I’ve been speaking a great deal with gay friends recently, partly as a result of the cascade conversations which our churches have been putting on, and partly in the last few days following the deeply disappointing Guidence to clergy email which our Bishops put out.
I thought, as a straightish man, that having no hang ups about people being gay was enough. I thought that judiciously supporting gay marriage, as I would anything I thoguht was scripturally and morally right, was enough.
But it’s only recently that I’ve realised just a little more what it’s like to be gay in a world and in a church, where you’re just not the norm.
The world has come a long way in the last fifty years – and gosh, doesn’t the world love to point that out. We rejoice in our liberality, in our acceptance, in our progress. And in a way, rightly so. We have indeed made progress.
But as part of our Cascade conversations, one of the gay folk who was brave enough to speak, suggested we watch this YouTube clip. It has some swearing in it. It’s a drag artiste who was asked to speak at a musical (I don’t know which) on the subject of oppression. For those of you who don’t like clicking on links, here’s an excerpt:
Hello. My name is Panti and for the benefit of the visually impaired or the incredibly naïve, I am a drag queen, a performer, and an accidental and occasional gay rights activist.And as you may have already gathered, I am also painfully middle-class. My father was a country vet, I went to a nice school, and afterwards to that most middle-class of institutions – art college.
Have you ever been standing at a pedestrian crossing when a car drives by and in it are a bunch of lads, and they lean out the window and they shout “Fag!” and throw a milk carton at you? Now it doesn’t really hurt. It’s just a wet carton and anyway they’re right – I am a fag. But it feels oppressive.
When it really does hurt, is afterwards. Afterwards I wonder and worry and obsess over what was it about me, what was it they saw in me? What was it that gave me away? And I hate myself for wondering that. It feels oppressive and the next time I’m at a pedestrian crossing I check myself to see what is it about me that “gives the gay away” and I check myself to make sure I’m not doing it this time.
Have you ever been on a crowded train with your gay friend and a small part of you is cringing because he is being SO gay and you find yourself trying to compensate by butching up or nudging the conversation onto “straighter” territory? This is you who have spent 35 years trying to be the best gay possible and yet still a small part of you is embarrassed by his gayness. And I hate myself for that. And that feels oppressive. And when I’m standing at the pedestrian lights I am checking myself.
Have you ever turned on the computer and seen videos of people just like you in far away countries, and countries not far away at all, being beaten and imprisoned and tortured and murdered because they are just like you? And that feels oppressive.
And for the last three weeks I have been denounced from the floor of parliament to newspaper columns to the seething morass of internet commentary for “hate speech” because I dared to use the word “homophobia”. And a jumped-up queer like me should know that the word “homophobia” is no longer available to gay people. Which is a spectacular and neat Orwellian trick because now it turns out that gay people are not the victims of homophobia – homophobes are.
But I want to say that it is not true. Because I don’t hate you.
I do, it is true, believe that almost all of you are probably homophobes. But I’m a homophobe. It would be incredible if we weren’t. To grow up in a society that is overwhelmingly homophobic and to escape unscathed would be miraculous. So I don’t hate you because you are homophobic. I actually admire you. I admire you because most of you are only a bit homophobic. Which all things considered is pretty good going.
But I do sometimes hate myself. I hate myself because I fucking check myself while standing at pedestrian crossings. And sometimes I hate you for doing that to me. But not right now. Right now, I like you all very much for giving me a few moments of your time. And I thank you for it.
I wept when I heard that. I didn’t realise how deep it goes for gay people. I didn’t realise the aching loneliness, even within a community, of how it feels to be different, always at risk of attack or ridicule; having to be strong, simply in order to be; how hard, how wearying it is to lead a life of integrity.
The Cascade conversations I have been a part of I’ve found helpful – sometimes dizzying in the difference not only of opinion but of language, confusing in the number of different perspectives. But the main thing I have learnt was that I can’t know what it’s like. I cannot walk in the shoes of those who have to strive just to be. I wish I could, but there’s no way for me to truly understand. But now at least I know two things:
Firstly, that I was wrong to think I could know, or I did know how it felt to be gay. I can’t.
But the other thing I learned was that I could trust my gay friends to let me know. I could trust that they weren’t over-reacting, or being pushy in the way sometimes I and others are when we don’t get exactly what we want. They are generally the opposite of that – disliking conflict, because the conflict they engage with makes them feel isolated and rejected.
So I’m sorry, my gay friends, for taking so long to even get to the stage where I realised I don’t understand. I’m sorry so many of us don’t get it, can’t get it, and don’t realise it.
I’m sorry for all the times when “reasonable” liberal folk like me, who share your beliefs and aims, still made you feel isolated and alone.
I’m sorry, so sorry, for assuming my judgement was better than yours.
And I’m so very sorry that the letter from the Bishops has made you feel as though you don’t belong.