I’m not entitled to your outness, nor you to mine
On privilege and internalized prejudice within the LGTBQ community
Content warning: homophobia, transphobia, gender policing, gender essentialism, including on my own part.
On Friday, August 5th, 2016, I attended the funeral for one of my coworkers, who I’ll refer to as simply O. Held at a funeral home nearby, the service was completely different from any other funeral I’ve attended. O was a Born Again Christian, and nearly all of the people motivated to speak of his life dotted their statements with frequent interjections — “Praise the Lord,” “Hallelujah,” and “Thank you, Jesus.” Everyone spoke highly of O and how he filled their lives with love for God and his unceasing devotion, some breaking into inspirational song sessions, riling up the attendees much like you witness on oft-memed televangelism programs. Regardless of my differing beliefs (or lack thereof), I thought the service was extremely touching; between rounds of applause, I couldn’t help but hope that my funeral turns out the same.
Despite the resolute joy of the proceedings — a number of speakers said that there’s a party up in Heaven now that O is there — I found my mind wandering among a gamut of conflicting emotions, ones I started feeling before stepping through the door. A few people made reference to O’s leadership in “spiritual warfare,” which, boiled down, is the concept that each Christian is at war against the influence of sin, demons, and evil. One person even made reference to Kirk Cameron, who is a known advocate of the idea of spiritual warfare and homophobic hatemonger. In response to all this, I repeatedly thought over the question: Did any of these people know O when he was a woman and attracted to men?
I met O over seven years ago when I started working at my current company as a dispatcher. Working in our call center, he was very nice and often times funny. I remember how he’d lose himself in his humor, prone to loudly shouting, “Get it together,” to irascible customers after an exasperated press of the Mute button. His joy was occasionally accompanied by loud clapping to which I’d request that he simmer down, invoking a vicious stare in return. O was also sick. Though I never knew with what, I knew he would visit the hospital regularly for dialysis or drug treatments, the scars of which marred one of his arms irreparably. Sometimes, he’d be in pain and rather lethargic, but he smiled through that.
He and I were never friends, just friendly, and when I eventually landed a position that took me out of the call center, we spoke less as a result. But for a while, I was even his supervisor. In the first few years of working together, he’d invite me to events, informal gatherings, being held by his church, but I’d decline. I was aware of the homophobic rhetoric he proselytized from the occasional posts that’d worm into my Facebook feed, and I felt unwelcome bringing my yet-to-be husband. Yet this is not to say O ever said a maligned word in my presence. On the contrary, he was always kind and would ask about my husband politely. I liked him as a coworker, honestly. He exhibited a willingness to learn that I deeply respected.
Yet there was a day when he made me feel uncomfortable, and it had nothing to do with his religious beliefs. One day, he asked me, “Gil, do you want to see photos of me from when I was a woman?” And I was not inclined to turn him down. After all, I had suspected from Day One that he was gay but generally never received confirmation. From his voice and his mannerisms to the fact that callers would sometimes call him, “Ma’am,” — a title he’d angrily refute — it wouldn’t have been a surprising thought for someone even outside of the LGBTQ community to have in passing. But I never knew he was transgender.
Later in the day, he handed me a set of photos to browse, old prints from back when disposable cameras were common, potentially a good decade old. Sure enough, there O was with makeup and a wig on and his boyfriend engaging him endearingly. (For the purposes of respecting his gender identity at time of death, I will continue using male pronouns — he/him/his.) He looked pretty happy if a bit pensive. But those weren’t the photos that made me uncomfortable.
Among these reflections on a past life were two photos of O shirtless with his breasts out and a naked boyfriend laying on the bed behind him — sheets mussed and faces tired. Needless to say, there are a handful of good reasons why you shouldn’t show your co-worker nude photos of yourself at the office, and I found myself a little irritated that O did just that. Despite the offense, I said nothing of it to O or anyone we knew, just some close friends. He was sharing with me a very sensitive aspect of his life, and there was no need to make it wholly embarrassing.
However, back then yet even more so now, I wonder if O was trying to tell me something. Was he reaching out? Did he want to share with me as the only other person in the community at the workplace? What was he feeling? Or was this some veiled attempt at showing, through the power of fastidiously applied faith, that one could overcome their identities? I had heard him express on a number of occasions that he wanted to marry a woman and have children, a goal he never accomplished.
These questions and speculations about his identity will go unanswered. So why am I writing this?
Because I’m not entitled to answers. Nobody is. O was the human being he put out to others, and even though parts of that ran in conflict to my beliefs and queer identity, further interrogation of his does not help me or our community — “our” including him.
In a vital essay, written by friend and writer, Sinclair B. Sinclair, they, as genderqueer among other identities, touch upon the policing that happens, especially among cisgender people, such as myself, of non-binary queer and trans identities.
“… being pressured to choose a specific gender or orientation, when I lack the necessary emotional and experiential vocabulary to accurately self define (beyond a definition that specifically eschews formal designation) begins to feel emotionally draining or deadening.”
Although this idea of gender policing can manifest in obvious transgressions from cisgender heterosexual people, such as by statements like “Well, what are you?”, the fact remains that in the queer community, these self-destructive and violent behaviors occur perhaps more perniciously. Whereas with one hand, we ostensibly try to welcome transgender and non-binary people to our fold, with the other, sometimes subconsciously, we push them away, leaving marks in the process.
While I’m sure everyone who isn’t cisgender has their story to share, such a transgression even occurred the same day I attended O’s funeral. Trans performer, Valentine Steaphon, was not only denied access to a women’s restroom in a gay bar, but she was publicly humiliated as a gay male patron publicly made declarations about her genitals, clearly as a determining factor in her validation as a woman. This kind of gender essentialism — where binary male and female attributes are used to cast assumptions about what men and women should be or do — runs rampant in our community. While trans people are fighting to use the bathroom that most closely matches their gender identities, We the Cis People have proudly boiled the discussion down to “Do you want someone who looks like this to be in that bathroom?” And this argument leaves no room for non-binary people or those who haven’t or won’t transition, who as you’d imagine, need to use the bathroom without the threat of violence, too.
To carry this further, however, our insecurities about our own gender presentations coupled with the lack of positive representation in greater media has resulted in a war with The Closeted. We — and I should say, namely cisgender gay men and women — find some victory for every celebrity who comes out of the closet. But while we smile, we’re also licking the blood from our teeth. For there are few celebrities who come out without years of public badgering and rumor-spinning regarding their sexualities and gender identities. This vested interest in the private lives of others has crafted a dichotomy in the LGBTQ community, where we need so badly to be represented that we harbor authentic ire towards those who refuse to stand up for us.
But what is “us” when we are at war with each other for facets of ourselves we once were afraid to divulge? I remember the fear I felt at fifteen, almost nineteen years ago, when I told my mother I was gay, shortly after the latest episode of Ellen ended. And I still feel the pain in my throat when that went horribly south, and every word I uttered to my parents followed a swallowed cry. Yet I have also shared in the entitlement of calling for folks to come out because otherwise, my existence would be somehow invalidated without their contribution. This is not to say there isn’t an imperative necessity for out and proud public figures to help along our stories and our struggles. But to pretend like there aren’t very real consequences to outness or that society has somehow reached this apex of progress, where safety and acceptance are naught but guaranteed, is frankly irresponsible at best, life-threatening at worst. It’s privilege, plain and simple.
And we don’t just want celebrities to come out. We want closeted homophobes to suffer, especially legislators who’ve backed anti-gay and trans laws, presumably against their own selves. To an extent, I get the anger, as I’ve participated in it myself. Still, when we start examining their personas down to the feminine tones in their voices, the ways they use their hands when they speak, or the efforts they put into their toned bodies, we are perpetuating the homophobia and cissexism that shamed us in our younger years. We’re asking them the questions bullies asked us in school with, let’s be honest, the same disregard for the answer.
It is a farce to believe that our flagrant gnashing of teeth as conservative Republicans are exposed is not contributing to that same culture that delays everybody’s coming out process, sometimes indefinitely. For these politicians — who are, don’t get me wrong, credibly dangerous and contributing to violence against our community — the harmful, misguided choices they made in an effort to safeguard their secrets has ensured that they have no home in any community, not in the one they try to belong to while it bloviates against their humanity nor the one that hates them for their actions. I feel authentic pity for them, but that is put aside to focus on what they have actively put out, which is terrorism.
Where does this leave O?
I may know things, and I may have seen things, but at the end of the day — at the end of his life — he was a proud Christian man, who touched and helped a lot of people while at the same time espousing a rhetoric with the potential to do harm to a community we arguably both belonged to. If I am to respect the sexualities and gender identities of my friends, family, and community who are outwardly asking for it, it falls on me to do the same for those who’ve asked me nothing.
O could have been gay, transgender, or any number of identities, even until death, but he and I didn’t talk about it, so it’s honestly none of my fucking business. And I could ruminate until my own passing about how his sickness and Christianity contributed to his unknown identity, to his choices, but I ultimately need to assess him based on the impact he’s had on my life.
He was a nice guy, and I liked working with him.
“… how these people deal with their own histories is their business. When it’s aimed at other people, however, in an effort to diminish their position or their authority on their own identity, it reflects a prescriptiveness and smugness that I would never have expected coming from the trans community.”
While not particularly targeted at cis gay men, such as myself, there is certainly a lesson there that I can apply to O, someone who once was trans, out, and in transition. I can’t feign to act as an authority on everything he went through. Besides love and devotion to God, I don’t know why he did anything. And if I want to be a good ally to, well, anybody in our community, I don’t need to.
As I left O’s funeral with my co-worker, who I’d driven with me, I struggled very hard not to cry. Men are not supposed to do that in public, I’m told.