longer wanted to silence myself for a chance at tolerance. If people wanted to judge me based solely on my sexuality and not my character (which is like a B+, so I’m doing pretty well) then that would have to be their problem.

Of course, as a white man who speaks accentless English and has just had his major disability (eyesight that qualified me for legal blindness) corrected, there’s much less risk for me to be myself (in fact, I’ve sometimes been an aggressor). But it can still be frightening. Living authentically, living out loud, whatever you want to call it, is nice in theory, but the practicalities can be draining.

For years, I joked about my blindness with others in order to make them feel okay. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision as it was a visceral urge. Upon meeting someone new, I’d immediately apologize for not being able to see. Once, at an interview for an important internship, I started the conversation by explaining my own squinting. “It’s not that I’m angry,” I said. “It’s just that I’m trying to see.”

Months later, when this woman was my supervisor, she told me that she had found my behavior annoying. Not because I was disabled, of course, but because I felt that it was my job to put others at ease even if it was humiliating for myself. By framing my disability as something that people could deign to accept rather than something that just was, I was asking to be viewed as acceptable despite it rather than having it just be one aspect of who I am.

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