Life

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


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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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This desire to explain away differences is the product of shame, and, according to Nuria Gomez, a marriage and family therapist practicing in Portland, Oregon, that shame is endemic to many people who have been othered. It’s not inherent, but bubbles up when you’re constantly told you’re less than for something you can’t change. That message (hold on, don’t rush to the comments just yet) is often implicit, repeated over and over so often via action that it sometimes doesn’t even need to be said.

“We learn about shame and feeling shame about our identity from the greater culture,” Gomez says . “One of the things that first comes to mind is really learning to identify what shame feels like and what comfort feels like.”

“Shame affects the nervous system,” Gomez continues. “Shame affects the way we perceive threat in the environment, it increases our sense of threat. Sometimes, that threat is real. And sometimes we’ve learned to anticipate threat because the world is shaming and unkind.”

Something like this has happened to you. Or, if it hasn’t, you may have been on the other side of this situation, having to be comforted in the face of someone else’s otherness. For a long time, that may have worked, but not anymore. Certainly not in an age where the -isms that we claim to hate so much are on bright display and every new week brings us face-to-face with another weeping racist who “just didn’t know any better.” The time for blending into the background has passed. Instead of trying to smooth over the differences between us, to apologize for being upset when someone aggresses against you, it’s time to have the difficult conversations, to listen, and to acknowledge differences rather than sweeping them under the rug under the guise of being “so woke we no longer see color, gender, sexuality, or any other number of things that make all of us unique.”

So, what to do: The easy answer, the one that after school specials might offer you, is to just be yourself. But you and I already know that “being yourself” has its limits and if you’re not a part of the majority that admonition isn’t going to hold much water. Here’s the hard one: Talk and listen. No, but really talk and really listen.

This isn’t just for a select few, either. It’s not just for Social Justice Warriors or Special Snowflakes or people who are, as someone accused me of being the other day when I was hurt after being reduced to my minority standing, “reaching to be offended.” It’s for everyone who wants to come together in this divisive era. And if our goal is really to Make America Great Again, then we need to be open to the fact that minority experiences are real and should be respected as such, not immediately swatted down with a “well, actually.”

As a young adult, I eschewed both LGBT groups and those that catered to the disabled because I was afraid that being involved would label me and all I wanted to be was normal. There is no normal. There’s only you. And if you’re feeling alone — as many people not in the majority do — there’s no shame in seeking spaces where your feelings that you’re not okay will be shattered rather than reinforced. Some will erroneously call this “self-segregation,” although those will be people whose very existence has never been a threat to their emotional or physical well-being. Or they may be people, like me, who struggled long and hard with their own internalized phobias.

Gomez agrees: “One of the things that happen to members of minority communities is that there’s a reinforced, and, at times, even enforced sense of aloneness,” she says. “And that’s part of what can feel unsafe — “I’m in this room, I don’t know if there are any queer people here.” Or “I’m in this room, I don’t know if anybody else has not perceivable/invisible disabilities.” That sense of aloneness can reinforce the lack of safety. So if it’s persisting, finding places where you can talk about that, and people who are going to understand your experience, I think, is huge.”

Embrace that. People may hate, but people always will. Think about what’s important to you. What one thing you can do — paradigm shifts come in small steps — to be your authentic self? Don’t apologize (unless your behavior is truly egregious) for who you are. Work up to calling people in (or out) when they’ve aggressed against you and be mindful of the fact that you belong just as much as anyone else.

“We don’t benefit other people by being less of ourselves,” Gomez says. “One, they’re not knowing us as we are, they’re not knowing what our lives and struggles and what our reality actually is; but we also deprive them of the opportunity to have a more open mind, walk away if it’s something that they can’t handle, or recognize that they may care about somebody or connect with somebody that they otherwise would have thought ill of.”

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Listen, my experience is my own. And, as I’ve stated above, while I’ve been aggressed against I’ve also been — unbearably, inexcusably — the aggressor, too. It would be disingenuous, as a white dude, to claim that I haven’t. And It hurts. It sucks when you’re shut down or your unconscious biases are pointed out to you. In November, after a friend told me that something I posted on Facebook — an article about white women electing Trump — was misogynistic, I went through a horrifying swell of emotions — from anger to sadness to a downright disgusting thought about how “if this is what you people are like, no wonder no one’s on your side” — before recognizing the reason I was so angry was because the perception I had of myself and the perception others had didn’t match and that I needed to think about that.

No one likes being accused, and, in the moment, it’s difficult to accept that you may have been wrong and even harder to accept that just because someone’s calling you out for something it doesn’t mean that they’re questioning your identity. And if we truly want to make a difference, we need to struggle through, to listen, to recognize that we’re not being asked to apologize as much as we are being asked to be more observant, more sensitive, to do better.

And that’s really all we can do: Better. But we’ve got to commit to it. Because in the end, doing better will unite us. It’ll allow us to hear each other’s voices, to fight common enemies, to learn and respect each other’s experiences. It’ll make us better allies. And, if the world isn’t destroyed in a mushroom cloud of hatred in the next few months, perhaps that unity will lead to a new era, a generation that’s not just more technologically advanced, but also sensitive to how differences aren’t weaknesses; they’re strengths.

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