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Hiding and seeking without shame

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JUNE 19, 2014

Candlelight casts a warm glow on our faces, leaving the two living room stripper poles barely visible. We sprawl across an odd array of aging furniture — a plush, legless brown sofa, a sagging mahogany loveseat, a rickety piano bench — in a circle. One person is sharing. He stops to sob. He came out slowly, he says, in his conservative town in Colorado, first to a close friend, then to a few more friends and finally to his parents, who were first angry, then dismayed and now emotionally distant. Tension hangs above our heads like power lines, and we can hear them crackling in the silences between the stories.

From disheartening and gut-wrenching to joyful and hopeful, our self-narratives reveal the diversity of experiences we’ve lived through coming out to people, or letting them in, to the parts of ourselves we learned to hide. This was the LGBTQ-themed Oscar Wilde Co-op’s Coming Out Stories night. For many, Wilde becomes home because it’s the first place we stop hiding, the first place boys walk around in short shorts, girls walk around in chest binders, and some of us realize those two gender boxes never fit anyway. And that’s OK.

June is LGBT Pride Month. During San Francisco Pride next weekend, the city’s streets and bars and parks will fill with people unafraid to claim the visibility, recognition and shame-free existence everyone deserves.

These are people who have fought through the shame that forces LGBTQ individuals into closets, that ignites fear, paranoia, anger and sadness, that destroys us from the inside out by creating a host of interrelated health complications from elevated stress responses to depressed immune systems, from social isolation to depression, that carries in it a subtext of self-hatred. It is the same shame we learn as children from our parents, our teachers and our society, the same shame that teaches us how to despise parts of ourselves and sequester them from our public lives, whether they’re sexual preferences, gender identity or our physical bodies.

From toddlerhood onward, we learn to cover ourselves. In fact, past the age of 2, adults stop smiling at us when we run around naked. Then, by completely arbitrary standards, we learn it’s acceptable for some of us to run around half-naked, but it’s absolutely unacceptable for others.

We learn what is OK to talk about — the weather, food, sports — and what is not OK to talk about — our feelings, sex and sexuality, religion and politics. We learn that when we meet people, we shouldn’t question each other’s beliefs but nod pleasantly about shared interests. We learn that we can’t change what other people think, so we change ourselves to reduce our friction with the world.

There will always be friction as long as there is difference, and we can’t lubricate away the challenge of meeting these differences with an attitude of openness, curiosity and acceptance by chitchatting about whether El Nino will bring enough rain to California this winter. We need to embrace the jagged edges of our bodies and our preferences, even when the world attempts to sand down the bumps and wear away exactly that which makes us beautiful.

Maybe we have bodies we don’t see on TV or in Hollywood. Maybe we’re kinky. Maybe I like dress shirts and newsboy caps and other women. And maybe — no, most definitely — that’s OK.

When I first lived at Wilde, I was still going to church, and I felt more comfortable being Christian in a queer house than queer in any Christian setting. On Sundays, I felt like I was hiding behind my long, black hair and assumptions of heterosexuality. At Wilde, I just was. It didn’t matter who or what or why I was.

What if we expanded and improved on that small student bubble of safety to create a society without shame — a collective community, where we meet others and ourselves with acceptance rather than judgment? An idyllic world playground filled with self-aware individuals, who teach children how to love themselves, to honor their bodies, whatever shape they come in, and to honor their preferences, whatever gender or sexuality or fluid, indefinable package they appear in.

Adults would hold honest conversations with teenagers about sexual health. Lovers and partners would communicate openly about what they need and what they’re looking for, whether it’s love, sex or something in between. Children would do — or not do — whatever feels right, because if boys want to wear dresses and girls want to play with Legos, who are we to shame them?

We need to destigmatize taboo topics by creating safe, open spaces to explore them in, much as the popular UC Berkeley FemSex DeCal on sexuality, identity and empowerment does. We need to recognize that the parts of others we reject are the parts of ourselves we’ve learned to hate and that bigotry is inherently reflexive.

As the Caribbean American activist, writer and feminist Audre Lorde said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.” What better time to start celebrating differences and eradicating shame than the week leading up to Pride?


Sophie Lee writes the Thursday column on health and wellness. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @sophieylee.

JUNE 18, 2014